“Like a Gippsland bushfire.”
Charles Bean’s description of a rolling artillery barrage pulverising the earth in front of the advancing Australian troops, September 26, 1917 was succinct and accurate.
Weeks of fine weather dried the earth of the Belgian countryside somewhat after drenching August rain, allowing the victories of Menin Road and Polygon Wood to be achieved by the Allies, albeit at appalling cost.
The First World War was closing its third year as a descent into once of the most brutal, wasteful episodes of modern warfare took place. The Third Battle of the Ypres, familiarly known as the Battle of Passchendaele, sucked tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of soldiers to unspeakable deaths.
Among the fallen were 33 men from Ballarat. They died on or around October 4 in a last phase of the operation aimed at taking Broodseinde, a key ridge to the Gheluvelt plateau and the success of the British objectives.
The men pushed up to the front line on the October night. Huddled together, the Australian troops waited in the dawn’s dark as the first huge raindrops splashed onto their khaki uniforms. The smell of wet wool began to mix with that of sweat and fear, of mud and dead bodies and the rich stink of the supply horses.
The skies opened, as did the German artillery, which found the range of the Australians before they had even moved forward.
Men died beside their covered rifles, blown to pieces or entombed in masses of soil thrown up by the shelling. One-seventh of the fighting force became casualties without having fired a shot.
The remainder of the two Australian Corps pushed into the mud of No Man’s Land, into some of the most vicious fighting of the war.
Hand-to-hand combat took place as the advancing Australians met unexpected waves of German troops also moving forward in an unexpected attack of their own. The Anzacs swept them aside, but the machine gun pillboxes extracted a terrible price.
At the end of the day the objectives were taken and the pillboxes silenced. Of the two Australian corps, 6500 diggers were dead or wounded. The Germans suffered 10,000 casualties, and had 5000 men taken prisoner.
The rain began in earnest around midday. For the rest of October, there were just five days without rain. The battlefield of Passchendaele would become a giant cauldron of mud, a cesspool of vile and foetid sludge that drowned men and horses. They sank in the destroyed landscape, most never to be found.
Broodseinde was counted a great victory by High Command, though the gains were soon lost as the grasping mud halted advances. Casualties were well above the ‘normal wastage’ of 35,000 men a month.
The true hell of Passchendaele was about to be realised.
The Arch of Victory Avenue of Honour Committee will hold a commemorative service at the Ballarat Arch of Victory at 9.30am on the centenary of the battle, Wednesday October 4. All are welcome to attend and lay a wreath in remembrance.