Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918
Vol. IV The A.I.F. in France 1917 By C.E.W. Bean
Concerning the Town Hall explosion
during the night of march 26 to march 27
Bapaume Town hall during the german occupation (1916)
The night before the capture of Lagnicourt was marked by the blowing up of the town hall of Bapaume by a mine placed there by the germans and operated by a chemical fuse(1), set more than eight days before. When first Bapaume was entered, the cellars of this building had been searched, and a mine had been found and removed.(2)
The truth that a hidden mine had been left as a trap, in the hopes that a division would place its headquarters there(3) had not been suspected. No high staff had occupied the place, but about thirty men, including those employed at the coffee stall of the « Australian comfords Fund »(4), and two visiting French deputies, Captain R. Briquet and Albert Taillandier, were sleeping there when the explosion occyred, bringing dawn the tower and walls in a deluge of shattered mansonry.
The two deputies and the « Comforts Fund men were killed, but large fatigue parties, digging furiously throughout that night and the next day, rescued alive six of others.
A German wireless operator captured in Lagnicourt said that the had just received instructions to keep his eyes open for any sign of explosion in the direction of Bapaume.
He added that similar mines had been laid elsewhere. Before this warning could be circulated, at 12.37 p.m. On March 26th, the luxurious dugout system on the edge of bapaume, in which Gellibrand and Wilson had in turn placed their headquaters, was enterely destroyed by a similar mine, Two signal clerks and the records of the 7th Brigade being buried. Most of the 7th brigade staff had fortunately advanced to vaulx-Vraucourt (5), Orders were given that dugouts or houses left intact by the enemy must be avoided both by staffs and by troops (6).
Bapaume town hall just after the explosion
: A steel wire was suspended in acid. The acid eating through it, released a spring operating a striker, an thus fired the mine.
: A german prisoner had said that it was mined.
: Probably because it was too obvious a target for the long-range gun which still shelled the town.
: Others included were three officers of the 13th Field Company, seven members of the 13th Light Horse Regiment engaged in trafic control, and mine men of the 20th Bataillon.
: The Comforts fund men, being under the tower, were killed instantly, The officers of the 13th Field Company and men of the 13th Light Horse, improned in different cellars, were confident they would be dug out, and merely « turned in » to sleep until rescued. Among the units which supplied large digging parties were the 13th Field Company and 18th, 22nd and 30th Battalions.
Lieut. N.E.W. Waraker (Of Brisbane; killed in action on 22 sept., 1917), bombing officer of the 7th Brigade, was blown from the dugout entrance, unharmed. Digging parties, working desperately day and night, were ynable to save the signallers or to recover the records. The current diary of the Official War Correspondent, on which this work is partlly based, was found during the digging.
The white cross indicate the Town hall site after the WWI (1919)
Marcel Carné, chauffeur to the 13th Artillery Regiment and the only French witness, having miraculously escaped the disaster, gave the following narrative:
“We were given the town hall to use for stationing. It hadn’t suffered much damage and appeared to offer reasonable security against a possible bombardment. We took suitcases and food down into the cellar which was occupied by about thirty soldiers; the British officers were frying bacon and making the room really smoky and the lighting was restricted.
From there we were led down a small staircase to a second cellar which was situated just below the cellar through which we had just passed. There on a kind of bat-flanc (raised board), five or six mats were spread and we were allocated three of them to use.
I went back up to the town square and drove my car into the hospitals yard which was situated about 80 metres away, then I went back to the cellar to give M.Taillandier his binoculars, which had been left behind in the car; our food had been put on to the bat-flancs(raised board) along with beer for us to drink (we were told that the water may have been tampered with).
My part was put to the side as I needed to do a small repair on the car and I wanted to do it right then in case we were called away during the night.
Having got back to my car and finished my work I was feeling tired, so I just ate a little food, which I’d bought along myself and then lay down on the back seat of the car to sleep.
I was woken by a great explosion, it was around 11.30pm and I could see flames above the walls of the yard. The town and surrounding areas was alerted and told that the town hall had been blown up.
Leaving the car I went to the town hall where we started to clear away logs and planks.
Straight away we were able to pull out three officers who were not injured, then several bodies, but only two were more or less intact, and we had to line them up, to the side, on the square, we had to put into boxes or bags, those who we could find just pieces of … we guessed there were around twenty-six buried inside with the two deputies.
At around seven the next morning the British authorities asked for my papers knowing that I’d been down in the cellar, they kept me under surveillance, then they stopped some gendarmes and asked them to take me to my car and order me to drive it back to the square. They then parked one of their military cars behind mine. I was on my own in the car and I was told to stay in it. I left Bapaume with my car at about 5.30pm, along with a French interpreter. A French officer’s car followed mine. Passing through Albert, we arrived at Hénencourt, which is where the French interpreter was stationed; the English authorities ordered them to keep me under surveillance.
The order to release me came three days later, the Thursday 29th March towards midday. I got back to Paris in the evening. After having read about the explosion in the newspapers, my employers as well as my family had presumed I had shared the same ending as Monsieur Briquet and Taillandier".
Special thanks to : Société archéologique de Bapaume et sa région. Monsieur et Madame Drouin for the translation