Battle of the Menin Road
20 September 1917
The major operations of the British ‘Flanders Offensive’ [see also ‘The Battle of Messines’] began on 31 July 1917 when British forces, with two French divisions, attacked the German defences along a 16-mile front east of Ypres. For fifteen days before that the British artillery, which included Australian batteries, fired more than four million shells from 3,000 guns. The German defence of the area stretched all the way back to the long sickle-shaped ridge between three and ten kilometres from the town. It was a defence in depth; the front was lightly held and beyond it were arrays of deep concrete shelters or ‘pillboxes’ in which soldiers could shelter from bombardment and emerge to mount machine guns to fire at advancing infantry. Barbed wire was carefully positioned to funnel the advancing men into the fields of fire of the machine guns. Well back, out of sight beyond the ridge, were the German artillery and infantry reserves ready to mount counter-attacks.
The British plan was to batter down this formidable defensive position using mainly so-called ‘bite and hold’ tactics. After an opening bombardment the infantry would advance for a prescribed distance behind a ‘creeping’ barrage of shells. This barrage would keep the Germans in their ‘pillboxes’ until British soldiers were almost upon them. The enemy positions would then be captured, consolidated and protected from counter-attack by artillery. Guns would be brought forward and the next ‘bite’ attempted. In this way the British aimed to work their way from their start lines near Ypres to the heights of the ridge ten kilometres away at Passchendaele village. It was thought that by the time Passchendaele would be reached, the German reserves would be used up. A breakthrough could then be made to the enemy’s rear and towards the Belgian coast to the north. General Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, viewed the ‘Flanders Offensive’ as his war-winning stroke of 1917.
The Battle of the Menin Road was the first major Australian involvement in the series of British ‘bite and hold’ 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. 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 on 20 September. They were in the centre of an assault by 11 British divisions along Westhoek Ridge facing Glencorse Wood. 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, p.761
- Battle of the Menin Road
- Wikipedia article
- The Menin Gate Memorial
- Wikipedia article
Enemy opposition was quickly overcome although a machine-gun checked the advance of one battalion for a moment. Lieutenant Frederick Birks and Corporal William Johnston instantly rushed the enemy machine-gun position. They were met with bombs and Johnston was badly wounded, but Birks went on alone, killed the remainder of the enemy and captured the machine-gun. Shortly afterwards he took a small party and attacked another strong point occupied by about 25 of the enemy, killing some and capturing an officer and 15 men. Corporal Johnston was awarded the Military Medal. Lieutenant Birks, who was killed the following day, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The final objective, 1,500 metres from the start line, was secured in two stages with one-hour and two-hour pauses in between. Although the artillery provided good cover for the Australian infantry and prevented some enemy counter-attacks from being launched there was still hard fighting against pillboxes and other strong points. By noon, the Australians had taken all the objectives and were at the western end of Polygon Wood. Enemy artillery fire was constant throughout the battle but on 21 September became more accurate targeting ‘pillboxes’ captured by the Australians.
On 20 September 1917, the Australians sustained 5,000 killed and wounded but the ‘bite and hold’ tactics had been proven and, combined with the allied superiority in artillery, it showed that, with fine weather, the allies were now in a superior position. Both the British and the Germans suffered similar casualties but while the British were elated at the results, the Germans were crushed by the defeat. In the official history, Charles Bean wrote:
So ended, with complete success, the first step in Haig’s trial of true step-by-step tactics. The British Army did this day precisely what it was intended to do, and did it even more cleanly than at Messines. The objectives being easily within the capacity of the troops … The fact that the Germans were well prepared, and had their counter-attack divisions ready, was actually an advantage. The more the enemy thrust his reserves under that crushing barrage the better, for practically none of them came through.
Charles Bean, The AIF in France:1917, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume 4, Sydney, 1941, p.788
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