Third Battle of Ypres 31 July to 10 November 1917
In the countryside near the Belgian town of Ypres, Australians fought in one of the most costly and horrific campaigns of World War I. Many of them died or were wounded in the epic struggle. In the 1917 offensive, British and French forces tried to roll back the German positions along the low-lying ridges south of Ypres and break through the German lines towards the Channel coast. After eight major British attacks over more than 3 months, the Canadian troops captured Passchendaele early in November. This marked the end of the offensive and the failure of the British strategic plan. The Allies had suffered some 310,000 casualties, of whom some 38,000 were Australian, and the Germans lost about 270,000 men.
After a preliminary battle at Messines, Australians took part in five major battles during the campaign. Often referred to as Passchendaele, the objective of the Australians' final battle, the campaign is also known as 'the Third Battle of Ypres.' The difficulty of pronouncing the name Ypres led many in the British armies to refer to the town and the campaign as 'Wipers'.
Maps of the campaign
Battle of the Menin Road 20 to 26 September 1917
The Battle of Menin Road was the third of seven major British attacks during the Third Battle of Ypres. It was the first one to involve the Australian infantry, although Australian artillery had been firing in support of British attacks since the campaign began on 31 July.
On 20 September 1917, the Australian 1st and 2nd Divisions moved forward on a 3km front, with Menin road on their right, capturing the western half of Polygon Wood.
Three British Corps advanced on both flanks of the Anzacs. The infantry had to overcome formidable entrenched German positions, including concrete pillbox strongpoints.
When the battle began at 5:40am, the battalions of the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions lay spread out along a 1.8km line. Protected by an intensive artillery screen, they were to advance about 1.3km in three stages to seize the German defensive positions. These were mainly concrete pillboxes where the enemy machine gunners and bombers took shelter during the British bombardments. By 10.15am, the Australians had seized all their objectives along the entire front.
The Australians had been helped by the covering artillery barrage, and the softening up bombardments on the days leading up to the attack. The artillery also crushed German counterattacks when their soldiers were seen assembling later that day beyond the captured Australian positions.
Official war historian, Charles Bean wrote:
The advancing barrage won the ground; the infantry merely occupied it, pouncing on any points at which resistance survived.
The Anzacs sustained 5013 casualties and the Germans reported 4200 soldiers either killed, wounded or captured.
Lieutenant Charles Bluett of 9th Battalion was awarded the Military Cross, in part for his bravery at the Battle of the Menin Road on 20 September. Bluett was in charge of a carrying party. When he came up to the front, he found that all the senior officers in the attacking companies had been killed or wounded. He reorganised the attack and took it forward to the final objective, showing 'skill', 'pluck' and 'determination'. Less than 2 months later, Bluett was wounded in action on 3 November 1917 and died on the way to the Field Hospital.
Private Thomas Strutt, 18th Battalion, was involved in the action on the first day. Strutt's unit captured some German pillboxes on the north-east of the Australian line, north of Polygon Wood, on 20 September 1917. One of the blockhouses was a two-storey affair known as 'Anzac House', the second storey being used by the enemy as an artillery observation post. The British bombardment badly shook the garrison of 'Anzac House' and 15 Germans, with two machine guns, surrendered with little opposition.
Lieutenant Arthur Hull, 18th Battalion, famously climbed to the top of 'Anzac House' and planted an Australian flag there. It remained until heavy German shelling knocked it down the next day.
The capture of these pillboxes had taken its toll of the 18th Battalion. One casualty was Strutt, who's buried at Hooge Crater Cemetery. Private Vincent Lee recalled how Strutt had been killed as they surrounded a pillbox near Polygon Wood. Other witnesses described how Strutt had been shot by a sniper from the pillbox:
We found that sniper and put four bayonets into his chest.
Australian Light Horse
After Gallipoli, most of the Australian Light Horse served out the rest of the war in the Middle East, but the 13th Light Horse Regiment (Victoria) and part of the 4th Light Horse Regiment (Victoria) were deployed to France as 'divisional cavalry' on the Western Front. The troops mostly performed police and traffic control work. When the AIF advanced across open country to the Hindenberg Line in early 1917, they were used as scouts.
During the Battle of the Menin Road, the light horsemen were brought forward to go on information-gathering patrols. Bean judged them fairly useless on a battlefield ruled by artillery and machine guns. However, they did take Hotchkiss light machine guns to the forward area for use against German low-flying aircraft.
Trooper James Murray of 1st Australian Light Horse, originally a labourer from Murchison in Victoria, was moving with the machine gunners. He was killed by a shell near the Menin Road on 21 September 1917.
