The Road to Passchendaele Part Seven – Polygon Wood: Buttes New British Cemetery, the 5th Australian Division Memorial & the New Zealand Memorial

A walled avenue leads into Polygon Wood, the memorial to the 5th Australian Division on top of the Butte in the distance.

A couple of photos from a much earlier visit slot in quite well here (above & below),…

…taken at a time before the information boards, visible in the first photograph and in close-up in the four following, had been installed.

We visited this cemetery one summer’s day many years ago, long before theBigNote came into existence (at least in its current form), and of course I took a few snaps that day with the little Fuji Finepix camera I had at the time.  I shall use a handful of those photos where appropriate in this post, and in particular where I failed to take a similar shot on our recent visit, such as that above, taken at the top of the steps leading to the memorial.

Similar to the 1st Australian Division Memorial at Pozières on the Somme,…

…the memorial is dedicated, somewhat perfunctorily, ‘To the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the division who fought in France and Belgium 1916 1917 1918’.

Beneath are the names or dates of seventeen battle locations where the division fought, and beneath that, the French inscription which, unlike the English, begins, ‘To the memory of…’.

As the sun gets lower in the western sky, stretched out below us to our left…

…is Buttes New British Cemetery, a post-war cemetery, by far the majority of the men buried here killed during the fighting around Zonnebeke in 1917,…

….with the New Zealand Memorial in the background, this shot from the top of the Butte showing the view the defending Germans would have had as the Australians attacked.  Apart from the fact that the wood by that time consisted of nothing more than a shell-torn landscape scattered with the stumps and the occasional trunk of blackened trees, the Butte itself visible for miles around.

Before we go into the cemetery…

…this trench map from mid-September 1917 shows the area of the wood, the racetrack within it clearly marked, as are the German trenches to the east of the wood.  A little to the north east of the racetrack I have highlighted the Butte in yellow, and to the north west of the Butte, just across the road, the German cemetery that was here during the war is marked ‘Cemy’, and is the approximate site of Polygon Wood Cemetery.

And this photograph, showing how close to the north east edge of the wood the Butte is situated, looks through the trees to where the German front line once ran, just a few hundred yards into the fields beyond.

Back down the steps,…

…and this is the view you get on entering the cemetery,…

…the headstones of Plot XXVI (yep, there are a lot of plots here) nearest the camera,…

…and panning right, Plots XXV, XXIV and, in the far distance, XXIII.  We shall explore this side of the cemetery later.

The Stone of Remembrance is positioned centrally beneath the Butte (below) at the north eastern end of the cemetery,…

…and continuing along the cemetery boundary beneath the Butte (the Stone now hidden behind the only brown bush in the picture),…

…we arrive in the eastern corner of the cemetery, Plot XXX nearest the camera, from where we begin our tour. Thanks to the CWGC you can see the cemetery plan here.

Although over 2,100 men are buried or commemorated in this cemetery, a huge number, 1,677 of them, are unidentified.  Of the 431 identified men who lie here, 160 are Australians and 36 of them, such as Private Archibald Cameron, buried in Plot XXX, bear the date of death of 26th September 1917, the date the Australians captured the wood.  It seems Private Cameron had received a serious wound to the head and was told to make his way to the Regimental Aid Post, after which he was never seen again.

So many men here are unidentified and in most plots the known men are scattered far and wide; I can count just seven names among these graves in Plot XXVIII Rows C (foreground) & D (background).  Many men who died during the capture of the wood and who have no known grave are remembered by name on the Menin Gate.  The identified Australians second from left in Row C and ninth from the left in Row D are also both casualties of 26th September,…

…Sapper John Livingstone Parker,…

…and Lance Corporal William White being among a group of five men of the 15th Field Company, Australian Engineers, who were killed by a shell as they made their way up to the line following the infantry assault.

