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Handover from 3rd Australian Division to 66th British Division Night o


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The handover from 3rd Australian Division to 66th British Division Night of 5th October 1917 was, to put it mildly, not smooth nor successful. Below are quotes from the website of the Manchester Regiment, part of the 66th Division and also from the Official History of Australia in War of 1914-1918.

I should be very grateful if any member could help with my questions or point me to the appropriate resources. There appears to be a degree of passing the buck in the two sources quoted below.

My questions are:

1. What actually happened during the handover?

2. What was the role of Capt. K. G. Maxwell, 2/6th Manchesters referred to in Bean’s footnote? What did he do to imperil his career in the words of Bean? One of his brothers had been seriously wounded the previous day during the attack of the 3rd Australian Division at Broodseine Ridge. Two other brothers were staff officers in the 4th Australian Division. So all four were very close to each other during this battle.

From the Manchester Regiment website:

“The 66th had been earmarked along with the 49th (West Riding) Division for the fourth in Plumer’s series of assaults designed to carry the ridge at Passchendaele. Once carried the assault along the coast and the amphibious landings at Ostend could then go ahead and Haig’s grand strategic plan realised. However time was running out. Unless the ridge was carried by mid-October the last high tide (vital to the amphibious landings) would be missed. If this were missed then the whole strategic element of Haig’s plan would fail. The attack must succeed.

Its chances of success were diminishing for a number of reasons:

1) Despite the slow nature of Plumer’s operations the leading edge of the BEF was now too far in advance of its guns, especially the crucial medium and heavy guns. What was needed now was a long pause in order to construct the forward roads and tracks that were necessary to move the guns and ammunition.

2) II ANZAC Corps under Lt.-Gen. AJ Godley had failed to organise the forward area in a coherent manner. In a shocking lapse of command responsibility II ANZAC in effect just left Divisions to “get on with it”. Consequently forward communications were being built in a haphazard and piecemeal manner leading to supply and movement chaos on the battlefield. The last duckboard tracks petered out of existence a full 1½ miles from the actual front line. The 66th Division CRE Guy Williams along with many other engineers and divisional commanders was particularly scathing about II ANZAC preparations.

3) The weather had turned from bad to appalling. On 4 October the heavens opened and rain described as having a ‘tropical intensity’ fell. The already overloaded drainage system collapsed completely. Where there was once mud there now existed swamps, especially in the Ravebeek Valley area, slap bang in the middle of the assault zone.

The omens did not look good, but a conference of Army and Corps Commanders, including Plumer, argued in favour of an attack.

It is difficult to find words that can even begin to describe the appalling conditions under which this attack took place and history has not been kind to 66th Division. The Australian Official Historian CEW Bean castigated the abilities of the 66th Division and blames them for the failure of the assault. However Bean neglects to mention the appallingly bad roads and tracks or the spectacular operational mismanagement of II ANZAC Corps.”

CEW Bean’s Official History of Australia in War of 1914-1918 Vol lV, Capter XX1


“The 66th was an untried division as to the capacity of whose staff for this operation there was anxiety not only in Australian circles. The relief in which its 199th Brigade took over the 3rd Australian Division’s line on the night of October 5th was marked by an almost incredible degree of mis-management. 19

Footnote 19: Birdwood was so shocked by the particulars which reached his ears that he conceived that the corps and divisional commanders should be frankly informed of them. The sole effect of his representation, however, was to imperil the career of a splendid officer of the division (a brother of the Maxwells of Mouquet Farm and of Messines) who indirectly and unwittingly had been the channel through which Birdwood received the information.”

I have had a look at Bean’s diaries and notes but cannot find any supporting detail.

Many thanks.

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Not sure of the questions you have asked...but would also like to know the answers. Have you tried Bean's and Birdwood's papers? Maybe Monash's?

Bean's here:


According the Bean (read the Chapter on Broodseinde from the beginning) the position was already in an appalling state when II Anzac Corps began to take over from V Corps on 29 September. The 3rd Australian Division and New Zealand Division were actually still moving into their positions on 1 October.

