Belgium 1917: Battles of Broodseinde, Poelcappelle and Passchendaele
Zonnebeke, Tyne Cot Cemetery
On fame’s eternal camping ground – Tyne Cot Cemetery
A side road off the N303 between Broodseinde and Passandale (Passchendaele) leads to Tyne Cot, the largest British and Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. Here are 11,953 headstones of men killed, or who died of wounds, in the defence of Ieper between 1914 and 1918. They died especially during the months of that epic struggle known as the ‘Flanders Offensive’ of 1917 when the British and French tried to roll back the German positions along these low–lying ridges and break through beyond them towards the Channel coast.
At the back of the cemetery is the long wall of the Tyne Cot Memorial. It carries the names of 34,863 British soldiers who have ‘no known grave’, men who died between 15 August 1917 and the end of the war. They represent the ‘overspill’ from the Menin Gate when it was realised in the 1920s that that memorial, built to commemorate all the British missing of the Ieper area, did not have enough space on its panels for the task. The vast majority of those on the wall at Tyne Cot would have died in the battles hereabouts of September to November 1917.
Set in the middle of the wall is a reminder of a New Zealand tragedy. A circular apse displays the panels of the New Zealand Memorial to the missing and of those commemorated here, 663 (57 percent) were killed within sight of Tyne Cot Cemetery on 12 October 1917. As they advanced through the mud in support of the Australians that day, the New Zealanders were caught in uncut German wire and slaughtered. Years later, stretcher–bearer Stan Stanfield recalled the plight of the wounded lying out beside a captured German pillbox:
… it rained and rained. And it was cold. We were picking them up from a gathering point, a regimental aid post. It was an old German concrete emplacement and you couldn’t get them all inside, but the doctors were working inside. And they were just laying around where they’d been dumped by the stretcher bearers from off the field, and at one period I believe there were six hundred stretcher cases lying around the place in the wet and cold, just dying where they were dumped off. They weren’t even lying on stretchers, just laying on the ground, with an oil sheet over them if anyone thought to do that, or if one of their mates could do it.
Interview transcript, Stan Stanfield, in Nicholas Boyack and Jane Tolerton, In the Shadow of War: New Zealand soldiers talk about World War One and their lives, Auckland, 1990, p.31
Tyne Cot is a consolidation cemetery: the remains of the thousands who now rest there were brought in from isolated graves and small cemeteries when the war ended. But it was also a battlefield burial ground. The headstones immediately behind the Great Cross, in less organised rows, are the original burial plots. In Plot 1, Row C, Grave 10, is an Anzac, Sergeant Alexander Fraser, 9th Battalion (Queensland), killed in action on 2 November 1917. Fraser, number 227, signed his ‘Attestation Paper of Persons Enlisted for Service Abroad’ with the AIF on 29 August 1914. That was three weeks after the outbreak of war placing Fraser among those who flocked to join up when it was thought the war might be ‘over by Christmas’ and they should get in quick if there was any chance of being sent overseas. Charles Bean described these enthusiasts:
The first rush to enlistment brought to the 1st Australian Division a class of men not quite the same as that which answered any later call … all the romantic, quixotic, adventurous flotsam that eddied on the surface of the Australian people concentrated itself within those first weeks upon the recruiting offices of the AIF.
Charles Bean, The Story of Anzac, Vol I, Sydney, 1938, p.43
Did Fraser, a 34–year–old insurance agent, see himself as ‘romantic’, ‘quixotic’ and ‘adventurous’ when he landed with the 9th Battalion among the first Australians ashore at Gallipoli at dawn on 25 April 1915?
He met his death in the cold, wet mud of the ‘Ypres Salient’ as the Australians garrisoned the front line in support of the Canadian assaults on Passchendaele in late October and early November 1917, and it was the Canadians who buried this Anzac in Tyne Cot.
