FFFAIF 2021 John Laffin Memorial Lecture, 25 September 2021

The John Laffin Memorial Lecture has been held annually since 2003. The Lectures honour the memory of the Founder of FFFAIF, Australian John Laffin who was one of the world’s most distinguished military historians. Both of John’s parents served with the Australian Imperial Force during WW1. His father was an infantry officer, and his mother a nursing sister. John grew up in a house where much of the adult conversations concerned memories of the war and from an early age the deeds of the Diggers were instilled in him. John became a journalist but enlisted in the second AIF in WW2 and was a veteran of the New Guinea campaign.

Post-War, John became a teacher of English, History and Geography and taught in the UK, which gave him an opportunity to explore the battlefields and see the encampments and cemeteries of significance to Australians. This stimulated his research and writings related to the Great War and he became a prolific author and authority on the War. The vast majority of his 130 or so books focused on the Great War.

John Laffin was also active in the formation of the Western Front Association in the UK and Europe in 1980 and he conceptualised and campaigned for the development of the Australian Corps Memorial at Hamel, dedicated on 4 July 1998. It was on this day that John conceptualised the establishment of the Families and Friends of the First AIF and he helped with the early planning for this before his untimely death in 2000.

The John Laffin Memorial Lecture provides an opportunity to showcase current research in Australian military history of the AIF and was introduced by the FFFAIF president Jim Munro.

The 2021 John Laffin Memorial Lecture

The 2021 John Laffin Memorial Lecture was presented on Saturday 25 September 2021 by Dr Meleah Hampton, an Australian military historian at the Australian War Memorial and ambassador-at-large for the Western Front Association described aspects of the planning and execution of the t1st and 2nd Battles of Bullecourt in France in April and May 1917. These two battles had the same objective, an attack against the newly constructed Hindenburg Line, to which the German forces had retreated in early 1917,  in order to shorten their lines and conserve precious manpower.

The Lecture was delivered via ‘Zoom webinar’, in conjunction with the Western Front Association in the United Kingdom to facilitate an international audience commencing at 7:00pm Eastern Australian time, 10:00am UK, 11:00am France and Belgium, 9:00pm NZ. More than 200 people participated in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the United States.

Dr Hampton’s Lecture described how the two Australian battles that we call 1st and 2nd Bullecourt were planned and executed. Meleah used war diaries and operations orders, along with contemporary accounts, to explain the  processes by which Headquarters planning was developed for the battles, and the reasons for firstly the failure of 1st Bullecourt in April, then the decision to repeat the attack in early May, and lastly to describe the stalemate that followed the end of operations. Meleah also revealed startling influences on the planning, some from unexpected places.

Australian troops in a sunken road at Noreuil on 17 May 1917 with remnants of the village in the background. The graves of Australian soldiers killed in 1st Bullecourt and near Langicourt are visible and are resting in what became the CWGC Noreuil Australian Cemetery. [AWM E2021]

Four of the five Australian infantry divisions fought at various times in the two battles, at a cost of nearly 10,000 Australian casualties. British losses were over 8,000 killed, missing and wounded in action.

Twelve British Mark IV tanks were allocated in the first attack on the 11th of April. They were used to replace artillery which had been diverted to other tasks on the Arras front! This left the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division and the Australian divisions without essential fire support. The tanks failed, being ‘ditched’ or destroyed in their move forward, and the infantry advance broke-down. The dawn attack failed and the forces returned to their lines.

The decision to use tanks in the battle to substitute for artillery, imposed by HQ 5th Army (based on advice received from a junior tank commander), caused very high casualties amongst the troops. It made the Australians distrustful of tanks until well into the next year, confidence that was not to be restored in their use until the final AIF battles of the war. Staff planning processes in HQ 1 Anzac Corps were poor. Dr Hampton argued that General Birdwood and his chief planner Brigadier Brudenell White abrogated their responsibilities and did not, or were unable to, persuade General Gough to adjust his guidance and allocate artillery support.

The second attack did use artillery and the Australian and British forces achieved a limited degree of success. The Australian 2nd Division extended the line a thousand yards forward, and they were able to secure their objectives and repel German counterattacks. 1st and 2nd Bullecourt were nevertheless, like at Pozieres the previous year, a series of operations that had a crippling effect on Australian manpower and the morale of the men involved in the fighting.

Dr Hampton’s new interpretation of the battles and, at times, her controversial assessment of the performance of the commanders was founded in rigorous archival research that brought the battles to us in a new and original way. The talk was followed by Q&A and discussion.

The FFFAIF expresses our thanks to Dr Hampton for her talk, and to the UK Western Front Association for their co-operation and technical support in delivering the webinar.

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