German blockhouse or pillbox captured by Australian soldiers at the Battle of Polygon Wood on 26 September 1917. [AWM E00904]

The Battle of Polygon Wood

One hundred years on, Australians remain fiercely proud of the Anzac legend.

These stories of immense courage, strength, perseverance, endurance, initiative and mate-ship, have come to define all Australians and New Zealanders.

Since 2014, commemorative services around the world have marked the centenary of the Great War. Many of those memorials have been on the former battlefields of Europe, where so many Australians fought and died.

One of those battles was on the 26th of September, 1917. Two Australian divisions supported seven British divisions in the Battle of Polygon Wood, which was part of the third phase of the third Battle of Ypres.

Led by Britons Douglas Haig, Herbert Plumer and Hubert Gough, the combined forces of the British and Australian divisions planned to advance between 910m and 1,370m, to slopes that were easier to defend. The rising mist obscured the British infantry… enabling the combined British and Australian armies to attack the German 4th Army.

Ten decades later, on Tuesday September 26 , over 600 Australians made the journey to the Buttes New British Cemetery, which is located 2km south of the Belgian village of Zonnebeke, to commemorate the battle of Polygon Wood.

"Unless you're royalty, most of us don’t have much knowledge of the daily lives, challenges and triumphs of our ancestors." Vivienne Smith

The cemetery in Zonnebeke contains the 5th Australian Divisions’ Memorial; a memorial dedicated to the unknown 378 New Zealanders who died in the Battle of Polygon Wood.

The Polygon Wood Cemetery forms the regular front line where the remains of 107 soldiers were buried at the time of the battle. Eventually, 2,108 soldiers were buried there – including 560 Australians. Over 1,600 men are unidentified.

The Battle of Polygon Wood claimed the lives of 34,645 soldiers; 21,145 were part of the British and Australian armed forces.

Vivienne Smith is the great grandaughter of private Oswald Rowley Smith, who was awarded a military medal for his actions of bravery during the battle.

She attended the memorial service in Zonnebeke and says she found it a humbling experience.

“The approach to the ceremony was through the very woods where my great grandfather and his comrades would have fought,” she said.

“String lights were run through the forest outlining where the German and Australian lines were and how much ground was claimed that day. There were live dioramas of trench life – medical tents, kitchen tents, trenches, captain’s quarters, German trenches, Australian trenches – and film archives were played against the dense forest, playing out horrific scenes of the battle in this very spot.”

(Supplied: Vivienne Smith)

“I found it quite an interesting experience to connect with my family history on such a tangible level,” Vivienne said.

“Unless you’re royalty, most of us don’t have much knowledge of the daily lives, challenges and triumphs of our ancestors; so to be able to see my great grandfather’s history preserved in a museum was special and very interesting. I was able to step (literally) through a particularly challenging and triumphant day of my great grandfather’s.

“It makes you think if you could have done the same thing”.

“It is incredibly important for younger generations to learn more about the impact of WWI and to commemorate those who served on our behalf." Stephanie Hutchinson

Remembering the Anzac legend is very important and many memorials around the world are committed to educating students and the general public on its importance.

Stephanie Hutchinson is the Head of Learning at the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney. She makes it an integral part of their education program and is committed to teaching all generations.

“It is incredibly important for younger generations to learn more about the impact of WWI and to commemorate those who served on our behalf,” she said.

“We hope that every man, woman and child, regardless of their age, background or experience, will leave the memorial carrying the quintessential qualities of our Anzacs in their hearts; Courage, Endurance and Sacrifice, which unify us all in our quest to make the world a better place.”

(Supplied: Vivienne Smith)

Despite what the public may think about war, Ms Hutchinson is confident that the appreciation and dedication to remembering the ANZAC sacrifice is actually growing and not declining.

“The last decade has shown a resurgence in the numbers of people attending Anzac Day services around Australia; especially in the numbers of young people,” she said. “Indicating that our WWI history is even more relevant and important, not less.”

“Education is critical to ensure that the lessons of the past are not lost and it is heartening to see the level of commitment from government and schools and teachers [who are teaching] WWI history in the classroom.

“Each unique object, artwork and artefact at the ANZAC Memorial tells a human story that triggers emotions and connects people to our shared world history.

“Through the curriculum, a dynamic exchange of knowledge, ideas and perspectives can take place, that keeps the subject matter fresh and relevant to a wide range of people, including young people.” – Genevieve Smith  

EDITOR’S NOTE: It is recommended that ‘ANZAC’ be capitalised when referring to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.  For broader use, eg., Anzac Day, Anzac Spirit, Anzac Centenary etc., the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Australian War Memorial recommend ‘Anzac’.