Belgium 1917: Battle of Polygon Wood
Zonnebeke, Fifth Australian Division Memorial
The Division’s Glorious Dead! – The Fifth Australian Division Memorial
- One way to approach Fifth Australian Division Memorial in Polygon Wood is from the small side road that leads off the Meenseweg, the ‘Menin Road’, the N8. This road can be found on the left not far beyond the Bellewaerde Park. It then runs fairly straight across country with housing developments at Nonnebossen to the left until it reaches and passes over the freeway, the A19. Polygon Wood is dead ahead and the road skirting the wood to the left leads to the entrance to Buttes New British Cemetery and the Fifth Division Memorial.
Within a year of the end of World War I, Captain Alexander Ellis, late 29th Battalion, 8th Brigade, Fifth Australian Division, had produced his history of the division, the only Australian divisional history to come out of the ‘Great War’. Ellis proudly, and perhaps boldly, subtitled his work – ‘Being an Authoritative Account of the Division’s Doings in Egypt, France and Belgium’. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Frenchman who had been the supreme Allied commander of 1918, was prevailed upon to pen a foreword in French and Ellis ended his book with these stirring words:
The Division’s Glorious Dead! … Of all those things of which the 5th Australian Division is proud, it is proudest of its Dead. Them it most reveres. The memory of them it cherishes above all things. May all Australian hearts be softened by their love, animated by their courage, ennobled and uplifted by their example until the end of time.
Captain Alexander Ellis, The Story of the Fifth Australian Division, London, 1919, p.402
The Fifth Division’s tribute to those who fought with it between 1916 and 1918 in France and Belgium is in Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, near Ieper. The way into the memorial lies along a narrow grass way bounded by a low rubble wall. This is Australian land, acquired by the division after the war, and the memorial itself, a stone obelisk, sits on a long, tall bank known as the ‘Butte’, approached up a steep flight of steps. Beneath the memorial are the 2,103 headstones of Buttes New British Cemetery and the New Zealand Memorial to the missing while beyond stretches Polygon Wood. A glance through the trees behind the memorial reveals that it is close to the northern edge of the wood.
The dedicatory plaque on the front face of the memorial has a few words in English and French. The English simply declares that the memorial is ‘To the Officers, Non–Commissioned Officers and Men’ who served in the division between 1916 and 1918. The French includes the rather more gracious phrase ‘A la Mémoire des ..’, ‘To the memory of …’. Beneath the dedication the Fifth Division listed 17 battle locations in France and Belgium, places it wished the visitor to realise epitomised for the soldiers of the division their struggle and sacrifice on the Western Front.
Many of these names mean little today but they would have been etched in the minds of Australian families who lost sons, husbands, relatives and friends at these far away places. The division’s last action was fought on 1 October 1918 in France on the Hindenburg Line and that location, along with the nearby village of Joncourt, is recorded on the memorial at the end of the list. William Harvey, of Swan Hill, Victoria, father of Private Vincent Dudley Cyril Harvey, 57th Battalion (Victoria), when asked to fill in a ‘Place Where Killed or Wounded’ for his son on the Australian War Memorial’s ‘Roll of Honour Circular’, wrote, ‘penetrating Hindenburg Line’. In his reminiscences of his time with the 57th Battalion, To the Last Ridge, Walter Downing wrote of this final action of the Fifth Division on the Western Front:
… on sweeping over the summit of a ridge, we came into view of the main German position, to which he had retired; and for the third time in three days we were caught in the German barrage, for the third time caught in unsubdued machine gun fire. By now there were so few of us left that a further advance was out of the question. We dug in. At two o’clock next morning 2 October 1918 we were relieved … We were never to see the line again.
Walter Downing. To the Last Ridge, Melbourne, 1920, reprinted 2000, p. 183
Private Vincent Harvey, aged 19, died on 1 October 1918 from gas inhaled during these last attacks of his battalion between 29 September and 1 October 1918.
Another who died within sight of the end on 1 October 1918 was Private Gordon Edmund Ewart, 58th Battalion (Victoria), aged 20. His father, Alexander Ewart, wrote on his ‘Roll of Honour Circular’:
Deceased was engaged in following battles – Fleurbaix, Somme, including Morchies, Bapaume, Bullecourt, Ypres, Polygon Wood, Westhoek Ridge, Messines, Villers–Bretonneux, Morlancourt and Bellicourt.
Private Gordon Edmund Ewart, Honour Roll Circular,
Mr Ewart’s chronology might not have been too accurate but his message was clear – his son had fought in virtually every significant action engaged in by the 58th Battalion of the Fifth Division since its first disastrous battle at Fromelles (Fleurbaix) in France on 19 July 1916. And Fromelles, seemingly in the place of honour, is the first battle location on the Fifth Division’s memorial. Why then did the division build its memorial here at Polygon Wood?
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010