Polygon Wood

Australian infantry wearing Small Box Respirators (SBR). The soldiers are from the 45th Battalion, Australian 4th Division at Garter Point near Zonnebeke, Ypres sector, 27 September 1917. (AWM E00825)

The Polygon Wood racetrack was the site of Australia’s next battle on the Western Front, the Third Battle of Ypres. This was the second of the “Plumer battles”, a series of well-planned, limited advances, supported by large volumes of artillery, engineered by the British General, Herbert Plumer.

Artillery, engineers, infantry and flying corps all had roles in Plumer’s plan for the Battle of Polygon Wood.  The engineers worked around the clock building the duckboard roads necessitated by the churned earth from shellfire and rain that formed shell-hole ponds, in some places these were likened to lakes. The duckboards and infrastructure paid a large part in bringing supplies and heavy artillery. Additionally there were 18 pounder guns and the support of the Royal Flying Corp, identified by the black streamers on the left wings, who supported the troops and fed back intelligence on the battle positions.

The artillery assembled for the barrage to support the Australian Divisions with one gun for every nine metres. Additional support was given by light artillery and crews of Heavy Vickers Machine Guns who would lay down a curtain of artillery and bullets. This barrage was referred to as “the most perfect that ever protected the Australian Troops”

The well laid plans were almost disrupted when the Germans launched an attack on the British X Corps the night before. The attack was stabilised with the support of the 15th Division but this costly action had Commander Pompey Elliott questioning if they could take part in the battle the next day.

As the sun rose amongst the fog at 5:50am on 26 September 1917, as described by Captain Alexander Ellis:

“Our artillery opened in a single magnificent crash and thousands of shells screamed through the air and burst in a long, straight line of flame and destruction about 200 yards [180 metres] ahead of the waiting infantry … the 4,000 men of the six attacking battalions dashed forward at a run. Somewhere behind the line of destruction lay their victims, shuddering in their pill-boxes, staggered by the sudden commotion, dazed by the concussion of the shells … then, slowly, very slowly it [the barrage] crept forward. A long line of skirmishers disengaged itself from the dense mass of men and followed the advancing screen of shells … Above their heads thousands of machine gun bullets cut the air as they whistled shrilly past on their destined way, and the strident din of many Vickers guns throbbed through the troubled morning air. But these were but the tinkling wood-wind notes in the hell’s orchestra that played about them. For the deafening crash of the rapid firing 18-pounders, the hoarser roar of the scores of heavy guns behind them and the stupefying concussion of shrapnel and high explosive shells in the barrage in front were by now all mingled in the hideous rhythmical clamor of the perfect drum-fire barrage. Thus, at 5.50 a.m. on the 26 September 1917, was the Division launched into the Battle of Polygon Wood.”

Following the protection of the ‘creeping barrage’, infantrymen advanced to Polygon Wood. The 5th Division (including South Australian men from the 32nd Battalion) fresh from 4 months rest got their first taste of fighting in Belgium on the right of Australia’s 4th Division (including South Australian’s in the 16th, 48th, 50th and 52nd Battalions).  The battlefield was littered with German pillboxes, the divisions rushed up, quickly surrounded and subdued many of the pillboxes. The 15th Brigade from the 5th Division was paused near the racecourse due to heavy fire from pillboxes, their flank exposed due to British 33rd Division being held close to their original front line. The rest of the 5th Division advanced through the fog, almost unopposed, to the Butte.

German dugouts covered the Butte, two battalions rushed the hill and quickly secured the area and then moved on to the second objective, a 1,000 yard stretch of the German Flandern I Stellung, until they were held up by fire from the German Battalion Headquarters. With the support of reserves they advanced to just beyond the final objective, taking 200 prisoners and 34 machine guns.  They succeeded taking their objectives and also those of the British.

The 4th division advanced under the cover of fog quickly seizing their first Objective. The British 3rd Division on the flank advanced through far muddier conditions. The water in the shell holes was likened to a lake, and they were eventually pulled back until the barrage moved forward.  The 4th Division continued on to their objective linking up with the 5th Division with their line extending to the right edge of Zonnebeke.

Just after 1pm the Royal Flying Corps reported that troops were massing to counter-attack Broodseinde Ridge. General Herbert Plumer had planned for the German counter attack, setting aside some artillery to protect the infantry while they established their defences in the freshly won positions. The 3rd Division by this time had advanced and began pressing into Zonnebeke. The Germans again tried to counter-attack at 4pm and 6pm but were once again subdued by the protective artillery and machine gun barrages.

Polygon Wood was a great success with Charles Bean describing it as a ‘clean, strong blow’ but this win was gained at significant cost with Australia recording 5,770 Australian Casualties.

A fatigue party carrying rations to the front line rest behind a pillbox at Nonne Bosschen, in the Ypres Salient, in Belgium, 26 September 1917 [AWM E02013]