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Buttes New British Cemetery

Buttes New British Cemetery https://ngatapuwae.govt.nz/western-front/polygon-wood After the defeat at Passchendaele, this area became part of the New Zealand sector. Ngā Tapuwae Trails https://ngatapuwae.govt.nz/sites/default/files/stop/media/Western%20Front-Polygon%20Wood-Buttes-National%20Army%20Museum-NAM%208208.jpg

After the defeat at Passchendaele, this area became part of the New Zealand sector.

This stop gives you the big-picture story for the whole trail in one go.
WF_PolygonWood_ZoneOverview_20150911.mp3
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Buttes New British Cemetery

You’re standing on the Butte de Polygon, which is the old rifle butts used for musketry training by the Belgian army in the 19th century. Next to you is the memorial to the 5th Australian Division who won these woods in a bloody battle with the German defenders on 26 September 1917. This became the New Zealand Division’s sector in November 1917 after their failure at Passchendaele - and they defended it to February 1918.

At any one time, the 18,000-strong New Zealand Division had about 8,000 New Zealanders on the ground here. This is important ground, because the German frontline stretches from Passchendaele, which is behind you, and sweeps around in a semi-circle on your left to Polderhoek Chateau - a fortified position - beyond the woods in front of you. The New Zealand Memorial to the Missing is below you, in the two buildings linked by the pillars, and behind that is Polygon Wood.

This area wasn’t a wood at all in November 1917. The trees were shattered stumps, it was a stinking morass of shell craters, and dotted right across the landscape were bunkers. Often attached to these bunkers were underground complexes - and we’re standing on the key strongpoint.

Men lived in comfortless iron huts, dry and clean, but ugly; in old gunpits that were as ancient as the everlasting war, in which the smoke-blackened sandbags were rotting with age, and where the rats of a war generation knew little fear; and farther up in the captured pill-boxes, for these alone stood solid in the greasy sea of mud.
Ormond Burton

A New Zealand Infantry Brigade headquarters was located within this butte, and underneath us is a Swiss cheese-type bunker complex - four storeys of long, narrow corridors with little rooms going off on either side. Some of the rooms had three tiered bunks, and hundreds of men lived here - all crammed together, along with their headquarters and medical post.

Imagine duckboard paths around you, leading through the shattered stumps of the wood to dugouts, and - on the edge of the woods - a whole complex of trenches facing the German frontline across no man’s land. That frontline was sometimes as close as 100 metres away. Over the winter of 1917 and 1918, the New Zealanders lived here in the trenches for eight days at a time and then would rotate out in reserve, back in the area of Ypres.

There were no comfortable billets and farmhouses here - they’d all been knocked down. But in underground complexes and dugouts like the one we’re standing on, at least the men were comparatively safe from machine gun and sniper fire, gas attacks, and the constant shelling.

...it is snowing away outside and the ice on the pools is about eight inches thick and will bear one’s weight easily. We have to crack a hole in it with a pick to get a wash in the morning. I am lying in a sort of sandbag dugout now with a mate called ‘Scotty’ who is busily engaged writing to his girl…
Henry Bourke

Life in the trenches in the winter of 1917 and 1918 was bleak. The New Zealand Divisional commander, Major-General Russell, knew that after the defeat on 12 October at Passchendaele, he had to rebuild both the strength and the morale of his division. The British and French armies were exhausted, and the Russians had dropped out of the war due to their revolution, and were negotiating a separate peace with Germany. This freed up numerous German divisions from the East to replenish their armies along the Western Front. Haig anticipated a German offensive in the New Year, and directed his armies to prepare for it.

Russell ideally would have pulled his men out of the line and given them time to recover, but this was impossible, so every effort was made to build underground shelters for accommodation, and provide clean straw for bedding and hot food daily. It was ensured that each battalion had periods of rest, with warm winter clothing, extra blankets, and the chance of a hot bath every eight or so days. Soldiers were also sent on leave to Paris and England. Daily life in the trenches was standing-to at first light and then standing-down at last light, and then all the real work happened during the night. This involved sending out wiring parties to thicken the barbed wire defences, refilling sandbags, carrying up stores and ammunition, repairing and improving trenches, laying duckboards, and patrolling.

