After almost four months of constant training the 28th Battalion were finally in action once more in the Battle of Menin Road which started on 20 September 1917. The objective was to take and hold the high ground of the ridge that crossed the Menin Road to the south east of Ypres. The Australian 1st and 2nd Divisions would attack side by side from Westhoek Ridge towards Polygon Wood – see below map (click to enlarge). But due to the bombardments in preparation for the attack, very little if anything remained of the original woods. “Westhoek, on the second spur, was marked only by the line of pillboxes which the Germans had built in its ruins. On the main ridge the woods had been shredded to stubble, and the slight depressions of the Polygon Wood plateau on the crest, as well as the hollows on either side, had been turned into bog.” (Official History, p 739)
The tactics were different from before with three waves of successive attacks deploying the new ‘bite and hold’ tactics – the first battalion in the first wave to take their objective and hold it, whilst the second battalion who had been lying in wait behind them leapfrogged their position, took their objective and held it, whilst a third battalion leapfrogged the second position on their way to take the third and final objective. The battalions being leapfrogged would then act as reserves for the next battalion. The artillery would provide a creeping barrage but the difference being that the barrage would be much deeper than before, move on and then come back, for each successive wave of the attack, and then continue as a standing barrage just in front of the final objective for several hours to deal with the expected counter attacks from the enemy. The 28th Battalion would form the third and last wave of the attack in their allocated sector. The force in the earlier waves might be lighter, and the advance there deeper and quicker, than in the later stages. The last stage must be the shortest and slowest, and carried out by the strongest force, which must be prepared to meet immediate counter-attack.
The tactics demanded careful and precise planning. But after months of preparation, with refreshed troops, the attack went according to plan.
It helped that the successive objectives were each relatively modest distances – This was another ‘new’ tactic to “preserve physical freshness and good organisation”. And the weather was favourable – the threatened rain, which could have seen a recurrence of the hellish mud at Gueudecourt, held off. Drier weather made it much easier for the attackers to move vast amounts of supplies forward and for the infantry to move quickly to the next objective. There was a ground fog around dawn, which helped conceal the Australian infantry during the attack, before clearing up later in the morning to expose German troop movements to observation and attack.
Another difference to previous battles was that the Germans held no definite, readily distinguishable trench lines. Instead the front line consisted of scattered reinforced posts (‘pill-boxes’), with machine-guns distributed chequer-wise over a wide area behind it. The pill-boxes gave excellent protection to the machine gunners inside who could shelter from the shell fire and, as the barrage eased, quickly emerge to mount the machine guns against the attacking infantry. The real line of resistance lay in rear of all this, with supports, reserves, and more machine-guns distributed in great depth.
The tactics to overcome the pill-boxes had been practiced by the Australians. While a section fired at the loopholes to deny observation to the occupiers, another section would creep around the flanks to fling bombs (grenades) through the apertures and entrance door at the rear. It was also crucial for the attacking troops to closely follow the creeping barrage and not to allow the German machine gunners time to emerge from the pill-boxes to set up the machine guns.
Scattered in the zone of attack were the remains of a number of tanks which had been wrecked in earlier actions. Though the Australians had decided to attack without tank support, two tanks were fitted out as wireless stations to be placed in Glencourse Wood.
The attack was a great success along its entire front. Zero hour for the attack was 5.40am when the heavy barrage opened. By 6.30am the 25th Battalion had taken its objective of the Red Line, running along a sunken road with its northern edge at Glencourse Wood and its southern edge at Hannebeke Swamp in None Bosschen. Small pockets of resistance were encountered, particularly from the zealous German machine gunners, who almost inevitably fought to the death, although most of the dazed enemy garrison surrendered. At 7am the 27th Battalion leap-frogged the 25th and by 7.30am had taken their objective of the Blue Line, extending from Iron Cross Redoubt to Polygon Wood. The majority of the enemy surrendered with token resistance. At 8.10am the 28th moved forward from its position at Westhoek Ridge to take up its place just behind the artillery barrage in front of the Blue Line (see map above).
The 28th Battalion’s attack commenced with the re-opening of the barrage at 9.53am, and then the four companies A, B, C and D spread out in order from left to right, each composed of four waves moving steadily forward behind the creeping barrage in good order. German artillery and machine gun fire caused many casualties. When all the officers of D Company became casualties, Sergeant Albert.W. Clark took command of the Company and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This N.C.O. led his platoon with great dash, and set a splendid example to all. When all his company officers had become casualties, he took command of his company, and handled his men in grand style under very trying circumstances. His conduct was most gallant and inspiring.”
