Belgium - Third Ypres Australian 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions 4-5th October 1917
"The importance of the battle of Broodseinde has never been fully recognised except by the commanders and men who took part." (1)
Broodseinde Ridge commanded the eastern approaches to and the town of Ypres. German artillery observers could direct fire at will from the ridge line into the Allied positions.
The AIF 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions mounted a large attack on the 4th October in an effort to capture the ridge. It started poorly with troops in the Assembly Area sustaining casualties due to German shelling. Unbeknown to the Australians, the shelling heralded a German attack. Shortly after standing to advance the Australians met their counterparts coming the other way in what is referred to in military parlance as a "Meeting Engagement". In ferocious hand to hand fighting the Australians turned the German attack and routed it, the Germans leaving the field and Broodseinde Ridge in Australian hands.
The looming onset of bad weather began to force the pace of British planning in late September of 1917. The next 'step' in the Ypres offensive, the third, was recognised as being potentially the most difficult. It was decided to commit I and II ANZAC Corps to an attack that would attempt to clear the Broodseinde Ridge, on the 4th October.
A significant German counter attack took place on the 1st but it gained no momentum and faded. Their objective it seemed was to regain ground lost at Polygon Wood in late September.
Meanwhile, a great deal of work had to be done in the rear areas, particularly in the case of II ANZAC Corps which included the 3rd Australian Division. Bad preparation in their sector led to poor trafficability, meaning it would be much more difficult to get the attacking troops forward in time.
By October 1st, all of the headquarters of the Australian Divisions had their 'homes' in tunnelled cavities in the city walls of Ypres. All of their Battalions were now east of the city as the troops began the complex process of relief in place and assembly, all the while hoping not to come to the attention of the enemy artillery observers.
Engineers and Pioneers were busy laying duckboard tracks. Roads were needed so the artillery could advance in order to support the forward reach of the planned assault. But these could not be completed, and light misty rain began to fall, causing great concern about what the weather might hold.
The attack was to made in two stages at the suggestion of I ANZAC Corps HQ: the immediate objective was called 'The Red Line' and the final objective 'The Blue Line'. In I ANZAC, each Brigade put a Battalion forward for the first objective, and two back to take the second, with the fourth kept as the Brigade Reserve. In II ANZAC, Standard Operating Procedures were not as established and arrangements varied.
Four ANZAC Divisions (three Australian and one New Zealand) were for the first time brought together to take on a key objective.
As the troops moved into position in the early hours of the 4th October, German flares were going up regularly and intermittent shelling took place. The battalions hugged forward as they had found that routes further back were subject to effective predicted and harrassing artillery fire. So the two ANZAC Corps were crowded forward, the fear of premature discovery by the enemy was high, but otherwise all was set.
"Then at about 5.30, a yellow flare went up on the Broodseinde ridge, instead of the white (as heretofore). It was followed by a couple more, then sheafs of them; then others to left and right spreading gradually. About seven minutes later, or less, the German barrage began to come down, battery by battery."
The effect of the German fire was felt most severely by the 1st and 2nd Division second echelons. Nearly one in seven of the men in I ANZAC appear to have been killed or wounded. Many thought the attack had been compromised, but men of the 25th Battalion realised what was happening. They had seen Germans in a continuus stream moving across their front, assembling for an attack of their own.
Amidst general concen that the attack had been discovered, tempered by the realisation that the same thing had happened at Bullecourt, the Australians waited stoically: "Then (at 6am) our barrage opened..tremendous"(2)
The Allied barrage at 6am caught many of those German troops just as they were preparing to set off. The German guns stopped at 6.am, as it was expected their forward troops would attack close behind it. The cessation of artillery fire from the Germans, and the opening of their own barrage enabled the forward ANZAC Battalions to stand and advance without shellfire landing amongst them.
"With the casual manner that marked them in every battle, they lit cigarettes and moved forward." (3)
The Australians surged forward to keep up with their own advancing barrage, which was noticeably thinner than those that had supported recent attacks.
In the half gloom to their front, they saw another line of troops rising from their shell-holes - Germans! It was quickly realised that their opponents were doing exactly as they were - mounting an attack! The Australian troops opened fire from the shoulder on the move and with Lewis gunners laying down suppressing fire, the Australians had the initiatve, and their opponents were shot down or turned and ran.
