Monday, 2 April 2007

Chapter 28: Flanders September 1917

From Unit War Diary 2nd DAC

1 – 9 September
Located at Dickebusch
10 September Moved to Busseboom. Located there throughout month

Photo of loaded artillery limber passing Ypres Cloth Hall. 14 Sep 1917 [AWM E00717]
Photo by Frank Hurley of Menin Road, 14 Sep 1917. Shows railway line and two dead horses. [AWM E00700]

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

Battle of Menin Road 20-21 September 1917

This was the last of four battles in September and October in which the AIF was engaged. They were part of a general offensive to push the Germans off the Passchendaele-Messines Ridge. For the Australians it was a fight to control Menin Road ridge, the high ground which the road crossed on the way east. The 1st and 2nd Divisions were at the centre of a 13 km British front. They had a front of about 1800 metres.

The advance beginning at 6am took the Australians to the north edge of Glencorse Wood, Hannebeek Swamp and the bogs of Nonne Boschen Wood. By noon on the 1st and 2nd Divisions had taken all their objectives and were at the western end of Polygon Wood. (p 32)

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

"White's attention to detail in planning was exemplary and senior AIF officers saw to it that all ranks understood the operation. Large models of the battlefield were laid out in fields and studied by thousands of troops. Standard military message forms were given another dimension: on the back of the forms White had printed maps of the ground to be fought over, together with useful notes about the condition of tracks. When an officer or NCO sent a message to his headquarters he could refer it to positions he marked on the map. It was an excellent idea and White was the first to use it." (p 28)

"On September 16 the tense but determined attack troops began to enter the forward zone and were bivouacked in all available shelter, including a captured German tunnel under Menin Road. Others sheltered behind the battered but still stout ramparts of Ypres…it was the battle to control Menin Road ridge, the high ground which the road crossed on the way to Menin…

Soon after dark on the eve of battle, signals, engineer and pioneer officers put up signposts for each unit and laid tapes for direction finding and for the start line. The front tapes were less than 150 metres distant from the nearest German positions. Everything that could be done to make the offensive a success had been done. British and Australian artillery had been pounding the German lines for five days…

Shortly before the start time an officer of the 2nd Division's 7th Machine Gun Company was misdirected and ran into a German patrol. He desperately tried to tear to pieces an operations order he was carrying, but the Germans overpowered him. Thus warned, the German command bombarded the sector shown on the map at 5.35 am (5 mins before it was due to start at 5.40) Some casualties occurred but the start was not delayed and at 5.40 am on the the fine, dry morning of September 20 no fewer than 11 divisions of the Second and Fifth Armies struck the Germans on a 13-kilometre front. The AIF 1st and 2nd Divisions, with a combined front of 1,800 metres, and a Scottish division, were at the centre of the assault force along Westhoek Ridge and facing Glencorse Wood. This was the first occasion in the war on which two Australian divisions attacked side by side an the men were excited about it. AIF officers had difficulty explaining this elation to British and other Allied officers. It was a matter of extended mateship, of knowing that other battalions of Australians were in support and relying implicity on them.

As General White had planned all waves of the Australian infantry advanced in a single line just behind the heavy protective barrage of bursting shells. With one gun to every four-and-a-half metres, the rolling barrage churned up curtains of dust, and to C.E.W. Bean, who was yet again present to record the AIF's operations, it looked for all the world like an Outback dust storm blowing up. Following the remorseless battering ram of shells, the Australians overcame enemy infantry opposition and advanced steadily for almost a kilometre to their first objective, known as the Red Line. It ran along a sunken road, the north edge of Glencorse Wood to Hannebeek Swamp and bogs in the Nonne Boschen Copse. After an hour's pause, while each unit was reorganised and resupplied by the carrying parties which followed them, they followed their artillery's barrage another 500 metres to the second objective, the Blue Line. This was fixed from Iron Cross redoubt in the north to Albert Redoubt, Verbeck Farm and part of Polygon Wood in the south which they also captured with spirited efficiency. It reflected their rehearsals.

Now they had a two-hour wait until they attacked the Germans' Wilhelm Line, which was roughly parallel to and 200 metres beyond the Blue Line. ..

Inevitably German counter-shelling caused casualties…

Where the Australians were held up, decisive action at junior level kept the momentum going…(Second Lieutenant Fred Birks' actions earned him a posthumous VC)

The fighting on September 20 was a victory for the entire British force involved and especially the 1st and 2nd Divisions…By noon that hot day they had taken all their objectives and were at the western end of Polygon Wood. White's orders stressed that no troops were to go further than this, but adventurous individuals and small groups of Diggers crept forward in search of more prisoners and souvenirs. Many officers had by now given up trying to prevent this practice of "prospecting", which the soldiers of the other Allied armies regarded as lunacy, because of the risks.' (pp 29-32)

Photo by Frank Hurley of view from Stirling Castle, 23 Sep 1917 [AWM E01409]
"23 September 1917 View from Stirling Castle which commanded an extensive sweep over the Australian lines, showing two derelict tanks and, in the distance, Sanctuary Wood. Churned by shells and flooded with heavy rains, the ground became a quagmire, a condition that was almost general through the Ypres Sector during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. "

Photo of artillery limbers in silhouette on Ypres Road. 25 Sep 1917. [AWM E00829]

From CEW Bean Vol IV The AIF in France 1917

Field Artillery supporting 1st Division for this battle:

“A” Group (Lieut-Col H.E. Cohen) – 3rd, 6th and 12th Aust Army F.A. Brigades
“B” Group (Lieut-Col W,G. Allsopp) – 7th and 8th A.F.A Brigades (3rd Aust Div Artillery)

Supporting 2nd Division

“C” Group (Lieut Col T.I.C. Williams) – 10th and 11th A.F.A Brigades (4th Australian Div Artillery)
“D” Group (Lieut Col J.L. Shellshear) – 4th and 5th A.F.A. Brigades (2nd Aust Div artillery) (p 744)

“The battle of September 20th (Menin Road), like those that succeeded it, is easily described inasmuch as it went almost precisely in accordance with plan. The advancing barrage won the ground; the infantry merely occupied it, pouncing on any points at which resistance survived. Whereas the artillery was generally spoken of as supporting the infantry, in this battle the infantry were little more than a necessary adjunct to the artillery’s efforts. The barrage was the densest that had ever yet covered Australian troops. ‘Excellent – the best ever put up’, ‘as near to perfect as possible’, ‘magnificent in accuracy and volume’ were descriptions applied to it afterwards by Australian officers. Nevertheless it may fairly be claimed that infantry such as the Australian gave the artillery the best prospect of success. Provided the going was good , the difficulty was, never, to keep Australians up to the barrage, but, almost always, to keep them out of it.” (p 761)

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

Battle of Polygon Wood 26-28 September 1917

Began at 5.30am on 26 September when the British and Dominion guns opened on a 10 km front. The intention was to build on the gains made during the battle of Menin Road. 4th and 5th Divisions. The 4th Division’s battalions captured all their objectives – woods, blockhouses, trenches and suffered 1717 casualties. The more heavily engaged 5th div. Suffered 5471 dead and wounded. (p 36)

Today the wood is smaller than in 1917 but still large. The remains of three German pillboxes captured by the Australians lie deep among the trees but few trenchlines remain. (p 38)

Photo of 2nd Australian Divisional Artillery Column moving along Poperinghe Road 30 Sep 1917. [AWM E00871]

No comments: