WWI Centennial: Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 288th installment in the series.

September 20-October 3, 1917: Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood

The horrifying Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele for its final phase in the late autumn of 1917, continued in September-October with two back-to-back British attacks on the German Fourth Army east of Ypres: the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, from September 20-25, and the Battle of Polygon Wood, from September 26-October 3. Although the British strategy of “bite and hold” continued to yield incremental gains, these came at a heavy cost, with over 41,000 British and Australian casualties over the course of the two battles (compared to around 39,000 German), while the prospect of a breakthrough remained elusive.

“One Cannot Help Becoming Fatalistic”

Following costly advances at Pilckem Ridge from July 31- August 2, 1917 and Langemarck from August 16-18, BEF commander Douglas Haig, Second Army commander Herbert Plumer, and Fifth Army commander Hubert Gough remained determined to complete the conquest of the strategic Gheluvelt Plateau east of Ypres, which would end the German artillery threat to Ypres as well as jeopardize German control of key rail hubs in western Belgium.

Menin Road Bridge and Polygon Wood, September 20 - October 6, 1917
Erik Sass

For the next phase in September 1917 the British regrouped and shifted tactics, with the decision to focus artillery fire on the enemy’s concrete pillboxes and strongpoints, which had inflicted such a heavy toll on advancing infantry in the opening engagements. Haig entrusted 1,300 heavy and medium artillery pieces to the British Second and Fifth Armies – twice as many as the first attack at Pilckem Ridge – which raked the German Fourth Army with 3.5 million shells over the course of the battle.

The British infantry, including the British 9th and 10th Army Corps and the ANZAC 1st Corps, went over the top along a roughly 8-mile-long front at dawn on September 20, 1917, following an elaborate “creeping barrage” composed of up to five successive waves of fire, including heavy artillery, field artillery and machine guns. In many places the attackers advanced hundreds of yards, while British artillery continued to pound the German rear areas with high explosives and poison gas, turning communication and reserve trenches to dust (or mud) and making an enemy counterattack impossible.

However even this unprecedented bombardment missed some targets, and a substantial number of German strongpoints and pillboxes remained more or less intact, with machine guns exacting a heavy toll on the attackers. R.W. Iley, a British runner (battlefield messenger), remembered attacking a German pillbox at Tower Hamlets Ridge, in the southern half of the battlefield, at 5 a.m. on September 20, 1917:

Their machine guns swept us with bullets, and some of our new men wavered; this was their first experience in the War. The colonel rallied them and ordered the section I was in charge of to rush a pillbox that was holding us up. We rushed straight at it. The Huns threw a flare bomb in our midst and mowed us down with machine-gun bullets. Of my section of ten, five were killed and four wounded. I felt as if a stone had hit my leg and spun around. The bullets had gone through my thigh, but they were not dangerous. Other bullets passed through my clothes without touching me. As I lay I heard that the colonel was badly wounded, and another section had captured the pillbox while we drew the fire.

This experience was typical, as across the battlefield many of the initial frontal assaults failed, requiring the British attackers to switch to envelopment and siege tactics. Meanwhile tanks were of modest assistance during Menin Road Ridge, thanks to the unending sea of mud, which left bogged down vehicles easy targets for enemy gunners.

Following a British advance of 1,500 yards on September 20, the Battle of Menin Road Ridge was decided by the failure of multiple German counterattacks over the following days, signaling a British victory by September 25. However every foot had been paid for with blood, and many officers privately questioned the wisdom of Haig’s aggressive strategy.

By this stage of the Third Battle of Ypres, British and ANZAC troops were exhausted and morale was generally low, as reflected in the September 1917 mutiny of ANZAC troops angry at alleged mistreatment in Etaples, an unpleasant rear area camp. On the evening of September 20, 1917, John Martin, a sapper in the Royal Engineers, wrote: “It is now apparent that the attack has fallen considerably short of what was expected, but what can you expect from men who are tired and hungry and wet through?... I expect that tomorrow the English papers will be shouting the news of a great victory, but it has been a ghastly and murderous failure.” Martin also noted the presence of Military Police, a sure sign that morale among rank-and-file troops was reaching a low ebb:

I was surprised to see some Military Police in these tunnels. They are the warriors who infest the rear areas and spend their time in ‘running’ poor unsuspecting Tommies who leave their cycles unattended for a few seconds. Their business up here is to prowl round the tunnels looking for men who have taken shelter when they ought to be outside. A miserably ignoble trade!

