Monday, 2 April 2007

Chapter 27: Flanders July to August 1917

From 11th Battery, 4th F.A.B. Brief History

9 July 1917 Left Aveluy, arrived Sarton

10 July Left Sarton, arrived Estrée-Wamin

11 July Left Estrée-Wamin, arrived Ramecourt (outside St Pol)

14 July Left Ramecourt, arrived Aire

15 July Left Aire, arrived Staple

16 July Left Staple, arrived SteenVoorde

18 July Left SteenVoorde, arrived Dickebusch (Swan Edge Corner). Wagon Lines established

“On July 9th we left Aveluy and stopping at the following places, Dacton and EstreeWamin , one night each, Ramecourt two nights, and one night at Auvers, Wiltes, Staples, and Steenvoorde, reached Dickesbusch on July 17th. Here we established wagon lines. The other batteries of the division went into action at Spoil Bank, and some of our guns went forward to register positions near Hill 60, a few hundred yds behind the front line.

These positions were to be registered so that our attack being successful the other batteries could come into gun positions, already registered. This being done, we became a relieving battery, and took over the various positions in turn, to give the other batteries a spell. “

Painting of horse lines at Dickebusch, 1917. [AWM ART02888]
Photo of an ANZAC camp at Dickebusch (15 Nov 1917) [AWM E01380A]

From AP Pearson service record:

19 July 1917 Transferred to 2nd D.A.C. from 4th F.A.B
Taken on strength
Dickebusch
19 July 1917
Crime 9 July 1917:
Conduct the prejudice of good order.
Military discipline in that he failed to attend an ordered parade.
Award: 10 days F.P. No 2 by C.O., 4th F.A. B. on 19/7/17
Total Forfeiture: 10 days pay @ 6/- = 3 pounds.
In the field

From War Diary, 2nd Division Ammunition Column (DAC)

19 July 22 Other Ranks taken on strength from 11th Battery 4th AFA Brigade (and 22 transferred to 11th Bty)

20 July to 9 Sep At Dickebusch. Lots of mentions of carting ammunition.

Engaged in ammunition support for various Flanders battles.

Letter to sister Maud Lade August 19th 1917

France
August 19th 1917

Dear Maud,
I wrote you a short letter or a card just after I received your last letter which is some time ago now. Since then we have been having rather a busy time, mostly night or early morning work carting ammunition to the guns.
We have been in this spot just a month now, and are not too far from where we were last Sept & Oct. The line has advanced some since then however, and, although there is still a small salient, it is nothing like so great as it used to be. Our infantry are not in the line yet + for convenience the artillery (three divisions 1st 2nd & 5th) is attached to the 24th England division. The 3rd & 4th divs. Are a little further round on the right of us. Our infantry have had a well deserved spell of about four months now, but am afraid it is nearly at an end now.
I was at the gun-pits with ammunition last Thursday morning [16 August, my note] when a big bombardment opened previous to the good advance that came off some time later. [“Battle of Langemarck”, my note]
We had just unloaded and were leaving when they started - a quarter to five I think it was. On some rising ground between the eighteen pounders (ie field -guns) and the heavies I saw what was I think the best sight I have seen in France. From the heavies in front came a continuous roar & the flashes lit up everything, while looking back at the field guns the flashes seemed to shoot out of the ground in a thousand places. Besides that there were the numbers of all-coloured lights the Germans send up as signals to their artillery for support. Our infantry send the same sort of signals for artillery support. S.O.S. signals they are called. S.O.S. means, save our souls in army code.
The "stunt" considering the mud and previous bad weather was very successful and a few more will leave us in a good position for the winter if the war lasts that long which I am much afraid it will. There is no appearance at present of it being over before.
I have not met any of the Strath boys who are here.
Clive has been a couple of times to see me lately. He looks well and expects to get home on furlough shortly. I hope he is not disappointed, but it is rather a large order to send men to Australia from France on leave, especially now that all possible shipping space is required for other things.
A lot of our mails from Australia lately have been lost consequently letters are few & far between. We are expecting a big Aust. mail in a few days time. It has arrived in England safely so we are sure to get it now.
I think I told you previously I received the photos of the children you sent. They are very nice.
Must close now with
Love to all at Hazel Dell
Yours Percy

I had a nice parcel from Cornwell not long ago - "tres bon for soldier" as the French say. Tres bon means very good, tres being pronounced tray.

