17th Infantry Battalion (NSW) 5th Brigade, 2nd Division, AIF

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About This Unit

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17th Battalion, 5th Brigade, 2nd Division, AIF

The 17th Battalion was raised at Liverpool SW of Sydney as part of the 5th Brigade in the 2nd Division, and its soldiers were drawn from NSW.  As men flocked to the colours, the 1st Division was fully subscribed fairly quickly and although reinforcement drafts for the1st Division were maintained  plans were immediately in hand to raise the 2nd Division along similar structural lines, although comprising three brigades (the 5th, 6th and 7th) to conform to standard British practice.

The unit colour patches reflected sequential, structured pattern.   The distinctive diamond shape indicated the 2nd Division, the  green lower half signified that it was in this case the first brigade in the 2nd Division, while the upper black colour indicated it was the first of the four battalions in the brigade.

The 17th Battalion and the other elements of the 2nd Division left Australia during May 1915 disembarked and trained in Egypt from mid-June until mid-August, and began deploying to Gallipoli in late August.  The 17th Battalion landeed on on 20 August. By then the August Offensive was in its final stages, having failed to achieve the desired breakout. The Battalion participated in the last action of the August Offensive ' the attack on Hill 60 ' before settling into defensive routine in the trenches. Part of the 17th garrisoned Pope's Hill for a short time but most of their time was spent manning the defence of Quinn's Post, a hotly contested position on the ANZAC front. The Battalion was evacuated from Gallipoli in December 1915.

After the withdrawal to Egypt the 17th Battalion was reinforced and undertook training while preparations were underway to expand the AIF and begin emarkation for the Western Front.  Landing at Marseilles on 22 March 1916, the 2nd Division was shipped north by train to the Flanders area of northern France, an area known as 'The Nursery' for newly arrived Battalions to condition themselves to the nature of trench warfare. 

With the Somme offensive underway from early July the AIF Divisions less the 5th (which stayed in Flanders to be committed to the ill-fated attack at Fleurbaix-Fromelles) and the 3rd (forming and training in the UK) were moved south to take part in proceedings.  The 17th Battlion went into action at Pozieres  between 25 July and 5 August. The Battalion was then committed to the attack on the Mouquet Farm trenches, although in a reserve role, between 18 and 28 August.

After a spell in a quieter sector of the front in Belgium, the 2nd Division, which included the 5th Brigade, returned south again in October. The 17th Battalion was spared from having to mount an attack across the quagmire that the Somme battlefield had become, but did have to continue manning the front through a very bleak winter; the coldest in living memory.

In 1917 the 2nd Division including 17th Battalion was involved in the follow-up of German forces after their retreat to the Hindenburg Line, and was one of four battalions to defeat a counter-stroke by a German force, almost four times as strong, at Lagincourt. The battalion also took part in Second Bullecourt (3-11 May) in France, in which the AIF Divisions sustained very heavy casualties.

The AIF relocated to Belgium for the Third Ypres Offensive in July, and the 17th Battalion was heavily engaged at Menin Road (20-22 September) and Poelcappelle (9-10 October).

After another winter of trench duty in Flanders, the 17th Battalion and the rest of the Division was sent south when the great German Spring Offensive broke across the Allied Front in late March 1918, in a make or break effort to force negotiations on their terms before US Forces arrived lin large numbers. 

Then in late March the Somme front erupted as the Germans unleashed their make or break Spring Offensive , intended to dislocate the French British front and cut Paris off from the Channel Ports to give the Germans the best possible position from which to sue for peace on their terms before the arrival of US forces in large numbers.  The AIF was despatched piecemeal by the British High Command to block gaps in the crumbling British 5th Army front.

The 2nd Division spent most of this period in an arc south of Villers-Bretonneux north to Molancourt, under command of the British 3rd Army and had relieved the 4th Division after it had fought the Germans to a standstill near Dernancourt. .  The 5th Brigade was detached under command of the British 4th Army and was deployed around Hangard Wood / Villers Bretonneux.

In May the Australian Corps was at last formed and General John Monash appointed as its commander, although not without a lot of opposition and thinly veiled anti-Semitism by people, including correspondents Bean and Packer trying to influence Australian PM Billy Hughes who himself was wavering.  They were proven wrong by subsequent events.

The Division and its Battalions were active in the period known as ‘Peaceful Penetration’, advancing the line by limited but coordinated attacks on German defensive outposts.

Le Hamel was the first test of the new Corps structure, but most importantly the tactis that Monash had been advocating;  each Division had at least a token representation in the Order of Battle.  It was a set-piece demonstration of the application of Combined Arms theory and it worked perfectly.  The 2nd Division contribution comprised elements of the 6th and 7th Brigades, including the 21st 23rd and 25th Battalions on the southern flank of the attack.  It was all over in 93 minutes, and Monash’s position as Corps Commander was secure.

A month later and it was time for the main event as the Battalion took its place in the Australian for the Great Allied offensive, the "Last Hundred Days" campaign beginning on the 8th August 1918 with the Battle of Amiens.  British III Corps north of the Somme, then the Australian and Canadian Corps side by side south of the Somme coordinated with the French Army further south.

The 2nd Division started the Amiens offensive on the right hand flank, leading ‘two-up’ with the 3rd Division on the left.    The 4th and 5th Divisions followed respectively with the 1st Division as Reserve.  Surprise, synchronised artillery that had achieved registration of targets using data from new sound-ranging techniques, and the shock action imparted by use of tanks on a scale hitherto not seen led to spectacular gains as Monash had forecast at Le Hamel and initial objectives were achieved within three hours.