Beyond the Great Cross the headstones stretch away row on row on row. There are 1,369 Australian graves here, 791 of them unidentified, making Tyne Cot the war cemetery with the most Australian burials in the world. All but two of the 60 infantry battalions of the 5 divisions of the AIF are represented on the headstones. The largest representation comes from the 37th Battalion (Victoria) with 25 burials. The overwhelming majority of these men were infantrymen but a few were engineers, machine gunners, medical corps stretcher–bearers and a light horseman, Trooper James Murray, 13th Australian Light Horse Regiment in Plot XLV, Row E, Grave 12.
Few are aware that Australian light horsemen served on the Western Front. After Gallipoli most of the Australian light horse served out the rest of the war in the Middle East, but the 13th Light Horse Regiment (Victoria) and part of the 4th (Victoria) were brought to France as ‘divisional cavalry’. There they were used mainly in police and traffic control work, but when the AIF advanced across open country to the Hindenberg Line in early 1917 they were used as scouts. During the Battle of the Menin Road on 20 September 1917 the light horsemen were brought forward to go on information–gathering patrols but Bean judged them fairly useless on a battlefield ruled by artillery and machine guns. They did bring up Hotchkiss light machine guns to the forward area for use against German low flying aircraft and Trooper Murray was with these machine gunners when he was killed by a shell near the Menin Road on 21 September 1917.
The story of the Australians buried at Tyne Cot is the story of the AIF’s involvement in the Battle of Third Ypres. Lieutenant Charles Bluett, 9th Battalion (Queensland), in Plot IV, Row C, Grave 21, was awarded a Military Cross for his bravery at the Battle of the Menin Road on 20 September, the AIF’s first major action at Ieper. Bluett was in charge of a carrying party but when he came up to the front he found that all the senior officers in the attacking companies had been killed or wounded so he reorganised the attack and took it forward to the final objective showing at all times ‘skill’, ‘pluck’ and ‘determination’.
Twenty–seven men who were killed at the Battle of Polygon Wood, fought on 26 September 1917, are buried in Tyne Cot, among them Private Frederick Knapp, 51st Battalion (Western Australia). Knapp, in Plot LX11, Row F, Grave 15, was, according to his mate, Private Joseph O’Reilly, a ‘very cheery jovial chap’ but he was blown to pieces by a German shell. Signaller George Harrison later informed the Australian Red Cross that this had been 36–year–old Knapp’s first time in the line.
For the men of the AIF the battle fought on 4 October 1917, the Battle of Broodseinde, has always been regarded as one of their greatest victories. Four Anzac divisions, the First, Second and Third Australian and the New Zealand Division, for the only time in the war, fought side by side that day, a boost to morale described by Charles Bean:
But this night [3 October] four Anzac divisions were marching to the line together. There were indications that the British command had caught some glimpse of the true reason lying behind the constant importunings of the Australian authorities that their troops should be kept together … but it certainly had no conception of all that this meant to the troops then making their way through the dark.
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume 1V, Sydney, 1935, p.840
One who fought on 4 October 1917 lies in Plot XII, Row B, Grave 14, Lieutenant Harvey Freeman, 11th Company, Australian Machine Gun Corps, attached to the 11th Brigade, 3rd Division. One of the tasks of the machine gunners was to quickly bring up their heavy Vickers machine guns into positions newly captured by the infantry and then prepare for enemy counter–attacks. Just south of Tyne Cot on the morning of 4 October 1917, the 41st Battalion (Queensland) advanced to a key crossroads position close to where the turn off for Tyne Cot Cemetery is today on the main road to Passchendaele. Coming up behind the Queenslanders was Lieutenant Freeman with two of his Vickers gun crews. They quickly established themselves there and were able to provide deadly fire across the countryside ahead of the new Australian position. As can be seen on Freeman’s headstone he was the recipient of the Military Cross, awarded to him for his actions at the Battle of Broodeseinde:
During the advance over heavily shelled ground his [Freeman’s] teams sustained casualties, but by rapid organisation he succeeded in getting the whole of his guns to the final objective. Under heavy enemy shell fire, he displayed skill in selection of gun positions and great courage and initiative in the handling of his guns, thus being able to inflict severe losses on the enemy.
