Image: An aerial view of The Bridoux Salient (top) as it appeared six days before the German raid on 5 May 1916. The German trenches were 90 yards from the apex. AWM WW1 Photomosaic collection, detail of le Maisnil–en–Weppes, Sheet 36, Square I31.
For the most part, Friday 5 May 1916 was a quiet day for the Australians on the Western Front. I ANZAC Corps was occupying the network of breastwork trenches south of Armentières, in the area the troops called The Nursery. A few weeks earlier they had been in Egypt, where they had spent months reforming and training after the evacuation from Gallipoli. The trenches in France were an uplifting change after those on Gallipoli, and although everyone dreaded what the fighting on the Western Front would bring, so far this stood in stark contrast to its mundane reality. On the 2nd Division front, the Germans delivered their daily 'strafe' at 10.00 am; rifle and machine–gun fire was nothing out of the ordinary, and the trench mortars lobbed a few bombs at the German parapet with good effect around midday. A few rounds of retaliatory shell fire landed in the Bridoux Salient, but it was nothing to warrant great concern. So later that afternoon, when three rounds of shrapnel burst above a few ruined buildings almost a mile in the rear, nobody suspected anything more than the Germans taking a few pot–shots at the wiring parties beginning to move up the line.
But at 7.40pm, just as dusk began to fall, a German twin–seater buzzed overhead and dropped a small red balloon over a battalion headquarters in the cluster of ruined buildings known as White City. Minutes later, a bombardment crashed down on the Australian positions all along the 400 yard front held by 5 Brigade, concentrating on the apex of the Bridoux Salient which was less than 90 yards from the German trenches. It stupefied the company of 20/Battalion men occupying the salient and its support position, the Chord Line. Private Dudley Jackson, 'crouched down behind the parapet while the shells made one continual whosing (sic) scream and roar as they skimmed our parapet ... The ground shook in waves just as though an earthquake was on ... I crouched down behind our parapet and waited expecting to get hit at any moment'. (1) Troops caught in the open were blown to pieces or hit by shrapnel and shell fragments; others fled to dug–outs and risked being buried under a mountain of sandbags. 'The ground rocked and trembled, the air grew hot and acrid with the explosion of shells ... Huge columns of earth spurted round us in all directions as gaping holes were torn in the parapet wall and around the duckboards. Bits of flesh that a second before had been men hit in showers against the sandbags.'(2)
'The whole thing is indescribable!'
After what would have seemed an eternity, the shelling let up after a two–hour battering. Stunned, deafened and weary survivors emerged from the debris to find trenches violently ripped apart and machine–guns from across no man's land stammering away at the holes in the parapet. Green, red and white Very lights lit the scene as clear as day, casting a mystifying display of shadows as the flares swayed gently in the breeze. 'The whole thing is indescribable!', wrote Sergeant Thomas Burnett of 20/Battalion: 'It is supposed to have been the severest bombardment seen along this part of the line for eighteen months!' (3) Indeed it was, in fact, it was the severest the Australians had yet endured. Sergeant Eric Tate wrote how, 'The Gallipoli boys all admit they never went through anything nearly so severe while they were on the peninsula.' (4)
The Australians suffered heavily in this, their first bombardment on the Western Front, with 23 men killed, 72 wounded and 13 missing within a matter of hours. But it wasn't until the following morning that it became obvious what had happened. The discovery of a trench raiding club and six German hand grenades on the parados of the firing trench gave a very strong indication that the enemy had attacked the Bridoux Salient. At 8.25pm, as many as 100 Germans were seen leaving their trenches to cross no man's land, where they were met by rifle, machine–gun and artillery fire. Their failure to penetrate the Australian positions or leave behind any dead or wounded made it seem as though the attack had been repelled.(5) A short report made its way to GHQ, and then on to London: 'The enemy made a raid on and entered our trenches south–east of Armentières, after bombarding them. He was at once driven out.' Supported by firsthand accounts by Australian troops on furlough in London, the report appeared in newspapers back home in Australia, maintaining the AIF had proven itself in France by upholding the reputation earned on Gallipoli. 'The Australians got a severe shelling on Friday last, and the enemy came on, about 100 of them rushing the trench', claimed one report. 'But only 30 reached it. The rest were mown down ... Several Germans were bayonetted.'