The 2nd Division’s ‘finest hour’ was the attack on Mont St Quentin from 30 August to 2nd September in concert with the 5th Division which cleared the town of Peronne after a risky river crossing of the Somme.  The 6th Brigade’s consolidation of the heights of the Mont was the turning point of the battle.

After the 2nd Division attack on the Beaurevoir Line at Montbrehain on the 5th October, the AIF was withdrawn from the line to reinforce and refit following the accumulated losses it had sustained since 8th August.

Montbrehain was the battalion's (and the AIF's) last battle. It was resting reinforcing and retraining out of the line when the armistice was declared in November 1918, and was disbanded in April 1919.

Commanding Officers

Goddard, Henry Arthur
Martin, Edward Fowell
Pye, Cecil Robert Arthur

Awards / Decorations

Members of the 17th Battalion were awarded the following:

1 VC; 1 CMG; 7 DSO; 32 MC, 1 bar; 19 DCM; 127 MM, 11 bars; 10 MSM; 41 MID; 8 foreign awards

Battle/Campaign/ Involvement

Gallipoli, 1915 (/explore/campaigns/1)  25 Apr - 19 Dec 1915

Suvla (the August Offensive / Hill 60) (/explore/campaigns/3) 6 Aug - 28 Aug 1915

Pozières (/explore/campaigns/6) (includes Mouquet Farm) 23 Jul - 12 Sep 1916

Bapaume, 1917 (/explore/campaigns/21) (Outpost Villages etc) 15 Feb - 3 Apr 1917

Bullecourt (/explore/campaigns/6)  3-11 May (2nd) 1917

Menin Road (/explore/campaigns/26)   20-21 Sep 1917

Polygon Wood (/explore/campaigns/19)  24-25 Sep 1917

Broodseinde (/explore/campaigns/18) 4 Oct 1917

Poelcappelle (/explore/campaigns/27) 9 Oct 1917

Passchendaele (/explore/campaigns/28)  24 Oct - 10 Nov 1918

Albert, 1918 (German Spring Offensive 1918 (/explore/campaigns/80)) 21 March - 1 May 1918

Hamel (/explore/campaigns/33)  4 Jul 1918

Amiens (/explore/campaigns/14) 8 Aug 1918

Mont St. Quentin (/explore/campaigns/15) 31 Aug - 2 Sep 1918

Hindenburg Line (/explore/campaigns/81) 28 Sep - 5 Oct 1918

Beaurevoir (Montbrehain) (/explore/campaigns/128) 5 Oct 1918

Generic Battle Honours

Egypt, 1915-16

Somme, 1916, '18

France and Flanders, 1916-18

Ypres, (/explore/campaigns/23) 1917

Sources:

AWM https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U51457

Unit History: K.W. McKenzie, The story of the Seventeenth Battalion in the Great War 1914-1918, (Sydney: 17th Battalion A.I.F. Association, 1946)

We would particularly like to encourage individual historians researchers or members of unit associations to contribute to the development of a more detailed history and photographs pertaining to this unit and its members.

Please contact  admin@vwma.org.au  (mailto:admin@vwma.org.au) for details on how to contribute.

Compiled by Steve Larkins Dec 2020

 

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Stories

The 'A' ANZAC motif

'ANZAC' insignia

Members of the Australian Imperial Force who served on Gallipoli will be entitled to wear over the Unit “Colour Patch” on both sleeves of the Service Dress Jacket and Greatcoat the letter “A” an indication that the wearer had taken part in the operations on the Gallipoli Peninsula. - Military Order 354 of 1917

Members of the Australian Imperial Force who served on Gallipoli or the Islands of Lemnos, Imbros and Tenedos, or who have served on transports or hospital ships at or off Gallipoli or the Islands above-named, or in AIF lines of communication Units in Egypt will be entitled to wear over their Unit “Colour Patches” on both sleeves of their Service Dress Jacket and Greatcoat the letter “A” as an indication that the wearer had taken part in the Gallipoli operations. - Military Order 20 of 1918

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Interpreting AIF Colour Patches

The colour patches which identified units in the AIF were designed to show what division or service they belonged to, and also, in the case of infantry units, their brigade and the sequence of the Battalion in that Brigade.

The shape of a colour patch indicated the division or service -
1st Division - horizontal rectangle split horizontally
2nd Division - diamond shape split horizontally
3rd Division - horizontal ellipse
4th Division - circle split horizontally
5th Division - vertical rectangle split vertically.

The lower colour denoted the brigade's sequence in the Division. Usually (but not always!) these colours were:
Green - first brigade in the division
Red - second
Light Blue - third

The 4th Brigade, originally in the 1st Division , had a dark Blue lower half. Its reallocation to the 4th Division after Gallipoli threw both the brigade / battalion numbering sequence (the most logical at any time in the history of the ADF) and the colour patch structure into disarray!

In the first AIF there were four infantry battalions to each brigade, and the upper section (or LHS in the case of the 5th Division) of the colour patch identified each one. Usually (but not always!) these colours were:
Black - first
Purple - second
Brown - third
White - fourth

Thus every battalion had a unique colour patch.

Other Arms and Service Corps had variations but those attached to the five divisions generally incorporated the shape of their parent Ddvision.

Source: Text taken from The 27th Battalion Centenary: The Historical Record of the 27th Battalions 13th August 1877-1977 and Programme of Centenary Celebrations, Unley SA, 1977

Notes:
1. Strictly speaking there was no such thing as the 'First AIF'. The term is often used unofficially to distinguish the Australian Imperial Force of the First World War from the Second AIF raised to fight in World War 2.

2. The colour patch scheme was first introduced into the AIF in March 1915, just in time for the initial Gallipoli landings. The 2nd Division received its patches in August 1915, and gradually the scheme was expanded to include the whole AIF.

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