There is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing located in the northeastern corner of a small forest called Polygon Wood, near Zonnebeke, Belgium.

The memorial is on the site of the CWGC Buttes New Cemetery, which is a post-war concentration of over 2,000 burials of remains recovered from the surrounding area, mostly 1917 casualties. It’s considered an extension of the older Polygon Wood CWGC cemetery nearby – there is a connecting walk – and so the Cross of Sacrifice is in Polygon Wood Cemetery and the Stone of Remembrance is in Buttes New Cemetery. 

The memorial lists 378 New Zealand soldiers lost in 1917 and 1918 who have no known grave and is another of the seven memorials erected by that government on the Western Front. There are also two NZ memorials at Gallipoli which you can read about here and here.

Prior to the war the site was a Belgian army rifle range and the features known as ‘the Buttes’ are actually man-made berms. Atop them there is an obelisk honoring the Australian 5th Division, which monument was erected in early 1919 by German POW’s working under the direction of Australian Army Engineers who hadn’t actually gotten permission to build anything.

Both the cemetery and the memorial were designed by Charles Holden (whose pedigree was explained in the post about the Messines NZ Memorial). The memorial consists of two structures representative of chapels within which the names are inscribed, linked by a double colonnade. The sight lines are such that the center of the memorial is aligned with and perpendicular to a path that runs the entire length of the forest.

Polygon Wood was the site of three battles during WW1. The first, which happened during First Ypres, was a battalion-sized fight in October 1914, ending with the Germans in the northern corner. Then in May 1915 during Second Ypres the British were completely driven out, and the last, the biggest and the most well-known, occurred at the end of September 1917, during Third Ypres, when the Australians recaptured the position.

All battles are important, certainly to those who fought them, but the 1914 battle was noteworthy for two reasons. First, there was here one of those fleeting opportunities in the early days of the war when the Germans could have pushed through a weak spot in the Allied defense but failed to exploit it. Second, it was the first occasion on the Western Front where non-regular British soldiers were engaged in battle.

In October 1914 the wood was held by the British, forming a small salient. On the morning of the 24th the Germans attacked, as they had noticed that the line there had been thinned to lend support to a French attack to the west.

Although the defenders were ordered to pull back from the wood, the 2nd Wiltshires (recently arrived from garrison duty in Gibraltar) didn’t get the message and were left with both flanks in the air. The Germans spotted this and promptly moved behind the Wiltshires, who collapsed, taking over 450 casualties including all of the officers.

Reinforcements were urgently needed but there were no reserves save for some cavalrymen hanging around the division headquarters for use as messengers. These were the 1/1st Northumberland Hussars (familiarly known then as ‘The Noodles’), and so by accident or else a twist of fate this citizen soldier unit dating from 1797 were sent out.

Advancing dismounted, they slowed the Germans down long enough for the 2nd Warwicks to reinforce them, and together they held the Germans back, suffering nearly 300 casualties, including the senior officer Lt. Col. WL Loring of the Warwicks. Today the Buttes New Cemetery and the memorial are situated on land defended by this force.

Fate intervened again as the Germans (who were inexperienced reservists), either content with their gains or unclear as to what to do next, broke off the attack. They were unaware that there was before them a critical gap in the line, which was soon plugged by the Guards Brigade.

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and has memberships in the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Indian Military Historical Society and the Salonika Campaign Society.