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Webmatters : The 5th Australian Division Memorial at Zonnebeke

5th Australian Division

Location

Buttes New British Cemetery is located 8 kilometres east of Ieper town centre, on the Lange Dreve a road leading from the Meenseweg (N8), connecting Ieper to Menen.

From Ieper town centre the Meenseweg is located via Torhoutstraat and right onto Basculestraat. Basculestraat ends at a main crossroads, directly over which begins the Meenseweg.

4.7 kilometres along the Meenseweg and after passing the Bellewaerde theme park lies the left hand turning onto Oude Kortrijkstraat. 2 kilometres along the Oude Kortrijkstraat the road crosses the A19 motorway. Immediately after this bridge is the left hand turning onto the Lotegatstraat, which borders Polygon Wood. 800 metres along the Lotegatstraat is the right hand turning onto Lange Dreve. The Cemetery is located 1 kilometre along the Lange Dreve on the left hand side of the road.

There is a parking area for this cemetery, the New Zealand Memorial within Buttes Cemetery and Polygon Wood Cemetery — on the roadside.

GPS N E Wikimapia
Decimal 50.856148 2.992208 Map

Australian 5th Division Memorial

 

Background

Following the battle for the Menin Road, on 20th September 1917, the British Second Army halted to consolidate its positions before moving on into Polygon Wood.

On 26th September 1917 as part of what is generally called the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) the battle for Polygon Wood began.

Map of Polygon Wood

As can be seen from the photograph of the sign the wood is aptly named. Then, as now the wood was used for recreational purposes. In the top right corner was a range: whether for rifle or artillery is open to question.

The term wood though, needs to be qualified in that nothing remained but blasted stumps of trees with German pill boxes sitting up in the middle of the wreckage.

Many of these bunkers can still be found in the wood from a footpath off the road. There is no direct access from Buttes New British Cemetery.

 

Taking Polygon Wood

The Commander of the Second Army: General Sir Herbert Plumer, was an advocate of small advances which would then be consolidated before moving on. A system of bite and hold. For this reason the objectives were quite meagre when compared with the grand sweep intended on the first day of the Somme.

For this phase the objectives were to be carried in two stages each of less than a kilometre. Although it is said that the Generals never learned, this is not quite true. Something that Plumer had come to realise was that the greater the weight of artillery that he could muster the better the results. In addition to heavy guns of the field artillery Vickers Machine Guns were brought forward to lay down their own patterns of fire.

The Australian 4th Division would be making progress along the northern edge of the wood, but it was up to the 5th to take the wood and secure the right flank of the attack.

On the 25th September the Germans under Crown Prince Rupprecht had launched an attack of their own which whilst it had been beaten off, left the Germans thinking that the British would not be in a position to retaliate for a few days.

They were thus caught on the hop when at 0550 hours on the 26th September the Allied Artillery began its devastating bombardment.

The official Australian Historian CEW Bean recorded that:

The barrage which descended at 5.50 am on September 26th, just as the Polygon plateau became visible, was the most perfect that ever protected Australian troops. Roaring, deafening, it rolled ahead of the troops like a Gippsland bush fire.

The amount of debris thrown up by the bombardment hindered almost as much as it helped the advancing Australians, but the attack went well and soon the buttes of the range were looming in the distance. The German pill boxes were eliminated one by one and some of them can still be seen today amongst the trees.

 

As the left flank of the Division was taking the greater part of the wood, the right flank was being sorely pressed. To the south the British 33rd Division had not been able to advance as quickly as the Australians and this was leaving the Australian flank open as the Allied line bulged forward.

The constant effort of trying to fend off a flanking attack, advance through the wood and take the pill boxes began to take its toll.

Eventually 15th Brigade on the right found itself stalemated against a German stronghold called Jerk House to the south and outside of the wood. They then came under fire from a second stronghold called Cameron House.

The second phase of the attack was therefore held up for longer than anticipated as the units reformed their line in order to try and produce a coherent attacking front. By 1200 hours the 33rd Division had managed to fight their way forward and were in a better position to secure the open flank.

Australian 5th Division Memorial

An elastic defence

The 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers took Jerk House but within a few hours were subjected to a strong German counter attack which pushed them back and into the Australian’s flank. This was how the new elastic defence of the Germans was supposed to work. Suck in the enemy around strong points and then hammer them from all sides with infantry and artillery.

What the Germans had not properly planned for was the use of aerial reconnaissance and the Allies ability to hit the counter attacking German infantry with accurate and heavy fire of their own. As night fell the Australians grip on the wood tightened.

At dawn on the 27th September the 5th Division completed its task. With 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers advancing up on the right to secure the flank, Polygon Wood was very much in Allied hands.

 

The Memorial

The plaque on the Australian 5th Division Memorial

The memorial stands on top of the butttes, which have given their name to the cemetery below. The original, contained a number of German shelters which would later be used by the British as a Brigade Headquarters.

The dedicatory plaque on the front face of the memorial has a few words in English and French.

To the Officers, Non–Commissioned Officers and Men of the 5th Australian Division who fought in France and Belgium, 1916, 1917, 1918.

Beneath the dedication are seventeen battle locations in France and Belgium.

The memorial was unveiled by the Prince of Wales on the 10th May 1932 but resources suggest that the obelisk was already in place by 1921, making it the first memorial in Zonnebeke.

Buried within the Cemetery is Lt Colonel Alan Scott of the 56th Australian Infantry who was killed just to the left of the butte whilst handing over to Lt Colonel Dudley Turnbull of the 20th Manchester Regiment. The same bullet killing both colonels.