Belgium 1917: Battle of the Menin Road
The Menin Road
Wagons, gun carriages and dead horses – Hellfire Corner and Menin Road South Cemetery
On top of the Menin Gate memorial sits a stone lion gazing eastwards towards the old battleground of the ‘Ypres Salient’. Constant shelling by both sides turned the ‘Salient’ into a man–made wilderness of broken trees, craters, churned up earth and, when it rained, mud. By 1917, the fields had long disappeared and the villages were rubble where sometimes the shattered walls of a church survived to mark the spot. Through this devastation ran the Menin Road leading out from the ruins of Ieper south–eastwards towards the low ridge of the Ghuluvelt plateau.
Passing along the road to the front line soldiers ran the gauntlet of enemy shelling which far and near threw up spurts of earth. Closer to the line, the noise from the bursting of the shells merged into the clatter of machine gun and rifle fire. Beyond the road, strewn across the landscape, lay the wreckage of war:
… stretcher bearers coming through the mud to bring the wounded out … doctors and orderlies working in their shirtsleeves, even in the rain … everywhere, all over the road and shoved to the aside, were broken wagons, gun carriages, and dead horses. You couldn’t speak the gunfire was so terrific … to either side there was nothing but mud, mud for miles.
Corporal J Pincombe, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Westminster Rifles, quoted in Lynn MacDonald, They Called it Passchendaele, London, 1979, p.139
All around lay the dead. The fortunate ones had their last resting place marked by a cross or an upturned rifle stuck into the ground, sometimes with a steel helmet on top. Many more simply disappeared, their bodies mingling with the ooze and mud:
… when it yielded under your feet you knew that it was a body you were treading on. It was terrifying. You’d tread on the stomach, perhaps, and it would grunt all the air out of its body. It made your hair stand on end. The smell could make you vomit.
Private C Miles, 10th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, quoted in Lynn MacDonald, They Called it Passchendaele, London, 1979, p.186
The Menin Road today starts just beyond the Menin Gate and, at the first crossroads, makes a sharp turn to the right. From there it runs through the outskirts of the town to a roundabout in open country where the N37 heads off to the left towards the village of Zonnebeke. In 1917 this was ‘Hellfire Corner’ described graphically by Charles Bean as a ‘point perpetually shelled’.
Further along was the small settlement of Hooge, all trace of which had been erased from the landscape, and just to the north lay Bellewaarde Lake and Chateau Wood now but ‘bare trunks’ and a ‘foul pool’. Beyond that was a semi–swamp leading to Westhoek Ridge captured by British assaults in August 1917 during the early weeks of the great ‘Flanders Offensive’. In mid–September 1917, the AIF was preparing to attack from Westhoek Ridge eastwards towards Polygon Wood from a front line which lay just beyond Hooge.
The first Australians to fight in this area in 1917 were artillerymen. In mid–July 1917, the guns of the AIF were brought progressively into action to the north and south of the Menin Road in support of the massive opening bombardment of the ‘Flanders Offensive’. Over ten days some 3,000 guns of all shapes and sizes flung some four and a quarter million shells at the Germans. The noise was heard in London 190 kilometres away; for those close to the guns it must have been overpowering:
The concussion is simply awful. No one could ever image it unless they had actually experienced it. Nothing but great spurts of flame, screaming and sizzling of shells, and banging and crashing of big guns. At times it becomes so terrific … it is simply one great throbbing, pulsating jolting roaring inferno.
Lieutenant Cyril Lawrence, 1st Field Company, Australian Engineers, quoted in Nigel Steel and Peter Hart, Passchendeale: The Sacrificial Ground, London, 2001, p.208
Many Australian artillerymen were killed by German counter–shelling among them Lieutenant Arthur Walker, 1st Division Signals Company, who was trying to connect telephone lines to a forward position. Walker is one of the missing whose name is recorded on the Menin Gate.
