100 Years Ago – 1917


Australians in the second line of the trenches before Riencourt (near Bullecourt), in May 1917, cleaning their rifles in readiness for an attack.

As we enter 2017 we reflect on the significance of the battles that were fought 100 years ago, the impact of those battles and the hand they played in shaping Australia as a nation during the Great War. This year we commemorate battles fought in theatres on the Western Front and in the Middle East, with decisive battles fought at Rafa and Gaza in the Sinai campaign, as well as battles in Bullecourt, Menin Road, and Polygon Wood.

By the end of 1916 Australia had suffered 40,000 casualties; a further 76,836 Australians would become casualties by the end of 1917. Below are highlighted some of the better known engagements that involved South Australian units and personnel. A more complete list is attached at the end of this article and will be the focus of  E-News publications throughout 2017.

Centenary of the First Battle of Gaza (26 March 1917)
The coastal city of Gaza was the heart of the main Turkish defensive position in southern Palestine. Three major battles were launched in 1917 by British and Dominion forces to capture Gaza – only the third succeeded. The first battle of Gaza took place on 26 March 1917 with two British infantry divisions attacking from the south while mounted troops attacked from the flanks and the north. After a strategic error, withdrawing troops due to a fear of a lack of water supplies, a secondary attack commenced to no avail, Turkish reinforcements held out against an exhausted infantry.

Centenary of the Battle of Noreuil, France (2 April 1917)
Northern France, late in February 1917, saw the German Army retreat to the Hindenburg Line.  The Germans gave up ground, but in doing so they made the ground uninhabitable and as difficult to navigate as possible. British and Dominion troops immediately followed-up this withdrawal and advanced. In order to delay their advance and provide time for the Hindenburg Line defences to be fully prepared and manned, the Germans established rear guards by fortifying numerous villages and towns on the approaches to the Hindenburg Line. Noreuil was one of these villages. It was attacked by the 50th and 51st Battalions, with the 49th and 52nd in support, on the morning of 2 April, 1917.

Centenary of the Battle of Messines, Belgium (7 June 1917)
The target of this offensive was the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, a stronghold southeast of Ypres, which since late 1914 had been occupied by the Germans.  This battle, it has been argued, was the most successful operation of the war, most certainly of the Western Front. A product of long preparation, detailed planning, and sound training, the initial assault was preceded by the laying of 21 mines, of which 19 detonated under the German front line. German counter attacks continued the following day with resistance continuing until 14 June. British, Australian and New Zealand forces retained possession of the captured areas.

Third Battle of Ypres, Belgium (31 July 1917)
The Third Battle of Ypres was the major British offensive in Flanders in 1917. The aggressive and meticulously planned offensive was aimed at destroying German submarine bases located on the north coast of Belgium.  Nine British divisions were ordered to advance on the German lines near the village of Passchendaele in Belgium.  The battle of Ypres consisted of several smaller battles fought under extremely difficult waterlogged conditions due to the frequent rain and destruction of the Flanders’ lowlands from artillery bombardment.   The Third battle of Ypres remains one of the most costly and controversial offensives of World War I.

Significant battles at Menin Road (20-25 September) and Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Celtic Wood and Passchendaele all occurred as part of the Third Battle of Ypres. The Battle at Polygon Wood would prove particularly costly for Australia, with more than 5,770 Australian casualties, many of whom were from the 50th Australian Infantry Battalion raised in Egypt in 1916, most of whose members hailed from South Australia.

Read the list about the other battles associated with the Third Battle of Ypres.

Centenary of the Battle of Beersheba, Middle East (31 October, 1917)
The battle of Beersheba was part of a wider offensive known as the third Battle of Gaza. The battle of Beersheba is widely known for the final phase of this all day battle, which culminated in the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade. Members of the 4th Light Horse with only bayonets drawn, the only weapon able to be used on horseback as their rifles were slung on their backs, stormed through the Turkish defences and seized the strategic town of Beersheba. The charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse at Beersheba is remembered as the last great cavalry charge

The capture of Beersheba enabled British forces to break the Ottoman line near Gaza on 7 November and advance into Palestine.

Centenary of the Capture of Jerusalem (9 December, 1917)
The Battle of Jerusalem occurred during the “Jerusalem Operations” against the Ottoman Empire. Fighting around Jerusalem began on 17 November, and continued after the surrender until 30 December 1917. The capture of Jerusalem was successfully fought against strong opposition in the Judean Hills and north of Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast. The loss of both Jaffa and Jerusalem, together with the loss of 80 km of territory after the capture of Beersheba, Gaza, Hareira and Sheria, resulted in a significant setback for the Ottoman Army and the Ottoman Empire.

Middle East – Rafa (9 January 1917) 3rd Light Horse Regiment + 9th Light Horse (with VIC)
Western Front – Advance to the Hindenburg Line (February-April 1917) 32nd Battalion (with WA)
Middle East – Gaza (27 March, 19 April 1917) 3rd Light Horse Regiment (with TAS) + 9th Light Horse (with VIC)
Western Front – Noreuil (2 April 1917) – 50th Battalion (SA)
Western Front – Bullecourt (10-11 April 1917) – 12th Battalion (with Tas/WA), 16th Battalion (with WA),  48th Battalion (with WA), 50th Battalion, 52nd Battalion
Western Front – Battle of Lagnicourt (15 April 1917) – 12th Battalion
Middle East – Gaza (19 April 1917) – 11th Light Horse Regiment (with QLD)
Middle East – Es Salt Raid  (30 April – 3 May) – 3rd LH + 9th LH Regiments
Western Front – Messines (7 June 1917) 16th Battalion (with WA),  43rd Battalion,  50th Battalion, 52nd Battalion (with QLD)
Western Front – Third Battle of Ypres  (31 July – 10 November, 1917) which incorporated the following battlefront locations:

–          Pilckem (31 July –  2 August) mostly British, French, Canadian forces

–          Warneton (31 July 1917) 43rd Battalion
–          Battle of the Menin Road Ridge (20 September 1917) -12th Battalion,  27th Battalion (SA); 32nd Battalion (with WA), 50th Battalion, 52nd Battalion
–          Battle of Polygon Wood (26 September 1917) – 10th Battalion (SA), 16th Battalion (with WA), 27th Battalion,  32nd Battalion (with WA), 43rd Battalion, 50th Battalion, 52nd Battalion
–          Battle of Broodseinde Ridge (4 October 1917) – 10th Battalion, 27th Battalion, 43rd Battalion
–          Raid on Celtic Wood (9 October 1917) – 10th Battalion, 27th Battalion, 43rd Battalion
–          Battle of Poelcapelle (9 October 1917) – 10th Battalion, 27th Battalion, 32nd Battalion, 43rd Battalion
–          First Battle of Passchendaele (12 October 1917 –) 16th Battalion (with WA), 27th Battalion, 32nd Battalion, 43rd Battalion, 50th Battalion, 52nd Battalion
–          Second Battle of Passchendaele (26 October – 10 November, 1917 ) 16th Battalion, 32nd Battalion, 43rd Battalion, 50th Battalion, 52nd Battalion
Middle East – Battle of Beersheeba – 3rd LH, 9th LH & 11th LH Regiments.
Middle East – Sheria (7 November 1917) – 11th Light Horse Regiment.