On 23 February the Germans begin a strategic withdrawal to the Siegfried System, known to the British as the Hindenburg Line. The intent being to straighten out their line and reduce the amount of territory they had to defend as well as achieve a greater density of men per kilometre in what was a very strong defensive position.
The withdrawal was designed to make it difficult for the attacking troops and progress was not swift and casualties not light. On 17 March Bapaume was captured and the Allied & German troops eventually met at the Hindenburg Line.
On 6 April, the USA declared war on Germany which meant the Germans had to try to win the war before USA troops could arrive in numbers.
The 4th Division was tasked to attack German positions east of Bullecourt on 10 April with the assistance of tanks, the first time Australian troops were to use them. However they did not arrive and the attack was cancelled. Luckily, the advanced Australian troops lying in wait for the commencement of actions were able to withdraw under the cover of a snowstorm.
The attack then commenced at 4.30am 11 April. By the start of the attack only 3 tanks had arrived and unfortunately they proved unreliable, too slow and were destroyed. With no tanks or artillery the infantry fought their way to occupy sections of the Hindenburg Line. Their requests for artillery support were not answered as, due to conflicting information received, higher command had believed the attack was successful.
On the right, the 4th Brigade found themselves cut off by enemy shells, machine guns and counter attacking infantry. They had no option but to withdraw. On the left flank, closer to Bullecourt, the German troops were able to work their way behind the 12th Brigade which was now completely surrounded and they had to attack the trench to their rear. Artillery support finally arrived but due to confusion it fell on the Australians. Again, there was no option left but to try to withdraw.
The First Battle of Bullecourt had lasted 10 hours, with shooting ceasing at about 2 pm. The 4th Division took 5,000 men into the battle and sustained causalities of 3,400. Part of these casualties included 28 officers and 1,142 men captured, by far the most Australian prisoners taken in a single battle during the whole war. The reason being the troops were isolated and left unsupported after they had captured parts of the Hindenburg Line.
The 2nd Division relieved the 4th Division and maintained the line in front of Bullecourt.
On 3 May the Second Bullecourt battle commenced. The next three days were the blackest of the war for the AGL families.
The 2nd Division was to attack German positions OG1 and OG2 that ran through Bullecourt and capture some villages that lay beyond. Because of the bad experience with tanks in the previous battle they refused tank support but took 96 Vickers machine guns into battle from a number of units.
The attack commenced at 3.45am 3 May. In the centre within an hour the 6th Brigade held half of its objectives on the Hindenburg Line and by 5.30am had advanced a further 500 meters. However the 5th Brigade which was in a more exposed position on the right had failed to keep pace with massive losses particularly in officers & NCO’s and had broken up in confusion; within an hour of the start it had ceased to exist as a fighting force. The British 62nd Division on the left had also been unsuccessful and there was a 1.5km gap between them and the 6th Brigade.
The 6th Brigade continued to hold its exposed position being subject to both enemy and friendly artillery fire. During the afternoon the 7th Brigade came up on the right and captured some of the original objectives. By nightfall the 2nd Division held what was described as a “mushroom on a stalk”, with the stalk extending back to Allied lines being the only avenue for supply, evacuation and support.
Units of the 1st Division started relieving the 2nd in the early hours of 4 May. Being impossible to capture further enemy positions of the mushroom without great loss, it made sense to abandon the position. However higher command wanted the area enlarged, so the battle continued. By 10 May both the 1st and 2nd Divisions were exhausted and the 5th Division was brought in.
The battle ended 17 May with both sides being exhausted. The Germans withdrew to a new position behind Bullecourt. The cost to the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Divisions was 7,000 men.
The overall Bullecourt battles left a very sour taste in the mouths of all levels of Australian forces. They now believed they not only had to overcome very resilient German forces but also the short comings of the High Command. The consequent drain on resources after these battles helped destroy the proposed 6th Division currently forming in England as men were sent forward to existing divisions as replacements.
4759 Private Arthur William Jennings, 18th Battalion, 33, labourer, married with four children, of Mortlake was posted Missing in Action on 3 May 1917. In December 1917 an inquiry reclassified him as Killed in Action. No known grave.