To GHQ, London and the Australian public, it appeared the AIF had made 'short work of the enemy' in what was its first engagement with the German Army in France.(6) But the cold, stark reality of what really happened in the Bridoux Salient didn't hit I ANZAC Corps commander, Lieutenant General William Birdwood, until the following morning when General Herbert Plumer, GOC Second Army, brought to his attention a German communiqué which claimed enemy patrols had been successful in the area south–east of Armentières. In a raid that could only have been the one made against the Australians, the enemy report claimed that 'Some prisoners were captured and two machine–guns and two mine throwers were taken.' (7) It was news to Birdwood, as it was Plumer, who was of the understanding that the attack had been repelled. Later that morning the Australian war correspondent Charles Bean travelled with two intelligence officers on Birdwood's staff to 2nd Division headquarters. 'I'm afraid it's not a very good affair from our point of view,' professed one after a brief conference with divisional staff. 'The Bosches seem to have done pretty well what they intended to do.'
Image: Troops of the Australian 2nd Division ‘stand–to’ in a position near the Bridoux Salient in June 1916. The low–lying conditions made digging trenches virtually impossible in the Armentières sector, so British and German defences in the area consisted of sandbagged breastworks such as these. AWM EZ0007
The missing Stokes mortars
What alarmed senior commanders most was the specific mention of the two trench mortars. Coinciding with the AIF's arrival in France in March 1916 was the formation of light trench mortar batteries throughout the BEF to increase the firepower available to the infantry in the prelude to a major offensive. Unlike the heavy or medium batteries that were controlled by the artillery, light trench mortar batteries were integrated into infantry brigades so that company and platoon commanders could call upon for immediate fire support from the front–line trenches. For an army that arrived in France trained and equipped to fight mobile warfare, the formation of the light trench mortar batteries was a reflection of the BEF's ability to adjust its doctrine and training for the conditions specific to static trench warfare.
Each light trench–mortar battery was made up of eight 3–inch Stokes mortars – a new and surprisingly simple weapon comprising little more than a smooth bore tube fixed to a base plate and a lightweight bipod. Dropping a 10lb mortar round down the barrel caused a striking pin at the bottom of the tube to ignite a 12–bore cartridge at the base of the mortar round. The cartridge ignited a propellant charge which then sent the mortar along a pre–determined trajectory towards the German lines. Earlier variants of British trench mortars were rendered obsolete by the Stokes gun with its considerably lighter weight, easier manoeuvrability, high rate of fire (25 rounds per minute), and effective range of 750 yards. The battery's eight guns could be deployed into sub–batteries of four, two or one Stokes guns, depending on the infantry's tactical requirements.
In defensive positions such as those near Armentières, Stokes mortars could fire accurately on sniper loopholes and machine–gun positions without having to expose the crew to enemy fire. But fitted with the No. 107 instantaneous percussion fuse (also known as the 'Newton' fuse) its real value was wire–cutting. Walter Downing of 57/Battalion saw its effectiveness at close range during a trench raid in late 1916, when a battery of Stokes guns fired rounds that went 'up and up and up in strings of ten and eleven, each humming like a blast on the base notes of a mouth organ, and [falling] in successive crashes among the entanglements'. The explosions smashed the German wire 'into long thin knives which could cut off a head as cleanly as a sword, or shear through thickets of strong wire'. (8)
The 3–inch Stokes trench mortar, of the type captured by the German raiding party in the Bridoux Salient. REL AWM05056.001
Wary that the Stokes guns might give the Germans an indication that plans for a major offensive were underway, GHQ were cautious about its use in the months leading up to the Somme. It was not feasible to restrict the use of trench mortars altogether, so orders were issued on 14 March for the 3–inch batteries to limit their rate of fire to match those of the heavier 3.7–inch or 4–inch mortars already in use, and to restrict use of the No. 107 fuse altogether. More importantly, the orders made it clear for batteries 'to prevent any of the 3" Stokes Mortars being captured by the enemy. When employed in close proximity to the front line they will be withdrawn to a support line after use.' (9)
I ANZAC Corps passed GHQ's directive down the chain of command, but it never reached 5/Light Trench Mortar Battery before two of its guns went into action for the first time. On the morning of 4 May, 20/Battalion's second–in–command, Major Richard Fitzgerald, requested two 3–inch mortars to be brought forward from their quarters at Culvert Farm near Bois Grenier to respond to German sniper and Minenwerfer fire being directed on the apex of the Bridoux Salient. A sub–battery of two guns arrived in the salient under the command of Lieutenant Harry Shaw, who established positions in the firing line and directed fire on targets in the German trenches. The mortars did considerably well in what was their first time in action: 'The enemy's parapets opposite these trenches were breached in several places and some of his wire was destroyed. Rifle grenades were fired at the same time with good effect.' (10)
