Person Sheet

Name Norman John WHELAN
Death 11 Apr 1917, K.I.A. France Age: 22
Birth 1895, Buchan
Burial 1917, Panel 74, 26 Villers-Bretonneux Memorial cemetery, France Age: 22
Father William WHELAN (1866-1931)
Mother Amy Jane HUGHES (1869-1917)
Notes for Norman John WHELAN
Enlisted in the Aust.Inf.Forces. on 15/2/16 at Longwarry (Home town) and served in the 4th Aust.Inf. Division, 4th Infantry brigade, 14th Battalion, #1707 Private.

Red Cross reports from witnessses indicate whilst preparing to go over the parapet, a shell landed amongst his machine gun section, killing him outright.
His date of death co-incides with the first day of the attack on the area near Bullecourt, one of the last poorly planed and devistating attacks by Australian troops.
His remains are buried in the Villers-Brittoneux Memorial cemetery France, Panel 74

14th Battalion
At full strenght the 14th Battalion held about 800 men, yet over 2,000 passed through it's ranks on Gallipoli alone. During the war 42 officers and 1008 other ranks were killed in action. Albert Jacka noted in 1917 that there were only about 50 of the original members of the Battalion left.
Back in Egypt, the Battalion was split in half to create a second Battalion. Most battalions simply gave away two companies, but the 14th elected to pick the men individualy. Company Sergeant Major Jacka had the job of picking the men who were to be transfered. The split was completed on the 4th March and the new recruits were recieved.

The Battles of Bullecourt, 10-11 April

These were twin battles fought in the same area, the first on the night of 10-11 April and the second from 3 to 9 May 1917. Haig and his generals assumed the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line was a sign of weakness, so they agreed to cooperate with the French General Nivelle to break through. General Gough's 5th Army, which 1st ANZAC Corps had just joined, would attack at Bullecourt, near Arras.

The map of the area shows why it was a bad place, a re-entrant in the German line, so the attackers were shot at from three sides. The artillery was still struggling through the old Somme battlefields up to the new front. Gough, therefore, could not resist the offer of the new 'Tank' men to lead the way. However, they were using primitive Mark 1 tanks, clumsy machines with thin armour riveted on, unsprung, weak engines and a maximum speed in battle of about 3 k/hr. The armour was so thin that machine gun bullets went through it, and what happened when a shell hit a tank can be seen from the photographs of some of the tanks destroyed at Bullecourt. After a false start, when the tanks did not arrive, the first attack went ahead and ended in total disaster. The tanks broke down or were destroyed, and the 4th Australian Division lost approximately 3000 men.
The second attack was a set-piece artillery and infantry battle. On 3 May 3 Division attacked. The left flank, the 6th Brigade, fought its way into the Hindenburg Line, but the right, the 5th, collapsed. The battle then degenerated into a mincing machine, which dragged in other divisions and finally led to the loss of over 7000 more men. The German command finally tired of it all and pulled out of Bullecourt itself. But that was all. The Australians had lost 10,000 men for one ruined French village.
Questions: What went wrong?

Some possible answers:
(1) frantic haste in planning the attacks
(2) ambitious distant objectives
(3) misplaced trust in the primitive tanks
(4) in the second battle a totally incompetent artillery plan [Map 1: the artillery plan of Bullecourt]. Notice that the right flank is completely uncovered by artillery fire! See enlargement [Map 2: detail]. This was fatal: there had to be machine guns on the right flank, and it was from there that the Australians were mowed down
(5) the hour of the attack: 3.30 am was too late as the sun was about to rise, and it lit up the battlefield
(6) dismissal of a smoke screen.
The place of the attack was chosen by Haig and Gough, and therefore the disaster at Bullecourt had its origin in the British high command. However, the Australian leaders, Birdwood and White, made incredible blunders and contributed to the slaughter of their own men.

