Battle of Polygon Wood

The area captured on 20 September 1917 at the Battle of Menin Road had been churned up by the shells of both sides and, before massed artillery and other supplies could be moved forward, roads had to be built. Plank roads for heavy traffic, light railways, mule-tracks, and even a short experimental length of monorail, were quickly constructed. Building supply routes was essential work for the success of the ‘bite and hold’ operations.

Australian forces involved in the Polygon Wood battle were the Fourth and Fifth Divisions, which as well as the infantry included artillery, engineers, medical personnel and the hundreds of men involved in supply and transport. All essential war material had to be brought forward by wagons along roads and tracks exposed to heavy shelling. Horses and drivers suffered greatly. While a cratered road was repaired, drivers had to sit and wait, controlling their horses as the shells fell around them. Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian, wrote of these men:
They belonged to the finest class their nation produced, unassuming, country-bred men. They waited steadily until the break was repaired or some shattered wagon or horses dragged from the road, and then continued their vital work. No shell-fire could drive them from their horses. The unostentatious efficiency and self-discipline of these steadfast men was as fine as any achievement of Australians in the war.

Charles Bean, The AIF in France:1917, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume 4, Sydney, 1941, pp.794–795

The name Polygon Wood derived from a plantation forest that lay along the axis of the Australian advance on 26 September 1917. Shelling had reduced the wood to little more than stumps and broken timber. The planned attack was almost derailed by a German attack 24 hours earlier on British troops holding the line to the south of the Fifth Division. Australians, scheduled to attack the next morning, helped to fend off the Germans, but there was some concern about the possible weakness of this flank during the upcoming operation.

The British artillery barrage, which commenced at 5.50 on 26 September, just as the Polygon plateau became visible, was described by Charles Bean as:

… the most perfect that ever protected Australian troops. It seemed to break out … with a single crash. The ground was dry, and the shell-bursts raised a wall of dust and smoke which appeared almost to be solid. So dense was the cloud that individual bursts … could not be distinguished. Roaring, deafening, it rolled ahead of the troops ‘like a Gippsland bushfire’.

Charles Bean, The AIF in France:1917, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 4, Sydney, 1941, p.813

Seven divisions, five British and two Australian, advanced behind the screen of shells – the ‘creeping barrage’ as it was known – and seized most of their objectives. In the south, despite the previous day’s problems, the Australians reached not only their own objectives but those allocated to neighboring British units. The Germans launched several counter-attacks but these were thwarted by the heavy defensive artillery barrages used to protect the infantry consolidating their objectives. The Battle of Polygon Wood cost 5,770 Australian casualties.

A feature of the Polygon Wood fighting were the fierce mopping-up actions to clear the German defenders from ‘pillboxes’ untouched by the shelling. Prominent in these attacks was Private Patrick Bugden, 31st Battalion (Queensland and Victoria). A born athlete, Bugden also rescued a comrade from some Germans in the course of which action he killed most of those who had taken the man prisoner. Bugden, who was later killed, received the Victoria Cross posthumously.