|Percy Charles Richards M.M.|
By Rod Martin
The Germans who survived were half-mad and wanted to surrender.
(Gibbs: From Bapaume to Passchendaele 1917)
Percy probably heard the explosion. If so, however, it would have been from a distance, and he certainly did not see the results, which are described by Gibbs as being “the most terribly beautiful thing, the most diabolical splendour, I have seen in war”. Another eyewitness, infantryman Edward Lynch, describes it as being like “an enormous black tin hat rising slowly out of the hill”. Six days before this cataclysmic event, Percy had been wounded accidentally in the explosion of an ammunition dump in Ploegsteert Wood, close to the line at Messines Ridge (the explosion may have been set off by the German counter-shelling that occurred after the beginning of the seven-day bombardment). He had received a “slight wound” to the left side of his face while preparing the dump for the upcoming battle. He was probably evacuated to the casualty clearing station at Steenwerck in the rear and then transported by 9 Australian Field Ambulance to a military hospital in Boulogne for treatment and recuperation. He was discharged from the hospital on 11 June and it took him nine days to rejoin his battalion. He arrived back, probably covering the final journey to the front on foot, on 20 June. In consequence, he missed the massive explosion, he missed the advance of 3 Division through Ploegsteert Wood just before the detonation, he missed the German gas bombardment of the wood that occurred at that time, causing at least 500 casualties in 39 Battalion (two-thirds of its total strength) before the formal battle had even started, and he missed the division’s actual attack across no man’s land, and the action that led to the capture of the ridge in just a single day.
The Battle of Messines, 7 -12 June 1917, the 39th Division were positioned just north of Ploegsteert Wood
(Carlyon - The Great War)
By the end of that day, all three British objectives had been achieved and, to use Peter Cochrane’s words, Messines was recorded as one of the great set-piece victories of the war. However, a bitter price had been paid for the three kilometres of territory that had been gained: 6 800 Australian casualties. 306 of them were from 39 Battalion. Some of them were probably Percy’s comrades.
By the time Percy returned to the front on 20 June, the Battle of Messines was over. The Germans had conducted a strategic retreat to more defensible lines on 10 June, and allowed the British forces to occupy their old trenches on the ridge. 10 Brigade, of which 39 Battalion was a part, had been relieved on the night of 8 June after suffering heavy shelling and high casualties. It now sat back near the town of St. Yves, recuperating and licking its wounds, but with the smell of victory in its nostrils.
Spirits would no doubt have been high when Percy arrived back at the lines, doubly so because the initial attack at Ypres, planned for 31 July, would not include any Australians. As Carlyon tells us, they had been scheduled for a long rest. The bravery and daring of the Australian soldiers had been known to the British commanders since the bloody battles of Fromelles and Pozières in the previous year and, increasingly, they had been used as shock troops since that time. The initial attack on Messines Ridge was another such example. As American correspondent Frederick Palmer wrote of Australia in 1917:
I want to see the land that breeds such men. They are free men if ever there were such; free whether they come from town or bush . . . Whenever I saw an Australian I thought: “Here is a very proud, individual man,” but also an Australian, particularly an Australian.
They were now to be given a richly deserved break from the conflict. However, rest or not, the troops were still close to the front line, and to action. As Lynch reflects, “Even the quietest parts of the line take their toll. Even in a quiet innings the wickets fall and players get their despatch to the pavilion, their innings ended”. On 23 June, its rest over, 3 Division took over the captured sector just north of St. Yves and west of the town of Warneton, which was still in German hands. There the troops established three lines of defence.
This work was done under pressure, however. Bean tells us that the German artillery, machine guns and snipers were kept busy in efforts to counteract the Australians’ industriousness. Nevertheless, despite all this hard work and a number of small actions, none of the Australian brigades was close enough to the German line to conduct an effective attack on it. Minor operations were
undertaken in the area by units from 3 Division, with some success, but 39 Battalion’s general role at this time was to hold and further secure its section of the line. Percy would have experienced a lot of trench-digging and other construction work. His labouring background probably came in very handy!
