Historical facts on WWI in the Ypres region
The formation of the front near Ypres (Ieper)
On 4th August 1914 the invasion of Belgium by the German armies began.
The Belgian field army, the British and French troops retreated on the line Ypres-Ijzer. The German 4th Cavalry Corps, which had entered Ypres, was forced back to the Ieper-Komen canal. Franco-British forces guarded the city to the north and east. The armies were entrenched from the North Sea to Switzerland. The Ypres Salient was formed.
First Battle of Ypres (1914)
The Germans launched their great offensive. Several fierce battles were fought at Mesen, Langmark, Geluveld and Nonnenbossen. When the fighting died down on 22nd November, 58,155 British soldiers had been killed or wounded, or were missing. On that day, the shelling of the city began. The Cloth Hall and many other buildings were destroyed or badly damaged.
Second Battle of Ypres (22 April – 25 May 1915)
British troops stormed Hill 60 after exploding five mines. In May 1915, the hill had to be abandoned again. On 22 April, gas was used for the first time. 60,260 British soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. The remainder of 1915 and 1916 was passed in trench warfare or local attacks.
Third Battle of Ypres (31 July – 10 November 1917)
All five AIF Divisions were engaged in the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, between July and November 1917. It was really a series of battles, the most significant for the AIF being the victories of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. Much of the fighting took place in mud so deep that wounded men drowned in it. For the first time, all the AIF divisions fought side by side at Broodseinde. The Australian military reputation for courage and military skill grew even brighter but in eight weeks of fighting, the AIF suffered 38,000 casualties.
Battle of Passchendaele (Passendale), 9-12 October 1917.
For the AIF, the battle of Passchendaele began on 9 October 1917 when the 2nd Division formed the flank for an attack by the British 66 the Division. The 2nd Division's front was about 800 metres long with its left flanked with the Ypres-Roulers railway line. Its ultimate objective was higher ground known as The Keiburg, a spur on the Australian right flank from which the Germans controlled their battle operations. It was a desperate fight and the Australians suffered many casualties. German resistance was particularly fierce at two positions: at Assyria, a large barn turned into a fortress, and at the railway cutting. The 5th Brigade captured the cutting but at great cost. The Australians were forced to withdraw that night. The second phase of the battle began on 12 October with the 3rd Division and the New Zealand Division attacking side by side.
The task of capturing Passchendaele was given to the 38th Battalion. According to the plan, the capture would be complete by 12.11am that night. One unit carried an Australian flag to be planted in Passchendaele. After a night of rain and gas-shelling, the attackers went in after inadequate British shellfire. After much confusion, great loss - and great gallantry - the attack came to a halt. However, about 20 Australians, mostly of the 38th Battalion, actually reached Passchendaele church. Completely isolated and unsupported, they were forced to withdraw to their own lines.
Meanwhile, the 4th Division which had been in support was also under great pressure and suffered heavily before pulling back. The attack had failed. That night, dead and wounded of the 3rd Division lay in the mud of Ravebeek valley. Others lay huddled in captured pillboxes. Stretcher bearers sent out to rescue these men found other Australians unwounded but stuck fast in the mud. The 34th Battalion's MO, Major G. R.C.Clarke, and members of his staff were killed while dressing the wounded. Corporal W. A. Murray gave up his place in a queue of wounded waiting for bearers and was never heard of again. The 3rd Division suffered 3,199 casualties in the twenty-four hours of the battle.
Battle of Polygon Wood (26-28 September 1917)
The battle began at 5.30 am on 26 September 1917, when the British and Dominion guns opened on a 10 kilometre front. The intention was to build on the gains made during the Battle of Menin Road. The AIF 4th and 5th Divisions were responsible for a 2500-metre sector and one of their main objectives was Polygon Wood Butts, the target on the Ypres district rifle range. It was now a small plateau from which the Germans dominated the nearby ground with machine-guns. The 14th Brigade captured the position and then a second objective of several strong points. Gallantry and good leadership held the advance together at critical moments.
At one time, men of the 14th Battalion ran into their own bursting shells and were badly shaken until steadied by Captain Albert Jacka, of Gallipoli, Pozières and Bullecourt fame. Private Patrick Bugden of the 31st Battalion led a small party to attack German machine-gun posts. He captured the posts with bombs and bayonet and then, single-handedly, charged some Germans who had captured a corporal. On five occasions during the next few days, he risked his life to rescue wounded men but his luck ran out and he was killed.
The 4th Division's battalions captured all their objectives - woods, blockhouses and trenches - and suffered 1,717 casualties. The even more heavily engaged 5th Division suffered 5,471 dead and wounded in the period 26-28 September. Polygon Wood today, though smaller than in 1917, is still large. The remains of three German pillboxes captured by the Australians lie deep among the trees but few trench lines remain.
The Butte is still prominent and mounted on top of it is the AIF 5th Division memorial, the usual obelisk. It faces the Butte's military cemetery at the other end of which is a New Zealand memorial to the missing of the sector.
One of the most famous positions on the Western Front, Hill 60, had been formed in the 19th century from the soil taken from a deep railway cutting. It made a mound of 230 metres by 190 metres consisting of layers of clay, sand and quicksand.
The hill's height of 60 metres gave it immense strategic importance in that flat country and both sides continually fought for it. The British tunnelled into the hill in 1915 and 1916 to plant mines which killed many Germans when they exploded. The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company under Major J. Douglas Henry took over the tunnels and mines on 9 November 1916. The Company's primary job was to keep intact two great mines being prepared for a major assault to break the enemy front. The galleries' drainage and ventilation was poor and to improve them the Australians sank a metal-lined shaft 130 metres from a main junction. Then they drove an additional gallery under the German line, about 400 metres away. The shaft was coded Sydney, the drive leading from it Melbourne, while defensive galleries were called Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Newcastle and Hobart.
Protecting the mines from the Germans involved the diggers in ferocious underground fighting. The work was arduous and exhausting and six months' service in the tunnels of Hill 60 was regarded as the limit of strain any troops could stand. In one sector, the Australians reported that enemy miners were so close that their tools were shaking the earth in the Australian tunnel. They packed a ton of ammonal (an explosive) into the end of their tunnel and fired it on 16 December 1916. Recovering from this shock, the Germans continued their efforts to dig under the shallower Australian tunnels and blow them up. In March, April and May 1917, the Australians were tunnelling 5.5 metres a day in their efforts to prepare great mines for the impending attack on Messines Ridge. Every moment underground was dangerous. Sapper J. T. Landrigan was buried by a German explosion and survived only because of the frantic rescue digging by his comrades. On 25 May a German mine explosion separately entombed two diggers, Sapper E. W. Earl and Sapper G. Simpson. Earl continued to listen to enemy noises and managed to write a report about them. He tapped out signals on the wall which twenty four hours later were heard. A close friend, Sergeant H. Fraser, led non-stop rescue digging and on 27 May Earl, then Simpson, were brought out. Earl handed over his valuable reports. Suffering from the effects of asphyxia, his breathing was chronically hampered and he died three months later. Other diggers died of asphyxiation while trying to rescue trapped mates.
Sources: Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front 1916-1918’ John Laffin, and Toerisme Ieper brochure 8900-0601-4