In support of the upcoming British and Canadian attack at Arras scheduled for 8 April 1917, Gough wished to launch an attack on the Hindenburg Line itself. It was an extraordinarily strong position. Trenches were sited on reverse slopes where they could not be observed from the ground and there was extensive barbed wire, two to four belts strictly parallel, about 5 metres apart, the width of each belt varying from 10 to 15 metres. Some were sunken, some in a serrated pattern, constructed so as to be covered by machine guns firing in perfect enfilade. There were no anti-tank gun positions.71

Cutting barbed wire had long been a serious tactical problem and a number of technics had been tried, the most simple being cutting it by hand with wire cutters. This was effective, but costly if it had to be done under fire. Another technic was to use artillery fire. It was discovered that neither shrapnel nor high explosive shells were very efficient at cutting wire. In 1915, the French produced a new kind of fuze they called the Fus'e Instant'e Allong'e (elongated instantaneous fuze), which contained a brass tape that unwound during flight. Once unwound, it freed the hammer. When the shell hit the ground, this struck the mercury fulminate detonator, which set off the primer and exploded the shell. British inventors made some changes to improve its safety, reliability and suitability for mass production resulting in Type 106 percussion fuze. The result was a shell that exploded on impact with all but the softest ground. The explosion produced no crater, but deadly steel splinters were sprayed over the ground at high speed and could kill a man 800 metres away and hence the infantry called them "ground shrapnel" or "daisy cutters". This new fuze promised to be very efficient against wire. The first Australians to see them demonstrated were the Siege Brigade on 20 September 1916. The British Fifth Army, of which I Anzac Corps was a part, was allocated 5,100 Type 106 fuzes on 9 February 1917, and some were used by I Anzac Corps in a minor attack on 1 March, fired by a British siege battery.

There had not yet been time to cut the Hindenburg Line's wire. Only with the capture of Noreuil, the last of the outpost villages opposite Bullecourt, on 2 April could the field artillery be brought within range. Even then, ammunition supply still posed a problem. The broad gauge railway network only reached Bapaume on 6 April and the road system was not yet able to handle fully laden trucks.

Accordingly, the task fell on the I Anzac Corps Heavy Artillery. The 60 pounders and 6 inch howitzers had proven themselves sufficiently mobile to keep up with the advance, which Gough considered to be the outstanding tactical lesson of the campaign. On 2 April, they were ordered to begin the bombardment of the Hindenburg Line. But sufficient ammunition to cut the wire had not yet been brought up owing to the higher priority given to road making material. Using a mix of 6 inch, 8 inch and 9.2 inch howitzers, two bombardment groups fired some 12,346 shells between 5 and 8 April while two counterbattery groups fired another 11,235 shells. Only a small proportion had 106 fuzes, of which only 12,000 - all I Anzac Corps had - had been expended by 15 April. When they ran out, wire cutting was carried out by the 4.5 inch howitzers of the field artillery using HE.

Gough's response to the problems of artillery, ammunition and wire was a technological and tactical innovation. From the beginning, 12 tanks had been earmarked to support the attack. Tank officers put forward a proposal to have the tanks advance in front of the infantry instead of behind, tearing up the barbed wire and suppressing the enemy machine guns while the artillery concentrated on neutralising their German counterparts. While tanks had been in use on the Western Front since September 1916, Australian soldiers knew them only as wrecks on the old Somme battlefield.

The night of 10 April 1917 found the men of the 4th Division waiting out in the snow for the tanks to arrive. Just after daybreak, word came that the tanks had not arrived and the stunt was off and the diggers got up and walked back across the open, shielded from German observation by a snowstorm. Gough ordered the operation to be repeated the next night. This time, the infantry were to attack even if the tanks failed to arrive. The I Anzac Corps staff showed little appreciation of the capabilities of the new technology. The timing of the operation was off because they failed to realise that the tanks could not advance at fast as the infantry, and the instructions from Gough regarding the drowning out of their approach noise by machine guns had not been implemented.