On the morning of September 21, 1917 Martin recounted his own encounter with fellow soldier in the momentary thrall of abject terror as they were sent to find drums of wireless cable under fire:

Fritz was giving us a most terrific shelling. Every conceivable type of shell was bursting all around, whizzbangs, HEs, HVs [High Velocity shells], liquid fire, gas shells, and all manner of shrapnel, the latter bursting a dozen at a time. It was evident that Fritz was endeavouring to prevent any reinforcements coming up. When we got to the end of the little bit of trench I scrambled out, but Cochran lost his head and shouted out ‘Don’t go, don’t go, we shall all be killed!’ It was no time to be nice so I told him not to be a fool but to come along and I caught hold of him and pulled him up on to the parapet… Another burst on our right and Cochran threw himself behind a pile of duckboards – I fetched him out and he hung on to my coat and tried to pull me into a shell hole. I coaxed him and cursed him but he hadn’t a ha’porth [half-penny’s worth] of nerve and I literally had to drag him along. It was a thousand times worse than going by myself.

Later Martin mused: “While I was dipping into a shell hole a piece of shrapnel hissed viciously by my ear into the water. I wonder how many scores of times sudden death has missed me only by inches, and yet other fellows get done in by almost the first shell that comes their way. One cannot help becoming fatalistic.”

Polygon Wood

On September 25 a German counterattack recaptured a number of strongpoints in the southeast section of a small forest – or rather the shattered remains of one – called “Polygon Wood” for its unusual shape on the map. Already the scene of incredibly fierce fighting in the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, Polygon Wood now returned to center stage with another welter of blood, as the British counter-counterattacked from September 26 to October 3.

The counterattacks managed to retake most of the the ground lost to the Germans north of the Menin Road, and by September 27 the British had pushed the Germans almost completely out of Polygon Wood. However the British and ANZAC troops had suffered very heavy casualties, including the British 33rd Division, so decimated that it was withdrawn from the battle just days after joining.

The physical conditions on the battlefield east of Ypres also remained appalling, according to Edward Lynch, an Australian private who recounted the scenes he encountered heading to the front in late September 1917:

The track to Westhoek Ridge is hell, just a narrow strop of corduroy [log road] laid down across miles of unending mud, pockmarked by thousands of watery shell holes. The road is bordered by dead mules and mud-splattered horses, smashed wagons and limbers and freshly killed men who have been tossed off the track to leave the corduroy open for the never-ending stream of traffic… Every little while a shell lands on the corduroy and a traffic jam occurs whilst the dead or injured horses and mules are tossed off the road and the broken wagons tipped after them.

Martin Stewart, a British officer, described similar conditions as he moved his troops to the frontline on September 28, 1917:

For the first two miles they had to go over ground that was entirely shell pitted. By this I mean that the lip of one shell-hole was also the lip of the next one with no level ground anywhere. Over a portion of this ground duck boards had been laid; these not only served to make the going easier but also to indicate the right direction. There were of course a good many blank places where the duck boards had been blown away by shells. The shell-holes were full of water and the mud ankle deep.

Later that day Martin received a shrapnel wound to his neck during a German bombardment, but managed to more or less it walk it off, according to his memoir:

I then started to cough and brought up some blood and the bit of shell which must have stuck in my wind pipe. McLennan very kindly retrieved the bit of iron out of the mud and handing it to me remarked that I might like it to keep. This I did and my wife has it now… As a matter of fact there was very little the matter with me except that I was blowing bubbles through the hole in my neck and could only just talk in a very weak whisper.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Laura Yeager Is Making History as the First Woman to Lead a U.S. Army Infantry Division

iStock/MivPiv
iStock/MivPiv

For over 100 years, the California National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division has been led by a male officer. That’s set to change at the end of this month as Brigadier General Laura Yeager becomes the first woman to oversee a U.S. Army infantry division.

