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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 2.—Progress of the British Offensive Operations

Part 2.—Progress of the British Offensive Operations.

Opening of the summer campaign—First phase, July 31st—Second phase, August 16th—Third phase, September 20th—New Zealand Division at Gravenstafel, October 4th—Attack continued, October 9th.

It will be remembered that Sir Douglas Haig's plan of operations for 1917 comprised a spring campaign against the Ancre-Scarpe Salient and the Vimy Ridge, to be followed by a great blow on the Flanders front in the summer and autumn. The latter thrust was to be carried out by Gough's Fifth Army, page 231supported on the right by the Second Army under Plumer, and on the left by the First French Army under Anthoine. Its object was to secure the high ground stretching north-east from Wytschaete to the Ypres-Menin Road, and thence past Passehendaele to Staden on the Ypres-Thourout-Bruges Railway. The capture of this rising ground would pave the way for a later advance on Roulers and Ghent, thus menacing the enemy's positions towards Lille and south of it, and possibly also turning his right and forcing him to give up Ostend and Zeebrugge.

We have seen that the spring operations were successful, and that the Battle of Messines had resulted in the capture of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, a necessary preliminary to the major attack towards the north-east.

The summer campaign proved to be a long and bloody struggle. Opening on July 31st, 1917, it continued almost without interruption till the end of the first week in November, and is officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

In the first phase of the battle the Fifth Army attacked on a frontage of over seven miles from the Zillebeke-Zandvoorde Road to Boesinghe, but the subsidiary attack by the Second Army on the right, together with the covering movement of the French on the left, extended the frontage from the Lys River opposite Deulemont northwards to beyond Steenstraat, a total distance of more than fifteen miles. The general objective was the crest of the high ground east of Ypres.

On July 31st, the first day of the battle, the most stubborn fighting took place in the vicinity of the Ypres-Menin Road where it crosses the crest of the Wytschaete-Passchendaele Ridge, this being the key to the enemy's position. Nevertheless the British troops pressed steadily forward through Shrewsbury Forest and Sanctuary Wood and captured Stirling Castle, Hooge and the Bellewarde Ridge. The railway- bank running towards Roulers, as well as the western outskirts of Westhoek, was also taken, but on the morning of August 1st the enemy was still clinging to Clapham Junction, Inverness Copse and part of Westhoek. Farther north the British advanced with greater ease, securing the Steenebeek ahead of Pilkem, and taking Alberta Farm, St. Julien, Pommern Re-page 232doubt and Pommern Castle. The French on the left, keeping step with our advance, took Bixschoote and Kortekeen Inn. The Second Army on the right had also progressed well in spite of fierce resistance, Hollebeke being secured by English troops, and La Basse Ville by the 2nd Wellington Battalion of the New Zealand Division after a brilliantly-conducted fight.

Unfortunately, heavy rain came on during the afternoon, and continued for several days without cessation, and this, owing to the boggy nature of the soil, brought the first phase of the Third Battle of Ypres to a close. The results, however, were so far quite satisfactory, the most important being the capture of the whole of the ridge that had for so long over- looked the British positions in the Ypres plain.

The second phase opened on August 16th, on a front extending from the north-west corner of Inverness Copse to the junction with the French south of St. Janshoek. The French were to co-operate by taking the Bixschoote Peninsula, a tongue of slightly-rising ground almost surrounded by an extensive flooded area. In this our Allies were entirely successful, and on our own left the British captured Langemarck, but elsewhere little progress could be made against the concrete forts situated in the midst of seas of mud, and protected by the swollen Hanebeek and Zonnebeke streams. It was evident that the enemy was tenaciously clinging to Nonne Boschen, Polygon, Glencorse and Inverness Woods, in order to safeguard Passchendaele Ridge, and though the British penetrated as far as the Racecourse in Polygon Wood they were unable to make good their hold at this point. Once again bad weather came on and, continuing for the remainder of the wettest August that had been known for many years, brought about a compulsory termination of the second phase of the great battle.

