Passchendaele and Polygon Wood

This morning, while we were still in Ypres, we drove just a few kilometres to visit the Passchendaele Museum and Memorial Park. The Battle of Passchendaele was one of the bloodiest of the Great War, resulting in almost half a million Allied and German casualties over one hundred days of fighting, all for an Allied gain of only 8km. The Anzacs fought valiantly in deep mud at Passchendaele from August to October of 1917. Shortly after the Anzacs were relieved from duty, the replacement Canadian troops finally secured an Allied victory here.

During the early days of the Passchendaele battle, the British dug networks of underground tunnels, where they slept, ate and prepared for battle because the ground above was totally destroyed. After visiting several display cabinet rooms in the museum, we were led down steps into a simulation of the Ypres Salient tunnels. It was like walking through a confined, dark maze. Bunkrooms, first aid rooms, mess rooms, latrines and command rooms were located along the tunnel network. Speakers played the rumble of the battle above, with the occasional burst of machine gun fire.

Beyond the tunnels were more display rooms, and they led outdoors to another maze, this time of deep, reinforced and sandbagged trenches, where it was necessary to walk on duckboards to avoid the dreaded mud that became synonymous with the Battle of Passchendaele.

In the memorial park surrounding the museum was a pathway through the forest, leading to Polygon Wood. To save time, we drove to the Polygon Wood cemetery, just a few kilometres away. Nevertheless, before we got there we passed a couple of small Commonwealth war cemeteries which marked the places where the young soldiers had fallen in battle.

At Polygon Wood we visited two cemeteries on opposite sides of the road. In the smaller Polygon Wood cemetery, mainly New Zealand soldiers’ headstones were to be found. They were arranged in a haphazard fashion, as these men were buried on the battle ground during the battle. As the men in the burial parties were at risk of taking a sniper’s bullet while they laid their comrades to rest, there was little time to arrange the burials in neat rows.

Across the road at the Buttes cemetery, a large memorial commemorating the sacrifices made by the men of the AIF Fifth Division at various battles on the Western Front sits atop a small hill, overlooking a relatively large number of Commonwealth soldiers’ graves. Immediately behind the cemetery, beautiful Polygon Wood, once destroyed by shellfire, has regenerated into a lush green forest.

Feeling great sadness for the losses suffered by the families of these young men, we left Belgium and crossed into France.

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