Warneton - Flanders July 1917
Warneton was a "minor operation" as a preliminary move in the lead up to Third Ypres. It was part of a plan to create a 'feint' towards Lille to the east, while the real objective was the Ypres (Ieper) salient.
Warneton lies to the SE of Messines. A month after the success of early June, consolidation began in preparation for the coming offensive - 'Third Ypres'.
It was therefore the 3rd Division that was tasked to occupy positions near the Warneton line, occupying a dominant ridge-line and was in the hands of the Germans, overlooking the Allied lines.
The 11th Brigade ,comprising the 41st, 42nd (Qld), 43rd (SA) and 44th (WA) was deployed forward and for eighteen days up until 11 July, began extensive earthworks to improve the habitability of the lines and to strengthen the defences by preparation of firing steps. The intent was that this would become a jumping off line for a later attack to clear the ridge line and take the Warneton line.
They were ably supported by 11th Field Company Engineers and elements of the 3rd Pioneer Battalion. Extra posts were put out, the new front line being forward of the original forward trenches which were used as a 'traffic trench' to allow quicker movement in and out of the firing line, wells were dug and the headquarters better protected. Many were sited in former German blockhouses, which offered very good protection form artillery fire, but unfortunately they were oriented the wrong way so their utility as field defences was limited.
It was realised that this area had the potential to be the British forces' best option to secure a key portion of the Warneton line. So an attack was planned for 31st July, and the 11th Brigade would lead it. The centreline was to be towards a prominent windmill on what was described as "Huns Walk Spur" (1).
The 9th Brigade was rotated in on the 11th July and the 11th Brigade went to the rear to rehearse for the attack. However the 9th Brigade in extending the field defences, found itself bumping into forward posts and a series of patrols and raids took place to try and clear them; unsuccessfully. This was happening right along the line so General Plumer ordered the 'isolated attacks' to cease, and that the feint would take place on the same day as the main attack.
The 3rd Division attacked with two Battalions forward, the 42nd and the 43rd. The nearest posts were only 100 yards forward of the jumping off point and the attack was met with a vigorous defence. Despite heavy casualties among the offices particularly in the 43rd, the attacking momentum was maintained and Corporal E.E. V. Roberts (later Sergeant DCM) leading two platoons forward captured the windmill.
The 42nd met similar opposition but word came back that the line had been taken and that the assaulting troops were consolidating. The other Battalions of the Brigade also became involved in the attack and consolidation.
Thereafter counter attacks took place and the Windmill changed hands several times.
"German records show that the enemy's counter attack had been made at 9.10pm, on a fairly wide front, by the 84th Regiment against the 37th British Division, and the 28th and 68th Regiments against the 3rd Australian Division. It succeeded only at the southern flank, at the windmill, where two men of the 43rd Battalion were captured. A German account states that at 1.00am the 28th and 68th Regiments were in their turn strongly attacked (actually the attack was made only at the mill) but stood fast except at the mill, which was only given up when by flanking fire the (German) garrison had been killed to a man". (2)
The 41st Battalion was holding the forward line when at first light on August 1st, the Germans counter-attacked across the front. They were stopped by a hail of supporting machine gun and artillery fire and the 41st Battalion held all the outposts.
Thus the 3rd Division's attack succeeded, albeit at heavy cost with some 550 casualties across the Brigade, most in the two leading Battalions, the 42nd(Qld) and 43rd(SA) sustaining 169 and 221 respectively.
While a tactical success, strategically, apart from tying down German troops and artillery, it had a very limited effect. The German High Command was in little doubt as to the true objective of the broader offensive.
(1) CEW Bean Official History of the First World War Vol IV p714-721
(2) ibid p720