As is mentioned the ground and weather conditions were already bad before the rain of 4 October and little could be done by the 3rd Australian Division Engineers to improve the infantry tracks to the rear as they had been ordered to chiefly prepare routes for the guns to support future operations. Even then the artillery was rendered far less effective by heavy German counter battery work and the mud. Nearly every account I have read highlights the appalling approach to the front line with Bean beleiving further operations should not have gone ahead after the 4 October.

The 3rd Australian Division War Diary states that moves of the 66th Division were carried out 'with difficulty, because the 66th Division troops were so inexperienced that they had to be man-handled into their places'. Although not directly stating the particular issues I am guessing this statement points to a lack of liaison/reconnaissance. The issue mentioned appears to be mainly with the 199th Infantry Brigade relief of the 9th Australian Infantry Brigade...although the 9th Brigade War Diaries and the histories and War Diaries of the individual units do not shed any light on the exact problem.

There is a note in the Corps War Diary that work parties for the operation had to be mainly drawn from the fighting troops as large numbers were employed with supply rearward and the ground could not sustain large numbers for improving communications. This is also mentioned in various War Diaries and unit histories. The 3rd Australian Division Engineers and Artillery actually remained in position under 66th Division when they went into the line (they left their own rearwards).

The 'scathing' talk of II Anzac Corps preparations by 66th Division is interesting as (along with the 49th Division) the 66th were part of II Anzac Corps at this time. Along with Corps and 3rd Australian Division the 66th Division would have borne equal responsibility for ensuring the approach move to their battle positions was undertaken successfully. This is one of the tenets of a Relief in Place or Forward Passage of Lines operations.

The II Anzac Corps War Diary mentions little of the relief. I would recommend reading the whole of this and the 3rd Australian Division War Diary (and 66th Division and 199th Infantry and individual units if they survive) as it may highlight a little more of the background you are looking for. I can't find anything of significance in the AIF battalion unit histories or battalion or brigade War Diaries.

At this time II Anzac Corps operations were at very short notice from higher allowing minimal preparation. The Divisions all had relatively long approach marches in appalling conditions. In the line the forward Divisions had a very high operational tempo (including dealing with German counter attacks) and they could likely be excused for being unable to improve the approach routes themselves. Monash was the 3rd Division Commander at this time and was regarded as amongst the best on the Western Front.

Reading the entire Manchester's account from the website I believe the 'spectacular operational mismanagement' of II Anzac Corps probably refers to having the men attack on the 9th given the appalling conditions. No argument from me there....although the orders to take Passchendaele were obviously from higher. This was a fairly common theme in allied operations on the Western Front elsewhere I am afraid!

There was a further Australian and NZ attack after this one before the Canadians eventually took Passchendaele a month later. Probably more a case of circumstances conspiring against the 66th, particularly that this was its first operation, the short notice and appalling conditions than a particular failing on the part of the men themselves.

Like you I would be interested in exactly what the controversy involving the 199th Brigade was.


Tim D

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Found reference to Maxwell in Bean's notes! Try Page 88 here onward.

It looks as though Maxwell spoke to Bean about the approach of his Battalion (2/6th Manchester's) and the difficulties they had encountered with their own Brigade in organisation, supply and routes to their battle positions. Bean reported what had been said to Brudenall White and claims Birdwood walked in mid conversation. Birdwood called Godley and in turn Maxwell's Brigade Commander (Trevor) was notified. Bean was then called to a meeting with Maxwell and Trevor and it appears that a recommendation for Maxwell to take command of his Battalion may be stopped by the Brigade commander for 'speaking evil of the men and officers of the 66th Division' unless Bean could convince them otherwise. Bean claims he marched them straight to Birdwood....where Birdwood advised no such thing had occurred.

Pity they didn't have a Public Affairs Brench then to deal with the media properly and Maxwell is lucky nothing more occurred!


The whole diary is worth a read. It appears that the Australians were very concerned about the 66th Divisions experience and their staff...rather than their men.


Tim D

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Many thanks for your insights and information. I had searched Bean's notebooks and folders but had overlooked his diaries. I appreciate your steering me in the right direction.

I have printed the diary pages and will transcribe them to Word over the next week. I'll be happy to share the transcription with anyone who is interested in this incident. Just drop me an email.

Harper :blush:

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