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Polygon Wood

The majority of this page deals with Polygon Wood itself. However, not far away to the south-west is another wood with Great War associations; Glencourse Wood. A small section at the bottom of the page covers this wood.

Map of Polygon Wood and area
Map of Polygon Wood and area

Polygon Wood is a small wood which is about four miles east of Ypres. The wood was sometimes known as Racecourse Wood, as there was a track within it. Before the Great War, Polygon Wood was by the Belgian Army and within it stands a large mound, known as the Butte, which was used for musketry training. On the Butte today stands a memorial to the 5th Australian Division.

During the War, Polygon Wood was totally destroyed, and the wood was replanted after the war. There are 'rides' or tracks running through the wood which can be walked, and in terms of the Great War, there is a large cemetery, plus a New Zealand Memorial to the Missing as well as the Australian Memorial within the wood itself. Just outside the wood is a small original wartime cemetery. In fact, the entrances to the two sites are directly opposite on either side of the road, at the north-eastern apex of the wood.

Buttes New British Cemetery, NZ Memorial to the Missing and Australian Memorial

Taking the entrance leading into the wood, a grass walkway enclosed by stone walls leads directly to the Butte. Here, there are steps straight ahead to the top, where the Australain Memorial stands. To the right from the base of the Butte is the cemetery itself, at the far side of which is the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing.

View of the Butte with the Australian Memorial on the top as you enter Polygon Wood
View of the Butte with the Australian Memorial on the top as you enter Polygon Wood

The cemetery is quite large, and is one which was made after the Armistice. It contains the graves of many soldiers recovered some time after they had died. Thus, although there are 2,103 burials here, only 428 of these are identified. This menas that over three quarters of the burials are men 'Known Unto God'. Most of those buried here died in 1917.

An unidentified Australian soldier's grave, one of many in the cemetery 'Known Unto God'
An unidentified Australian soldier's grave, one of many in the cemetery 'Known Unto God'

The best views of the cemetery are from the Butte, so after walking among the graves of those who fell near here, it is worth climbing the Butte to see the Australian memorial from close up, and also to view the cemetery from this vantage point.

View of Buttes New British Cemetery from the Butte
View of Buttes New British Cemetery from the Butte

Standing directly in front of the Australian Memorial, the view shows the Stone of Remebrance, the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing and also one of the 'rides' in Polygon Wood beyond.

View of Buttes New British Cemetery from the Butte
Another view of Buttes New British Cemetery from the Butte

The Memorial on the Butte is specifically to the Fifth Australian Division, and has an imposing position, as it rises high above the cemetery. After the War, there were many 'temporary' (wooden) memorials across France and Flanders, which had been erected during wartime by Battalions, Brigades or Divisions to commemorate those lost in certain actions. In April 1919, the Battlefield Exploits Memorials Committee was formed to consider claims made by units which wished to “erect permanent memorials of their exploits“ in all theatres except Mesopotamia. Claims were to be submitted by the 1st of September, 1919. However, the Australians did not waste time; after the Armistice they began work to construct their memorials in permanent stone, and these were complete (as reported in The Times, October 1919) just a month after the deadline for claims to be submitted! The land the memorials stood on was only then being acquireed formally.

Memorial to the Fifth Australian Division
Memorial to the Fifth Australian Division

The memorial at Polygon Wood is similar to that commemorating the 1st Australian Division at Pozieres on the Somme. It is a tall block constructed obelisk, forty feet high. On the front is the rising sun emblem of the Australian Imperial Force, and underneath a large plaque which reads 'To the Officers Non-Commissioned Officers and Men of the Fifth Australian Division who fought in France and Belgium 1916 - 1917 - 1918.' Beaneath these words is a list of the batlles, which include of course Polygon Wood. At the bottom the main inscription is repeated in French. In 1935, this memorial was one of the sites visited by the then Prime Minister of Australia, Joseph Lyons, when he toured the Western Front battlefields.

Australian Memorial between the Wars
The Australian Memorial between the Wars. Photo: NELS

The New Zealand Memorial to the Missing is one of seven which are located in cemeteries close to locations where the New Zealanders fought. This one records the names of those from New Zealand 'who fell in the Polygon Wood Sector September 1917 to May 1918 and whose graves are known only to God'.

New Zealand Memorial to the Missing within the cemetery
New Zealand Memorial to the Missing within the cemetery

It is a large and impressive structure, and 378 men are named on the memorial, from a number of different New Zealand Battalions, including an Entrenching Battalion. The 'window spaces' in the front of the memorial are barred and provide an interesting aspect to look out at the cemetery and the Australian Memorial.

View of the cemetery from the NZ Memorial to the Missing within the cemetery
View of the cemetery from the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing

Polygon Wood was the scene of early fighting during the Great War, during the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. On the 25th of October the Germans held the northern half of the wood, and 1st Irish Guards and 2nd Grenadier Guards were ordered to clear them out. During their advance here, nine of the Irish Guards were killed and four wounded by a single shell. The scene was described as "a slaughter-house". During the early hours of the next day, the two battalions were reinforced by the 3rd Coldstream Guards, and attacked again. By this time, the Irish Guards, having had no food for 48 hours, were at last allowed to eat their emergency rations! At some point during these actions, the medical officer serving with the 1st Irish Guards, Lieutenant Hugh Shields was killed whilst trying to tend the wounded. He had only just been warned about the dangers he faced in being exposed to enemy fire whilst helping them. He has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Menin Gate. Unusually, his record on the CWGC website gives the date of death as "between 25/10/1914 and 26/10/1914".