From John Giles Flanders then and now The Ypres Salient and Passchendaele, Picardy Publishing, 1979 p. 142:

The Third Battle of Ypres was a series of separate struggles which culminated in the fight for Passchendaele in late October and early November. The assaults were:

Battle of Plickem Ridge 31 July
Battle of Gheluvelt Plateau 10 August
Battle of Langemarck 16 August
Battle of the Menin Road 20 September
Battle of Polygon Wood 26 September
Battle of Broodseinde 4 October
Battle of Poelcapelle 9 October
First Battle of Passchendaele 12 October
Second Battle of Passchendaele 26 October – 10 November

From John Laffin Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western front 1916-18. Kangaroo Press and Australian War Memorial, 1992:

Battle of Plickem Ridge, 31 July – 2 August 1917

This was the opening battle of the Third Battle of Ypres. The 1st and 2nd division were engaged as supports for British divisions. Among their objectives were Shrewsbury Forest and Inverness Copse. The Australian artillery were mainly involved and lost many men – 16 officers and 137 men hit. (p 35)

From: John Laffin Western Front 1917-1918 The Cost of Victory. Time-Life books, North Sydney 1988.

" In the middle of 1917 the overall situation … was critical for the Allies. The British had been victorious at Messines in June, mainly because of the dash and determination of the Australians and New Zealanders, but it was a relatively minor operation in the great movements of the war as a whole. " (p 8)

" With the British and Australian hold on Messines ridge consolidated, the way was open for the more important offensive which Haig, now a Field marshal, planned to deliver from Ypres, or "Wipers" as the troops called it. The official British title for the operation was "The Battle of Ypres 1917". Haig had three consecutive objectives. The first was to capture Passchendaele to Gheluvelt ridge, though ridge was a misleading term for the arc of gently rising ground 10 kilometres east of Ypres. Possession of this higher ground would give security to Ypres, observation towards the east and a jumping off point for an advance to the Belgian submarine port of Zeebrugge. The push would have several phases.
The second objective was the strategic railway which ran through Roulers and Thourot. The final objective, another 16 kilometres further on was a line from Courtrai to Zeebrugge. In the event, neither the second nor third objectives was achieved. " (p 12)

July 1917 “Third Battle of Ypres”


From: CEW Bean Vol IV The AIF in France 1917:

“The great bombardment of Ypres began on July 15th.” (p 701)

“Leaving the Somme on July 8th and 9th, the artilleries (now two brigades each) of the 1st, 2nd and 5th Australian Divisions after a week’s march reached the bleak village of Dickebusch, three miles south-west of Ypres. In the muddy fields around this cluster of poor cottages they placed their waggon-lines. But the batteries marched out almost immediately under the orders of several of the Fifth Army’s southern divisions, to which their brigades had been allotted, and to which their heavy and medium trench mortar batteries had already gone…
The preliminary bombardment had begun before the Australian artillery from the Somme arrived, and the brigades went straight from rest into the feverish tension preceding the battle. …One of the main differences between the conditions of “Third Ypres” and those previously experienced on the Somme was that, whereas at the Somme the German artillery fire lay perhaps more heavily on the forward area, at Ypres it thrashed the roads, bivouacs, and battery positions for miles back. It was no longer blinded by the complete suppression of its airmen. The British airmen were usually able to drive most of their opponents from the vital sectors during certain vital hours, but on numerous occasions during this battle the German air force, though its tactics were less daring, held the upper hand.

The result was that, if troops in the front areas suffered less from German bombardment than at the battle of the Somme, those in rear suffered more; even casualty clearing stations far in rear were shelled; and the battery nests at Zillebeke were one of the most important targets. “ (p 704)

“The artilleries of the 2nd, 4th and 5th Australian divisions were doing similar work [to that of the 1st Division] but with less opposition, though all were shelled with the new “mustard” gas and suffered steady casualties.” (p 706)

