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1917: the worst year of a hideous war

AAP logoAAP 14/12/2016 Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

As they shivered in trenches and dugouts, enduring the harshest winter for decades in northern Europe, Australia's soldiers would have wondered if 1917 would be as bad as 1916.

It had been bad. After withdrawing from Gallipoli, the diggers came late to the Western Front in mid-1916 and their introduction to industrial warfare was searing.

In eight weeks, the Australian Imperial Force experienced as many casualties in eight months on Gallipoli - 5500 dead and wounded at Fromelles and 23,000 at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm.

With the onset of winter, rain and incessant shellfire churned the ground into an impassable quagmire and British commander-in-chief General Douglas Haig finally conceded enough was enough. He called off the Somme offensive, after 141 days.

Almost five months of relentless attacks had pushed the Germans back about 12km but they far from defeated.

As it turned out, 1917 was far far worse than 1916, as the bloodletting reached fresh heights.

For Australian troops 1917 had started well enough. It was cold but they were only called on to conduct small-scale operations.

Then on February 23, to the astonishment of almost everyone, the Germans disappeared from their frontline trenches along the Somme sector.

They progressively withdrew as far back as 50km to new defensive positions, abandoning territory both sides had been fighting over since late 1914.

The Germans called their new defences the Siegfried Line. The Allies called it the Hindenburg Line.

For the Germans, the withdrawal made good sense. The new line comprised multiple trenches, barbed wire belts, concrete machine gun emplacements and deep bunkers designed to survive artillery bombardment.

British and Australian troops followed the retreating Germans.

By mid-March, the Australians had reached the town of Bapaume, a key objective of the Somme offensive. German resistance stiffened as the allies approached their main defences.

For the AIF, the first major action came on April 11 with an attack on a well-defended outpost at a town called Bullecourt.

The diggers succeeded in penetrating the frontline but, lacking support from artillery and new but unreliable tanks, the result was carnage.

Casualties exceeded 5,000 and more than 1,000 were taken prisoner - the largest haul of Aussie POWs of any action in WWI.

A second attempt in early May proved more successful but a fortnight of fighting produced another 7,000 casualties.

Further south, in mid-April, the French launched the Nivelle offensive, named after General Robert Nivelle who loudly proclaimed he could achieve a decisive breakthrough.

But he couldn't. For modest gains, casualties exceeded 100,000, driving the battered French army to the brink of disintegration as exhausted troops began to mutiny.

In Russia, a succession of defeats with staggering losses contributed to national disaffection, fuelling with the February revolution and the October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power.

Russia withdrew from the war, freeing up large numbers of German troops for operations on the Western Front in 1918.

While the United States had remained neutral, its resolve was being tested.

First, a German plot to recruit Mexico as an ally was uncovered by British intelligence.

The US was outraged but the final straw was Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the sinking of seven US ships.

The US declared war on April 6 but it would be a year before large numbers of US troops reached Europe.

With limited, immediate prospects of progress in France, allied high command adopted Haig's plan for a major offensive in Flanders, Belgium - the main event for 1917.

This was called Third Ypres - the third allied offensive in the region - but it's better known as Passchendaele after the modest village that was the final objective.

With its biblical allusions, Passchendaele became a byword for vast casualties and pointless attrition under appalling conditions.

The key objective was the slightly higher ground of the Gheluvelt Plateau, allowing the capture of ports from where German submarines were delivering devastation on allied ships.

Step one was an attack on Messines Ridge on June 7, opening with the detonation of 19 huge mines in tunnels beneath German lines.

The movie, 'Beneath Hill 60', tells of Australia's role in the multinational venture, which produced some of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history.

Those huge bangs, plus good planning, made Messines a success, although as always casualties were significant.

Had the main offensive been launched promptly to take advantage of German disarray, the outcome might have been different. But Haig's chosen commander General Sir Hubert Gough had big plans and needed time to prepare.

Third Ypres kicked off on July 31. More than a quarter of a million British, French and Commonwealth soldiers attacked along a 13km front with encouraging gains, as massed artillery obliterated German defences and annihilated inevitable German counter-attacks.

The strategy was called "bite and hold" - seize ground, hold, repeat.

Australia participated in a series of battles - Menin Road on September 20, followed by Polygon Wood and Broodseinde - all successful.

Had Haig quit in early October, Third Ypres might have been remembered as a success. But like all gamblers, he believed just one more push was all that was needed.

So came battles at Poelcappelle on October 9 and finally Passchendaele on October 12. Both failed.

For the soldiers, there was unparalleled misery as heavy rain and shellfire turned the low-lying battlefield into a swamp where heavily laden soldiers drowned in muddy shellholes.

The sodden ground meant guns couldn't be brought forward to provide the massed artillery barrages that had previously proved so effective.

Some of the war's most evocative images, taken by Australians Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins, depict a shattered landscape of tree stumps, shellholes, mud and exhausted soldiers.

With 38,000 dead and wounded, the five divisions of the AIF withdrew from the line. They would not return until March 1918.

Historians describe 1917 as the worst year of the war. It surely was.

Australia's casualties totalled 76,836 dead and wounded. The 40,000 dead from 1917 comprised two-thirds of all Australian dead in WWI and 40 per cent of all Australian war dead, ever. October 1917, with 6,400 lost, was the worst single month.

Three years into the four-year war, the end seemed further away than ever. Yet there were some bright spots.

In Palestine, light horsemen achieved good progress against Turkish forces culminating in the famous Australian mounted charge to seize the city of Beersheba on October 31.

And in France and Belgium, Australian troops were learning the business of industrial warfare.

It came at an appalling cost but what would emerge were battle-hardened soldiers, experienced leaders and effective tactics and weaponry.

With Australia's five divisions formed into a single corps commanded by General John Monash, the diggers would achieve a succession of victories in 1918 that materially contributed to the final allied victory.

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