Thursday, 4 July 2013

1st Bullecourt, lamb, and beer

Lamb and beer – what could be more Australian? On a freezing January night in the Pas de Calais, I ate Flemish lamb casserole, cooked with beer, and thought about Australian history. We were travelling in France, and had spent the day walking the field of battle at Bullecourt, a village 15 km southeast of the market town of Arras. We were on the trail of family history – not mine, but my former wife’s. Her great uncle Harry had been part of the 1st Battle of Bullecourt, 11 April 1917.

Part of a major offensive mounted by the Allies to break the German defensive line on the western front, the first battle of Bullecourt was notable for a few things. It was one of the first times that tanks had been deployed on the battlefield. However, in 1917 there was no tactical, operational, or strategic doctrine on how to deploy tanks. There weren’t many tanks either, and they were seen as infantry support tools. At Bullecourt, their role was to crush the wire barricades of the Hindenburg Line, for the infantry to then occupy. In a remarkable stroke of optimism, cavalry squadrons were concentrated behind the infantry, ready to exploit a breakthrough and wreak havoc in the German rear. As it happened, the tanks were mechanically unreliable — some broke down before reaching the start line. They were very slow, and soon outpaced by the infantry. The tanks’ slow pace meant that they were highly vulnerable to artillery fire. And so, on the day, tanks made little impact on the battle. There was no breakthrough. The cavalry was stood down.

However, Australian infantry from the 4th Division achieved a remarkable feat. C. E. W. Bean, the official Australian war historian, commented:

“the 4th Australian Division had achieved what most soldiers then in France would previously have believed impossible — broken, without artillery barrage, the Hindenburg Line”.

Great uncle Harry’s story is typical of so many young Australians of the day. He grew up in a strict Methodist family, living on an orchard block near Richmond, northwest of Sydney. There is a remarkable body of information on individual diggers available from the Australian War Memorial. We read, fascinated, official records of his enlistment and training, then shipping out from Australia as a “Six Bob A Day Tourist”. He arrives in Suez, and quickly appears on the sick parade lists — with a dose of the clap. Given his age and conservative background, we speculate that the courtesans of Suez were probably his first ( and only?) sexual experience.

He ends up in France, a lone New South Welshman surrounded by Sandgropers, in the 48th Battalion, 1st AIF — the “Joan of Arc” battalion. The nickname is not patriotic, but a wry pun. And so Harry was part of the assault by the 4th Division AIF on the Hindenburg Line, immediately east of the small village of Bullecourt. Despite problems with the tanks, things went well, largely due to good tactical command, and the attacking infantry occupied the German lines. Confusion about supporting artillery fire, however, left them vulnerable to counterattack, and, after some hours, the 48th Battalion position was untenable. They withdrew. Bean again:

"a full hour after every other battalion had left the trenches, the 48th came out — under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, but with proud deliberation and studied nonchalance, at walking pace, picking their way through the broken wire, carrying a proportion of their Lewis guns, carefully helping the walking wounded, and with their officers bringing up the rear. Wherever Australians fought, that characteristic gait was noted by friend and enemy, but never did it furnish such a spectacle as here. For ten minutes the attention of half the battlefield was held while, leisurely as a crowd leaving its daily work, the 48th drew clear”.

Despite his status as Official War Correspondent appointed by the Australian government, Bean was often less than objective, particularly in his advocacy of the Australian digger. And this is a typical example. Nevertheless, he paints a compelling picture of the 48th Battalion’s retirement that day. Even if he makes it sound like a crowd leaving the WACA after a long day of cricket. 

Great Uncle Harry was wounded at Bullecourt. Given the nature of his wounds — gunshot to the hip and buttock — we speculate that they were received during the withdrawal of the 48th from the Hindenburg Line. He was invalided off the battlefield, spent months in a rehabilitation hospital in England, and was eventually repatriated back to Australia, before the Armistice, declared medically unfit. He lived quietly on the farm at Richmond with his mother. And he died, still a young man, a few years later, never having fully recovered from his wounds — a hidden casualty of WWI. 

We wandered across the battlefield on that cold day. Desolate, windswept chalk downs, intensively farmed; all signs of the war long gone.
Looking from the Allied lines toward the Hindenburg Line, in the distance
We marvelled at the notion of crossing ground as open as this under enemy fire — there is no cover. Bullecourt village has strong Australian connections — there is Le Canberra café, a Rue des Australiens, and a bronze slouch hat memorial.

Just outside the village is a big official Australian war memorial, with a life size bronze digger.
Perhaps more interesting is the small shrine, about half a kilometre east of town, marking the spot where the Hindenburg Line crossed the road. It’s around here that Harry and his mates sheltered after taking the German positions.
Memorial on the Hindenburg Line at the Riencourt road, looking towards the Allied lines
Back in Arras, we see wattle fronds in a florist’s shop, and wish we had taken some to leave on the roadside memorial. After a drink, we warm up with lamb stew. It’s a typical dish of the region.  We wonder if Harry and the others might have eaten such a thing when they were bivouacked in the area. As a change from bully beef. It is rich, warming, delicious.

This cold winter, remembering all this years later, I find a bunch of recipes on the net. The common theme is braising some lamb and root vegetables in beer. A number of recipes — mainly American — swap out the lamb for beef. Americans just don’t seem to get lamb, do they? But I stick with lamb. And a tasty Belgian dark beer. Cooked slowly, it is tender, succulent and warming in the depths of winter. Add a green vegetable. As it was a Flemish dish, I go for Brussels sprouts — that most maligned of vegetables.

It went well with more beer. And brought back a flood of memories about my trip through Flanders, and the young Australian men who had died there.

1 comment:

  1. I was interested to read your blog. My great great Uncle is buried at Bullecourt in the British War Cemetary there, although he was with the Australian Light Horse and was in the AIF when killed at St Quentain Canal just a couple of klms away only a month before the end of the war (8.10.1918). I have been the only family member to visit his grave and it was quite overwhelming as I still have the postcards that he wrote to my Grandmother nearly 100 years ago now. So I felt like I had some idea of who he was as I did know his brother my great grandfather as he lived until 95. Left a kangaroo pin, had a poppy to leave as well but lost it enroute to France. He left Australia at the beginning of WW1 and never returned like so many.