Australian prisoners captured at Bullecourt are escorted to the German rear on April 11, 1917. Picture: Peter Barton
Australian prisoners captured at Bullecourt are escorted to the German rear on April 11, 1917. Picture: Peter Barton

What happened to the Bullecourt prisoners?

Australian War Memorial senior historian AARON PEGRAM relives the hours during which the Germans captured 1170 Aussie prisoners of war during the first Battle of Bullecourt on April 11, 1917.

ONE hundred years ago today, Sergeant William Groves was taken prisoner during the costly and unsuccessful attack on the Hindenburg Line near Bullecourt.

Before dawn on April 11, 1917, troops from the 4th Australian Division fought their way into the German trenches without support from artillery or tanks and spent the following hours repelling counter-attacks. However, as ammunition ran low, their situation became desperate. When German troops launched a final devastating assault, Groves and many others were unable to withdraw across the bullet-swept area of no man's land and were forced to surrender.

The fighting cost the Australians more than 3000 casualties, 1170 of whom were taken prisoner - the largest single capture of Australian troops during the First World War.

Groves described the moment when hundreds of German soldiers, "heads encased in barrel-like helmets", stormed his portion of the Hindenburg Line. He was stripped of his rifle and equipment at the point of a pistol, and saw a young German soldier "advancing menacingly towards me, swinging a stick-bomb by the handle and shouting 'Los! Los! Los!' by which I understood that I'd better watch my step and go quietly".

Sergeant William Groves after the reprisals of 1917. Picture: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL (P09591)
Sergeant William Groves after the reprisals of 1917. Picture: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL (P09591)

All told, 3848 Australians were captured on the Western Front, although their experiences in German captivity are lesser known aspects of Australia's First World War story. The centenary of the First Battle of Bullecourt is a fitting time to consider what some of them endured, particularly the hundreds captured in that ill-fated action who were deliberately mistreated by their captors.

Not all Bullecourt prisoners fared poorly. The officers were separated from their men and sent to Germany, entering a vast prison system that by November 1918 comprised 165 camps and 2.5 million allied prisoners. The wounded received medical treatment and passed through the casualty evacuation system, later going on to hospitals and camps on the German home front.

The rest of those captured at Bullecourt remained behind the lines in France, enduring months of imprisonment as forced labourers. The Germans, in retaliation for the French and British armies' alleged use of German prisoners as labourers in areas exposed to shell-fire, deliberately abused allied prisoners in an attempt to improve conditions for their own men in captivity. Using prisoners as labourers also helped solve Germany's manpower shortage following Verdun and the battle of the Somme.

In the days after Bullecourt, about 800 Australian prisoners were taken by rail to Lille, where they were imprisoned in the sealed vaults of a dilapidated artillery emplacement called Fort McDonald, but known to the men as "the Black Hole of Lille". They were locked in overcrowded "cells", and rations consisted of a daily issue of bread and ersatz coffee that did little to satisfy the men's growing hunger. Lice were endemic and latrines overflowed, polluting the stale air and the floors on which the men ate and slept.

An aerial photograph of the formidable German Hindenburg Line defences at Bullecourt. Picture: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL (H11990)
An aerial photograph of the formidable German Hindenburg Line defences at Bullecourt. Picture: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL (H11990)

After 10 days the prisoners were marched to the forward area and assigned to labour companies near Douai, Valenciennes, and Cambrai. For six months they spent 15 hours a day digging machine-gun pits, clearing roads, and unloading ammunition and engineering supplies at nearby dumps - work that violated terms of the 1907 Hague Convention. German sentries maintained discipline through verbal abuse and prisoners were beaten with fists and rifle butts at the slightest provocation.

The Australian Red Cross in London believed the prisoners were safe at a prison camp in Germany and sent thousands of food and clothing parcels there so the prisoners would not be reliant on German provisions. In reality, the prisoners were in France and never received their parcels. They instead had to survive on modest issues of bread and coffee, supplementing their diet with stinging nettles, frogs, birds, and whatever morsels they could scrounge at work sites during the day.

Private Joseph Webb of the 14th Battalion wrote to the Australian High Commissioner from his work party near Lens, where Australian prisoners were "bordering on starvation … covered in lice and other vermin". He called it "a life of torture and hell", and pleaded: "For God's sake, do what you can for us."

The Bullecourt prisoners fared much better after arriving in Germany. This group of Australians survived the German reprisals and are wearing modified British uniforms sent by the Red Cross. Picture: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL (P01981)
The Bullecourt prisoners fared much better after arriving in Germany. This group of Australians survived the German reprisals and are wearing modified British uniforms sent by the Red Cross. Picture: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL (P01981)

In May 1917 the British War Office sent reassurances to the German government that German prisoners had been moved at least 30 kilometres from the forward areas. The Germans responded by moving the Bullecourt prisoners out of artillery range. While the men's conditions remained much the same over the following months, this at least brought an end to reprisals. Finally arriving in Germany in October, the Bullecourt prisoners fared much better, receiving fortnightly consignments of Red Cross food parcels from London.

A group of repatriated British and Australian prisoners at a base depot in England after the Armistice. Most Australian prisoners captured on the Western Front survived captivity and the war. Picture: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL (E04235)
A group of repatriated British and Australian prisoners at a base depot in England after the Armistice. Most Australian prisoners captured on the Western Front survived captivity and the war. Picture: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL (E04235)

"He made a rush at a tin of Bully Beef and grabbed it. After he had finished, he simply sat down and cried like a kid."

Captivity remains a lesser known aspect of Australia's First World War story. Conditions for the Bullecourt prisoners were often as terrible as they were in the Second World War, although the violence perpetrated towards them was not as extreme.

Of the 3848 Australians taken prisoner by German troops on the Western Front, all but 327 survived captivity and the war.


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