One hundred years ago on November 10 the bloody series of First World War battles known as the Third Battle of Ypres came to an end.
For Australian soldiers on the Western Front, these battles would become infamous for their cost in human life – for little gain.
British Field Marshal Douglas Haig planned an offensive to break through strongly-fortified German defences on ridges flanking the devastated Belgian town of Ypres. He had amassed a combined force of around a million British, Anzac and Canadian soldiers.
In the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and Passchendaele, 38,000 Australian soldiers were killed or wounded in just eight weeks of fighting.
From September 20, 1917, the Australian Imperial Force’s 1st and 2nd Divisions advanced through the battle of Menin Road, losing 5013 casualties in just six days. Then the 4th and 5th AIF Divisions took over, joining British troops in the battle of Polygon Wood.
The strategy of “the creeping artillery barrage” covering the infantry’s advance was key to the Third Ypres campaign.
Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent, wrote that the barrage protecting the Australian troops at the wasteland of Polygon Wood was perfect. “Roaring, deafening, it rolled ahead of the troops like a Gippsland bush fire.”
However, they faced waves of machine-gun fire and shrapnel in overcoming German resistance in reinforced-concrete pillboxes. Australian casualties totalled 5770.
Sapper Leslie McKay wrote: “My God it was terrible. Just slaughter. We certainly gained our objectives but what a cost.”
After the success in taking the village of Broodseinde early in October, heavy rains turned firm ground into a quagmire, causing havoc when artillery bogged.
On October 12, the 3rd Division AIF and New Zealand troops attacked the ruined village of Passchendaele. It is a name that has since become a byword for mud and blood.
From the beginning, artillery support was weak and mud made the Anzacs’ position untenable in the face of heavy machine-gun fire and high explosives. “Wounded men lay in muddy slime while others, exhausted from their efforts, were simply stuck … in some places it was a rout” wrote Australian War Memorial historian Peter Burness.
Photographer Frank Hurley complained that the “red tabbed blighters at headquarters” were not within 20 miles of the firing line when the attack was arranged.
The attack on Passchendaele was a catastrophe. Even before it began, front-line Anzac troops were drenched with high explosive and mustard gas.
The Flanders campaign was to become the most controversial of Haig’s Western Front battles. Historian Joan Beaumont argues that its final weeks in November, when troops struggled through an utterly devastated landscape of mire and desolation, “became synonymous … with futile attrition.”
The 3rd Division AIF lost 3200 men, more than half its number. Major-General John Monash, then commanding the division, called Passchendaele a “hare-brained scheme.”
But the battle continued until Canadian troops prevailed on November 10. The Third Ypres campaign reached its sad conclusion with Allied losses estimated at up to 310,000 for no substantial breakthrough.
The battlefields of France and Belgium brought staggering losses to families across Australia yet the Western Front’s defeats and victories are generally less well known than the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.
That’s now changing with events in France and Belgium commemorating the centenary of Western Front battles.
The terrible toll on Flanders fields came near the end of Australia’s most tragic year in the First World War. In 1917, Australia suffered 76,000 casualties in France and Belgium, of whom 22,000 were dead or missing.
More than 295,000 Australians served in France and Belgium at a time when Australia’s population was just 4.9 million. Casualties of trench warfare from 1916 to 1918 surpassed 181,000 with 46,000 lives lost, 130,000 wounded and 4000 taken prisoner.
Australians can make their own pilgrimage along the recently-established Australian Remembrance Trail, a 200km route that links major Western Front battlefields, memorials and cemeteries. It builds on existing efforts of French and Belgian communities honouring Australian service.
Another Australian Government initiative that will raise awareness about Australian soldiers on the Western Front is the Sir John Monash Centre, named after the Melbourne civil engineer who led the Australian Army Corps in 1918 to a series of victories that turned the tide of the war.
The new interpretive centre will open on Anzac Day 2018 at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux in France.
Carnage and horror in Europe
Australian soldiers arrived in France from Egypt in March 1916 when Allied and German armies were locked in grinding trench warfare on the Western Front.
Issued with steel helmets, box respirators for gas attacks and trench mortars, the Australians joined the front line before the Allies’ Somme offensive began on July 1, with 60,000 British casualties on the first day.
The AIF’s first major battle, on July 19 at Fromelles in northern France, was a disaster.
Seven thousand soldiers of the 5th Division joined the British 61st in attacking a key German position in a diversion designed to draw German troops away from the Somme River further south.
A seven-hour bombardment deprived the attack of surprise and, facing overwhelming machine gun and artillery fire, it was all over next morning.
The Australians suffered 5500 Australian casualties, their greatest loss in a 24-hour period, including 2000 dead.
The Australian War Memorial calls Fromelles “a complete failure” and a harsh lesson about the scale and intensity of warfare on the Western Front.
There was anger about the bloodbath from outspoken Brigadier General H.E. “Pompey” Elliott, commander of the 5th Division’s 15th brigade
“Practically all my best officers, the Anzac men who helped to build up my brigade, are dead. I presume there was some plan at the back of the attack but it is difficult to know what it was,” Brigadier General Elliott said.
Four days later, the AIF’s 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions were in action in the Somme valley, attacking, capturing and defending in turn the ruined but fortified village of Pozières.
Under heavy bombardment morning, noon and night and intense counter attacks, the Australians made 19 attacks, 16 at night, over 42 days.
Casualties grew steadily and in six weeks topped 23,000 with 6800 dead – comparable with the 28,000 casualties at Gallipoli over eight months in 1915.
Charles Bean said that nothing faced by the Australian infantry elsewhere compared with the duration or effect of the shelling at Pozieres.
“The Windmill site … with the old mound still there – marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth,” Bean wrote.
On July 29, 1916, he wrote: "Pozières has been a terrible sight all day … The men were simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine. They have to stay there while shell after huge shell descends with a shriek close beside them.”
Lieutenant Alec Raws wrote eloquently to his family about the carnage, horror and confusion of war on the Western Front.
On August 4 he said: “We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven and sleepless. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains. Several of my friends are raving mad.”
Raws was killed at Pozieres on August 23, less than a month after his brother Robert was killed in action.
‘Mad Harry’ led from the front
Australia’s most decorated soldier Harry Murray joined the AIF in 1914 as a private and ended the war a lieutenant-colonel commanding a battalion of 64 machine-guns.
Born near Launceston in 1880, the dashing and courageous bushman won the Victoria Cross for leading a night charge across frozen snow and fighting off enemy counter-attacks at Stormy Trench near Guedecourt in France in January 1917.
He won two Distinguished Service Orders - at Mouquet Farm and Bullecourt where he led his troops under machine-gun fire shouting “Come on men, the 16th are getting hell” – a DSM at Gallipoli, British and French honours.
Charles Bean said Murray was “one who always rose to the occasion, practical and careful, yet at the same time reckless of personal safety … one who always got the best out of their men.”
The 13th Battalion historian wrote: “He was known as ‘Mad Harry” but there was considerable method in his madness.
- The Road to Remembrance is a partnership between Fairfax Media and The Department of Veterans’ Affairs.