A ‘Virtual Battlefield Tour’ from Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium
The first fight in Polygon Wood was in October 1914, when the Germans held the northern half and the British held the southern. Attacks by British Guards regiments were beaten back with heavy casualties. The wood was completely occupied by the Germans during their advances of 1915. It received its name from British soldiers due to the shape of the wooded area’s boundary.
Before the war, a long, narrow butte on the northern end of the wood was the site of a Belgian army rifle range. From its summit, German riflemen and artillery observers held commanding views of the countryside in all directions. As part of the German defenses, the butte was interlaced with tunnels and dugouts.
Advancing behind a creeping barrage, the 5th Australian Division captured Polygon Wood on 26 September 1917, during the segment of the Third Battle of Ypres known as the Battle of Menin Road. The bombardment reduced the wood to shattered stumps.
Originally the location of a German Military Cemetery, Polygon Wood Cemetery is actually located across the road from Polygon Wood. The cemetery contains a relatively small 107 of graves, 60 of which are New Zealand servicemen. Enter along a grass path to the Cross of Sacrifice and follow the steps down into a hexagon of irregularly spaced graves, a pattern typical of battlefield cemeteries. (50.857164,2.990422)
Polygon Wood is now a large, forested park crisscrossed by walking lanes and containing several sites clustered in its northeastern corner. Directions to the cemeteries are well-indicated by Commonwealth War Graves Commission signs from Zonnebeke. Enter the area along a grass walk enclosed between stone walls. The path leads directly to the stairway up to the top of the butte where the 5th Australian Division Memorial is located. The 12-meter high obelisk bears the rising sun emblem of the Australian Imperial Force. (50.856118,2.992267)
The gravestones of the large Buttes New British Cemetery number 2,103, all but 431 remain unidentified. The vast majority of the burials are a result of the 1917 fighting. (50.855925,2.992004)
The New Zealand Memorial to the Missing is at the rear of the cemetery and records the names of 378 men who fell in the Polygon Wood sector and who have no known grave. Each end of the double colonnade has a square structure holding the panels upon which the names are inscribed. (50.855511,2.991344)
The remnants of one of the German pillboxes can still be visited approximately 500 meters along the main path behind the New Zealand Memorial, on the right identifiable by the fenced access path. The bunker itself is readily accessible and is much larger than one would anticipate; its walls are a solid 1 meter thick. (50.852745,2.986801)
Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium