In June 1917, the focus of British operations on the Western Front shifted north into Belgium. A major offensive was launched to break through the German positions near the town of Ypres and advance beyond the Gheluvelt Plateau to the coastline, capturing German submarine bases threatening allied shipping in the North Sea, ejecting the Germans from Belgium, and stabilising channel ports some 200 kilometres from England. This offensive became known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
By focusing the fire of thousands of British guns onto a relatively small frontage, the artillery overwhelmed key German positions, allowing infantry to attack and occupy them. The guns would then be brought up to the newly won positions, and the process repeated. This style of fighting was known as “bite and hold”.
Australian troops were drawn into the offensive after fighting at Messines in June 1917, which had shored up the southern flank of British positions near Ypres before a breakthrough in the north-east was attempted. Australians were spared the opening attacks of the Third Battle of Ypres, fought by British troops between 31 July and 2 August, but were heavily involved in subsequent attacks.
The Australians fought highly successful actions fight over relatively dry, dusty terrain at Menin Road on 20 September (1st and 2nd Australian Divisions), Polygon Wood on 26 September (5th Australian Division), and Broodseinde on 4 October (1st, 2nd and 3rd Australian Divisions). In these actions, the sheer weight of the artillery won the ground, the infantry merely occupied. Lieutenant Sinclair Hunt of the 55th Battalion described the anxious few moments before leading his men into action at Polygon Wood:
Half an hour to go. A fog had fallen and we could see Fritz flares only hazily through it. Ten minutes. A man rose here and there to tighten a belt or to scratch his cramped limbs. Three —the fog was more dense, and sections became restless as they fixed bayonets and prepared to advance. A gun behind boomed louder than the rest, suddenly the whole earth seemed to burst into a seething bubbling roaring centre of eruption and, as the touch of an enchantress’s wand, out of the ground sprang a mass of men in little worm-like columns – each wriggling its way forward to a sparkling, shouting seething line of earth, fire and smoke in front of them.
Artillery played a prominent role in the initial Australian successes at Third Ypres, although the infantry still encountered stiff resistance from German troops who bitterly defended their ground from fortified emplacements and concrete ‘pillboxes’ after the artillery had rolled over them. Seven Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians in the fighting at Third Ypres, nearly all of them for rushing German machine-gun positions and silencing them with bayonets and grenades.
One of them was Pte Reginald Inwood of the 10th Battalion, who pressed forward through the supporting barrage during the fighting at Menin Road and captured a German strong point that would otherwise hold up the battalion’s advance. Inwood single-handedly killed Germans seven and captured nine, thereby allowing the battalion to capture the objectives it set out to take. Later that evening, Inwood volunteered for a night time patrol and penetrated 500 metres of disputed territory to scout the German dispositions. Upon returning, he and another man engaged a German machine-gun position causing havoc on the recently won positions. Inwood crept up from behind the post, lobbed grenades into the position and killed all but one of its garrison. He then captured the sole German survivor and made him carry the machine-gun back across No Man’s Land to the Australian positions.
The firepower that was responsible for the success of the Australian attacks at Third Ypres also destroyed the intricate drainage system of the naturally low-lying area. When the autumn rains began in October, the area turned into a morass, making it difficult for artillery to be brought forward to support further attacks. Moreover, the troops were exhausted and had suffered heavily in previous attacks. Nevertheless, the offensive continued. Australian troops took part in an unsuccessful attack at Poelcappelle on 9 October (2nd Australian Division) with the assaulting waves of infantry floundering in the mud against stiffening German resistance. It was, as one man described, ‘gluey mud, generally knee-deep, and in some places, waist deep’.
In spite of the rapidly deteriorating conditions, and their ability to mount further attacks, the Australians fought their last action of the Third Battle of Ypres on 12 October in an unsuccessful attempt to capture Passchendaele village (3rd Australian Division) before they were relieved by the Canadians. The onset of winter thwarted any further British success in the Third Battle of Ypres, which failed in its strategic objective of removing the Germans from the Belgian coastline. By then, the Australians had suffered over 38,000 casualties in just eight weeks of fighting —their heaviest losses of the war. More than 6,800 Australians had been killed in October alone. These losses resulted in a second referendum on conscription in Australia in December 1917, which was (again) defeated, closing the issue for the remainder of the war.
All images from Australian War Memorial