A career military officer, Yeager entered active duty in 1986 and saw combat as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Iraq. According to CNN, she’s the recipient of the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star, among other accolades. Her appointment to the National Guard’s 40th Infantry comes as Major General Mark Malanka retires.

Yeager’s father, Major General Robert Brandt, served two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. Yeager is also a member of Whirly-Girls, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the roles for women in helicopter aviation.

The 40th Infantry has served in virtually every major conflict of the past century, including the two World Wars and the Korean War. They’ve most recently been dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan. Yeager is expected to assume her post on June 29.

[h/t CNN]

10 Surprising Facts About Band of Brothers

HBO
HBO

In 1998, HBO—then a still-fledgling cable network that had not yet completely broken through with hits like The Sopranos and Sex and the City—decided to take on its biggest project ever: a massive 10-hour World War II miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Three years, more than $100 million, and thousands of work hours later, Band of Brothers was brought to the world. The true story of a single paratrooper company making their way through the last year of the war in Europe, Band of Brothers dwarfed other TV dramas of its era with its budget, its cast, its effects, and its extraordinary attention to period detail. The result was one of the most acclaimed World War II dramas ever filmed.

So, from the sheer scale of the production to the cast’s boot camp to some actors you may have forgotten about, here are 10 things you might not have known about Band of Brothers.

1. Band of Brothers's budget was unheard of at the time.

When Band of Brothers began its journey to the screen in the late 1990s, one of HBO’s chief concerns in agreeing to produce the series was its budget. Today, in the wake of Game of Thrones, it seems natural for the network to foot the bill for such an epic undertaking, but at the time the amount of money called for was almost unheard of. When discussions first began, it became clear that the miniseries would cost at least $125 million to produce, which meant $12 million per episode. That’s a figure that dwarfed even the most prestigious and popular TV dramas at the time, and it didn’t even factor in the massive marketing budget (at least $15 million) the network was considering to promote the event. So, what convinced HBO to put up the money? A number of factors, but having Hanks and Spielberg on board certainly helped.

''I'm not saying they didn't bat an eye,'' Hanks told The New York Times in 2001. ''Oh, they did bat an eye. But the reality is this was expensive. You had to have deep pockets. And HBO has deep pockets."

2. Jeep helped promote Band of Brothers.

The promotional campaign for Band of Brothers was almost as massive as its budget, with HBO attempting to draw the curiosity of as many non-subscribers as possible. One of the ways they achieved this was by forming the network's first ever partnership with another company to launch a series of commercials. That company was Jeep, which was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its signature vehicle at the time. The classic military Jeep figures prominently in Band of Brothers—it appears more than 1000 times throughout the series—so it was a natural fit.

Together, HBO and Jeep shot a series of six commercials tying into the series, filmed on Utah Beach in Normandy, France (not a place commercials are usually allowed to shoot). The spots aired on broadcast television, allowing HBO a rare chance (at the time) to get its products before an audience that large.

3. The miniseries caused some controversy in the United Kingdom.

Though Band of Brothers was largely well-received by audiences both in the United States and abroad, it did cause some controversy in the United Kingdom before it even aired there. According to The Guardian, the furor was stirred up by The Daily Mail, which published a condemnation of the miniseries for its lack of British soldiers. The series, of course, is meant to follow a single company of American troops as they navigate the last year of the war in Europe, but that didn’t stop The Daily Mail from decrying the show’s narrow focus. The publication called forward various British veterans who declared Band of Brothers "an absolute disgrace and an insult to the millions of brave Britons who helped win the war,” the implication being that the series essentially depicted only Americans as winning the war in Europe. The controversy, while noteworthy, was short-lived.

4. The miniseries's production was massive.

Band of Brothers, a 10-hour miniseries set entirely during World War II, would be a massive undertaking even now, but it was particularly gargantuan when it was produced. Some figures that prove just how big it was: According to the documentary The Making of Band of Brothers, the production required 2000 American and German military uniforms; 1200 vintage costumes (that’s not counting the newly made ones); more than 10,000 extras; more than 14,000 rounds of ammunition a day; and 500 speaking roles. The special effects alone were so massive that, by the time the third episode was completed, the production had already used more pyrotechnics than Saving Private Ryan, which is particularly impressive given that much of the first episode is taken up by boot camp sequences.