Battle of Polygon Wood 26 to 27 September 1917
The Battle of Polygon Wood was the second of three notable attacks planned by British General Viscount Herbert Plumer.
The problem with previous overambitious attempts to advance was that the infantry sometimes went beyond the range at which their own artillery could protect them from German counterattacks. The ground captured was often lost.
Plumer was an advocate of 'bite and hold' tactics. This involved a short advance by the infantry behind a heavy artillery barrage followed by the infantry digging in on the position gained, while a barrage placed in front of them prevented the Germans from counterattacking. There would be a several day break to prepare for the next step, then the process would be repeated.
After the Battle of Menin Road, there was a 5-day pause. The 4th and 5th Australian divisions took over from 1st and 2nd Divisions for the next phase. In spite of a German attack south of Polygon Wood, which coincidentally occurred just as the Australians attacked, the battle unfolded as planned.
With the British on either flank, the Australians advanced 1km, clearing Polygon Wood by taking two lines of German trenches.
After the war, the veterans of the 5th Division chose Polygon Wood as the site of the Division's memorial.
Private Frederick Knapp of the 51st Battalion was blown to pieces by a German shell on 26 September 1917. His mate, Private Joseph O'Reilly, described Knapp was a 'very cheery jovial chap'. Signaller George Harrison later informed the Australian Red Cross that this had been Knapp's first time in the line. He'd served in Egypt in 1915 and arrived in France in June 1916. Knapp is buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery along with 26 other men killed at the Battle of Polygon Wood.
Battle of Broodseinde 4 October 1917
Broodseinde was a large operation, involving 12 divisions attacking simultaneously along a 10km front. In the centre, I and II Anzac Corps, composed of three Australian divisions and the New Zealand Division, went forward side by side capturing the village of Broodseinde. The attack was executed in the same manner as Menin Road and Polygon Wood. The troops' objectives were only 1 to 2km from the start line and the advance was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment.
The infantry then followed a creeping barrage tactic, which was timed to arrive at the German trenches just before the infantry did. Concrete pillboxes, such as those captured by the Tasmanian 40th Battalion at Tyne Cot, delayed but did not stop the advance.
For the men of the AIF, the Battle of Broodseinde had always been regarded as one of their greatest victories. For the only time in the war, four Anzac divisions - 1st, 2nd and 3rd Australian and the New Zealand Division - fought side by side that day. It was a boost to morale described by Charles Bean:
But this night [3 October] four Anzac divisions were marching to the line together. There were indications that the British command had caught some glimpse of the true reason lying behind the constant importunings of the Australian authorities that their troops should be kept together … but it certainly had no conception of all that this meant to the troops then making their way through the dark.
[Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume 1V, Sydney, 1935, p.840]
Victorian clerk, Lieutenant Harvey Freeman of 11th Company, Australian Machine Gun Corps (attached to 11th Brigade, 3rd Division), was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at the Battle of Broodseinde. One of the tasks of the machine gunners was to quickly bring up their heavy Vickers machine guns into positions newly captured by the infantry and then prepare for enemy counterattacks.
Just south of Tyne Cot on the morning of 4 October 1917, the 41st Battalion advanced to a key crossroads position. Coming up behind the Queenslanders, Freeman and two of his Vickers gun crews quickly established themselves. They provided deadly fire across the countryside ahead of the new Australian position. Freeman's recommendation for the Military Cross stated:
During the advance over heavily shelled ground his [Freeman's] teams sustained casualties, but by rapid organisation he succeeded in getting the whole of his guns to the final objective. Under heavy enemy shell fire, he displayed skill in selection of gun positions and great courage and initiative in the handling of his guns, thus being able to inflict severe losses on the enemy.
Less than 2 weeks later, Freeman died instantly when a piece of gas shell struck his head at about 8pm on 15 October 1917, at Abraham Heights near Passchendaele.
… [the 40th Battalion] fought down pillbox after pillbox, practically every blockhouse being taken by an act of individual daring.
