Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 288th installment in the series.
September 20-October 3, 1917: Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood
The horrifying Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele for its final phase in the late autumn of 1917, continued in September-October with two back-to-back British attacks on the German Fourth Army east of Ypres: the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, from September 20-25, and the Battle of Polygon Wood, from September 26-October 3. Although the British strategy of “bite and hold” continued to yield incremental gains, these came at a heavy cost, with over 41,000 British and Australian casualties over the course of the two battles (compared to around 39,000 German), while the prospect of a breakthrough remained elusive.
“One Cannot Help Becoming Fatalistic”
Following costly advances at Pilckem Ridge from July 31- August 2, 1917 and Langemarck from August 16-18, BEF commander Douglas Haig, Second Army commander Herbert Plumer, and Fifth Army commander Hubert Gough remained determined to complete the conquest of the strategic Gheluvelt Plateau east of Ypres, which would end the German artillery threat to Ypres as well as jeopardize German control of key rail hubs in western Belgium.
For the next phase in September 1917 the British regrouped and shifted tactics, with the decision to focus artillery fire on the enemy’s concrete pillboxes and strongpoints, which had inflicted such a heavy toll on advancing infantry in the opening engagements. Haig entrusted 1,300 heavy and medium artillery pieces to the British Second and Fifth Armies – twice as many as the first attack at Pilckem Ridge – which raked the German Fourth Army with 3.5 million shells over the course of the battle.
The British infantry, including the British 9th and 10th Army Corps and the ANZAC 1st Corps, went over the top along a roughly 8-mile-long front at dawn on September 20, 1917, following an elaborate “creeping barrage” composed of up to five successive waves of fire, including heavy artillery, field artillery and machine guns. In many places the attackers advanced hundreds of yards, while British artillery continued to pound the German rear areas with high explosives and poison gas, turning communication and reserve trenches to dust (or mud) and making an enemy counterattack impossible.
However even this unprecedented bombardment missed some targets, and a substantial number of German strongpoints and pillboxes remained more or less intact, with machine guns exacting a heavy toll on the attackers. R.W. Iley, a British runner (battlefield messenger), remembered attacking a German pillbox at Tower Hamlets Ridge, in the southern half of the battlefield, at 5 a.m. on September 20, 1917:
Their machine guns swept us with bullets, and some of our new men wavered; this was their first experience in the War. The colonel rallied them and ordered the section I was in charge of to rush a pillbox that was holding us up. We rushed straight at it. The Huns threw a flare bomb in our midst and mowed us down with machine-gun bullets. Of my section of ten, five were killed and four wounded. I felt as if a stone had hit my leg and spun around. The bullets had gone through my thigh, but they were not dangerous. Other bullets passed through my clothes without touching me. As I lay I heard that the colonel was badly wounded, and another section had captured the pillbox while we drew the fire.
This experience was typical, as across the battlefield many of the initial frontal assaults failed, requiring the British attackers to switch to envelopment and siege tactics. Meanwhile tanks were of modest assistance during Menin Road Ridge, thanks to the unending sea of mud, which left bogged down vehicles easy targets for enemy gunners.
Following a British advance of 1,500 yards on September 20, the Battle of Menin Road Ridge was decided by the failure of multiple German counterattacks over the following days, signaling a British victory by September 25. However every foot had been paid for with blood, and many officers privately questioned the wisdom of Haig’s aggressive strategy.
By this stage of the Third Battle of Ypres, British and ANZAC troops were exhausted and morale was generally low, as reflected in the September 1917 mutiny of ANZAC troops angry at alleged mistreatment in Etaples, an unpleasant rear area camp. On the evening of September 20, 1917, John Martin, a sapper in the Royal Engineers, wrote: “It is now apparent that the attack has fallen considerably short of what was expected, but what can you expect from men who are tired and hungry and wet through?... I expect that tomorrow the English papers will be shouting the news of a great victory, but it has been a ghastly and murderous failure.” Martin also noted the presence of Military Police, a sure sign that morale among rank-and-file troops was reaching a low ebb:
I was surprised to see some Military Police in these tunnels. They are the warriors who infest the rear areas and spend their time in ‘running’ poor unsuspecting Tommies who leave their cycles unattended for a few seconds. Their business up here is to prowl round the tunnels looking for men who have taken shelter when they ought to be outside. A miserably ignoble trade!