Lieutenant Harvey Freeman, recommendation for the Military Cross,
Broodseinde was the high–water mark of the British effort during the Flanders offensive. Then it began to rain:
It was just sheets of water coming down. It’s difficult to get across that it’s just a sea of mud. Literally a sea … It’s the thought of being drowned in that awful stuff. It’s a horrible thought. Anyone would rather be shot and know nothing about it.
Lieutenant J W Naylor, Royal Artillery, quoted in Lyn MacDonald, They Called It Passchendaele, London, 1979, p.186
In this ‘sea of mud’ men were asked to fight on, fight on to the taking of Passchendaele village itself a couple of kilometres north–east of Tyne Cot at the top of the ridge. The AIF were involved in two attempts to take Passchendaele, the first on 9 October 1917 known as the Battle of Poelcappelle, and the second on 12 October, the Battle of Passchendaele. It was these actions, fought in the wind and rain and what was left, after the constant shelling, of the mud–covered, cratered landscape of Belgium that provided the popular name for the whole Flanders offensive, ‘Passchendaele’. These battles were a failure, the units employed in them destroyed and demoralised. All too many AIF graves in Tyne Cot carry the ominous dates, 9 and 12 October 1917.
One Australian who died on 9 October 1917 was Private Charles Macintosh, 5th Machine Gun Company, in Plot XXXVI, Row C, Grave 15. Supporting the infantry, the machine gunners pushed forward to the south of the Passchendaele road just beyond Tyne Cot. They were close to a famous landmark, a Ieper–Roulers railway cutting. After the war Macintosh’s father wrote on his son’s AWM ‘Roll of Honour Circular’ that he had been buried at ‘Shands Cutting on the Ypers–Roulers Railway, Belgium’. One of the leaders of the 5th Machine Gunners was Lieutenant Stanley Gritten who pushed the line forward but found that many of his newly established posts were being surrounded by Germans. The posts were shot away and men raced for the protection of the railway embankment where many were killed and never heard of again. Private James McCulloch, 5th Machine Gun Company, was with Macintosh during this rout:
[We were] practically cut off by the enemy. The order was given for each man to look after himself with the result I found Private Macintosh and I were taking cover in the same shell hole. We decided to make a dash for it and in doing so I saw Private Macintosh wounded in the intestines and fall back into the shell hole we had just left. The Germans were almost upon us than so that I had no option but keep going. There was only myself left of this party. The officer was killed.
Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau file, Private Charles Macintosh,
The next assault on Passchendaele on 12 October 1917 was conducted by the battalions of the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division. As has already been described, the New Zealand attack was a disaster. The 3rd Division were so confident that one man even carried an Australian flag to plant in Passchendaele. This so–called ‘dash for Passchendaele’ ended in retreat and, by late afternoon, the Australians were back again where they had started just forward of Tyne Cot.
One who distinguished himself that day was Captain Clarence Jeffries, 34th Battalion (New South Wales) who led his company forward from just beyond the Tyne Cot Cemetery into a dawn described by Charles Bean as ‘a whitish streak on the eastern horizon’. Mud held them back all the way and soon the fire from a pillbox sent them to ground. Jeffries, assisted by Sergeant James Bruce, got some men together, outflanked the pillbox and charged it from the rear, capturing 25 Germans and two machine guns. The battalion was now nearly on its objective but had lost heavily in the advance, there being only three officers left and wide gaps in their line. As the advance was about to recommence, another German machine gun opened up ‘with deadly effect’. Jeffries, again accompanied by Bruce, led a party out to silence the Germans. As it was firing in only short bursts Jeffries was able to work his way close to the gun and, seeing it begin firing in another direction, rushed it with his men. Suddenly, the gun swung back, Jeffries was killed and his men sent to ground but they recovered and eventually captured another 25 of the enemy and two more machine guns. Bean wrote that Jeffries’ ‘gallant and effective action removed the chief danger to the advance’.
Captain Clarence Smith Jeffries was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery at Passchendaele. Unlike so many who disappeared into the mud his body was recovered and lies in Plot XL, Row E, Grave 1 in Tyne Cot Cemetery beside the concrete remains of a German pillbox. On his grave is an epitaph which might stand service for all the men of the AIF buried in this city of headstones:
On fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010