4729 Private Charles Norman Kenny, 19th Battalion, 26, clerk, single, of Ryde killed 3 May 1917. Veteran of Flers.
2484 Private Arthur Rupert Marriott, 8th Light Trench Mortar Battery, 29, fitter, single, of Bondi killed 3 May 1917. No known grave. Veteran of Fromelles & Flers.
1746 Lieutenant William Ridgeway Porter, 18th Battalion, 22, engineer, single, of Vaucluse killed 3 May 1917. No known grave. Veteran of Gallipoli Hill 60 & Pozieres
1990B Private Joseph Ricks, 18th Battalion, 23, labourer, married with two surviving children, of Burwood killed 3 May 1917. No known grave. Veteran of Gallipoli & Pozieres.
1817 Corporal Stanley John Perry, 2nd Battalion, 24, labourer, single, of Rockdale killed 4 May 1917. No known grave. Veteran of Lone Pine & Pozieres.
5734 Private Edward Sidney Money, 1st Battalion, 37, boilermaker, married with two children, of Burwood killed 5 May 1917. No known grave. Veteran of Gueudecourt.
1894 Private David Michael O’Brien, 1st Battalion, 23, labourer, single, of Concord killed 5 May 1917. No known grave.
The focus now moved north to the Ypres sector in Belgian Flanders where the British and Germans had been tunnelling under the opposing trenches. The British had made a concerted effort and had dug 21 tunnels under the Messines Ridge and loaded them with huge amounts of explosives which were planned to detonate in concert with an infantry attack on 7 June. The film “Beneath Hill 60” portrays the efforts of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company in this battle.
In the southern sector the attack would include the 3rd Division together with the New Zealand and the British 25th Divisions. Added to this group was the 4th Division which had been rested for only a month after Bullecourt and were not happy about being selected instead of British Divisions which had not been in the fighting.
The plan was called ‘Magnum Opus’ and after a seven-day artillery bombardment the mines were to be blown and the 3rd, NZ and British 25th Divisions were to capture Messines Ridge and the 4th Division was to leap frog the others and press the attack into the plains beyond.
At 3.10am on 7 June, the mines were detonated, 19 fired as expected but 2 failed to explode. The Germans knew that Messines was to be attacked but the huge mine explosions shattered their defensive line and morale in the forward areas. The mines created craters 100 metres wide and up to 20 metres deep. Following the mine detonations came the artillery barrage followed closely by the advancing infantry. By 5.30am Messines had been captured by the New Zealanders with the 3rd and British 25th Divisions in their correct places on either flank.
This battle was the first in which the Australians encountered German blockhouses which were reinforced concrete shelters concealed with soil and camouflage. They were used to protect machine gunners who would emerge after the barrage to attack advancing troops. The only way to take a blockhouse was from the rear.
There was now a pause in the fighting prior to the second stage to allow for the British Division on the left flank which had further to advance to catch up. The afternoon attack was postponed from 1pm to 3 pm. By 3.10pm the 4th Division was committed. As planned, two brigades moved through the front already taken but as the infantry now began to advance there was a hitch as units on the left were late starting and a unit of the 4th Division had to move north to fill the gap.
By sunset the battle plan had been fulfilled and the German salient south of Ypres had been eliminated. This now opened the way for more important offensives that were planned for July.
The 3rd and 4th Divisions lost 6,800 men, the NZ Division 5,000. On 2 July a chance artillery salvo mortally wounded Major General Holmes the Commander of the 4th Division who was escorting the Premier of NSW on a tour of the battlefield. General Holmes Drive near Sydney Airport is named in his honour.
2553 Private Geoffrey Henri De Josselin, 37th Battalion, 20, junior clerk, single, of Randwick killed 7 June 1917. No known grave.
3761 Private Robert Fish, 45th Battalion, 40, stationary engineman, married with no children, of Summer Hill killed 7 June 1917. No known grave. Veteran of Pozieres.