[Charles Bean, The AIF in France 1917, Sydney, 1937, p.865]
Captain Captain Frank Green described how the 40th Australian Infantry Battalion captured the Tyne Cot blockhouse on 4 October 1917:
The situation looked critical. All companies were making slow progress under a perfect tornado of machine-gun fire, but 'D' Company rose to the occasion. Captain Ruddock worked his company through the New Zealand sector along partly dead ground till he got on to the left of Hamburg Redoubt, where he was able to bring fire on to the redoubt and the enemy's line of pill-boxes on top of the ridge. The ridge appeared to be held by about 500 of the enemy, and 'D' Company's fire, sweeping across the position, appeared to demoralize those of the enemy who were not safe in their pill-boxes. This gave the other companies their chance for a frontal attack, and Sergeant Lewis McGee, of 'B' Company, made a start on a pill-box immediately in front of Hamburg Redoubt. This pill-box contained a number of the enemy, who had their machine gun in a recess on top of the fort, and were firing straight at 'B' Company, the machine gun bullets cutting the tops of the shell-holes where our men were taking cover. Sergeant McGee rushed straight at the pill-box in the face of what looked like certain death, but he got across that 50 yards [46 metres] of open ground and shot the crew with his revolver.
Hamburg Redoubt was the next point of resistance, and Lieutenant Norman Meagher rushed this with a platoon of 'A' Company, but the machine guns there got them, and Lieutenant. Meagher fell in that gallant rush. The assault was at once taken up by another platoon of 'A' Company under Lieutenant Albert Grant, who rushed with his platoon and captured the redoubt, with 4 machine guns and 25 prisoners. Hamburg Redoubt consisted of a double pill-box partly surrounded by a moat. It had originally been the site of a farm, and among the ruins of the farm was a sniper's nest that was overlooked by 'A' Company, who moved on after capturing the redoubt. As they moved on they were shot at from behind by the snipers, which was a most unfortunate occurrence for the snipers captured there.
Meanwhile 'D' Company had worked forward in sections on to the objective, and there had a short hand-to-hand fight among the wire, pill-boxes, and trenches on the objective. Dab Trench and Dagger Trench were taken by a rush by 'D', 'A' and 'B' Companies, while two platoons of 'C' Company arrived on the right of the objective about the same time. 'C' Company had worked forward under heavy fire to the shelter of the winding road which ran across our front about 150 yards from the objective, and were under cover from the heavy machine-gun fire from the objective. From here they worked forward from shell-hole to shell-hole. A Lewis gun team, under No. 665, Private John Freestone, got out on the right flank and opened fire on the enemy among the pill-boxes in front, and under cover of this fire the right of the objective was gained by small parties rushing forward. The honour of getting on to the objective first in 'C' Company was won by Corporal Edwin Weston, who beat everybody else over 100 yards of open ground. He was wounded during the race, but that did not stop his offensive spirit, for he captured the first pill-box single-handed and was then reinforced by his section. Captain Henry Dumaresq also successfully led a similar party, and after a short fight the enemy surrendered.
[From F C Green, The Fortieth—A Record of the Fortieth Battalion AIF, John Vail, Government Printer, Hobart, 1922, pp.151-152.]
Battle of Poelcappelle 9 October 1917
After Broodseinde, it began to rain:
It was just sheets of water coming down. It's difficult to get across that it's just a sea of mud. Literally a sea … It's the thought of being drowned in that awful stuff. It's a horrible thought. Anyone would rather be shot and know nothing about it.
[Lieutenant J W Naylor, Royal Artillery, quoted in Lyn MacDonald, They Called It Passchendaele, London, 1979, p.186]
In a 'sea of mud', the men were asked to fight on, to take Passchendaele village, north-east of Tyne Cot.
The AIF was involved in two attempts to take Passchendaele - the Battle of Poelcappelle on 9 October 1917 and the Battle of Passchendaele on 12 October. It was these two actions, fought in the wind and rain and what was left of the mud-covered, cratered landscape of Belgium, which provided the popular name for the whole Flanders offensive, 'Passchendaele'. Both battles were a failure, and the men of the units employed in them were left exhausted and demoralised.
At Poelcappelle, the rain and mud made movement on the battlefield extremely difficult. Artillery was unable to come forward so the barrage was weak and ineffective.
Private Charles Macintosh, 5th Machine Gun Company, died on 9 October 1917. Supporting the infantry, the machine gunners pushed forward to the south of the Passchendaele road just beyond Tyne Cot. After the war, Macintosh's father wrote on his son's 'Roll of Honour Circular' that he had been buried at 'Shands Cutting on the Ypers-Roulers Railway, Belgium'.
When an officer in the 5th Machine Gun Company, Lieutenant Stanley Gritten (who also died that day), pushed the line forward, he found that many of his newly established posts were being surrounded by Germans. As their posts were shot away, the men raced for the protection of the railway embankment, where many were killed.