On the morning of September 21, 1917 Martin recounted his own encounter with fellow soldier in the momentary thrall of abject terror as they were sent to find drums of wireless cable under fire:
Fritz was giving us a most terrific shelling. Every conceivable type of shell was bursting all around, whizzbangs, HEs, HVs [High Velocity shells], liquid fire, gas shells, and all manner of shrapnel, the latter bursting a dozen at a time. It was evident that Fritz was endeavouring to prevent any reinforcements coming up. When we got to the end of the little bit of trench I scrambled out, but Cochran lost his head and shouted out ‘Don’t go, don’t go, we shall all be killed!’ It was no time to be nice so I told him not to be a fool but to come along and I caught hold of him and pulled him up on to the parapet… Another burst on our right and Cochran threw himself behind a pile of duckboards – I fetched him out and he hung on to my coat and tried to pull me into a shell hole. I coaxed him and cursed him but he hadn’t a ha’porth [half-penny’s worth] of nerve and I literally had to drag him along. It was a thousand times worse than going by myself.
Later Martin mused: “While I was dipping into a shell hole a piece of shrapnel hissed viciously by my ear into the water. I wonder how many scores of times sudden death has missed me only by inches, and yet other fellows get done in by almost the first shell that comes their way. One cannot help becoming fatalistic.”
On September 25 a German counterattack recaptured a number of strongpoints in the southeast section of a small forest – or rather the shattered remains of one – called “Polygon Wood” for its unusual shape on the map. Already the scene of incredibly fierce fighting in the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, Polygon Wood now returned to center stage with another welter of blood, as the British counter-counterattacked from September 26 to October 3.
The counterattacks managed to retake most of the the ground lost to the Germans north of the Menin Road, and by September 27 the British had pushed the Germans almost completely out of Polygon Wood. However the British and ANZAC troops had suffered very heavy casualties, including the British 33rd Division, so decimated that it was withdrawn from the battle just days after joining.
The physical conditions on the battlefield east of Ypres also remained appalling, according to Edward Lynch, an Australian private who recounted the scenes he encountered heading to the front in late September 1917:
The track to Westhoek Ridge is hell, just a narrow strop of corduroy [log road] laid down across miles of unending mud, pockmarked by thousands of watery shell holes. The road is bordered by dead mules and mud-splattered horses, smashed wagons and limbers and freshly killed men who have been tossed off the track to leave the corduroy open for the never-ending stream of traffic… Every little while a shell lands on the corduroy and a traffic jam occurs whilst the dead or injured horses and mules are tossed off the road and the broken wagons tipped after them.
Martin Stewart, a British officer, described similar conditions as he moved his troops to the frontline on September 28, 1917:
For the first two miles they had to go over ground that was entirely shell pitted. By this I mean that the lip of one shell-hole was also the lip of the next one with no level ground anywhere. Over a portion of this ground duck boards had been laid; these not only served to make the going easier but also to indicate the right direction. There were of course a good many blank places where the duck boards had been blown away by shells. The shell-holes were full of water and the mud ankle deep.
Later that day Martin received a shrapnel wound to his neck during a German bombardment, but managed to more or less it walk it off, according to his memoir:
I then started to cough and brought up some blood and the bit of shell which must have stuck in my wind pipe. McLennan very kindly retrieved the bit of iron out of the mud and handing it to me remarked that I might like it to keep. This I did and my wife has it now… As a matter of fact there was very little the matter with me except that I was blowing bubbles through the hole in my neck and could only just talk in a very weak whisper.