More unidentified men, from left: A British soldier of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, a British airman, a machine gunner, a New Zealander and an Australian.  Time, I think, for a brief resumé of the actions that took place prior to, and during, the Battle of Polygon Wood in September 1917.  The successful British attack on the Messines Ridge in early June 1917, and the subsequent erasure of the German salient south of Ypres, allowed Haig’s plans for a breakout from the Ypres Salient to finally proceed.  On 18th July 1917, 3,000 British guns opened up a ten day bombardment during which some four and a half million shells were deposited on the German trenches and support areas to the north east of Ypres, before, at 5.30 on the morning of 31st July, beneath low cloud cover, the infantry finally went over the top, and the Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele as it is popularly known, had begun.  And of course on it went, step-by-step, as was Haig’s plan, until the eventual capture of Passchendaele village by the Canadians in early November, a final advance of five miles in four long months.

During the first month of Third Ypres the British had seen some successes to the north of the Ypres-Roulers railway, including the capture of both St. Julien and, further north, Langemarck.  The sector between the railway and the Menin Road to the south had only seen minimal advances in early August, since when the lines remained static until 20th September when, following a preliminary bombardment which unleashed another 1.65 million shells on the German defences, the British and Australians advanced between 1000 & 1,500 yards along a five and a half mile front, achieving most of their objectives by the end of the day, including taking the western third of Polygon Wood.

The next attack would take place along a four mile front, with the village of Zonnebeke at its centre, and Polygon Wood at its the southern end.  Another artillery bombardment (by now the objectives of each successive attack were dependent on how many artillery pieces could be hauled through the morass in support) preceded this attack on the morning of 26th September, one of the keys to which would be the clearing of the rest of Polygon Wood by two brigades of the 5th Australian Division (to put the whole attack into perspective, two Australian and five British divisions were involved along the whole front). The 5th Division’s baptism of fire came at the disastrous affair at Fromelles in July 1916, although being in reserve their casualties were, thankfully, light, and they had been involved in the fighting at Bullecourt in April 1917, but Polygon Wood would be their first set-piece battle since.  And the key to taking the wood was to take the Butte, where German machine gunners could sweep the terrain below them as we saw earlier, and as this shot, from the southern corner of the cemetery looking north at the Butte, shows, this time from the attackers viewpoint.

Three battalions of 14th Brigade would attack through the wood; 53rd Battalion were tasked with taking the first objective, the remainder of the wood including the Butte, and after a short pause to consolidate and reorganise, 55th & 56th Battalions would then move through and take the second objective, a stretch of the German trenches just to the east of the wood, in the fields we saw from the top of the Butte earlier.

The troops, bayonets fixed, left their trenches at 5.50 a.m., following the creeping barrage that thundered down on the German defenders in front of them, nearly every man “lighting up a pipe or cigarette they’d been craving” and, despite resistance from troops manning the German concrete bunkers within the wood, bombers and the bayonet cleared them before they could hold up the advance, many surrendering once they realised they had been surrounded.  Those that did not received little mercy.

On reaching the Butte, two platoons, previously detailed to occupy it, clambered to the top, securing it without encountering serious opposition, and sending bombing parties into the warren of tunnels within, killing and wounding a number of the German defenders before the surviving two officers and 56 men surrendered.

Once the Butte had been taken, the other battalions moved forward to capture their final objectives to the immediate east of the wood, and by 8.50 in the morning, just three hours after the attack began, consolidation of the captured area had begun.  The advance was succeeding further north too, the front moving forward some 1250 yards during the course of the day, nearly all objectives being obtained, and the inevitable German counterattacks repulsed.  Total British & Australian casualties along the whole front during the attack were over 15,300 men, of which the Australian 5th Division lost more than 3,000, 545 of these killed, with a further 172 posted as missing.

The Buttes New British Cemetery (New Zealand) Memorial, to give it its full title, commemorates 378 officers and men who died in the Polygon Wood area between September 1917 & May 1918 and have no known grave,…

…their names inscribed on panels at either end of the memorial.