On 3 December 1917, the New Zealanders mounted an attack on the German strongpoint at Polderhoek Chateau. This position dominated the British and New Zealand frontline in this sector and looked out over the Allied trenches.

For the first 100 yards towards the chateau and the remains of the wood, all went well. Within six minutes, in response to his S.O.S., the enemy barrage was down, and machine-guns opened up fiercely from the chateau and the pill-boxes and from the position on Gheluvelt Ridge. Men were falling.
Captain Malcolm Ross

Supported by an intense artillery barrage, two battalions of the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade attacked the bunker complex on the ridge - but failed to drive them from the Chateau ruins. It was a further blow to the morale of the New Zealand Division.

'The Hun was not slow with his counter-attack. This was our job, and I confess to a feeling of great uneasiness and of fear. Two platoons seemed so hopelessly inadequate and our flank was pitifully weak.
Randolph Gray

Despite this setback, Russell continued to keep his men busy - and trained them for the anticipated German offensive. He anticipated a more mobile style of warfare where success would depend on the leadership skills of the junior commanders. Russell introduced innovative leadership exercises for his junior NCOs and officers so that they would take the initiative during battle if they were cut off, or if their superior officer was killed or wounded. Emphasis was on open warfare and fire and movement tactics by section and platoon. The daily cost of fighting here is seen in the 60 known graves in this cemetery and the 387 unknown graves whose locations were lost in the fighting of 1918. These are commemorated in the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing in the buildings below you.

This was an important period for the New Zealand Division as it could have lost its fighting skills after Passchendaele and never recovered. Its revival was due to its commander, Major-General Russell and the way he rebuilt the division, looking after its welfare and concentrating on training so that it was ready for 1918.

How to get here

Getting there

Drive out of the Lille Gate (Rijselpoort) at the roundabout, take the third exit onto the N37. At the next roundabout, continue straight on the N37. At the roundabout (Hellfire Corner), take the third exit and stay on the N37. Continue to follow the N37 for about 5km towards Zonnebeke. At the roundabout take the first exit towards Zonnebeke. Continue along the road and take the second right onto Guido Gezellelaan. Follow this road for about 1.6 kilometres, continuing straight on at the crossroads as the road becomes Citernestraat.  

After the bend, take the right fork to Buttes New British Cemetery. Buttes New British Cemetery will be on your left.

Where to stand

Enter the cemetery and walk up to the 5th Australian Division Memorial. Look out over the cemetery with your back to the 5th Australian Division Memorial. 

GPS
50°51'21"N
2°59'32"E
Decimal GPS
50.85609
2.992235
  • A former Belgian Army rifle range, the "Butte" was a strategic point and became the site of much fighting and enemy shelling.
    A former Belgian Army rifle range, the "Butte" was a strategic point and became the site of much fighting and enemy shelling.Credits

    1993.1293 National Army Museum, NZ http://nam.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/8208

  • New Zealand artillerymen firing their gun in the Butte, Belgium. 1 January 1918.
    New Zealand artillerymen firing their gun in the Butte, Belgium. 1 January 1918.Credits

    Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref: 10x8-1806-G. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22843082

  • This mound, located on the far side of Polygon Wood, was taken in the fighting on 26 September.
    This mound, located on the far side of Polygon Wood, was taken in the fighting on 26 September.Credits

    Australian War Memorial Museum E00987 (CC BY-NC 3.0 AU)

  • A photo taken from Polygon Wood near Zonnebeke showing the view of the area around Polygon Butte.
    A photo taken from Polygon Wood near Zonnebeke showing the view of the area around Polygon Butte.Credits

    Australian War Memorial Museum E05934 (CC BY-NC 3.0 AU)

