The Bullecourt Digger, France
At home, or as you tour the twelve locations of the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium, listen to a four-minute audio-cast featuring the extraordinary stories of Australian soldiers 'on this spot'. Listen to the audio-cast from your device
This is the Bullecourt 'digger'. Looking out from the Australian Memorial Park over the fields of Bullecourt in France, the statue recalls the thousands of Australians who fought here in April and May 1917 in the first and second battles of Bullecourt. They captured a couple of square kilometres of trenches from the Germans, trenches which formed a small section of the formidable 'Hindenburg Line'.
During the first battle, on 11 April 1917, the diggers were driven from positions they had gained near the memorial at a cost of 3000 casualties. The second battle, fought for these same trenches between 3 and 16 May, resulted in 7000 Australian casualties. This time the Germans gave up the area, and the village, and fell back to a new front line.
What was it like to fight at Bullecourt? A couple of hundred metres up the road to the right of the memorial is a cross dedicated to Australians 'missing in action' in both battles. Just beyond the cross to the right, over the fields and bisecting the road, was the second German defensive line known as OG2. There was actually a gap in OG2 where it crossed the road. On the night of 3-4 May, the men of the 3rd Australian Infantry Battalion took over this position. For nearly three days, they defended and extended it as they endured machine-gun fire, artillery bombardment, vigorous and extensive grenade fights, and the flames of a German flamethrower.
Sergeant Patrick Kinchington, whose platoon was in charge of the battalion's left flank, placed an observation post in the road behind a barricade and two machine guns on the bank beside it. He also stored there a supply of small German 'egg' grenades found in the trench. These were useful as they were lighter and could be thrown further than their own British 'Mills' bombs.
Just after dawn on 4 May, Kinchington saw a large party of Germans coming down the road without rifles, seemingly oblivious to the Australian presence. When they were about 35-metres away, in Kinchington's own words, he 'saw a fellow shoot a jet of flame into the bank … It was the first flamethrower I had seen'. He shot the German, the bullet going through his body and igniting the flamethrower on his back. A dozen of the enemy seemed to fall into a hole in the road on top of the dead flamethrower, where they all caught fire. The remaining Germans assaulted the Australians with grenades. None reached OG2, having been beaten back by the Australians hurling the 'egg' grenades at them.
The defence of OG2 cost the 3rd Battalion dearly. When relieved their ranks were, in the words of the battalion historian, 'sadly thinned', having suffered 309 casualties—56 dead, 8 missing and 245 wounded. Private John Ambrose Ware, 3rd Battalion, who fought unwounded through those desperate days and nights, wrote to his mother, living near Yass in rural New South Wales, of the dead and wounded of Bullecourt: 'Sometimes they are blown to pieces, others not so bad, limbs off, skulls knocked in … the only burial they get at the time is a coat over their face ... someday I may try and explain to you what it was like.'