As the winter of 1916-1917 ended, Allied troops on the western front were treated to an unexpected sight. The Germans had begun to withdraw. It wasn’t far, just a dozen kilometres east to a new defensive zone which the British quickly dubbed the Hindenburg Line. The fleeting tonic the withdrawal gave the Allies was illusory, this German position was stronger and better-prepared.
The Australians marched into the gap and arrived at the ruined and empty town of Bapaume near Amiens. It was St Patrick’s Day but there was little to celebrate. Germans snipers held outposts beyond the Hindenburg Line and took murderous casualties. By April the two armies faced each other again on the new Line. The four AIF divisions that fought on the Somme were part of the 5th British Army ordered to Bullecourt. General Gough repeated his mistakes of Pozières. The Australians had to take the Line without artillery and it took two bloodsoaked weeks before the Germans withdrew. The Australians lost 10,000 men in two attacks that achieved little. Bullecourt convinced Australian soldiers that the British brass was incompetent.
Field Marshal Haig’s next plan was to send the army back to Flanders and drive the Germans from the ridges around Ypres. Ypres was one of the earliest battlefields in 1914 and had been in stalemate for three years. The first object was to take the Messines-Wytschaete ridge to the south of Ypres in an audacious underground plan.
The Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917 was the Australians’ first large-scale encounter in Belgium. Men from the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company used their mining experience to lay thousands of explosive devices under German positions. The force of the bombs detonated the ridge and the din could be heard in London. A memorial to the tunnellers now stands on Hill 60.
The Australian 3rd and 4th Divisions and New Zealanders attacked the shattered defences of what was left of the German line. They got as far as the ruined Broodseinde village still held by the Germans on a higher ridge. The Australians attacked under the cover of a creeping barrage, taking the heavily defended town, perhaps the most complete victory yet by the Allies on the Western Front. With the Germans tottering, the fates stepped in: it started to rain.
Within days the slimy muck dragged every advance to a halt. On October 12, the 3rd Division and New Zealanders attacked the high village of Passchendaele. Artillery support was weak and the rain was relentless. Australian infantry were stuck in the mud in front of heavy machine gun fire and casualties were enormous. The Germans counter-attacked and the exhausted Anzacs retreated in a rout. They lost 7000 men at Passchendaele. The Australians left to regroup and the Canadians took over the position. The Allies made gains but nearly half a million men died at Ypres in 1917, their tragedy compounded as almost all the ground was lost again in the German Spring Offensive of 1918.
War historian Charles Bean calculated the five Australian divisions lost 38,000 men in the eight weeks of Ypres. Six thousand Australian names ended up at Ypres War Memorial, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing (erected ten years later). As 1917 ended, Prime Minister Hughes had another go at introducing conscription. On December 20, the referendum suffered another narrow defeat as Melbourne’s Archbishop Mannix urged Catholics to vote against it.
The AIF would remain a depleted volunteer army as it entered 1918. Yet despite years of deadly war, morale remained surprisingly high. The Aussies were calling themselves “Diggers” and the five divisions were brought together as the Australian Corps, under Gallipoli commander William Birdwood. Moscow was burning in the Russian revolution but America was finally in the war bringing a belief that after four years the tide was finally turning.