The 3rd Battle of Ypres (also called the Battle of Passchendaele) was now to commence. All five Australian Divisions were engaged in this series of battles that spanned the period July – November 1917. They were involved in the battles at Ypres, Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. For the first time all the Australian Divisions fought side by side at Broodseinde. The fighting lasted for eight weeks with the overall objectives of capturing the Passchendaele Ridge, a railway, and the German line all the way to the Belgian coast.
The offensive began at 3.50am on 31 July. The main attacks were delivered by 17 divisions along a 25 kilometre front. The 3rd Division was on the far southern flank and had a minor role in this major attack. However to ensure a massive bombardment Australian Artillery units were assigned to support British units in the main battle zone.
In the north most of the attacking units reached the second and third German trench lines. By the end of the first day there had been losses but all captured German positions had been retained.
2531 Driver William McRae, 2nd Field Artillery Brigade, 24, able seaman, single, of Darlinghurst killed 31 July 1917. Veteran of Pozieres, Flers, & Bullecourt.
At 4pm on 31 July heavy rains started and continued, turning the whole battlefield into the quagmire that most observers associate with the Flanders battlefields. The weather now made further attacks difficult because guns and ammunition transports became bogged, air observation due to low visibility was difficult. Artillery shells failed to explode in the soft mud, any exploding bursts were muffled and unspotted, there was no dust or smoke to cover advancing infantry. Much of the attacking infantry had difficulty detecting the barrages they were ordered to follow but their main problem was trying to keep up with it through the mud. As attacking efforts struggled spirits fell, while those of the German defenders rose.
The Battle of Menin Road was the next offensive that started on 20 September after a pause for fine weather. The Menin road was the main West-East route. To gain control of the road it was necessary to capture the ridges with its dominating blockhouse. It was the first battle designed to push the Germans off the Ridge. The battle plan was to proceed in a succession of limited offensives (always covered by artillery) that followed one another at intervals a few days apart.
At 5.40am on 20 September after 5 days of bombardment, 11 divisions struck the Germans on a 13 kilometre front. The 1st and 2nd Divisions, along with a Scottish Division, were the centre of the assault along Westhoek Ridge facing Glencorse Wood, with a combined front of 1,800 metres. It was the first occasion in the war in which two Australian Divisions attacked side by side.
The Australians overcame enemy infantry opposition and advanced steadily for almost one kilometre to the first objective known as the “Red Line”. After an hour to resupply and reorganise they continued to the second objective, the “Blue Line” which was about 500 metres from the previous objective. After capturing this second objective they waited another two hours before attacking their third objective a further 200 metres beyond the “Blue Line”.
By noon, the Australians had taken all the objectives and were at the western end of Polygon Wood with losses of 5,013 men.
Polygon Wood ♠
The Battle of Polygon Wood meant the capture of the entire wood, the Butte, Tokio Ridge and that part of what the Germans called their Flanderin I Line. The 1st and 2nd Divisions were relieved on 22 & 23 September by the 4th and 5th Divisions, with the 5th taking the right and the 4th taking the left.
The attack commenced at 5.50am 26 September with the 4th and 5th Divisions and 5 British divisions following an artillery barrage on a 10 kilometre front. The 4th and 5th Divisions were responsible for a front of about 2,500 metres. All objectives were taken, one of the main ones being the Butts which in peacetime was the Ypres district rifle range and from which the Germans had commanded an excellent view of all targets with their machine guns.
The 4th Division sustained 1,717 casualties. The more heavily engaged 5th Division suffered 5,471.
6430 Sapper James Patrick Daly, 3rd Field Company, Engineers, 31, plumber, married with no children, of Mascot killed 26 September 1917. No known grave. Veteran of Pozieres.
Broodseinde Ridge ♠♠
The Allied forces where now in a position to strike at the main Broodseinde ridge a few kilometres south of Passchendaele. The 4th and 5th Divisions were replaced by the 1st and 2nd Divisions together with the 3rd Division as well as a New Zealand division. It was the first time that 4 Anzac divisions had fought together.
