The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, 20-25 September 1917, marked a change in British tactics during the Third Battle of Ypres. The first part of the battle had been commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough (Fifth Army). That choice had forced a delay of six weeks while the Fifth Army moved into place, replacing General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army. Gough had performed no better than earlier commanders on the Western Front. The Germans had perfected defence in depth. Their front lines were lightly defended. Behind the front line scattered German strong points disrupted any Allied advance. Once the British or French attackers were disorganised, the Germans would launch a counterattack with specially trained divisions kept out of range of Allied artillery. A series of Allied attacks on the Western Front had penetrated the German front line but failed to get past the second.
In the aftermath of the earlier failures at Ypres, Plumer suggested an alternative plan – his “bite and hold” strategy. This was designed to use the German plan against them. The British would pick a small part of the front line, hit it with a heavy bombardment and then attack in strength. The advancing troops would stop once they had penetrated 1,500 yards into the German lines. At this point they would have overrun the German front line and perhaps some of the strong points behind the lines. The attacking troops would then stop and dig in. When the German counterattack was launched, instead of finding a mass of exhausted and disorganised men at the limit of the Allied advance, they would find a well organised defensive line.
Plumer was given permission to try his new plan, and three weeks to prepare. His men received detailed training. The battle began with a creeping barrage 1,000 yards deep, which protected the attacking infantry. The British attacked with four divisions – from north to south the 2nd Australian, 1st Australian, 23rd and 41st Divisions.
The attack was a great success. The majority of Plumer’s objectives were captured on the first day of the attack, only the 41st Division needed to follow up on the following day. German counterattacks were repulsed the first and second days of the attack. Three quiet days followed, during which time the 23rd and 41st divisions were relieved. The battle ended with a final German counterattack on 25 September, again repulsed without serious problems. The two Australian divisions lost 5,000 men during the attack.
Plumer’s tactics caused a great deal of concern amongst the German High Command. Their elaborate defensive structure, built up over three years of war, had been turned against them. Given the right preparation the British had proved themselves capable of biting chunks out of the Germans line without getting carried away. Plumer would repeat his success at Polygon Wood (26 September) and Broodseinde (4 October) before heavy rain intervened.