Spring Battlefields 2019 Day Seven: Polygon Wood and Hooge - Kathryn's history blog

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Spring Battlefields 2019 Day Seven: Polygon Wood and Hooge


Today is my last full day in the Ypres Salient so I made the most of it with a few walks around some of the areas I've not visited yet this week. However, my first destination of the day was to the Passchendaele research centre in Zonnebeke for a spot of PhD reading, as there's a book there on the New Zealand YMCA's work in the First World War. This was a short, but interesting read that was definitely worth stopping in for.

I then drove just down the road to Polygon Wood to the area that suffered fierce fighting throughout the war. I parked near the Australian 5th Division's memorial, established in memory of the Division that finally drove the Germans from the remains of the wood on 26th September 1917. There's a great view from the Butte on which the memorial stands, looking down over the concentration cemetery below and down the wood.

The cemetery below contains graves brought in from the area after the war and is accompanied by a memorial to the New Zealanders who took over the sector after the Third Battle of Ypres in the winter of 1917/8.

A number of these New Zealand soldiers are buried in the nearby Polygon Wood Cemetery just outside of the wood, giving this area a very ANZAC feel. This cemetery is much smaller and is a battlefield site, as shown by the irregular pattern of graves.
I next walked through the wood and had a look at where the old trench lines had been, using the Linesman maps on my iPad. 


There's little that remains of them, although several bunkers are still visitable. An information sign next to one German construction - Scott's Post - described how after the war old ammunition was placed inside to be exploded and the concrete walls withstood the blasts. Looking at the depth of the walls, this is hardly surprising!

There also remains a New Zealand bunker which is of a very different design, with much smaller walls and made with corrugated iron.

At the far end of the wood is Black Watch Corner, with a memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division. This was erected as a tribute to the 1st battalion The Black Watch, who withstood the First Battle of Ypres in this area.

From here, I then walked back up through the middle of the wood to return to the car park. I was really pleased to see a couple of red squirrels running between the trees as I walked. There was a really cold wind today and I was grateful for as much shelter as possible from the wood.

After eating lunch, I next drove to Sanctuary Wood to do the walk from Paul Reed's Walking Ypres book which linked up with Hooge and Bellewarde Ridge. I didn't go into the museum here, but visited Sanctuary Wood British Cemetery just down Canadalaan. This is the combination of three previous cemeteries and is beautifully laid out. A staggering 80% of the burials here are unknown and there are 80 special memorials for bodies lost in further fighting.

One grave here is that of Lieut Gilbert Talbot, after whom Talbot House is named. After his death in July 1915, Bishop Neville Talbot suggested the House be named in honour of his brother.

Out on the Ypres-Menin Road I next came to Birr Cross Roads Cemetery. This was within British lines throughout much of the war until April 1918 and was used as a dressing station until this time. A special memorial here marks the burial in this cemetery of Captain Harold Ackroyd who had been decorated for bravery on the Somme in 1916 and then won a posthumous Victoria Cross here in August 1917. As a medical officer, he put himself in danger to rescue the wounded, saving many lives while risking his own. He was later killed in action.

From here I headed north on a small lane that led up to Railway Wood. This was another area of fierce fighting between 1915 and 1917, with the British and German lines very close together. A number of mines were blown throughout the years in this area, many of which are still visible in the small woodland. The trench maps were particularly interesting to look at here as the 1917 ones show where all of these explosions happened.

Two memorials are in this area. The first appears to just be a Cross of Sacrifice without any associated graves. In fact, the Cross is the grave itself, in memory of 12 members of the Royal Engineers who were killed here in the tunnelling operations.
Another memorial just along from it is a relatively new one (erected in 2000) for the London Scottish who fought here in 1915. Their medical officer had been Noel Chavasse who won the Military Cross here prior to winning his two Victoria Crosses. I visited his grave a few days ago in Brandhoek.

On this path the ridges that span out from Ypres are clearly visible and there is a good view back to the spires of Ypres city itself. This walk really made it apparent the uphill struggle that was facing the British as they tried to defend the Salient.

I next went for a look in Hooge Museum, which I think is the only one in the area I hadn't been to. It was interesting, a typical private museum packed with artefacts, although I don't think there was anything I hadn't seen before.

Just opposite the museum is Hooge Cemetery which I only stopped at very briefly as I have visited this one a few times before and the weather was starting to look very threatening. There's a large proportion of Australians buried here, many of them from Polygon Wood.

Slightly further along is Hooge Chateau but again I only gave it a passing visit as I've been here before. Slightly further along is the King's Royal Rifle Corps' memorial which now has a less-than-attractive backdrop of the theme park's wheely bins.
Luckily the rain didn't come to much and I next came to a pair of memorials, both of which I have again seen before. The first is for the Gloucestershire Regiment on the site where the 1st battalion fought in 1914. I still have a scar on my leg from where I fell up the steps here about four years ago.

Just opposite is another memorial to the 18th (Eastern) Division, commemorating their efforts at Third Ypres in July and August 1917. Captain Ackroyd, whose grave I visited earlier, won his VC with the 18th.


I then walked back round the lane to Sanctuary Wood, making a final stop at the Canadian memorial. This is one I wasn't aware of before, and I'm glad that I found it via the Walking Ypres route as it has really impressive views. It's of the same design as several others, including the one at Passendale.

On the drive back towards Ypres I went through Hellfire Corner and along the road to the Menin Gate. This was the route I had begun my first walk out from Ypres last Thursday, which now feels like forever ago. It felt very fitting to be ending my visit in the Salient on the same road that I had begun it, having now been out in pretty much every direction from Ypres. I have really enjoyed my week here and have got to know the area and the different battles so much better since being here.

Tomorrow I'm heading home in the afternoon but before that I'm going to drive north to Nieuwpoort to see the end of the 'Race to the Sea'. Keep an eye out for the final blog post: depending on wifi it may not go up until Friday.

Kathryn

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