Belgium 1917: Battle of Polygon Wood
Zonnebeke, Fifth Australian Division Memorial
Shells screamed through the air – The Battle of Polygon Wood, 26 September 1917
In the days leading up to 26 September 1917 the men of the Fifth Australian Division prepared for their first major battle in Belgium. In the shattered countryside to the west beyond Polygon Wood engineers and pioneers struggled to extend the plank road and other tracks to the new front line won by the First and Second Australian Divisions at the Battle of Menin Road on 20 September. Medical details established Regimental Aid Posts close to the line to which the badly wounded could be brought quickly from the battlefield for attention before being carried back by field ambulance stretcher–bearers to horse–drawn and motor ambulance collecting points along the Menin Road. And up the Menin Road to various dumps came supplies of food, water, engineering stores and ammunition.
Artillerymen and their horses fought the mud and shell craters to bring up the guns to support the attack. The guns assembled for the barrage to support the Fifth Division infantry was an awesome force: 205 pieces of heavy artillery, one gun for every nine metres of front. In addition, there would be the usual array of lighter 18–pounder guns of the field artillery brigades. Assembled forward of the artillery were the heavy Vickers machine guns of the machine gun companies. A number of these would provide emergency barrages if the attacking infantry needed defence against a sudden enemy counter–attack. Others, along with the artillery, would lay down a curtain of bullets in front of the advance.
Many other elaborate preparations were in hand. Planes of the Royal Flying Corps would fly over the infantry as a ‘contact patrol’. These planes were distinguished by black streamers on the rear edge of their left wings and were to call for signals from the ground by sounding a klaxon horn or dropping lights. The infantry would respond with red flares and, the position being noted, the pilot would hurry back to drop this intelligence to divisional headquarters. There were even so–called ‘Intelligence Policemen’, German speakers whose job it was to interview prisoners and gain tactical information about the battlefield for relaying back to the Divisional Intelligence Officer at Hooge Crater.
Then slowly, between 20 and 24 September the 12 infantry battalions, some 10,000 men, of the division came forward. Some took over front–line positions while others were held back as reserves. All of this assembly was done under daily German artillery bombardment of the approach area, causing about 100 casualties a day. A significant German attack on 25 September on the British division to the south, in which the Australians became involved, threatened the plan for 26 September but as the line was stabilised, at some cost to Australian units, it was decided to continue with the planned attack.
During the night of 25–26 September the men of the assaulting battalions reached taped lines laid across the south–western third of the blasted tree stumps of Polygon Wood. At this point it was vital not to alert the watching Germans by unusual noise or the lighting of cigarettes which would bring down an enemy artillery barrage. At 5.50 am on 26 September the guns opened up in front of the Australian infantry who immediately moved forward behind its protecting wall of shells. If one had been on the Butte, where the Fifth Division Memorial now stands, the sound of battle would have been overpowering. Captain Alexander Ellis, wrote a vivid description of the scene:
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 clamour 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.
Captain Alexander Ellis, The Story of the Fifth Australian Division, London, 1919, pp.244–5
The infantry’s main obstacles on the battlefield were the dozens of German concrete pill–boxes which protected the enemy machine gunners. They had to get to the pill–boxes just as the barrage lifted from them and the occupants were still dazed by explosions. At some pill–boxes there was resistance but many German soldiers surrendered when they found themselves so rapidly surrounded. The Butte itself was soon rushed and was found to be full of German dugouts. The entrances were blocked and bombers with grenades worked their way through the underground positions finally pushing the occupants into surrender. German planes came over and machine gunned the Butte area while enemy artillery began pounding the rear areas behind the Australian advance causing many casualties. At 7.30 am another protective barrage began and the Australians pushed on to their final objective for the day a few hundred metres beyond Polygon Wood. By 8 am the required ground had been gained and the advance was over. During the rest of the day German counter attacks came to nothing and the Battle of Polygon Wood was declared a great success for the AIF.
This clean–cut success suggests the reason the Fifth Division picked the Butte at Polygon Wood for their memorial on the Western Front. Divisional historian Captain Ellis described it as a ‘fine success’ and Charles Bean wrote of this ‘clean, strong blow’. Bean attributed it, however, to the ‘most perfect barrage that had ever protected Australian troops’ rolling ahead of them like a ‘Gippsland bushfire’. However, like all success on the Western Front, Polygon Wood was won at great cost.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010