The New Zealanders were involved in just one set piece attack on the German positions during their tenure of the line here during the winter of 1917-1918, the majority of these men losing their lives during the daily drudgery, and occasional terror, of trench life.

The memorial is one of seven such memorials along the Western Front that remember the missing of New Zealand, all placed on battlefields where New Zealand forces fought.

It’s a somewhat ironic fact that, on 19th February 1918, when the dugouts beneath the Butte, having been used as a Brigade Headquarters since their capture, were evacuated, it was New Zealand engineers who deliberately gassed and then collapsed the abandoned tunnels.

Looking into the wood, and down pretty much the length of it, from directly behind the memorial.

Did we go in and explore?

Of course we did.  Next post.

You hear an awful lot about Flanders mud.

But today we are encountering Flanders frost.  This is frost Sid!  Really!  Belgian frost!  And it’s so cold today that it ain’t going anywhere.

And these are the graves of the Zonnebeke Five (now plus one, far left).  Found by chance during pipe-laying excavations near Westhoek, these five Australians, three of whom have been positively identified, as you can see, were buried here in October 2007.

The six burials in the row that includes the Zonnebeke Five (centre) are designated Plot I Row E, making Plot I (above left) the only plot in the cemetery with five rows (the others all have three or four).  Turning slightly to our right,…

…this view looks north east at the plots along the south eastern boundary wall, Plot XXVII nearest the camera.

The man commanding the Australian 56th Battalion on 26th September 1917 was 27 year old Lieutenant Colonel Alan Humphrey Scott D.S.O., who had first seen action on Gallipoli where he showed great bravery at Lone Pine.  As you can see from his date of death, he survived the action at Polygon Wood by only a few days, and is now buried in Plot II.  More about him next post.

Ninety five identified New Zealanders are buried in this cemetery, all killed between 16th November 1917 & 20th February 1917 (the day following the collapsing of the Butte tunnels by the New Zealand engineers).

Plot XI, just two identified men, both Australians, in Row A nearest the camera, and, in the background,…

…Plot VIII, which comprises the first three rows in this shot, Plot IV the next four, and Plot XXX, the four in the far background.  Although there are none in Plot VIII (the first three rows), I can spot at least eleven Canadian burials in Plot IV behind, most of whom, apart from three in Row C, are sadly unidentified, there being only six identified Canadians, all but one killed on 26th October 1917 (the other died four days later), buried in the cemetery.

Stone of Remembrance, Plot XVIII (front three rows below) in the background.

The cemetery entrance, such as it is, is at the far end of these plots.

Looking past the Stone to the memorial atop the Butte.  And as we are back at the Butte, let’s cheat a little.

So far we have made our way along the cemetery wall in the background to the southern corner of the cemetery (right background), taken a look at the memorial (out of shot to the right), and returned up the middle of the rows in these shots (above & below), Plot XI in the foreground,…

…and panning left, more Australian burials in Plot VII.

And here’s the cheat.  On the left, Plot XI in red, Plot X in yellow, and Plot IX in green.  On the right, Plot XIV in mauve, Plot XIII in blue, and Plot XII in orange.  So to continue,…

…only five men in Plot XI Row C, pictured here, are identified.  Plot VII behind.

Plot XIV (above & below).

Looking down the middle of the cemetery towards the memorial, Plot XI on our immediate left, and Plot XIV on our right.

Seventeen special memorials, all to New Zealanders killed between either 20th & 24th November, or 15th & 17th December 1917, in Plot IX Row AA (the three headstones on the far left of the row are unidentified burials).  These men’s bodies are known to be buried somewhere in this cemetery among the hundreds of unidentified men buried here.

And the first row of Plot XII Row AA, opposite Plot IX, also contains seventeen special memorials, again to men known to be buried here somewhere, six more New Zealanders, casualties from later in December, nearest the camera; the remaining special memorials are to British troops, all killed in October 1917.