A platoon from A company moved too far to the left during the advance and was corrected by Corporal Reuben Arnold, who was awarded the Military Medal, Arnold, a farm hand from Perth, WA was killed barely a month later, of gas poisioning in the Battle of Passchendaele .
The Green Line objective was quickly reached in just a few minutes. The enemy troops offered token resistance and their positions were quickly cleared, with prisoners escorted back to the support lines. The success signal of two green Very lights (flares) fired in quick succession, was made at 10am. “The battle of September 20th (Menin Road), like those that succeeded it, is easily described in as much as it went almost precisely in accordance with plan.” (Official History, p. 761)
The 28th then took immediate action to consolidate the position by furiously digging a trench line under constant enemy shell fire and attack from enemy airplanes. The 28th moved the line forward in places, beyond the Green Line, a few yards down the slope of the ridge out of the line of the enemy barrage and commenced consolidation. Lance Corporal Ernest Jack Johnson, formerly a clerk from East Perth, WA, led his men forward and selected posts for a motley collection of 17th and 28th Battalion men. Johnson was wounded by shrapnel, but refused to be evacuated until his men were deployed. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When his officers had become casualties, he took charge of two platoons of his battalion and a number of men of another battalion, showing excellent judgment in selecting positions and consolidating. The position was rendered safe by the good dispositions which he made for its defence and by his personal example and leadership. Though wounded, he carried on until the battalion was relieved, displaying an utter disregard for personal safety.’.
At 1.48, as no counter-attack appeared to be imminent anywhere, the barrage came to an end on the Anzac front after having run its course for eight hours and eight minutes. Carrying parties from the 26th battalion in support brought up coils of barbed wire which was strung out in front of the new front line. The 28th Battalion Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant George Meysey Hammond (see previous post on the Battle of Guedecourt), patrolled Polygon Wood with a revolver clutched in his one good hand and his pockets stuffed with Mills bombs (grenades). Hammond attacked an enemy party and returned with twenty German prisoners, for which he was awarded the Military Cross ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on 20/9/17 at Westhoek. Lieut. Hammond went forward with the Advanced Brigade party as Intelligence Officer. he secured much valuable matter. Although only have the use of one arm, he captured 20 prisoners by himself. His example to the men was wonderful. He was fearless in the extreme, and cheered everyone on. He volunteered for any dangerous work and made a number of reconnaissance of the front line, securing much valuable information.‘
By 4pm a continuous trench some 5 to 6 feet deep had been dug, contact had been made with the 17th battalion on their left and the 9th Battalion on their right, weapons had been cleaned and the troops prepared for the inevitable counter attacks. The German artillery and snipers constantly inflicted casualties throughout the day. Corporal Alfred Frederick Hitchcock crawled out in front of the Battalion’s line and waited until a sniper fired another shot, thus revealing his position. Hitchcock promptly killed the sniper and returned to the trench and was later awarded the Military Medal.
Several times during the afternoon and evening, groups of enemy troops launched repeated desperate counter-attacks but were kept back by the Australian artillery fire. A number of ‘drop-shorts’ by the Australian artillery caused casualties in the battalion’s ranks. A platoon post under the command of Corporal Ernest Reedy Walsh was attacked by an enemy bombing party, but Walsh dispersed the attack, and was awarded the Military Medal.
Enemy barrages of the front line continued into the night but as the intensity decreased patrols were sent out on both flanks into Polygon Wood and Albania Wood. At dawn (4.30 a.m.) on the 21st a great barrage, machine-gun fire and all, came down again as prearranged, and swept forward for 2,000 yards. Sporadic shelling, artillery duels and German aircraft continued to harass the Australians throughout the day – with the inevitable continuous casualties. The Battalion was relieved by the 23rd Battalion at around 1am on 22nd September.
On 23rd September the 28th Battalion moved further back to bivouacs near Reninghelst, where they consolidated and hot baths were organised.The Battalion was well satisfied with its success, although the casualties at first count numbered 51 killed and 189 wounded.
“So ended, with complete success, the first step in Haig’s trial of true step-by-step tactics. The British Army did this day precisely what it was intended to do, and did it even more cleanly than at Messines.” However “Lord Bertie, British Ambassador in Paris, noted in his diary: “ We have done a good offensive which is much appreciated. But will it lead to anything really important ?” (Official History)
Henry K. Kahan, The 28th Battalion Australian Imperial Force : a record of war service, pp 40-41
Neville Browning, The Blue & White Diamond : the History of the 28th Battalion 1915-1919, pp 226-233
CEW Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume IV – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917 (11th edition, 1941), Chapter XVIII – Step by Step. (1) The Menin Road, pp 735 – 790