Lieutenant Leslie Mullett was killed leading his platoon into a maelstrom of German machine-gun fire on the morning of April 11, 1917. The 25-year-old draughtsman from East Malvern in Victoria was shot dead in his first major action on the Western Front as troops from the 4th Australian Division engaged the Germans in a bitter close-quarters fight for a position known as the Hindenburg Line near the village of Bullecourt in northern France.
Such was the intensity of the fighting that Mullett’s body was never recovered. He is one of more than 10,700 Australians who died in France during World War I and is commemorated on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
Bullecourt is a significant site on the Western Front battlefields where the Australians suffered more than 13,000 casualties (dead, wounded, captured and missing) throughout April and May 1917. A French proposal to erect a wind farm on the battlefield has justifiably caused a great deal of anxiety in Australia, especially among descendants of soldiers who died at Bullecourt and whose remains were never found.
Following the winter of 1916-17, German forces withdrew from the positions they held so tenaciously throughout the battle of the Somme to take up new and improved ones between Arras in the north and Soissons in the south some 40km away.
In February and March 1917, Australian troops took part in an advance that pursued the Germans to the Hindenburg Line, and on April 11, 1917, carried out a costly and unsuccessful assault on the German positions between Bullecourt and Riencourt villages.
Lacking proper support from artillery and tanks, two brigades from the 4th Australian Division crossed over a kilometre of exposed ground in full view of German machine-gunners and artillery observers. They fought their way into the Hindenburg Line and temporarily held it for a few hours before being forced to withdraw at the cost of more than 3000 casualties. Australian official historian Charles Bean came to refer to the action as “an experiment of extreme rashness” that led to a deepening distrust of the British high command and unwillingness to work with tanks in future operations.
Despite these losses, the Australians remained in the Bullecourt sector where they engaged the Germans in a second, more protracted, struggle for the Hindenburg Line between May 4 and 17. The fighting drew in troops from the 1st, 2nd and 5th Australian divisions and, along with British troops, resulted in the eventual capture of Bullecourt village at the cost of a further 10,000 Australian casualties.
Three British divisions fighting alongside the Australians lost over 9000 men, dead, wounded and missing. But no sooner had Bullecourt passed into Allied hands than the focus of British operations shifted north into Belgium where a major offensive was sought to achieve a breakthrough in the Ypres Salient near the village of Passchendaele. Australian losses at Bullecourt were staggering, but the worst was still to come.
Should the proposed wind farm project go ahead, the enormous windmills to be built on the former battlefield would disrupt what is now a bucolic landscape that looks much as it did before World War I.
The area’s flat, featureless terrain that made it such a perfect killing zone for German machine-gunners and artillery observers is now fertile farmland, where the locals harvest canola, rhubarb, beans and peas. The fields periodically yield unexploded artillery shells and hand grenades, and from time to time human remains are brought to the surface.
Of the 3600 Australians who died in the fighting at Bullecourt, 2500 have no known grave – men like Mullett who may have been afforded a hasty battlefield burial but whose graves were destroyed in subsequent fighting.
As with all public works carried out on the former Western Front battlefields, construction of the wind farm risks disturbing the remains of Australian soldiers missing for the past 100 years. This could potentially yield a positive result, as was the case when five bodies from World War I were uncovered during routine road works at Zonnebeke in Belgium in September 2006. The discovery of these remains led to the first successful use of DNA testing to identify Australian soldiers who had died during the Third Battle of Ypres, paving the way to further success when Australian and British soldiers killed in the fighting in July 1916 were found in a German mass grave near Fromelles.
It is not known how many missing Australians remain on the former Bullecourt battlefield. Not long after the Armistice, British war graves registration units combed the battlefields of northern France and Belgium searching for makeshift graves so the dead could be moved to nearly established cemeteries.
Burial returns show that hundreds of unidentified bodies were found in the Bullecourt area, where they were excavated and subsequently reinterred in the cemeteries now tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The nearest of these to the Bullecourt battlefield is Queant Road, which includes 1400 unknown burials from the fighting in the area, with an additional 1000 war dead “Known Unto God” buried at H.A.C. Cemetery near Ecoust-St-Mein.
We may never know the final resting place of all of Australia’s war dead from World War I, but the memory of those who fought and died at Bullecourt is still alive and well. Each year, hundreds of Australians make pilgrimages to the Bullecourt battlefield and pore over the relics of the fighting at the Jean and Denise Letaille Museum in the centre of Bullecourt village.
The memories of the dead are also kept alive through the historical records held by the Australian War Memorial, the National Archives of Australia and the National Library of Australia. Among these is a small epitaph penned by Mullett’s grieving family, published in a Melbourne newspaper in December 1917:
Australian soldier, staunch and true
Has found a soldier’s grave,
And in that grave our hero lies,
Leslie Mullet, one of the brave.
Aaron Pegram is a senior historian at the Australian War Memorial.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding