A winter’s afternoon at Polygon Wood Cemetery.
Polygon Wood Cemetery is frequently referred to as a front line cemetery, which is curious considering the first burial here was made some weeks after the Battle of Passchendaele had drawn to a muddy close, by which time the front lines were some way to the east of here. What it is, is a battlefield cemetery, left untouched after the war, as we shall see, a new cemetery being opened across the road within the wood to accommodate the many battlefield casualties and men buried in isolated graves who were found nearby after the Armistice.
And Polygon Wood Cemetery is as good an example of a battlefield cemetery as you will find anywhere in the Salient,…
…the irregularity of the rows of headstones betraying its battlefield origins.
On either side of the entrance, In Perpetuity plaques in English (above) and Flemish & French (below).
The morning’s frost still clings to the grass beneath the cemetery walls. The cemetery plan, by kind permission of the CWGC, is essential viewing, I would suggest, whilst we take a look around.
Directly ahead of us as we enter are five of the nine headstones in Row B,…
…which are also the five headstones in the second row here, Row C now in the foreground. As the cemetery plan shows, Rows B, C & D actually begin at the far eastern side of the cemetery (behind us in this shot), with a large gap before the sections of the rows that we are looking at here (we shall visit the three headstones, all special memorials, against the wall on either side of the cemetery entrance in the background, later).
And this shot shows you the whole of Row C, this time from the western end of the row. The unknown soldier nearest the camera occupies Grave Reference C7, with C2 at the far end. In the background, the single headstone is C1, with the first four headstones of Row B next, and the three headstones of Row A in the far right background.
You will have noticed the single German grave of Hans Bogner in Row B two photos back. At some point, perhaps a long time ago, this headstone has been broken in two and then repaired, and it’s pretty tricky for these headstones to break of their own accord.
Sixteen regiments can be found among the British dead in the cemetery, although eight of these are represented by just a single burial, such as these two men, Privates McPhee & Christie, one a Cameron Highlander, the other a Royal Scots Fusilier, both killed on 28th September 1918 and buried side-by-side in Row B, two of the three final burials to be made in the cemetery.
At the end of Row B, next to an unidentified New Zealand Rifleman, lies the only Royal Engineer buried in the cemetery, Second Lieutenant John Lowe M.C. M.M., pictured above, and his must be an interesting story, you would think. He received a Military Medal in July 1916, was commissioned on the field on 6th August 1916, won a Military Cross on 4th October 1916, and was killed on 3rd December 1917, aged just 23. Note that his headstone bears no religious symbol.
Graves at the start of Row D, again the only men from their respective regiments or corps buried here. The three men buried beneath the two headstones on the far right were missing until discovered near Zonnebeke in 1998. Private John Thompson, second from the right, of the Gordon Highlanders, was subsequently identified, a knife found with him being inscribed with his initials, his identity later confirmed by DNA; the two men found with him could not be identified, and all three were reburied here in October 2004 (see Graves Registration Report Form below).
More than half of the identified men buried here are New Zealanders, who held the line in this sector between November 1917 & February 1918, and who began this cemetery at the very end of November, those pictured here also buried in Row D (above & following photos).
The three identified men of the Otago Regiment pictured above all died on 12th December 1917, the headstone of Private Patrick Dunford in the centre of the three bearing the inscription ‘Buried near this spot’. If you’ve ever considered, or researched (I have!), the differences between CWGC headstones, you might consider this photograph further. As with all totally unidentified soldiers, the headstone on the far left bears a Latin, or small, if you prefer, cross. The headstones of the two Otago Regiment men second left and far right, Lance Corporal Mervyn Hugh Egerton Gorringe and Company Quartermaster Serjeant Robert Arnott, bear a Broad, or big, again if you prefer, cross. And there’s a fairly straightforward reason for this. According to the CWGC (unfortunately, the documentation concerning this appears to have been lost during the Blitz in 1940), after the war, when the wooden crosses in the military cemeteries began to be replaced by Portland Stone ones, regiments and corps were given the choice of which cross, either the Latin or Broad cross, should be inscribed on the headstones of their casualties. Eleven regiments (and various branches of the Royal Artillery) chose the Broad cross, as did the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. So far so good.
