Topic: BatzWF - Westn Front
France, 15 April 1917
Lagnicourt, a village about 3.5 kilometres in front of the Hindenburg Line in northern France, which on 15 April 1917 became the scene for a major German counter-attack. Noting the thinness with which part of the British Fifth Army front was being held - both as a measure to increase reserves needed for the main British thrust at Areas and by the local concentration entailed by operations against Bullecourt (q.v) the commander of the German XIV Reserve Corps (General Otto von Moser) decided to launch a counterstroke. The brunt of this attack fell on the 1st Australian Division holding ground along twelve kilometres of front.
Attacking with the greater part of four divisions (23 battalions!) before dawn, the Germans pushed forward to seize seven villages in front of their line. Their object was to hold these only for the day, capturing or destroying the artillery and supplies found here before retiring again that night. The thrust quickly brought the enemy into Lagnicourt, behind which the 1st Division's batteries were located. The village was overrun, as were several batteries west of there, before the attackers moved against Noreuil further up the valley where massed batteries were also located.
Four Australian battalions in support or reserve about Lagnicourt - little more than 4,000 men as against some 16,000 Germans in this area - counter-attacked so vigorously shortly after 7 a.m. that the enemy was driven out of the village. Recovering 21 guns which the enemy had captured and held for two hours, it was found that only five of these had been damaged. The German foray was thus defeated. Australian casualties were 1,010, including 300 taken prisoner, whereas the enemy's losses amounted to 2,313, of whom 362 were captured.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 125-126.
From the New York Times, 17 April 1917.
By Philip Gibbs
What happened at Lagnicourt yesterday is one of the bloodiest episodes in all this long tale of slaughter. At 4:30, before daybreak, the enemy made a very heavy attack upon the British lines where they are far beyond the old system of trenches and in real open warfare of the old style, which I, for one, never believed would come again. The enemy's lines were protected with a new belt of barbed wire, without which he can never stay on any kind of ground. But it was this which proved his undoing.
His massed attack against the Australian troops had a brief success, but the battalions of Prussian Guards charging in waves broke through the forward posts and drove a deep wedge into the British positions. Here they stayed for a time, doing what damage they could, searching around for prisoners and waiting perhaps for reserves to renew and strengthen the impetus of their attack. But the Australian staff officers were swift in preparing and delivering a counterblow which fell upon the enemy at 7:30. Companies of Australians swept forward, and with irresistible spirit flung themselves upon the Prussians, forcing them to retreat.
They fell back in an oblique line from their way of advance, forced deliberately that way by the pressure and direction of the Australian attack. At the same time the British batteries opened fire upon them with shrapnel. As they ran, more and more panic-stricken, toward their old lines, the greatest disaster befell them for they found themselves cut off by their own wire, those great broad belts of sharp spiked strands which they had planted to bar the British off.
What happened then was just an appalling slaughter. The Australian infantry used their rifles as never rifles had been used since the first weeks of the war when the aid British regulars of the First Expeditionary Force lay down at Le Cateau on the way of their retreat and fired into the advancing tide of Germans so that they fell in lines. Yesterday in that early hour of the morning the Australian riflemen fired into the same kind of target of massed men not far away, so each shot found its mark.
The Prussians struggled frantically to tear their way through the wire to climb over it, crawl under it. They cursed and screamed, ran up and down each line, each in turn until they fell clean. They fell so that the dead bodies were piled upon dead bodies in long lines of mortality before and in the midst of that spiked wire. They fell and hung across its strands. The cries of the wounded, long, tragic wails, rose high above the roar of rifle fire and bursting shrapnel, and the Australian soldiers, quiet and grim, shot on and on till each man fired a hundred rounds, till more than 1,500 German corpses lay on the field at Lagnicourt. Large numbers of prisoners were taken, wounded and unwounded, and five Prussian regiments have been identified.
The Prussian Guard has always suffered from the British troops as some dire fatality. At Ypres, at Contalmaison, in several of the Somme battles, they were cut to pieces, but this massacre at Lagnicourt is the worst episode in their history, and it will be remembered by the German people as a black and fearful thing.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
C.E.W. Bean, (1933), The Australian Imperial Force in France 1917, Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: Lagnicourt, France, April 15, 1917