At 5.40am British artillery and machine-guns opened up signalling the start of the attack. The Australian 1st & 2nd Divisions, together with four British on their right and five on their left on an eight mile front moved forward. This was the first time in the War that two Australian divisions had attacked side by side, and this gave a boost to the men knowing who was on their flank. The Battle of the Menin Road (map courtesy of Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918) went to plan. The artillery barrage was the densest that had covered the Australian troops so far, and it was the artillery that did the damage. In many cases the Germans in the heavily protected pill-boxes offered little resistance. By 6.09am the first objective was reached along the whole of the British offensive. Between 7.30 and 7.45am the second objective had been reached on the Australian front and most of the British front in accordance with the timetable. At 9.53am the long pause ended and the barrage came down in front of the Blue Line. The advance to the third objective, the Green Line, was short lived with prisoners taken and pillboxes captured. Shortly before noon German troops and artillery were seen moving in preparation for a counter-attack, but almost immediately were drenched with shells. Nightfall was marked by another German movement met once again by a ferocious artillery barrage, and with this ended the fighting on the Anzac front. British and German losses were comparable, between 20,000 to 25,000 men on both sides, of which Australian casualties within the AIF 1st & 2nd Divisions numbered 5,013. However the German troops came out of this battle crushed, and the British comparatively fresh, leading to an air of optimism both in the field and in England and France.
The Battle of Langemarck was the second of the general attacks in the 3rd Ypres offensive. The Allied attack succeeded from Langemarck to Drie Grachten, with the French First Army on the northern flank and the main British gain occurring near Langemarck, adjacent to the French. However early advances in the south on the Gheluvelt Plateau were forced back by powerful German counter-attacks. 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, and the British had suffered some 100,000 casualties for little gain in these attritional step-by-step attacks.
The 3rd Ypres or Passchendaele campaign, controversial in 1917 and remaining so ever since, began with the attack at Pilckem Ridge. The cautious step-by-step approach by Haig over the 3 & 1/2 month campaign did result in territorial gains but came at a high cost of some 450,000 British and Dominion casualties, comparable to the Somme 1916 offensive, and was nowhere near achieving the initially held objective of driving the German Army from the channel coast. Although preferable to the limited, narrow front, wearing down assaults on the Somme of the previous year, the approach did have one major defect in that the attacks never went deep enough to disrupt the mass of the enemy’s artillery enabling it to retire and fight again. Despite the early successes, once the weather broke and turned the battlefield into an impassable quagmire, any thought of a decisive breakthrough had gone. Passchendaele will forever be remembered as a campaign of ‘wretchedness in the Flanders mud’.
At 3.10am the big guns began to fire and at that moment the first of the great mines exploded. Within the following few seconds the Messines – Wytschaete Ridge erupted from right to left as one after another 19 huge mines were detonated, causing an explosion so loud that it could be heard in London. The mines blew vast craters as much as 300 feet in width and 50 -70 feet deep and the devastation caused by the mine explosions plus the tremendous barrage enabled the assaulting companies advancing under the dust cloud to make easiest gains yet experienced by the Australians in the war. General Godley’s II Anzac Corps would be on the right of the offensive in the vicinity of the villages of Wytschaete and Messines and consisted of the British 25th Division on the left, the New Zealanders in the middle (in front of Messines village), and the AIF 3rd Division on the right slope of the ridge and what would be the right flank of the whole operation. The AIF 4th Division would also be called into action in the second wave pushing through to the second objective, the Oosttaverne Line. This was the first time that the Australians had encountered these ‘pillboxes’ en-masse, a form of defence structure favoured by the Germans in Flanders due to the waterlogged nature of the ground. The taking of these blockhouses often required the infantry attacking from the rear supported by rifle grenadiers keeping the defenders under cover. By sunset the final British objective had been won along practically the whole of the battle-front, and with a speed beyond any other major achievement attained by the British Army in France thus far.
The Second Battle of the Aisne began as part of the ‘Nivelle Offensive’. After a week of diversionary attacks by the British to the north at Arras, 19 Divisions of the French Fifth and Sixth Armies went into battle along an 80 km front from Soissons to Reims. Losses were horrendous and by the end the French had suffered 187,000 casualties, triggering mutinies within the French Army and the replacing of Nivelle by General Petain.