Menin Road; Polygon Wood; Broodseinde: three great AIF successes in 15 Days

imageThe systematic taking of high ground to the east of Ypres with limited but well defined objectives formed Field Marshall Haig’s step by step Third Ypres strategy. The final objective was the town of Passchendaele on a ridge some 12 kms to the north-east of Ypres, hence the alternative name often given to the offensive (maps below courtesy of Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918). The Third Battle of Ypres began at 3.50am on the 31st July 1917 with the successful attack by the British infantry at Pilckem Ridge, supported by the artillery of the AIF 1st, 2nd & 5th Divisions and a feint by General Godley’s II Anzac Corps in front of the Warneton Line. The Battle of Langemarck, fought from 16th – 18th August 1917, was the next step in Haig’s plan with General Gough intending that his British Fifth Army take the line from Polygon Wood to Langemarck. The Germans appreciating the tactical value of the ground concentrated their efforts in retaining the ridge through determined defence and counter-attacks. By the end of the month Inverness Copse changed hands eighteen times, with the British suffering some 100,000 casualties for little gain. In preparation for the next phase the infantry of I Anzac Corps – with the 22nd Battalion as part of the 6th Brigade, AIF 2nd Division – began to move forward from their training areas on 12th September 1917.

menin-1_0The British plan for the Battle of the Menin Road on the 20th September 1917 included more emphasis on the use of heavy and medium artillery to destroy German concrete pill-boxes and machine-gun nests, and to engage in more counter-battery fire. It was the densest barrage that had covered the Australian troops so far.  The Australian 1st & 2nd Divisions, advancing side by side for the first time in the War, together with four British divisions on their right and five on their left moved forward on an eight mile front. The artillery did the damage and in many cases the Germans in the heavily protected pill-boxes (see photograph, right) offered little resistance. The advance brought the 12th Battalion on the left of the AIF 1st Division to the edge of Polygon Wood, which by now was barely recognisable, capturing many unfired machine guns and their crews from pillboxes. The second objective was successfully reached on the Australian front and on most of the British front in accordance with the timetable.

Ypres - J06406The next phase in Haig’s plan lay principally with I Anzac Corps, supported by the British X Corps on their right flank and V Corps on the left. Attacking on a front of 2,100 yards the AIF 5th Division, fresh from four months of rest, had the harder task of attacking the main ridge at Polygon Wood, with the AIF 4th Division which had been withdrawn from the Messines Ridge just three weeks before attacking Tokio Spur. The attack on the Butte in Polygon Wood (photograph above) fell to the 14th Brigade under Brigadier-General Hobkirk. Preparations for the attack did not go well as the day before the Germans launched their own attack putting General Hobbs AIF 5th Division under great strain. With the onset of first light on 26th September 1917, the barrage supporting the Battle of Polygon Wood was the most perfect that ever protected the Australian troops. However the ground was dry and each shell burst raised a wall of dust and smoke behind which the Australian and British divisions advanced, but this cloud created confusion for the advancing battalions and they soon became Bugden - P02939.025.JPGintermingled. The 15th Brigade had the hardest day. Pillboxes to the right of the 31st Battalion were causing problems and during the attack on these strongpoints Pte Bugden (photograph right) was killed and later posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The 14th Brigade attacking the Butte and the 4th & 13th Brigades to their left fared better, outflanking the pillboxes, and achieving their objectives with relative ease. The success of the operation was largely down to the leadership of Brigadier-General Elliott, commanding officer of the 15th Brigade whose battalions suffered that greatest of the 5,500 Australian casualties that day.

By now, and for the first time in the war, four Anzac Divisions from the two Anzac Corps were side by side in the front line, with the AIF 1st Division on the right followed by the 2nd Division – including the 22nd Battalion – the 3rd Division then the New Zealand Division on the left. In the early hours of 4th October 1917 the whole attacking force of I and II Anzac Corps lay crowded about the front line with their objective the Broodseinde Ridge. At 5.30 am, some thirty minutes before zero hour, German flares were sent into the air followed by the opening of their barrage. The men lying out in no-man’s land with their capes over their heads against the rain endured the barrage thinking that they had been observed, and casualties within the AIF 1st and 2nd Divisions from the shelling began to mount. At 6am, zero hour, the British barrage crashed down and the men began to move forward, just Ypres map 2as the German bombardment ceased. Through the smoke ahead shapes were seen moving around, and the Australians realised that the Germans were mounting their own attack at the same zero hour, and began firing. In contrast with the experience of 20th September, the Germans put up stiff resistance at most of the pill-boxes, but they were outflanked and captured.  The Red Line first objective had been reached across the Anzac front by 7.20 am at which time a temporary halt was called to enable re-organisation prior to the push to the summit of the ridge. At 8.10 am, after four minutes of intense artillery bombardment, the second stage of the attack was launched. On the front of the AIF 1st and 2nd Divisions the summit was crossed almost immediately without difficulty, and the troops now found themselves looking over a landscape that had been hidden from the British infantry since May 1915. The whole objective of I and II Anzac Corps had been gained, and as this was part of Haig’s step-by-step approach orders were given to dig in. The news from other parts of the battlefront was almost equally as good. This was the third blow struck by the British and Australians at Ypres in fifteen days with complete success, driving the Germans from one of the most important positions on the Western Front. General Plummer indeed called this ‘the greatest victory since the Marne’, and at this point the British faced the possibility of achieving a decisive breakthrough. For the Germans the 4th October was a significant defeat and they had suffered serious losses. However, losses too for the Australians were heavy with the three divisions sustaining 6,500 casualties, but while Haig was having good fortune on the battlefield he was now losing the one thing he could not control, the weather, and fortune for the British Army would soon change.

 

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