9 and 12 October 1917
By 5 October 1917, the British attempt to push back the German line east of Ypres in a series of ‘bite and hold’ operations had met with some success. However, this had come at a great cost. Thousands had been killed, died of wounds or wounded so badly they would never fight again. Moreover, between the Broodseinde ridge, where the attack of 4 October was so successful, and Ypres, a distance of about eight kilometres, lay a landscape pulverised by the artillery shelling of both sides. As long as the weather had held, the British had been able to bring up supplies and the all-important artillery. Artillery was the essential ingredient of the ‘bite and hold’ tactics for if the ‘creeping barrages’ could not protect the advancing British infantry they would be at the mercy of the enemy machine gunners. After 4 October 1917 the rain poured down and the battlefield, and all the approaches to it, became a sea of mud. To successfully bring up heavy war equipment under these conditions proved next to impossible. Many at the highest level recommended a halt to the ‘Flanders Offensive’ for the winter but General Sir Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief, was led to believe that the Germans were near breaking point and he ordered the battle to continue.
On 9 October 1917, British divisions, with the Australians in support, attacked in terrible conditions towards Passchendaele village. In the mud and rain the effort proved futile but the high command thought that enough ground had been gained to order a fresh assault on 12 October. Spearheading this attack were the Australian Third Division and the New Zealand Division, with the Australian Fourth Division in support. As predicted, the shells of the support bombardment mostly exploded harmlessly in the mud and little cover was available from that source. Men had to press forward in the quagmire against the German ‘pillboxes’ armed only with grenades, rifles and light machine guns.
This battle is remembered by the New Zealand Division in particular as a slaughter. Wire remained uncut before stoutly defended German positions and the New Zealanders were killed and wounded in hundreds. The mud of a small river valley below Passchendaele bogged most of the Third Australian Division and German machine-gun fire delayed the centre of the attack. A trench manned by 35 Germans and four machine-guns was charged by Captain Clarence Jeffries and a dozen men of the 34th Battalion (New South Wales) which allowed the advance to continue for a while. Captain Jeffries led several more attacks on machine gun emplacements until he was killed. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
A few Australians reached the edge of Passchendaele. However, they were not strong enough to hold the ground and were eventually forced to fall back and give up their gains. The day after the failed attack Australian stretcher-bearing parties struggled to find the wounded. The Germans refrained from firing on the stretcher-parties and, in some cases, directed them to wounded men. Some unwounded men were found fast in the mud but the stretcher-bearers task was a nightmare. Unfortunately, captured German ‘pillboxes’, which had been turned into aid-posts and were surrounded with wounded on stretchers, were a magnet for German shellfire. Australian losses for 12 October were 3,000 casualties for the Third Division and 1,000 for the Fourth Division for no gain.
The failure on 12 October did not end the Third Battle of Ypres. Partly to keep the Germans from attacking the French, partly to gain a better winter position, and partly to divert attention from the forthcoming British surprise attack at Cambrai in France, the Canadian Corps was moved into the battle area on 18 October to replace the exhausted Australians. The Canadians, in five attacks between 26 October and 10 November, captured Passchendaele but the ‘Flanders Offensive’ was then called off. During some of this time the Canadians had received support form Australian units.
- Third Battle of Ypres/Flanders Offensive
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Between the beginning of August and the end of November 1917 the five Australian divisions suffered 38,000 casualties out of a total for all British forces of 475,000. More than 11,200 Australians were killed in action or died of wounds, 6,405 of them in October alone. Indeed, October 1917, with its more than 26,000 Australian battle casualties was the worst single month of the war for Australia. The struggle for Passchendaele, because of the awful conditions in which it was fought, became notorious and the entire ‘Flanders Offensive’ is more popularly called ‘Passchendaele’. In the spring of 1918, the Germans attacked at Ypres and all the ground gained in late 1917 was given up.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
From John McCrae, ‘In Flanders Fields’
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010