Twelve divisions would attack on a 12 kilometre front, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd facing Broodseinde ridge and the New Zealand division facing Abraham heights.
The attack commenced at 6am 4 October after rain commenced falling the day before. Coincidentally, the Germans planned an attack for exactly the same time. At 5.20am the German artillery opened up and then at 6am the Australian artillery started, both in preparation for impending attacks. After both troops emerged from their trenches to commence attacking to their surprise they found the enemy doing exactly the same. The Australians managed to recover from the shock quicker than their opponents as the Australian machine gunners opened up and the Germans broke and the Australians managed to capture the ridge after a tough fight. The New Zealanders also secured Abraham heights.
The 1st Division had 2,448 casualties, the 2nd 2,174, and the 33rd 1,810.
3701 Private John Broskom, 4th Battalion, 26, married with no children, of Hurstville killed 4 October 1917. No known grave. Veteran of Pozieres & Menin Road.
1902 Sergeant William Mellkinch Anderson, 1st Battalion, 25, clerk, single, of Neutral Bay wounded 4 October and died in field hospital 6 October 1917. Veteran of Lone Pine, Pozieres, & Bullecourt.
Wanting to push the advantage of capturing Broodseinde, an attack was planned for 9 October to capture Poelcappelle and the 2nd Division was tasked to attack Keiburg Spur on the right flank of the British Divisions.
The ground was wet and though the 2nd Division made it to Keiburg they did not have the strength to hold it and the attacks in the north also failed. The 2nd Division had 1,253 casualties.
The next attempt to capture Passchendaele was on 12 October by the 3rd and New Zealand Divisions. The 12th Brigade of the 4th Division supported the advance on the right while British Divisions supported it on the left.
Heavy rain was continuing to fall and the mud made infantry progress very difficult and the artillery support minimal as they could not position their guns or provide shells to them. The NZ Division was halted by Germans firing from pillboxes who, without British artillery, were firing with impunity. The 3rd Division became bogged down in the mud of Ravebeek valley below Passchendaele, however a fragment of the division did reach the church at the edge of the town while some of the 4th Division reached Keilberg. Both were forced to fall back being unsupported.
The 3rd Division suffered 3,199 casualties in the 24 hours of the battle, the 4th 1,000, & the NZ 2,800. The action achieved no valuable gains and only served to lift enemy spirits as they saw their attackers struggle.
Australian units held front lines in the Passchendaele area of the Ypres sector for the next month until they were withdrawn 14 November.
157 Sergeant Samuel James Reeves, 36th Battalion, 42 (the oldest AGL casualty of the War), gasworker, married with five children, of Balmain killed 12 October 1917. Veteran of Messines.
2477 Lance Corporal William Charles Brownell, 1st Pioneer Battalion, 35, plumber, married with one surviving child, of Enfield killed 2 November 1917. Veteran of Menin Road, & Broodseinde Ridge.
The third battle of Ypres had comprised eleven great attacks, five of which Australian units had formed the spearhead, as did the Canadians for the final four. The 5 Australians Infantry Divisions had fought in the line for eight weeks and suffered a total of 38,093 casualties.
For the remainder of 1917 some units were rotated through Ypres sector positions with minor casualties sustained.
1529 Sergeant Reginald George Cannon, 8th Machine Gun Company, 23, clerk, single, of Mosman killed 6 December 1917. Veteran of Fromelles, Bullecourt, & Polygon Wood.
Australian losses in 1917 totalled about 55,000. This left the Australian Divisions 18,000 men short of full strength. It was proposed that the numerically weakest Australian 4th Division be broken up and men absorbed by other Australian divisions. However it was saved and with the other 4 Divisions formed the Australian Corp. They now number about 117,500 and, though they comprised about 9% of the total 1.3 million troops in the British Expeditionary Force, the individual units were extremely depleted.
At the end of November, the new Bolshevik government in Russia asked for an armistice with Germany. Germany agreed and was then able to transfer all eastern front armies to the Western Front in France. Their need was urgent if they wished to win the war before USA troops arrived.
In December the Australian referendum to commence conscription is defeated.