A ride within Polygon Wood
A ride within Polygon Wood

The wood was lost to the Germans in May 1915, but in Third Ypres it was taken again. On the 20th of September 1917, the Battle of Menin Road Ridge was launched. As part of this the 1st Australian Division attacked, taking Glencourse Wood (see below) with little difficulty, and the 12th Battalion reached the west side of Polygon Wood at 7.45 a.m., just two hours after the attack had started. On the 26th of September, the battle for the wood itself commenced. This time it was the 5th Australian Division on the attack, and the 15th Brigade were initially held up by pillboxes at the south-west corner of the wood but advanced on to the position of the racecourse (to the south-west of where the cemetery stands today). The 14th Brigade reached and captured the Butte, where the memorial to the Division stands today.

After it had been taken, the wood was bombarded by the Germans in Autumn 1917, with gas shells as well as shrapnel. Months later, on the first warm day in the spring of 1918 it was reported that there were many casualties, including some from Battalion and Brigade HQ's based in the Butte, as the gas which had lain there was warmed by the sun and poisonous vapours were released.

Polygon Wood Cemetery

This small cemetery is outside the wood, reached by the entrance opposite that to Buttes Cemetery. The entrance path from the road leads to a circular area where the Cross of Sacrifice is located, then, at an angle, steps lead down to the cemetery itself.

Entrance to Polygon Wood Cemetery
The entrance way to Polygon Wood Cemetery

There is another inner "entrance way" here, and the name of the cemetery is inscribed on the stone pillars again, as it is on the entrance from the road. There are special memorials by the front wall to three men known to be buried here. The layout of graves is very irregular, and they are contained within a hexagon outlined by the cemetery walls.

Cross of Sacrifice at Polygon Wood Cemetery, with the wood visible behindThe cemetery is hexagonal in shape

Cross of Sacrifice at Polygon Wood Cemetery, with the wood visible behind (left) and the hexagonal shaped enclsorue of Polygon Wood Cemetery

This is an original wartime cemetery, and the irregular layout of graves indicates the nature of the cemetery - as compared to the much more regular and formal layout of post-Armistice 'concentration' cemeteries. This is a quiet and peaceful cemetery, although there are houses just to the right of it. There was at one time a German cemetery adjoining the British one, but those graves are long since removed.

Irregular layout of burials at Polygon Wood Cemetery
Irregular layout of burials at Polygon Wood Cemetery

One unusual inscription on a headstone here is that the address of Private Arthur Samuel Holland of the 11th Essex is inscribed at the base of his headstone. Arthur was aged 19 when he died on the 11th of April 1918, and his parents were Clement and Anne Holland of 45 Patterson Road, Norwich. The 1901 census shows that Clement, a postman, was a native of Norfolk, whilst Anne came from Ireland. They were then living in Reedham (a few miles south-east of Norwich), and had three other children as well as Arthur (then aged two).

Grave of Private Arthur Holland at Polygon Wood Cemetery
Grave of Private Arthur Holland at Polygon Wood Cemetery: the inscription gives his family address

Glencorse Wood

Glencorse Wood is just a little to the southwest of Polygon Wood, on the other side of the A19 motorway, and can be reached by following the small road which runs to the south of Polygon Wood back towards Ypres.

On a road called Wulverstraat, just to the south of the wood, is an orientation panel which gives some information on the wood.

Orientation panel about Glencorse WoodGlencorse Wood from the south
Orientation panel (left) and view of Glencorse Wood from the south

The panel explains that Glencorse Wood was the name given to the sourthern part of the wood which surrounded the Benedictine Abbey which used to stand near here. The other part of these woods was known as Nonnebossen. Glencourse Wood was where the First Battle of Ypres ended, on the 11th of November 1914. Captain Ewen Brodie of the 1st Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders was one of those killed that day, and a private memorial to him can still be seen today in Glencourse Wood.

To reach this memorial, go north from the panel, and up a tiny track which leads into the wood. The memorial is to the right just before the road dips down towards a farm. The memorial is today surrounded by modern log cabins. It takes the form of an upright stone, with a cross carved on it and an inscription beneath that. The memorial stands on the spot where he believed to have been buried. However, his body was never found.

Captain Brodie's memorial in Glencourse WoodDetail of the inscription
Detail of the inscription
Captain Brodie's memorial in Glencourse Wood

Brodie is, with no known grave, commemorated on the Menin Gate. The land the memorial stands on was purchased after the war by Ewen Brodie's mother, and the memorial erected in 1923. A small garden once surrounded it. It is now cared for by the CWGC.

Glencorse Wood was also the scene of fighting during Third Ypres in 1917. The 7th Bedfords stormed the wood on the 10th of August, but the ground was very marshy and it was difficult to consolidate.The 6th Northamptonshires were also involved, when two Lewis gunners rushed an enemy dugout just to the south of the wood, capturing forty of the enemey.

Sources & Acknowledgements
Aurel Sercu
Beatrix Brice: The Battle Book of Ypres
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Major & Mrs Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient
Rudyard Kipling: The Irish Guards in the Great War
Chris McCarthy: Passchendaele - the Day by Day Acccount
Files at The National Archives
Aurel Sercu (for photograph)
The Times archives
Western Front Association website