But the great struggle before the first major Australian attack of the ‘Flanders Offensive’, timed for 20 September 1917 beyond Hooge, was to build communications to allow artillery, ammunition and other supplies to be brought up to support any newly won positions and further planned assaults. As the thousands of infantrymen of the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions began their slow movement towards the front line in mid–September, hundreds of Australian pioneers and engineers laboured to build roads and tracks across the devastation between Ieper and Hooge. A feature of this effort was the ‘plank road’ stretching from the Menin Road about a kilometre short of Hooge out to the north–east around Bellewaarde Lake and the remains of Chateau Wood. Each day, tons of planks were ferried on lorries out of Ieper and dumped on the roadside near Hellfire Corner. Here they were collected by 120 horse–drawn Australian wagons and then taken on to the construction site where they were carried forward by the road builders themselves.
To avoid detection by the enemy, this transport work was done at night but it was a hazardous undertaking. The area was frequently doused in mustard gas by the Germans and shelled. When explosions tore up the one–way road in front of them, the Australian wagon drivers had to sit motionless with their animals until it was repaired. Major Russell Manton, 15th Battery, Australian Field Artillery, recalled the ordeal of the horses:
… the animals came to know when a shell was coming close; and if, when halted, the horses heard the whine of an approaching salvo, they would tremble and sidle closer to their drivers, burying their muzzles in the men’s chests.
Russell Manton, quoted by Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume 1V, p.729
Charles Bean heaped praise on the Australian drivers, ‘unassuming, country–bred men’ who waited calmly while the road break was repaired and perhaps a shattered wagon team was hurriedly removed – ‘The unostentatious efficiency and self discipline of these steadfast men was as fine as any achievement of Australians in the war’.
The evidence of the sacrifice of those who laboured behind the lines can be seen in Menin Road South Cemetery on the right–hand side of the road about half a kilometre from the ‘Hellfire Corner’ N8/N37 roundabout. Buried here in Plot I, Row U, Grave 2, is Driver Joseph Flanagan, 19th Battalion, of Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales. On 18 September 1917, Flanagan, a Gallipoli veteran known as ‘Moe’, was in his wagon on the Menin Road, near Hellfire Corner, carrying ammunition when a shell exploded right under the limber killing him and his horses. According to witnesses Flanagan was ‘badly knocked about’.
Also represented in Menin Road South are the Australian tunnellers. No 1 Australian Tunnelling Company built underground dugouts to protect and conceal the infantry and elements of the 12th Battalion (Tasmania and Western Australia) were housed in one of these dugouts near Hooge. They found them ‘safe and deep’ but far from comfortable:
[It was] very damp and gloomy. The soakage of water was so considerable that it was necessary to have a party working continuously in reliefs on the pumps, otherwise the water would very soon rise ankle high, and in some manner it used to put out all the electric lights out and leave the whole place in darkness.
L M Newton, The Story of the Twelfth: A Record of the Story of the 12th Battalion during the Great War of 1914–1918, Hobart, 1925, p.363
On 18 September 1917 Sapper Arthur Hodder, 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, of Lithgow, New South Wales, was in a lorry bringing him and others to work carrying timber for dugouts near Hooge. The lorry was held up near Hellfire Corner when it was hit by a shell and 23 soldiers were either killed or wounded. Hodder lies buried in Plot I, Row U, Grave 7 and others of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, who also died on that day, are buried beside him.
Artillerymen are also in evidence in Menin Road South. Bombardier Charles Podger, 5th Brigade, Australian Field Artillery, was serving with the guns near Hell Fire Corner on 16 September 1917. An original enlistee in the battery, Podger was the unit clerk and was in his dugout checking ammunition returns when a high explosive shell burst close by and killed him. Corporal Berkley Withers, 5th Brigade, described Podger as 28 years old, 1.77 metres tall, ‘slightly built’, ‘slightly stooped’, with a ‘fair complexion’ and always known as ‘Charlie’. They buried ‘Charlie’ close by, opposite a field ambulance dressing station, and when the war was over his remains did not have to be moved far to bring him to his final resting place in Menin Road South Cemetery, Plot I, Row Q, Grave 37.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010