In making preparations for the third attack, due consideration was given to the stubborn resistance that was being maintained by the enemy on the extreme right of the Fifth Army front, and it was decided to extend the left of the Second Army northwards, the attack on the high ground crossed by the Menin Road being entrusted to General Plumer as a self-contained operation in conjunction with the advance of the Fifth Army farther north.

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The weather conditions had so far improved, and the necessary rearrangements and preparations were so well advanced, as to permit of the reopening of the battle on September 20th. Ill-luck, however, still followed us, for it rained steadily throughout the night of 19th/20th, but nevertheless the attack went well. On the Second Army front the woods north of the Ypres-Comines Canal, the Tower Hamlets Spur, Inverness Copse and Veldhoek were taken. Australian troops captured Glencorse Wood and Nonne Boschen, the hamlet of Polygonveld, Black Watch Corner, and the western portion of Polygon Wood. On the front of the Fifth Army our troops captured Zonnebeke, Bremen Redoubt, and Zevenkote, and everywhere gained their objectives. During this and the following days the enemy launched an unusually large number of counter-attacks, but with the exception of temporary successes at isolated points they were repulsed with great loss.

A renewal of the advance of the Second and Fifth Armies commenced on the morning of September 26th. Australian troops carried the remainder of Polygon Wood and established themselves beyond the Becelaere-Zonnebeke Road; and British battalions captured Zonnebeke village and church, as well as strong points on both sides of the Wieltje-Gravenstafel Road. Fierce and repeated counter-attacks along the whole line of our new positions engaged attention until October 4th, when the advance was once more renewed, again in rain, after a spell of fine weather. The frontage of the attack extended some eight miles from a mile south of the Menin Road to the Ypres-Staden Railway. Reutel, Joist Farm and Noordemd- hock were captured by British regiments. Australian troops stormed Molenaarelsthoek and Broodseinde, and established themselves well to the east of the crest. The 1st and 4th Brigades of the New Zealand Division carried Gravenstafel, swept the enemy from a network of trenches and strong points on the Gravenstafel Spur, and took 1,200 prisoners from no fewer than four different Divisions. It transpired that in addition to the two German Divisions already in line in this sector, the enemy had brought up three fresh Divisions for the purpose of making an attack in strength, but our own assault anticipated his intended attack by ten minutes.

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The weather continued bad, and the ground was in a deplorable condition; but balanced against this were the symptoms of confusion and discouragement in the ranks of the enemy, and the necessity of continuing operations in order to hold his reserves on this front with a view to assisting the French in their attack in the neighbourhood of Malmaison on the 23rd. It was therefore decided to deliver the next combined French and British attack on October 9th.

Notwithstanding heavy rain on the 7th and 8th, the advance commenced at 5.20 a.m. on October 9th as planned. French and British troops captured Koekuit, Veldhoek, Mangelaere, and St. Janshoek, and established themselves on their final objectives on the outskirts of Houthulst Forest. The British troops on the left were successful in taking Poelcappelle, and on the extreme right retook Reutel and captured Judge Cottage, though they could make no headway against Polderhoek Chateau, a formidable strong-point upon which, some two months later, the New Zealand troops were to try their skill with little better result.

Opposite Passchendaele the success achieved fell far short of expectations. Here the 66th and 49th Divisions operated, their section of the objective being the high ground on both sides of the Ravebeek, including Bellevue Spur. The troops of the 66th progressed satisfactorily, their advance being carried well beyond Keerselaarhoek, but the 49th on their left got no further than the first objective. The 66th, being thus exposed, were enfiladed from Bellevue, and had to fall back to a line in prolongation of that reached by the 49th. This was some 500 yards in advance of the jumping-off positions and ran roughly from the Ravebeek, through Marsh Bottom, Peter Pan, and Yetta Houses, joining up near Adler Farm with the line of the Corps on the left, where progress had been no more extensive.

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