Private James McCulloch, 5th Machine Gun Company, was with Macintosh at the time:
[We were] practically cut off by the enemy. The order was given for each man to look after himself with the result I found Private Macintosh and I were taking cover in the same shell hole. We decided to make a dash for it and in doing so I saw Private Macintosh wounded in the intestines and fall back into the shell hole we had just left. The Germans were almost upon us then so that I had no option but keep going. There was only myself left of this party. The officer was killed.
Battle of Passchendaele 12 October 1917
The next assault on Passchendaele was conducted by the battalions of the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division. The New Zealand attack was a disaster. The 3rd Division was so confident that one soldier even carried an Australian flag to plant in Passchendaele.
The 'dash for Passchendaele' ended in retreat. The few Australians who had reached the village were thrown back by German counterattacks. By late afternoon, they were back where they had started, just forward of Tyne Cot.
One who distinguished himself that day was Captain Clarence Jeffries.
That day, Captain Clarence Jeffries of 34th Battalion had led his company into a dawn described by Charles Bean as 'a whitish streak on the eastern horizon'. Mud held them back all the way. Soon the fire from a German pillbox sent them to ground.
Jeffries, assisted by Sergeant James Bruce, got some men together, outflanked the pillbox and charged it from the rear. They captured 25 Germans and two machine guns. The battalion was now nearly on its objective but had lost heavily in the advance. Only three officers were left and they had wide gaps in their line.
As the advance was about to start again, another German machine gun opened up 'with deadly effect'. Jeffries and Bruce led a party out to silence the Germans. It was firing in short bursts so Jeffries worked his way close to the gun. Seeing it begin firing in another direction, he rushed the gun with his men. Suddenly, the gun swung back. Jeffries was killed. His men were sent to ground, but they recovered and eventually captured another 25 Germans and two more machine guns.
Bean wrote that Jeffries' 'gallant and effective action removed the chief danger to the advance'.
Jeffries was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery at Passchendaele. Unlike so many who disappeared into the mud, his body was recovered and buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery beside the concrete remains of a German pillbox. On his grave is the epitaph:
On fame's eternal camping ground
their silent tents are spread.
Second Battle of Passchendaele 26 October to 10 November 1917
While this battle doesn't usually appear on lists of the Australian battles, it was one of the Canadian attacks where Australians provided some support.
The exhausted and depleted Australians were relieved by the Canadian Corps, which took Passchendaele on 6 November, bringing a close to the Third Battle of Ypres.
On 2 November 1917, Sergeant Alexander Fraser of 9th Battalion was killed in action near Passchendaele. Fraser was an insurance agent from Penrith in New South Wales before the war. He signed his attestation paper to enlist only 3 weeks after the outbreak of war. This placed him among those who joined up when it was thought the war might be 'over by Christmas'. Many wanted to get in quick if there was any chance of being sent overseas. Charles Bean described these enthusiasts:
The first rush to enlistment brought to the 1st Australian Division a class of men not quite the same as that which answered any later call … all the romantic, quixotic, adventurous flotsam that eddied on the surface of the Australian people concentrated itself within those first weeks upon the recruiting offices of the AIF.
[Charles Bean, The Story of Anzac, Vol I, Sydney, 1938, p.43]
Did Fraser see himself as 'romantic', 'quixotic' and 'adventurous' when he landed with 9th Battalion on Gallipoli at dawn on 25 April 1915? Fraser died in the cold, wet mud of the 'Ypres Salient'. At the time, the Australians were garrisoned the front line in support of the Canadian assaults on Passchendaele. It was the Canadians who buried him in Tyne Cot.
Images of the Tyne Cot-Zonnebeke area
October 1917 was the worst month of the war for the AIF. Near Ypres, the view from Tyne Cot over the countryside was a scene of desolation, mud, wind and rain. In less than a month here, 6405 Australians were killed in action or died of wounds fighting, and a further 19,194 were wounded.
The battalion historian of 40th Battalion, Captain Frank Green, described the scene:
two armies of the white race [fought] furiously amid a sea of mud in a struggle of extermination
The men worked hard to bring forward guns and supplies as they tried to collect the wounded:
As the last man was being carried [out] … a wounded German followed the two runners carrying the stretcher. As they were unable to take him they tried to induce him to go back, but he was badly wounded, and seemed only to realise it was a stretcher, and a stretcher … meant help. He tried to follow them on his hands and knees. His progress became slower and slower till he stopped, and his head sank forward and buried in the sea of mud.