The result was a frontal attack on the Hindenburg Line without the benefit of a barrage and with precious little armoured support, which in any case followed the infantry. Captain Albert Jacka, who had won the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli, submitted a scathing report in which he labelled tanks "worse than useless", roundly criticising the crews' lack of punctuality, reliability, professionalism, organisation, leadership, efficiency and courage. In conclusion, he stated that:

In my opinion, manned by the bravest crews and placed directly under the infantry officers concerned, tanks would be of great help but they should never be relied on as the sole means of support.

To stop them, the Germans used artillery, trench mortars and machine guns firing steel tipped armour-piercing bullets.

Two enemy aircraft which were neither engaged by antiaircraft guns nor intercepted by friendly aircraft observed the field batteries firing in the Noreuil Valley, where they were packed close together with little cover, and brought down heavy counterbattery fire from guns of all calibres for 48 hours. The German batteries firing were not located and the counterbattery fire was largely ineffective. Reports of the Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) were inaccurate all day. They frequently could not tell Australian soldiers from the enemy and caused problems with the protective barrage when it was needed most.

The amazing thing was that the infantry of both attacking brigades were able to capture parts of the Hindenburg Line. In this they were aided by the poor visibility, the fact that enough of the wire had indeed been cut to allow some units to get through, albeit with heavy casualties, the new platoon organisation, which gave the infantry the firepower to fight back, and superb leadership. This was not enough to hold the position, however, and the two brigades were bombed out. The Australians had brought 16 Vickers machine guns forward but they were useless against bombing attacks and 14 were lost.
Norman John WHELAN

Regimental number 1707
Place of birth Buchan, Victoria
School from Roll of Honour Lower Nicholson, Via Bairnsdale, Gippsland, Victoria
Religion Methodist
Occupation Labourer
Address Longwarry, Victoria
Marital status Single
Age at embarkation 20
Next of kin Mother, Mrs Amy Jane Whelan, Longwarry, Victoria
Previous military service Nil
Enlistment Date 15 February 1916
Rank on enlistment Private
Unit name 37th Battalion, 1st Reinforcement
AWM Embarkation Roll number 23/54/2
Embarkation details Unit embarked from Melbourne, Victoria, on board HMAT A11 Ascanius on 27 May 1916
Rank from Nominal Roll Private
Unit from Nominal Roll 14th Battalion
Fate Killed in Action 11 April 1917
Place of death or wounding Bullecourt, France
Age at death 21
Commemoration details Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France
Villers-Bretonneux is a village about 15 km east of Amiens. The Memorial stands on the high ground ('Hill 104') behind the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery, Fouilloy, which is about 2 km north of Villers-Bretonneux on the east side of the road to Fouilloy.

The Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux is approached through the Military Cemetery, at the end of which is an open grass lawn which leads into a three-sided court. The two pavilions on the left and right are linked by the north and south walls to the back (east) wall, from which rises the focal point of the Memorial, a 105 foot tall tower, of fine ashlar. A staircase leads to an observation platform, 64 feet above the ground, from which further staircases lead to an observation room. This room contains a circular stone tablet with bronze pointers indicating the Somme villages whose names have become synonymous with battles of the Great War; other battle fields in France and Belgium in which Australians fought; and far beyond, Gallipoli and Canberra.

On the three walls, which are faced with Portland stone, are the names of 10,885 Australians who were killed in France and who have no known grave. The 'blocking course' above them bears the names of the Australian Battle Honours.

After the war an appeal in Australia raised 22,700 Pounds, of which 12,500 Pounds came from Victorian school children, with the request that the majority of the funds be used to build a new school in Villers-Bretonneux. The boys' school opened in May 1927, and contains an inscription stating that the school was the gift of Victorian schoolchildren, twelve hundred of whose fathers are buried in the Villers-Bretonneux cemetery, with the names of many more recorded on the Memorial. Villers-Bretonneux is now twinned with Robinvale, Victoria, which has in its main square an impressive memorial to the links between the two towns.

Panel number, Roll of Honour,
Australian War Memorial 74
Miscellaneous information from
cemetery records Parents: William and Any Jane WHELAN.
AIF connections Uncle and Cousins.
Other details War service: Western Front
Medals: British War Medal, Victory Medal

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