There were, however, agreed exceptions to the rules. Jewish headstones bear a Star of David, headstones of Victoria Cross winners a V.C., the families of non-religious casualties could choose to have no cross at all, as we have already seen in this cemetery, and, for some reason, it was decided that all special memorial headstones would bear a Latin cross. Thus you won’t find Broad crosses on any of the headstones associated with Duhallow Blocks, nor on any headstones bearing the inscriptions ‘Known’ or ‘Believed to be buried in this cemetery’, nor ‘Believed to be’ and ‘Buried near this spot’, and one other exception we shall come across later. It was also decided that headstones of unidentified soldiers whose regiments were known would bear a Latin cross, even if their regiment had chosen to use the Broad cross for their identified headstones. All of which brings us back to Private Dunford, whose headstone bears the inscription ‘Buried near this spot’, and, you will have noticed, bears a Latin, not a Broad cross, with the New Zealand fern in a roundel at the top. And now you know why.
Before we move on, the single headstone immediately behind the row in the previous two shots, and in the foreground here, is the first grave in Row E, another New Zealander, but this time a Canterbury Regiment man who, like the men buried behind him, was killed on 12th December 1917.
Continuing along Row D, more New Zealand burials, including some of the nineteen unidentified men buried in the cemetery,…
…and the final graves in Row D (background), with the grave of Rifleman Victor Hanah Colin McDonald Thurston, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, one of 35 identified men from the regiment buried here (23 of those who died in a single week between 2nd & 8th December 1917), buried in Row E in the right foreground.
At the start of Row F we find the other exception to the Latin/Broad cross rule. On the right, the headstone of Rifleman Herbert Henry Flute bears a Broad cross, as you would expect. The headstone on the left is that of Rifleman Robert Henry O’Kane, who actually served under the name of Robert Henry Sloan, and as you can see, his headstone bears a Latin cross, as it was decided that the headstones of all men who fought and died under an alias would bear a Latin, as opposed to Broad, cross. Perhaps, indeed probably, simply because of the extra room required to inscribe two names. And, of course, there are always exceptions to the exceptions, where a Latin cross can be found where a Broad cross might be expected, for example, the reasons, if indeed there were any, lost in the mists of time.
More New Zealand Rifle Brigade burials in Row F…
…and Row G (above & below), the same headstones of Row F as in the previous photo now in the second row in both pictures.
The lone grave of Private Arthur James Johnson, Auckland Regiment, beneath the western boundary wall (G20 on the cemetery plan), with more men of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in the graves at the end of Row E behind.
On the eastern side of the cemetery, this is Row H, Private Michael Corcoran of the Canterbury Regiment, killed on 29th November 1917 and the first casualty buried in the cemetery, nearest the camera. Behind, as the row continues, the men of the Durham Light Infantry and the Essex Regiment, all killed between 10th & 13th April 1918, were, apart from the men killed on 28th September 1918 and buried in Row B whom we visited earlier, the final burials in the cemetery.
The same headstones of Row H again, this time from the other end of the row. Private Corcoran’s grave is now on the far left, with the first headstones of Rows G & D behind. On the far right,…
…and nearest the camera in the shot above left, is Private Ambrose Pryor, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, whose grave reference is H13, and panning further right, Private Charles Smith, Otago Regiment, in the foreground of the shot above right, whose grave reference is H14, the final burial in the row.
Time to visit the first few headstones in Rows A, B & C, the three rows on the right in this picture, where eight men of the York & Lancaster Regiment, all killed in March 1918, are buried.
These three men, killed on 25th & 26th March 1918, are buried nearest the wall and all three graves bear the reference number of A1.
In front of them are four more men of the regiment at the start of Row B, one killed on 24th March and the other three on 8th March 1918, and in the foreground, the first headstone in Row C.