The Battle of Passchendaele was a disaster for the British. The successful attack at Messines had warned the Germans that a major offensive at Ypres was imminent, and they reinforced their lines accordingly. And so tardy was the main attack after Messines that they had over a month in which to do it. With nearly a million men on each side, and with the Germans entrenched in their heavily fortified Hindenburg Line, Haig had neither a strategic nor a numerical
Hun’s Walk, Messines. Captured by 39 Battalion during the Battle of Messines, June 1917. Note the German pillbox (fortified blockhouse) on the right
(Australian War Memorial)
advantage on the Ypres Front. When the first troops went over the tops of the trenches on 31 July, they would do so against the best advice of military and political planners. One of the biggest problems they would face would be mud, “gluey, intolerable mud”, as Leon Wolff describes it. The ground at Ypres is heavy clay. Water never drains away naturally. What is more, continual bombardments since 1914 had churned up the ground and destroyed the delicate drainage system that had been constructed by farmers many centuries before to make the area arable. When combined with rain, the new preliminary bombardment in 1917 would turn this ground into almost impassable mud. And rain it certainly did, causing British prime minister David Lloyd George to christen the conflict ‘the battle of the mud’.
As A. J. P. Taylor puts it:
Failure was obvious by the end of the first day to everyone except Haig and his immediate circle. The greatest advance was less than half a mile. The main German line was nowhere reached. Rain fell heavily. The ground, turned up by shellfire, turned to mud. Haig sent in tanks. These also vanished in the mud. Imperceptibly Haig changed his tone.
The only purpose of the battle [now] was to kill Germans and shake their morale.
Most war historians agree with Taylor. Captain Basil Liddell Hart describes the conflict as “the gloomiest drama in British military history . . . ‘Passchendaele’ has come to be . . . a synonym for military failure – a name black-bordered in the records of the British Army.” Even writing from a contemporary perspective, Bean called the plan ‘a huge gamble’. “They don’t realise,” he wrote about the British commanders, “how desperately hard it will
2423 Private William Leslie Neville of Fourth Reinforcements, 39 Battalion. Hailing from Ballarat, he sailed with Percy on HMAT Port Lincoln in 1916, and finished the war as a Sergeant. Percy's regimental number was 2425.
(Australian War Memorial)
be to fight down such opposition in the mud, rifles choked, L[ewis] G[uns] out of action, men tired and slow . . . Every step means dragging one foot out of the mud . . . I shall be very surprised if this fight succeeds.” At no stage in the war did Haig go anywhere near the front line, so he never had a real appreciation of the conditions in which the men were fighting. When his chief of staff visited the fighting zone - at Ypres – for the first time in November, he burst into tears and cried: “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” By then, however, his grief was all too late. “Passchendaele”, writes John Masters,
Sums up the Great War in itself, because Passchendaele is courage and sacrifice beyond understanding; Passchendaele is the ultimate in acceptance, in discipline; Passchendaele is mud, sleet, lice, mud, noise, jagged steel, horror piled on reeking horror, men and animals torn in pieces, mud seeded with brains and blood, mud heaving with putrifying thousands of fathers, sons and lovers; Passchendaele is appalling muddle, waste to terrify the soul. A German general described it as . . . the greatest martyrdom of the World War.
Conditions on the Ypres Front during the Battle of Passchendaele, November 1917
(Australian War Memorial)
While the attacks at Ypres dragged on into August, Percy and his compatriots remained in the Messines area, being involved in minor skirmishes with their German counterparts and training for their inevitable involvement in the major conflict to the north. It would appear, however, that, at one stage for a short while, General Monash took his division to rest at Boulogne on the coast, where the men enjoyed sunshine and sports days. By 26 August, it had been decided that I Anzac Corps would soon relieve a British corps on the battlefield, and II Anzac Corps (to which Percy’s 3 Division belonged) would come in at a later stage, possibly to I Anzac’s left. I Anzac marched north to do this and entered the front line near Westhoek and Glencorse Wood on 16 September (see map p. 7 ). They went into attack on 20 September in heavy mud after overnight rain. Carlyon writes that many of them were wet from the waist down and carrying several pounds of mud on each boot (as well as their sixty-pound packs) as they assembled for the jump-off. Despite these handicaps, the troops gained a limited victory in what became known as the Battle of Menin Road. They advanced about 1 200 metres, but at the cost of 5 000 casualties. The total gain in territory as a result of this battle was about nine square kilometres. As Carlyon points out, it was hardly going to win the war.
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