“On the 28th, after several postponements, the counter-battery bombardment began. From now on the enemy was to be given no rest, and no chance of getting up ammunition supplies, or reliefs without considerable loss. For three days and nights, the howitzers, heavy and light, pounded the known German batteries, while the eighteen-pounders sprinkled the enemy’s forward battery areas with shrapnel or, by night, drenched them with gas. The last night’s work was particularly severe. In the 2nd Division’s artillery, for example, all batteries opened with gas at midnight and continued steadily till 3.50, when all guns on the battlefield passed to the continuous twelve hours’ task of covering the attack, and to the many calls certain to be made on them later. It was recognised that this must greatly strain the endurance of both artillerymen and guns. “ (p 707)

“Many who have described that opening barrage and the responding German flares – probably the most wonderful display of fireworks that was ever seen. Early in the day the infantry whom the 2nd, ist and 5th Divisions artillery were supporting were reported to have reached the second German line, and all these batteries had to go forward. Those of the 2nd division crossed the canal (except the 10th battery which was already beyond it) and, after moving at the trot – there were strict orders against spectacular galloping – their leading batteries opened fire again according to programme, from their new positions north of Hill 60, within 46 minutes, having suffered only slight loss.” (pp 707-08)

“ The official British title of the offensive is “The Battle of Ypres, 1917” and of this phase of it (July 31-August 2) the “Battle of Plickem Ridge”. “ (p 707)

From CEW Bean Vol IV The AIF in France 1917, p 704:

July 22
The 2nd Division’s artillery went on the night of July 22 to the southernmost division, the 24th, and formed a field artillery group with headquarters at the Spoil Bank and most of the batteries just south of the canal.

Photo by Frank Hurley of transport on the way to the front. August 1917. [AWM E02060]

The role of the Australian artillery and drivers in August

From: John Laffin Western Front 1917-1918 The Cost of Victory. Time-Life books, North Sydney 1988.

" The great offensive began at 3.50 am on July 31. The only Australian division heavily engaged at that moment was the 3rd…The 4th Division…was in close support." (p 13)

"When, at the end of July, the Diggers of the 1st, 2nd (my emphasis) and 5th Divisions were moved north into rear areas of Flanders, they were fit and rested and as highly trained as any units on the Western Front.

At this period the Australian artillery, detached from its own divisions, was still heavily and dangerously engaged. Infantry units were frequently relieved but the gunners had to stay on, supporting one division after another. The gunners themselves said that the bravest men were the artillery drivers, who day and night took their horse-drawn wagons through enemy barrages to get ammunition to the guns. Major R.G. Manton, commanding the 15th Battery told a war correspondent, 'Wagon-driving was looked on almost as a cold-footed job before, one which did not take a man into action. But like all those Australians who were supposed to be in fairly safe jobs, the drivers take a pride in showing what they can do when they come into the thick of battle.'

The 1st, 2nd and 5th Divisions were camped in the area around Hazebrouck. In this town was the HQ of General Sir William Birdwood, who still held overall command of the five Australian and the one new Zealand divisions…" (p 17)

From CEW Bean Vol IV The AIF in France 1917:
“From the August fighting the Australian infantry was so fortunate as to be spared, but the detached artillery bore its share. That of the 2nd Division, whose new battery positions were north of Hill 60, now began to suffer severely, but the impact of the suffering had somewhat changed; in this morass of a battlefield (on August 4 one of the 2nd Division’s guns was so bogged that only one wheel could be seen above the mud) the services of supply bore a heavy share of the strain. A war correspondent records on August 17th a statement of Major Manton, whose battery, the 15th, had so far lost 35 men. Manton said that in this phase of the battle the palm should go, not to those who, like himself, worked at the battery positions, but to the drivers from the waggon-lines at Dickebusch, who daily and nightly brought up ammunition across the mud. These Australians (he added) had won themselves a special name on this battlefield for the way in which they went straight through the nightmare barrages laid on the well known tracks which they and their horses had to follow. Where many might hesitate, these men realised that the loss would be less, and the job better done, if they pushed on without hesitation.” (p 729)

“It was looked on almost as a cold-footed job before”, Manton said, “one which did not take a man into action. But. . . . like all those Australians who were supposed to be in fairly safe jobs, the drivers took a pride in showing what they could do when they came into the thick of it.” He added that even the animals came to know when a shell was coming close; and if, when halted, the horses heard the whine of an approaching salvo, they would tremble and sidle closer to their drivers, burying their muzzles in the men’s chests.” (p 729n)

“It was undoubtedly through the conduct of the drivers, as well as through that of the gun-crews and observers, that the Australian divisional artilleries in this battle – as General Gough wrote when they left his army in September – “earned the admiration and praise of all.”

