The Battle of Polygon Wood was fought as part of the Third Battle of Ypres (also known as the Battle of Passchendaele). Polygon Wood, four miles east of Ypres, was named after its shape but the battle fought in Polygon Wood has become synonymous with the brutality of warfare in World War One. Polygon Wood was also known as ‘Racecourse Wood’ as a racecourse had once been there.
The Battle of Polygon Wood was fought on September 26th 1917. The 4th and 5th Divisions of the Australian Army were involved. The whole area around Polygon Wood had been churned up by artillery fire from both sides. Roads had been destroyed. Therefore moving supplies to men on the front line was very difficult. Horses pulled supply-laden carts and wagons to the front along muddy tracks. Troops attached to transport units suffered heavily. Movement was frequently very slow. Or the intensity of an artillery bombardment was such that there was no movement – and no hiding places for the men participating in this vital duty.
In the official history of Australian troops in World War One, these men are described as:
“(belonging) to the finest class their nation produced………the self-discipline of these men was as fine as any achievement of Australians in the war.”
By September 26th, describing Polygon Wood as a “wood” would have been pushing this description to the limit. As a result of continuous artillery bombardment, trees had been blown to pieces and most had been reduced to mere stumps. The joint Australian and British attack on Polygon Wood was covered by a British artillery barrage. This creeping barrage threw up great swirls of dust which served to disguise their advance.
Aided by precise artillery attacks, Polygon Wood was seemingly taken with ease. However, the artillery attack had not destroyed numerous German pill boxes found within the wood itself. These had to be captured before there could have been any consideration towards moving further forward. It was during these assaults that the Australians suffered large casualties. The 4th Division lost 1,717 men while the 5th Division lost 5,471 men killed, wounded and missing.
Some time later the Germans tried to recapture Polygon Wood and in the process used poison gas. The attempt was unsuccessful but in the following summer of 1918, men continued to suffer from the affect of poison gas as a number of gas shells had not exploded and the sun caused the gas to heat up within the shells and the damaged casing released poison gas vapour.