After firing, Shaw instructed one of the sub–battery's corporals to return the mortars to Culvert Farm, explaining to him that 'this was our usual procedure'. But this instruction was not acted upon. The two–man Stokes gun crews were all aware they were to fire the following day, and may have thought it pointless to lug the 104lb of mortar tube, base plate, bipod and any remaining 10lb mortar rounds through a mile–long communication trench back to Culvert Farm. Regardless, GHQ's directive to withdraw the 3–inch mortars from the front line was missed by the Stokes crews who cleaned, dismantled and stored their guns in a dug–out at the apex of the salient with a stockpile of hand grenades. The Stokes guns fired the following day under the authority of Lieutenant Henry McMeekin, Shaw's second–in–command, who was not briefed on returning the guns to Culvert Farm and so allowed the guns to be kept in the dug–out in case they were urgently needed during the night. So on the afternoon of 5 May 1916, just hours before the German raid on the Bridoux Salient, the two Stokes guns were kept inside a front–line dug–out with nobody but a nearby 20/Battalion sentry to guarantee their safety when the German barrage started. (11)
In spite of the mortars' early successes, they were not the reason why the Germans raided the Bridoux Salient. Opposite the 2nd Division were Prussian troops of 50. Reserve–Division, who were seasoned veterans of the Eastern Front and were resting in the quiet Armentières sector after heavy fighting against the French in the Champagne region. Two companies of Reserve–Infanterie–Regiment Nr. 230 carried out the raid against what they called the Balken Stellung with the intention of discovering and destroying mining galleries and capturing booty and prisoners for intelligence. The two raiding parties were instructed not to advance further than the Chord Line or enter mining galleries, and were equipped for close–quarters fighting. Each man carried, '6 hand grenades, wire cutters with wooden handles ... entrenching tools and daggers. Members of the detachment detailed as blocks [blocking party] are to carry revolvers and 8 hand grenades'. They also wore a white armband to assist with visual recognition in the British trenches, having been told to leave behind '[a]ll means of identification, pocket books and papers', including belt buckles to prevent the dead and wounded revealing the raiding party's identity. Firing in support were two heavy and two light field howitzer batteries, four field gun batteries, and more than twenty Minenwerfer of various calibres. (12)
The raid went according to plan. German artillery and Minenwerfer opened up on the Bridoux Salient at 8.40pm, resulting in a retaliatory bombardment from the Australian guns that fell far behind the German front line. At 9.20pm, the German artillery lifted its fire onto the Chord Line, effectively isolating the Bridoux Salient's apex for the assault party to enter. The regiment's after–action report records how the Germans had no trouble crossing no man's land and breaking into the Australian trenches:
'The favourable lie of the ground was made use of up to about 50 metres from the enemy wire. Here a general line was formed, and the advance continued. On nearing the enemy trenches, both patrols received infantry fire, and Bruns' patrol came under hand–grenade fire. Two men of the right, and three men of the left patrol, were slightly wounded. The patrols replied with hand–grenade and revolver fire, without ceasing to advance. The enemy wire, which had been heavily shot about with trench mortars and artillery fire, and was almost entirely useless, was easily passed and the enemy trenches were occupied.'
Eight minutes were spent plundering the Australian position. There was little opposition from the company of 20/Battalion men holding the Bridoux Salient; many of the survivors having fled to nearby dug–outs where some put up a bit of a fight. 'Where these refused ... to come out on being challenged by the patrols, hand grenades were thrown into the dugouts.' In one area, '[a]n English officer, who fired and shot off lights while standing behind a loophole, was wounded, disarmed, and taken prisoner by Emertz's patrol'. Two German raiders came across a rifle grenade battery, which they threw over the parapet and took back across no man's land along with a prisoner; another two discovered the Stokes mortars. 'Musketiers Göpfert and Mai, belonging to the left patrol, captured 2 trench mortars which were standing ready to fire on the parados and had been abandoned by their crew ... these were thrown over the parapet and brought back into our trenches. The rest of the raiders split up in the trenches, and gathered booty of every description (equipment, letters, etc.)', before withdrawing across no man's land with eleven prisoners and no casualties of their own. (13)
Image: The battlefield today – seen from the apex of the salient, looking towards the enemy trenches that ran along the outskirts of le Bridoux village. The two German assault parties attacked the position from either side of the road. The drainage ditches give some indication of the low–lying conditions of the Bois Grenier area. Author’s collection.
