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.
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…
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.
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.