“Artillery casualties were still high, and the provision of officers with sufficient experience for battery command became a recognised problem. Other losses were replaced by drawing constantly on the ammunition columns at Dickebusch, and also by attaching reinforcements to the batteries. Whereas infantry in this battle were quickly relieved, the artillery had to stay on, supporting division after division. Some regular relief was obtained by officers and men at the battery positions changing over with those at the waggon-lines, and some rest was also necessarily provided through destruction of guns in action. “ ( p 730)

Photo of Australian artillery in the area near Hill 60, 22 August 1917. 105th Howitzer Battery.[AWM E01030]
Australian artillery in the third Battle of Ypres. The 105th Battery (4.5 inch Howitzers) in action in the area near Hill 60, in which the artillery of the 1st and 2nd Division took position on 31 July 1917. The first day of the Third Battle of Ypres. Almost the whole of the artillery of the AIF (which suffered severely), but none of its infantry, was engaged in the main attack which opened the Battle. The guns advanced to this position on the heels of the British infantry two hours after the commencement of the attack. In the distance is Zillebeke Lake.

Comment on August events from CEW Bean Vol IV The AIF in France 1917

Adapted from p. 720 ff:

The Tragedy of August

The early part of August saw huge rain downpours:

“. . . the rain continued to pour beyond all reasonable expectation. Even in the drained country far behind the battlefield the farmers’ carts had in places to splash for half-a-mile through shallow lakes of water on their way to the market towns. Streams and drains, their courses damned by the tearing up of the ground, were no more than a string of waterfilled mud-holes, in many places impassable. “

After the 12th, there was a temporary improvement in the weather. “The battlefield was still largely waterlogged, and Haig in his despatch after the fight [on the 12th] admitted that it would have been preferable to wait before striking his second main blow. But if he had done so he would have had to relieve all the troops, and there was no certainty that the weather conditions might not become worse. . . he was deeply convinced that the Allies could not afford to give them any respite, and was not prepared to wait longer for the sake of making success certain. . . “

p. 727: “Of the continual local attacks that had been made in August, little is said in the official despatches, the reader of which might almost gather, that, apart from the second general attack of August 16th, the operations of August were regarded by Haig as being of minor importance. Yet in this maintenance of pressure by the old Somme methods, and in the least adapted for attrition, lay the tragedy of the August offensive. “

“The fighting in August overtaxed and discouraged British troops to an extent which their stubborn Commander-in-Chief did not realise, but which was obvious to everyone in touch with the true feeling on that battlefield. . . The German troops saw it clearly, as the British infantry staggered through the mud to attack them, and it was from the statements of German prisoners that some notion of the facts, which gave cause for anxiety, came to the ears of General Gough. The truth was that these strokes, aimed at the morale of the German army, were wearing down the morale of the British. Whether British commanders were aware of the facts or not, it was the August fighting that gave to the Third Battle of Ypres its baneful reputation. The fighting at Passchendaele two months later merely added to this. “

August 16th :

“Crown Prince Rupprecht, who had often been impressed by the staunch bearing of British prisoners, was shocked on August 16th by one of them saying that they would gladly have shot down the officers who ordered them to attack. . . .
German historians admit that their own troops were suffering to the limit of endurance; von Kuhl even believes that they suffered more than the attacking British, and in some respects their morale unquestionably suffered. But this effect was much alleviated by the fact that they won most of these fights, and the British lost them. The German official history claims the battle of August 16 as “undoubtedly a great success” for the Germans.”

Photo of flooded road near Ypres, August 1917 [AWM E00626]
"A 13th Brigade motor vehicle on the rain flooded road during the rains of August. This road, in a back area in Flanders, was photographed as evidence of the weeks of rain which followed the British attack on 31 July at Ypres. The rain, commencing on 1 August, gradually brought the British advance to a standstill. It was eventually determined to wait for drier weather. "

From: John Laffin Western Front 1917-1918 The Cost of Victory. Time-Life books, North Sydney 1988.

