Menin Road 20th September 1917
A very useful map and additional information is located HERE (anzacportal.dva.gov.au) DVA Information sheet
Menin Road is named for the road that connects the towns of Ypres (these days Ieper) and Menin. The Battle so named was fought to gain ground in the vicinity of Zonnebeke to the east-southeast of Ieper.
The Battle of the Menin Road was the first major Australian involvement in the series of British ‘bite and hold’ (a tactical doctrine developed by British General Sir Herbert Plumer) attacks which began on 31 July 1917. Collectively these operations are known as ‘The Third Battle of Ypres’.
After moving through Ypres, the First and Second Australian Divisions manned the front lines opposite Glencorse Wood on 20 September 1917. The ground was waterlogged in low lying areas but otherwise dry. Following a five-day bombardment, the two Australian divisions advanced at 5.40 am.
They were in the centre of an assault by 11 British divisions along Westhoek Ridge, in their case facing Glencorse Wood.
The 1st Australian Division on the right of I Anzac Corps, advanced on a 1,000 yd (910 m) front north of the Menin Road, with its right aimed at FitzClarence Farm, against part of the Bavarian Ersatz Division and most of the 121st Division. The Australians passed through Glencorse Wood, which had changed hands twice in August and quickly suppressed German resistance.
The Germans at FitzClarence Farm were suppressed by rifle grenade fire, while other groups got behind and rushed the garrison, taking 41 prisoners.
Infiltration was also used against German machine-gunners in concrete shelters along the sunken road in the north end of the wood, who had caused many casualties. Close reserves worked behind the shelters, fought their way in and killed or captured the garrison. Nonne Bosschen was crossed by moving along the edges of shell craters, the second objective along the west edge of Polygon Wood being reached on time at 7:45 a.m. The Wilhemstellung (third line) pill-boxes and Mebu shelters were captured quickly, while the German defenders were dazed by the bombardment and unable to resist. Machine-gun fire was heard from the Albrechtstellung (second line) at 8:30 a.m. but by 9:00 a.m. the British and Australians were well on the way to the Wilhemstellung (third line).
The 2nd Australian Division attacked with two brigades, one either side of the Westhoek–Zonnebeke road, against the German 121st Division, down the Hanebeek valley to the near bank. The German outpost garrisons were surprised and overrun and on the far side of the stream, the advance overwhelmed the Germans, who mostly surrendered en masse. Further to the left, Anzac House, an important German artillery observation post, which overlooked the Steenbeek valley to the north, was captured as the garrison tried to engage the Australians by moving their machine-guns outside. As the divisions on the Gheluvelt plateau reached their second objective at 7:45 a.m., a breeze blew away the mist and revealed the magnitude of their achievement. The British and Australians had carried the defences which had held them up through August and had gained observation all the way to Broodseinde.
No German counter-attacks were mounted for the two hours that the British and Australians consolidated the second objective. The creeping barrage stood for fourteen minutes in front of the second objective, then advanced 2,000 yd (1,800 m) before returning to the new British front line and then advancing again, to lead the troops to the third objective. German counter-attacks were stopped before they reached the new British and Australian outposts. The German artillery only managed to fire a disjointed and sparse reply, which did little to obstruct the troops ready to advance to the third objective as they moved up but snipers and long-range machine-gun fire began to harass the troops consolidating the second objective. Local operations were mounted to stop sniping, using the methods that had been so successful earlier in the morning, leading to Black Watch Corner at the south-west of Polygon Wood and Garter Point east of Anzac House and other strong-points being captured.
The final objective, 1,500 metres from the start line, was secured. By noon, the Australians had taken all the objectives and were at the western end of Polygon Wood.
On 20 September 1917, the Australians sustained 5,000 killed and wounded across the First and Second Divisions, but the ‘bite and hold’ tactics introduced at Messines by General Plumer had once again been proven to be effective.
Charles Bean, the Australian official historian, wrote that the Battle of the 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 effort.
Charles Bean, The AIF in France:1917, The Official History of
Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume 4, Sydney, 1941, .
This description belies the fact that once again it was the infantry who bore the brunt of casualties at the point of the bayonet and in the face of enemy small arms, machine gun and artillery fire. At least this time their lives were not to be thrown away in ill considered attacks and overreaching without adequate preparation. Rather, careful consolidation ensured the ground won stayed in Allied hands.
© Steve Larkins Feb 2014