As it turned out the German barrage had fallen among their own as well, and the yellow flares mentioned earlier were emergency signals to their guns increase range. The Germand had taken casualties in their forward areas and now with a fully fledged assault bearing down, their line began to break.
The Australian assault had to go around the Zonnebeke lake, an obstacle which caused no small amount of confusion. The lake formed part of a Brigade boundary, always prone to mixup. Platoons sent forward before zero hour to ensure contact with their neighbours was made, had been disrupted by artillery fire and the German advance but the Austraian assault force quickly pushed through. At Zonnebeke, the Germans were withdrawing in good order and under control returning fire effectively and hold-out groups remainined in cellars and then fired into the rear of the advancing Australians. They were mopped up by the second echelon Battalions.
German pillboxes were the anchor of their defensive positions and as the troops of the German assault line withdrew past them, they began to provide the very effective defence in depth for which they were intended. These pillboxes proved particularly problematic - at one point every officer in the left company of the 8th battalion was hit. The pilboxes were so many and dense that one observer recorded that "they resembled a village".(4) These had to be out-flanked and bombed into submission.
II ANZAC had benefitted from a noticeably heavier barrage than had supported I ANZAC; according to a 43rd Battalion officer "it was like a wall of flame" (5). The 43rd was the foremost Battalion of its Brigade (11th) and was on the right of the 3rd Division formation. It encountered German assault troops at once. But like elsewhere along the line, the Australians swept relentlessly forward. In doing so they took casualties from well-sited pillboxes until these were successively reduced.
The Red Line was reached variously between 6.45am on the right of I ANZAC, and 7.20am in the centre of the 3rd Division. There the advance was to halt until 8.10am to allow consolidation. However from the Red Line, which was often a mere 100m short of the ridge, Germans could be seen retreating from the crest ahead, and some wilful troops took off in pursuit until they had to be recalled, or realised themselves that they had dangerously over-reached.
Shortly afterwards the Australians of I ANZAC began receiving direct artillery fire; that is, shells fired over open sights straight at their intended victims. The muzzle flashes of the guns could be distinguished on the ridgeline.
An area around a large crater to the north of Broodseinde cross roads now became a centre of resistance with headquarters, sunken pillboxes, observation posts and the like all putting up stout resistance, and their positions were mutually supporting making outflanking attempts very hazardous indeed. The field guns were several hundred metres further north than the crater, which was the hub of effective resistance.
Parties of Australians formed spontaneously to attack the crater and the adjacent mutually supporting positions. Meanwhile Captain John Trail (/explore/people/285872) of the 8th Battalion (/explore/units/355), assisted by officers of both the 8th and 7th Battalions (/explore/units/65), led parties of men to take out the field guns.
The crater fell to parties led by officers from the 6th Battalion (/explore/units/130) after about 20 minutes, although a hold out group comprised largely of German officers retreated to a short trench and fought with bombs and small arms. They were eventually outflanked and, with the option of either dying where they were or surrendering, most chose the latter, and joined the by now large columns of prisoners streaming rearwards. Shortly afterward, the field guns fell silent as the 7th and 8th Battalions using fire and movement successively captured each of them, and then tried to swing them around to engage their previous owners. The disciplined German gunners though, had disabled all but one. It was eventually put into action but its position was so exposed it was destroyed by German fire in the following days.
This pattern was repeated across the attack frontage to varying degrees.
A German counter attack was committed but good artillery fire control dispersed it.
The capture of the ridges was a great success, Plumer called the attack "... the greatest victory since the Marne" and the German Official History referred to "... the black day of October 4". There had been an average advance of 1,000 yards (910 m) and the 3rd Australian Division moved forward up to 1,900 yards (1,700 m). (6)
After Broodseinde the weather turned against the British. Rain and mud made movement on the battlefield extremely difficult. Artillery was unable to come forward so the barrage for the next two operations was weak and ineffective. The Australians attacked again, towards Passchendaele, on 9 and 12 October. Little ground was gained and the few men who reached the outskirts of Passchendaele were thrown back by German counterattacks. 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. (7)
Compiled by Steve Larkins May 2016
(1) CEW Bean Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 Vol IV p833
(2) ibid p 842
(3) ibid p 845
(4) ibid p 850
(5) ibid p 852
(6) ibid p 877