[FC Green, The Fortieth Hobart, 1922, p.92]
The Australian official photographer, Captain Frank Hurley, and his assistant, Lieutenant Hubert Wilkins, photographed the Tyne Cot-Zonnebeke area at the height of the battles. Hurley and Wilkins made a few trips onto the battlefield during October 1917. Hurley, who recorded each trip in his diary, was greatly affected by what he saw.
One photograph summed up the sheer misery of Passchendaele. It was taken on 12 October 1917, the day of the Battle of Passchendaele itself.
On that day, Hurley and Wilkins were working their way along the Ieper–Roulers railway cutting north of Zonnebeke, close to Tyne Cot. They were soaking wet and terrified by the exploding shells. Hurley thought they might be killed at any moment and become like the mutilated corpses that littered the cutting:
I noticed an awful sight: a party of, ten or so, telephone men all blown to bits. Under a questionably sheltered bank lay a group of dead men. Sitting by them in little scooped out recesses sat a few living; but so emaciated by fatigue and shell shock that it was hard to differentiate. Still the whole was just another of the many byways to hell one sees out here, and which are so strewn with ghastliness that the only comment is, 'Poor beggar copped it thick', or else nothing at all.
[Captain Frank Hurley, Diary, 12 October 1917 - Hurley at War, 1986]
Cinematographer, Hubert Wilkins, made this silent film in October 1917. It deals with the AIF operations during the Third Battle of Ypres in the 'Ypres Salient', east of the town in September and October 1917. The scenes include Australians preparing for the attack; being reviewed by Sir Douglas Haig before going in to action; shells falling amongst the ruins of Ypres; the battlefields over which Australians fought; and incidents connected with the fighting.
Pillboxes at Tyne Cot Cemetery
Towering over the headstones in the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium, the remains of a German concrete bunker is hidden beneath the Great Cross. An inscription relates how the pillbox was captured by Australians on the day of the Battle of Broodseinde:
This was the Tyne Cot blockhouse
captured by the
3rd Australian Division
4 October 1917
Specifically, it was the 40th Battalion, the only all-Tasmanian battalion in World War I, who captured the ground on which Tyne Cot Cemetery now stands.
The four battalions of the 10th Australian Infantry Brigade, the 40th Battalion among them, began their advance towards Tyne Cot on the morning of 4 October 1917. The 40th's task was the final assault on Tyne Cot. The Tasmanians were to go through the 39th Battalion (Victoria) and onto the ridge:
From the 39th Battalion objective a stiff fight against the heaviest opposition began. On top of the ridge the trench system and line of pillboxes along it seemed alive with men and machine guns … The only possible way to advance was from shell–hole to shell–hole by short rushes. To add to our difficulties, there was a thick belt of wire immediately in front of us, which had very few gaps in it.
[FC Green, The Fortieth, Hobart, 1922, p.76]
Men bunched up at these gaps, as the enemy intended they should. Many were killed and wounded. Under this withering fire, most of the officers tried to provide a lead. Captain Cecil McVilley 'stood out, calling his company until this gallant officer was seriously wounded.'
Finally, Captain William Ruddock worked his company around the side of a strongpoint known as 'Hamburg' to bring fire across the German positions. This encouraged the Tasmanians.
Sergeant Lewis McGee, pistol in hand, charged forward at a pillbox in front of 'Hamburg' where a machine gunner on top of the pillbox was holding the Australians down into shell-holes. McGee raced over 50m of open ground into what looked like certain death. He shot the machinegun crew. 'Hamburg' now fell to a direct assault, although Lieutenant Norman Meagher was killed in the rush. Nothing seemed to hold the Tasmanians from their objective - not the wire, the pillboxes nor the trenches of Tyne Cot itself:
The honour of getting on to the objective first … was won by Corporal E D [Edwin Dubelle] Weston who beat everybody else over 100 yards [90 metres] of open ground. He was wounded during the race, but that did not stop his offensive spirit, for he captured the first pillbox single handed, and was then reinforced by his section … after a short fight the enemy surrendered.
[FC Green, The Fortieth, Hobart, 1922, p.77]
For his bravery on 4 October, McGee was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele only 9 days later, and buried in Tyne Cot.
Of the 50 men of 40th Battalion who died at the Battle of Broodseinde, and the day after as the battalion consolidated the line, 70% have no known grave and are commemorated on the Menin Gate. Word of their passing went home to communities all over Australia, including Sassafras, Nile, Adventure Bay, Zeehan, Bradshaw's Creek, Sandfly, Devonport and Hobart. A few may lie under headstones in Tyne Cot carrying the words:
An Australian Soldier of the Great War,
Known Unto God