  • A scene of the Butte, Polygon Wood, 1918.
    A scene of the Butte, Polygon Wood, 1918.Credits

    Australian War Memorial Museum. J06409 (CC BY-NC 3.0 AU)

  • A painting by George Edmund Butler. The Butte, Polygon Wood, 1918
    A painting by George Edmund Butler. The Butte, Polygon Wood, 1918Credits

    Archives New Zealand, Ref: AAAC898 NCWA 538 http://warart.archives.govt.nz/node/536

Stories & Insights

When his unit came under fire, Nicholas rushed forward alone and attacked the enemy.

A column of American soldiers march past Buckingham Palace, London 1917.

By May 1918, 10,000 Americans were arriving in Europe each day.

New Zealand soldiers playing a game of rugby at Fontaine, 12 October 1918.

Keeping the troops in good spirits was vital to the war effort.

Two Russian soldiers, travelling via motor car through Petrograd, hold red flags affixed to their rifles during the revolution.

With the Russians out of the war, the Allies faced a stronger Germany, who were bolstered by their eastern divisions.

Lee wrote regular published pieces describing life from the front.

Wintering at Polygon Wood, the area was transformed into a surreal but deadly landscape.

Useful resources for those looking for more information.

A selection of First World War vocabulary and common phrases.

Taking the Polygon Wood trail

Warning: Traffic can be busy so use caution at all times. 

Get to Buttes New British Cemetary (the start of this trail) from Ieper

GPS: 50.856094, 2.992235

Drive out of the Lille Gate (Rijselpoort) at the roundabout, take the third exit onto the N37. At the next roundabout, continue straight on the N37. At the roundabout (Hellfire Corner), take the third exit and stay on the N37. Continue to follow the N37 for about 5km towards Zonnebeke. At the roundabout take the first exit towards Zonnebeke. Continue along the road and take the second right onto Guido Gezellelaan. Follow this road for about 1.6 kilometres, continuing straight on at the crossroads as the road becomes Citernestraat.  After the bend, take the right fork to Buttes New British Cemetery. Buttes New British Cemetery will be on your left.

Your stop

Enter the cemetery and walk up to the 5th Australian Division Memorial. Look out over the cemetery with your back to the 5th Australian Division Memorial. 

Note: This is also the overview stop for this trail.

Plan your time

Allow for 2 to 4 hours to explore the complete Polygon Wood trail. If you’re short of time, simply visit stop 1: Buttes New British Cemetary for an overview of the entire Polygon Wood trail.

Nearby places of interest

While you’re here you can also visit the following places:

Saint-Charles de Potyze Cemetery
This French cemetery holds over 4,000 soldiers from nearby battlefields and the site itself was close to the frontline during the First World War.

Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 
Focusing on the Ypres Salient, this museum is a great introduction to Passchendaele.

Hooge Crater Cemetery
The site of fierce fighting and huge mine explosions, Hooge Crater now includes this Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery.

Hooge Military Museum
This private museum offers a great collection of First World War memorabilia.

Bellewaerde Theme Park
An fun-filled theme park, Bellewaerde is great for the whole family.

Location Collection: 
Location Name: 
Polygon Wood
Lat: 
47.82789854530817
Long: 
-52.99409312500006
Lat Real Location: 
50.85609
Long Real Location: 
2.992235

Take the next trail

The next Ngā Tapuwae trail is Messines. Proceed to Gabion Farm.
Link to the first stop

Decimal GPS:
73.44486307694277
-100.74067515625006
Sequence:
1
Decimal GPS:
73.82582517637239
-83.73165721875
Sequence:
2
Decimal GPS:
59.68593431598137
-70.06969071875005
Sequence:
3

Stop Images

Sequence:
1
Decimal GPS Real Location:
50.85609
2.992235
Sequence:
2
Decimal GPS Real Location:
50.84842
2.994417
Sequence:
3
Decimal GPS Real Location:
50.84656
2.945446