Private David Duthie Cameron, New Zealand Machine Gun Corps, buried in Plot XIII, and visited not so long ago.  On the left an unusual headstone, that of an unknown soldier of the Honourable Artillery Company.

View of the north western half of the cemetery from in front of the memorial…

…and looking roughly south now, the headstones of Plot XXIII directly in front of us.

Eastern views across the headstones of Plot XIX (above & below),…

…again views similar to those facing the attacking Australians on 26th September,…

…and a not dissimilar shot taken ten years earlier.

Plot XXIII again (above & below),…

…Baldrick making his way towards the cemetery entrance in the distance.  I took a photo of the burial nearest the camera in Row D on the left ten years ago,…

…and here it is, one of the first headstones anywhere I ever photographed.  Private William Grant, Manchester Regiment, killed on 8th October 1917, aged just 19.

The four rows of Plot XXIV in the foreground, the majority of men buried in the plot Australian, with Plot XXIII in the background,…

…and turning to our right, the four rows of Plot XXV, with Plot XXVI in the background.

Again taken ten years ago, here an unknown soldier lies next to an unknown British officer.

View looking due south from behind the headstones of Plot XXV.

Another of the Australians killed on 26th September 1917, Lance Corporal Ernest Jewell Radford had only emigrated to Melbourne in May 1914 from Lyme Regis in Dorset to “do better for himself and me in the new country”, as his mother later commented, and found himself back in Europe far quicker than he would ever have expected.  The heavy machine guns of 12th Machine Gun Company lent support to the Australian troops attacking the wood on 26th September, and according to reports, Ernest was actually firing his gun when he was hit and killed.

Now buried in Plot XXV, Ernest has also had recent visitors.

Looking towards the New Zealand Memorial from the middle of Plot XVIII,…

…the headstones of Plot XXII to our right,…

…and, as we make our way back to the entrance, this view looks along the Butte from behind Plot XXII,…

…and finally Plot XXVI, with the entrance beyond.

Which ends our visit to Buttes New British Cemetery,…

…but not to Polygon Wood.

Next post we shall explore the wood further, hunting for bunkers, or at least a very specific bunker, before paying a visit to Black Watch Corner, but for now,…

…I’ll leave you with the men of Buttes New British Cemetery.

If you haven’t had a look around Polygon Wood Cemetery, just across the way, then click here to do so.  Otherwise, as I said, we are heading into the wood searching for bunkers.

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6 Responses to The Road to Passchendaele Part Seven – Polygon Wood: Buttes New British Cemetery, the 5th Australian Division Memorial & the New Zealand Memorial

  1. Steve Oliver says:

    Good work!

  2. Sid from Down Under says:

    So – Flanders Frost – well I was close! My excuse is where I live we almost never see frost (and I would never arise early enough to see it)

    An amazing post thank you MJS – I only wish my father was still alive so I could use your posts to encourage him to “open up” about his terrible times in WW1

    The mind boggles where you describe four and a half million shells fired by 3,000 British guns over a ten day period. That averages 450,000 shells per day or per gun 150 per day and a total of 1,500 which, if non-stop, is one shell fired every ten minutes (hope I pressed the right buttons on my calculator). Besides blasting the Hun to Kingdom Come, that alone must have worn out the barrels and ears of the gunners but what is another eye opener you’ve taught us is how huge the big gun munitions industry was way back then.

    • Magicfingers says:

      It did occur to me that you probably don’t see frost too often. And I will say that I’m not sure I’ve seen such a heavy frost as on this day in Flanders for a long long time. As you will have noticed, it remained all day, it was that cold!
      The bit about your Dad – wouldn’t that have been wonderful?
      And yes, the munitions figures are just incredible – also consider how many didn’t explode and must still be there!

  3. Morag says:

    Thank you. ..

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