Every one of the 60 Australian battalions to fight on the Western Front passed through Ypres at some point during the war. This fact alone gives some indication of the importance of Ypres in the story of Australia in the war.
All the towns and villages surrounding Ypres – Messines Ridge, Langemark, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Poelcappelle, Broodseinde – are places linked to the Australian involvement. In every battle the tactics were much the same. The artillery would attempt to pound the German defences which were stoutly built –pillboxes, underground concrete shelters, depth of trench lines and heavy artillery concentrations. Then the troops would be sent forward, often in small unit formations. Having pushed off the Germans, the troops would then attempt to dig in against the anticipated counter-attack. Fresh troops would also be brought up at this point in the engagement to help resist the incoming German attack.
Casualties could then be assessed and a calculation made of the territory gained. In the entire fighting over several months around Ypres, in the most atrocious weather conditions, the British campaign pushed forward no more than 4,500 yards. The Belgian coast, which was General Haig’s objective, was about 50 miles away.
Ypres, with its remarkable Cloth Hall, had been a medieval masterpiece. It was all but destroyed in the fighting in 1917. The loss of Australian life was astonishing; the suffering of the troops beyond our understanding. The year of 1917 was a dark time in Australian history.
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