'Rabbits in a trap'
The eleven prisoners were the first Australians to come face–to–face with the German Army in France. Corporal David Austin and four others of his section were 'caught like rabbits in a trap' in one dug–out when the German raiding party stormed the position. 'As soon as our artillery lifted towards the enemy lines, we were attacked by Germans from both sides of the salient'. Three stick grenades were lobbed through the dug–out entrance and exploded, leaving Austin and the others 'dazed and confused' from the resulting concussion but otherwise unhurt. The man closest to the entrance was hauled out and brained with a knobkerrie; the others were dragged out and sent across no man's land to the German trenches. The grenades left Austin senseless, but the appearance of his assailants was something that evidently made a vivid impression. 'Every man of this raiding party was wearing a Red Cross band on the arm and were all armed with revolvers and a sort of life–preserver ... [This] was a square piece of metal about 2 lbs weight, attached to a handle of spring steel about 18 inches long. This was a formidable looking weapon, and capable of smashing in a man's head. They also all carried hand grenades and each man had an electric torch attached to his breast'. (14)
From German accounts it appears some of the 20/Battalion men retrieved the two Stokes guns from the dug–out and attempted to use them against the raiding party. No mention of this is made in any of the Australian records, most likely because the troops who were in a position to use the guns were killed in the bombardment. Australian dead lay everywhere at the apex – one of the raiding party leaders counted '8 dead within a space of 3 traverses' – and none of the eleven prisoners mentioned anything about the Stokes guns in statements made after their repatriation from Germany in 1918. Because the junior officers of 5/Light Trench Mortar Battery were not aware of the precautions for using the mortars in the front line, the Germans found two 3–inch guns unattended in the Bridoux Salient, which was precisely what GHQ did not want to happen.
Image: Officers of the 20th Battalion at Bois Grenier, April 1916. In the middle row, fourth from the right, is Lieutenant–Colonel John Lamrock , and to his right, Major Richard Fitzgerald . In the back row, third from the right, is Lieutenant Norman Blanchard, who was wounded and captured in the raid and was the officer referred to in the German after–action report. AWM A03620
'The nature of gross slackness'
There is no mention in the German records to suggest that the captured Stokes guns were of any significance, and on 1 July when the British offensive on the Somme began, hundreds of 3–inch mortars fired on the German wire ahead of the infantry with good effect. But the loss of the mortars from the Bridoux Salient inevitably had repercussions for those officers and men whom I ANZAC Corps thought responsible for their loss. When it was confirmed that the guns were missing, a court of inquiry found Lieutenants Shaw and McMeekin accountable, and they were arrested for failing to take adequate precautions to ensure the guns' safety. Neither man knew anything about GHQ's directive of 13 March, but as Shaw was the only member of the battery to attend a training course on the use of trench mortars, his understanding that the guns be returned to the support line was 'standard procedure' was learned at the school of instruction. The first time either officer heard anything about GHQ's directive was when Shaw was shown it a week after the raid. He stated: 'If I had received a copy of this document before 4 May I should have raised a point about taking my guns into the front line.'(15)
Shaw and McMeekin could hardly be blamed for failing to take adequate precautions to ensure the safety of the guns, so attention turned to Brigade Major Horace Viney, whose responsibility it was to relay the directive to 5/Light Trench Mortar Battery. This he had failed to do. Viney received the orders verbally from the 2nd Division's second–in–command, Colonel Gordon Jackson DSO, but he did not think it necessary to relay a written order on the use of the Stokes mortars to the commanders of 5/Light Trench Mortar Battery. Viney claimed he verbally briefed Shaw in April on the use of the Newton fuse, the rate of fire and proper storage of the Stokes guns after being used, but Shaw disagreed, maintaining that Viney only reinforced the same general principles he had learned at the school of instruction. Whether the orders were written or verbal, Viney could not guarantee that GHQ's instructions were properly conveyed to the very men operating the 3–inch Stokes mortars from the front–line trenches. At his court martial, Viney was found not guilty of neglect to the prejudice of good order and discipline, although the judge advocate stated that his neglect was culpable and 'not merely arising from ordinary forgetfulness or error of judgement or inadvertence. There must be something in the nature of gross slackness.' (16)
Full responsibility for the loss of the mortars was never officially assigned to a single officer. In the official history, Bean wrote: 'Such a miscarriage could only occur through a lack of the sense of personal responsibility and slackness in supervision almost amounting to a military crime – qualities which, if they were general in the AIF, would indicate a dangerous state of efficiency.' (17) This was alarming, given the Australians would soon play an important part in the offensive on the Somme. But more alarming for Birdwood was that an Australian brigade had failed to drive the enemy out of their trenches as soon as the barrage lifted – the sting being made worse by the fact that no dead or wounded Germans were found on the parapet of the Bridoux Salient.