"Field Marshal Haig reviewed the 2nd and 5th Divisions on parade on August 29 and commented to Major General Brudenell White, the AIF's chief staff officer, that they could not have marched better had they endured years of peacetime training. White, who had been largely responsible for winning the Australians their long rest, already knew this.

Photo of 2nd Division inspection by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, 29 August 1917. [AWM E00681]
"...due to inclement weather, the afternoon's planned aquatic sporting activities were postponed."

The 3rd Division came out of line…but the much-used 4th Division, deleted and tired, was not withdrawn to rest until mid-August. C.E.W. Bean, the ever-present official war correspondent …noticed that, at least in the well rested and reinforced 1st, 2nd and 5th Divisions, a "marked eagerness" came over the men as action became imminent."

"Each man had faced up to whatever private problems this battle had in store for him, " Bean said. "There flew around the messes grim jokes as to whom should inherit his friend's boots or binoculars, and, despite old dreads and horrid memories, men were obviously keen to put into use the drill they had been practising and confident that they could outplay the enemy. The excitement of the great game, which must be won, mingled with their other feelings." (p 17)

"On the very day, August 29, 1917, that Haig inspected the AIF 2nd and 5th Divisions…General Plumer and the corps commanders knew that the task of capturing the key position on Passchendaele Ridge would be given to I Anzac Corps. It had also been decided that II Anzac Corps would enter the battle first to relieve and then support I Anzac." (p 26)

From Patsy Adam-Smith The Anzacs. Nelson 1978

" In the eleventh century Ypres was the greatest town in Flanders and some of the beautiful buildings of the Middle Ages were still standing when World War 1 began. The beautiful Cloth Hall, a rich Gothic architectural jewel, had been battered to rubble by early 1915 by German gunners with high explosive shells. It became to Australian soldiers as famous a landmark as the diving Virgin of Albert.

Ypres is only a few miles from the French frontier and for 800 years it had sustained many sieges, many occupations. (It had been attacked by the British in 1385 and again in 1680.) By 1905 it was described as a phantom town, a cemetery, deserted by commerce but carefully guarding the great buildings erected in its years of prosperity. The best known of these had been the Cloth Hall. By 1916 there was scarcely an Australian soldier who did not send home a postcard of the ruins of this building.

In the closing months of 1917 the third battle of Ypres was a watershed of men affected and changed by the years of war and the ceaseless un-human life. The knew the name of the city but not its pronunciation and called it - sometimes wrote it - Wipers. 'No battle in the war could compare in dreadfulness,' the German official monograph stated. 'This battle in Flanders was the worst of the war, so bloody.' It comprised eleven full-scale attacks, five of which the Australians spearheaded. (The Canadians were the spearhead for another four.) The Australian casualties were 38 000 in eight weeks and this caused an insoluble problem of reinforcements. The battles, according to a German authority, 'wore down the German strength to a degree at which the damage could no longer be repaired.'

Most Australians call the battle Passchendaele because it was in this area they fought. Others call it Menin Road because it was along this road (which led into the ancient city) that they tramped to their various areas. The road became the via dolorosa along which men limped, were wounded, died and despaired. Almost one million men were 'lost' in this Third Battle of Ypres, half of them British (including Commonwealth) and half german, and the eight offensives in the mud made 'Wipers' a name to make men shudder. 'After ipers I knew I'd get home,' Thorvald Kook said, 'To live through Passchendaele was to come out the other side of hell.'

Neither side knew exactly what it was fighting for, nor even the confines or content of the contested territory. They just ranged backwards and forwards over the churned-up, sickened soil.

The third battle of Ypres has been called 'the greatest battle of materiel in history'. The British had a gun to every six yards, the French one to every two-and-a-half yards.

The Germans had built small concrete forts, known as 'pill-boxes', and with their four-foot thick walls could shelter numbers of men until the artillery barrage had passed, when they could rush out and attack the attacking infantry. To combat this, a 'creeping' artillery-barrage was introduced with the infantry following close behind the artillery as it moved across, so that they were able to surround a pill-box before the Germans could emerge. Some had only a door at the back, others were loop-holed to enable machine guns to fire from within, and all around the fighting became particularly fierce." (pp 280-281)

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