And finally, the three special memorial headstones on either side of the cemetery entrance (above & below) commemorating three New Zealand riflemen known to be buried among the nineteen unidentified burials in the cemetery,…
…and, being special memorials, all three bear a Latin, not a Broad, cross.
Cross of Sacrifice.
Looking south west past the Cross, the northern edge of Polygon Wood on our left.
“Haven’t we met before?”
On 26th September 1917, the day Polygon Wood was cleared of its German defenders, Australian troops attacked across these fields towards us; today, a CWGC signs point us across the road to the 5th Australian Division Memorial that remembers their deeds…
…but before we head into the wood itself, this actually isn’t the first time we have visited Polygon Wood Cemetery. The first time was nearly ten years ago, in 2007, and I have never shown you the photos of that day. Up until now:
So, here we are, in the height of summer this time. And the first thing you notice,…
…as in so many of the CWGC cemeteries I have visited since,…
…is that the trees you see here have now gone.
All of them.
Bearing in mind the proximity of the nearby wood, and the fighting that took place within it, particularly when it was finally cleared by the Australians on 26th September 1917, it is understandable why it is often assumed that Polygon Wood Cemetery is associated with the Third Battle of Ypres.
But not so. As we have seen, the first burial took place here nearly three weeks after the official end of the battle, and you will have noticed that there are no Australian casualties buried here, which you would expect considering it was they who captured the wood.
The cemetery was used for forty three identified burials, all but one New Zealanders, in December 1917, and a further forty identified men were buried here between January & April 1918 before the German advance recaptured the area. During the first eighteen months of the war, the Germans buried nearly 350 of their dead in the field beyond Polygon Wood Cemetery, eventually, in the 1950s, all moved to Langemark or Menen German Cemeteries, the presence of a cemetery already nearby probably explaining why the New Zealanders began to bury their dead here.
The grave of Second Lieutenant John Lowe M.C. M.M. nearest the camera, and time to mention again the unknown New Zealand soldier next to him. His headstone bears a Latin cross, and is a perfect example of one of the exceptions to the rules I mentioned earlier; an unknown soldier whose nationality, in this case, is known, and whose headstone, had his identity been known as well, would have borne a Broad cross, as all New Zealand burials do. And if you haven’t worked it out yet, I mentioned earlier that the final three burials here were made on 28th September 1918, two, Privates McPhee and Christie at the end of Row B, above far left, whom we visited earlier,…
…and the third, the grave of German infantryman Hans Bogner, who died the same day.
Looking south towards the Cross of Sacrifice and Polygon Wood beyond. The wood itself, about a mile due south of the village of Zonnebeke, was also known as Racecourse Wood (because it had an oval racecourse, visible on trench maps, as I will show you at some point, within it) and had also been used by the Belgian Army as a firing range, the huge butte they constructed (known as, you guessed it, the Butte) at the north-eastern end of the wood later proving a perfect defensive position for German machine gunners to sweep the by-then devastated wood in front of them. The Butte is still there, with a memorial to the 5th Australian Division, who captured it on 26 September 1917, now atop it, as we shall see when we go into the wood next post.
A very brief synopsis of the actions that took place here during the Great War begins when Polygon Wood was first taken by British troops in late October 1914, before being captured by the Germans on 3rd May 1915. The Australians recaptured it at on 26th September 1917, it was evacuated once again by the British during the German advance in the spring of 1918, and finally retaken by the 9th (Scottish) Division on 28th September 1918. Much more on the Australian attack in September 1917 next post too.
The special memorials on either side of the cemetery entrance (above & below).
I thought so!
Back to the present, and two final views, this time taken from the Butte within Polygon Wood itself, the first looking down the walled avenue that leads from Polygon Wood Cemetery into the wood, and where young Baldrick is seen practising his daily yoga routine (yeah, right). He’s given up the fags too (yeah, right). No, really, he has. He’s joined the ranks of the vapers now.
And the second, looking down to our left from the Butte, is of Buttes New British Cemetery, the New Zealand Memorial, and beyond that one of the rides that leads you deep into the wood, all of which we shall explore in the next few posts.