5. Band of Brothers was largely filmed in one location.

A still from 'Band of Brothers' (2001)
HBO

The story of Band of Brothers takes the men of Easy Company across half the European continent, through several different countries and even seasons. Despite the vivid depiction of all of these varied places on the journey, the miniseries (aside from certain location shoots) was largely filmed in one place. Thanks to a large tax break from the UK government, the production was headquartered at the Hatfield Aerodrome, an old British aerospace factory that had been converted into a massive, 1100-acre backlot. The various hangars from the factory were used to house the costumes, props, weapons, tanks, and other equipment used to shoot the series, and some hangars even housed various sets.

6. A single village set played nearly a dozen different towns.

Because Band of Brothers was mostly shot on the Hatfield backlot, the crew had to make certain accommodations to portray much of Europe in a small space. One key factor was the 12-acre village set constructed on the lot. A set that size is a massive undertaking anyway, but to depict the various places Easy Company visits, the village had to be constantly redressed to show England, Holland, Belgium and other locations. In all, the village ended up playing 11 different towns throughout the miniseries. 

7. The Bastogne sequences were actually films indoors.

One of the most harrowing segments of Band of Brothers takes place in the sixth episode, “Bastogne.” Caught in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge and low on supplies, Easy Company faces its toughest challenge yet as they try to hold off a massive German force even as they’re starving and freezing to death. It’s a powerful episode, but most of the time the actors were faking the hardship. The sequences in which the company is huddled down in foxholes, scrounging for whatever food and medicine they can get, were largely filmed on a massive indoor set constructed in one of the hangars at Hatfield. The production used real trees and numerous fiberglass trees (which could be broken apart to simulate German shells) to create the forest, and paper mixed with various polymers to create artificial snow. It’s estimated that more than a third of a million pounds of paper were used to make snow throughout the sequence, and it took four weeks to completely cover the set.

“It’s the biggest amount ever used on one set, for anything,” snow effects supervisor David Crownshaw said. “It should be in the Guinness Book of Records.”

8. The guns in Band of Brothers were the real thing.

Every major character in Band of Brothers wields at least one firearm throughout the entire production, and many of the men of Easy Company are never without their trusty M1 Garand rifles. The World War II-era weapons were key to the production, and Hanks and Spielberg insisted on authenticity, so they went to an arms dealer and picked up 700 authentic period weapons for the production. Numerous other guns (including pistols largely kept in holsters) were made of rubber, but very often when you see the men of Easy Company firing their rifles at the enemy, they were firing the real thing.

9. The Band of Brothers cast featured several up-and-coming actors who went on to become major stars.

Because Band of Brothers includes hundreds of speaking roles, including dozens of American soldiers, the production had to recruit a virtual army of young actors, many of whom were relatively unknown at the time. If you go back and watch the series now, you’ll see several young faces that are now recognizable as major movie stars. Among the now-big names: James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, Simon Pegg, Michael Fassbender, Colin Hanks, Dominic Cooper, Jimmy Fallon, and Andrew Scott.

10. The cast trained together, and bonded, during a 10-day boot camp.

To develop a better understanding of the military culture their characters were involved in, and to get them in the right physical and mental shape for the miniseries, the cast portraying Easy Company embarked on an intensive 10-day boot camp before shooting, training 18 hours a day under the watchful eye of Captain Dale Dye.

Dye, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who came to Hollywood after he left the military to become a technical advisor, served as the senior military advisor on the production and also portrayed Colonel Robert Sink in the series. Dye led the boot camp and even helped direct key battle sequences in an effort to get the cast as close to real soldiers as possible. According to the men who portrayed Easy Company, the experience brought them closer together, and made them more like a real unit.

“You hit walls in boot camp," Scott Grimes, who played Sergeant Malarkey, said. "You hit these personal mental, physical walls that you have to go over, basically. There were guys the first night at boot camp that cried themselves to sleep that I was there for, and they were there for me.”

In addition to boot camp, the Easy Company cast also undertook a version of paratrooper training to ensure authenticity. Among the challenges: jumping out of a mock-up plane fuselage, while strapped to a harness simulating a parachute, from a height of 40 feet.

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