The search for a scapegoat continued throughout the following weeks until one was finally found in Lieutenant Colonel John Lamrock, the 56–year–old commander of 20/Battalion, whom Birdwood saw as being responsible. Lamrock made it perfectly clear to company commanders that the Bridoux Salient was to be held 'at all costs' and in line with the local defensive scheme. But Lamrock believed the best means of doing so was not to 'uselessly sacrifice men by keeping them in positions where destruction by enemy fire was inevitable'; instead, his company commanders'would be justified in thinning their line ... so long as they held their men organised ready to occupy again as soon as the bombardment lifted'. (18) The 20/Battalion men were too far shattered from the bombardment to muster any meaningful defence at the apex of the Bridoux Salient, and with that, according to the intelligence officer on Birdwood's staff, '[t]he Bosches seem to have done pretty well what they intended to do'. For this, Birdwood relieved Lamrock of command and sent him home to Australia. (19)
I ANZAC Corps had not got off to a great start in France. Haig knew the Bridoux Salient raid had unsettled Australian commanders, and several weeks later, after the 2nd Division's failed attack at Pozières, he chastised Birdwood and his chief–of–staff on the quality of leadership in France thus far: 'You're not fighting Bashi–Bazouks now – this is [a] serious, scientific war, and you are up against the most scientific and most military nation in Europe'. (20) But two years later, in one of the Australians' final battles on the Western Front, two severely under–strength battalions charged 'like wild bushrangers' into the face of German machine–guns to capture the stronghold of Mont St. Quentin. One of them was 20/Battalion, and firing in their support were the Stokes guns of 5/Light Trench Mortar Battery. Fighting their way to the top of the hill, their advance was checked by a strong and determined counter–attack that pushed them just below the summit. The following day, Mont St. Quentin fell to the 2nd Division and the bastion of Péronne was in the hands of the 5th Division. The British Fourth Army commander, General Henry Rawlinson, described it as one of the greatest achievements of the war – an accolade that eschewed any resemblance of how the Australians began their campaign in France. The German raid on the Bridoux Salient was certainly not the finest achievement of the AIF, but it is the benchmark against which its later successes should be measured.
Article and images contributed to Stand To! No 97 (of which this is the web featured article) by Aaron Pegram.
(1) Australian War Memorial (AWM) 3DRL/3846, Private Dudley Jackson, 20/Battalion, diary entry 5 May 1916.
(2) AWM MSS147 Part 3, unpublished 20/Battalion history: p.28.
(3) AWM 1DRL/0164, Sergeant Thomas Burnett, 20/Battalion, letter, 8 May 1916.
(4) AWM PR90/96, Sergeant Eric Tate, 20/Battalion, letter, 9 June 1916.
(5) AWM4 1/44/10, 2 Div war diary, entry for 5 May 1916.
(6) 'Australians' First Fight in France', Warwick Examiner and Times (Queensland), Saturday 13 May 1916: p.2.
(7) C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Vol. III, 'The AIF in France, 1916', (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1929): p.201.
(8) W. H. Downing, To the Last Ridge, (Melbourne: Australasian Authors' Agency, 1920): p.40.
(9) AWM252 A250, GHQ instruction O.A.746, 14 April 1916.
(10) AWM4 23/5/11, 20/Battalion war diary, entry for 4 May 1916.
(11) AWM252 A250, court of inquiry witness statements, 6 May 1916.
(12) AWM47 111.05/1, Herbertson papers, RIR 230 war diary, translated raid order, 2 May 1916.
(13) Ibid., RIR 230 after action report, 7 May 1916.
(14) AWM30 B6.14, repatriated prisoner statement, Corporal David Austin, 20/Battalion.
(15) National Archives of Australia (NAA) A471 20955, court martial of Major Horace Viney, 6 June 1916.
(17) Bean, Official History, Vol. III: p.207.
(18) AWM26 29/27, 5 Brigade operations file, letter from Lamrock to Holmes dated 10 May 1916.
(19) For interesting correspondence between Birdwood and the Australian Defence Minister George Pearce about Lamrock's dismissal, see AWM 3DRL/2222, Series 3, Wallet 2, letters from Birdwood to Pearce 19 May 1916 and 6 June 1916.
(20) Gary Sheffield and John Bourne, Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters, 1914–1918 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005): p.186; Bean, Official history, Vol. III: p.643.