Family History


This is part of my work on my family in WW1. Great Uncle Harry Blunden was with the 13th Battalion AIF. This is their and his role in the 3rd Battle of Ypres. Any comments, additions, amendments would be most welcome. martis1@hotmail.co.uk

 

Polygon Wood

September opened with an interesting episode which possibly Harry might have been involved. The Battalion had rested and cleaned up in Verte Rue Nieppe Forest. The following morning nearly a platoon was found to be missing. An angry local brandishing a big key came up to the assembled troops speaking very excitedly. The matter only became clear when a sergeant came running up and said “the old pot’s got my platoon locked up”. The gentleman kept repeating soixante francs. Apparently the troops concerned had drunk six of his bottles and he had locked them in until he got recompensed by that sum. The matter was sorted out but it transpired they had in fact consumed more but had replaced the empties in their cases.

From there a bus took them through beautiful countryside to Lisbourg where they were expecting three months rest. But horrors all the shops and estimets were closed. Later it was discovered that the local schoolmaster had said that negroes would be arriving, accompanied by frightening tales of boomerangs, alligators and kangaroos. A lot of calls at doors with beaucoup money soon meant the men were tucking into oeufs and chips. Two weeks followed with lots of relaxation, swimming in the stream, the Brigade Pierrots, the Blue Dandies, each evening and cricket and boxing. Three months! On the 18th the Battalion were ordered back to the Ypres. It was bused to Wallon Cappel and thrn a march to filthy billets at Staples and on the 20th  filthier farms near Steenvoorde. Dusk on the 23rd saw them to the south of the Lille Gate and had tea under shell-fire. The men had to suffer a great barrage crossing the Menin Road and then had to follow the duck board track to Westhoek in the dark, one man just following the man in front. Barrages were still smashing into the line then and in the swamp over the Westhoek Ridge. The path now was very tortuous, winding around shell holes so at times the men could see Ypres again in front of them. Finally the support line was reached in the swamp. C and D companies went further on to the front line at the edge of Polygon Wood. Dawn showed what the landscape was, the short, shattered stumps of Albania Wood. A patrol went out to take Harper House, a pill-box and cemented gun pit 100 yards away. A and B companies dug a communication trench between the Battalion Headquarters and Front Line, over 1400 yards. All night carriers brought forward ammunition for rifles, mortars and machine guns and signallers laid lines, all under heavy fire. The 24th commenced with a fog in no mans lands. This enabled a patrol to capture some Germans. Once the fog lifted the enemy responded with an hour’s heavy shelling. The 25th saw the artillery prepare for the heavy barrage to take place the next day. In the evening the enemy retook Harper House, but under a counter attack retreated

The attack on Polygon Wood was the second of Plumer’s “bite and hold” attacks, after Menin Road and ending with Broodseinde. It was carried out by the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions, amongst the best left in the BEF by 1917. Its target was a line just beyond Polygon Wood (a wood in name only by 1917, having lost all of its trees in earlier fighting). Plumer replaced the ambitious general assaults that had begun the Third Battle of Ypres with a series of small attacks with limited objectives – his “Bite and hold” plan. These attacks involved a long artillery bombardment followed by an attack on a narrow front (2,000 yards wide at Polygon Wood). The attacks were led by lines of skirmishers, followed by small infantry groups. German strong points were to be outflanked rather than assaulted. Each advance would stop after it had moved forward 1,000-1,500 yards. Preparations were then made to fight off any German counterattack.

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On the 26th zero hour was to be 5.30. The 13th had been in the Front Line for 60 hours and was put into reserve where A & B  was to act as carriers D as communication trench diggers for the rest of the Brigade. The 14th, 15th and 16th were to be the front line troops. C company was to advance with them to help if called upon.

At 5.30 the greatest barrage the 13th had ever been under burst over them. A & B were grasping picks and shovels in the communication trench behind the Front Line ready to follow the waves immediately they had moved. Immediately the barrage lifted they dug a line over 1000 yards long under heavy shell and machine-gun fire while 200 others humped heavy loads up the new line, and bring back a few prisoners. A dozen times or more shells tore gaps in the line of diggers. Meanwhile the carriers pushed through counter barrages with loads  to enable the advance to continue. 66 casaulties were suffered out of 400 men. The stretcher bearers were helped by German prisoners. White also praises the runners and cooks but above all the signallers. The site of Polygon Wood was captured on 26 September, the target line on 27 September.

On the night of 26th the Battalion was relieved and trudged back along the broken duckboards to Westhoek Ridge and slept until 10 o’clock the next morning. Losses were 147 including 24 killed. On the 27th the men were delighted to receive comforts from Australia, the issue supervised by General Brand himself. In the evening as they were ready to march out 250 men had to go to bury a cable to Anzac House, 1000yards, six foot deep. The Canal hour was reached about midnight where hot stew was served up to 3am as stragglers were arriving up to that time,

Harry was wounded on the 27th September, this time gunshot wound to his left arm. He went straight to Etaples and then on 5 October to Trouville. His recovery is described in a separate section 

Meanwhile in October the 13th continued to serve in the Ypres area and on the 15th suffered their first heavy gas attack both mustard and phostphene on Westhoek Ridge. This was a particularly bad time for those of Harry’s comrades left behind. 15-22 October saw the loss of 108 men, twelve killed and the others debilitated by the gas.

At the end of the month the Battalion marched in easy stages to Woincourt, arriving the 24th and then on the 5th December began a journey which ended at Templeux-La Fosse on  the 19th, Walking on frozen roads was difficult and there were many serious injuries from falls. Harry was to join them here, Billeting was in thin tents on an exposed hill. In the tents there was an amazing variety of heating arrangements, braziers of stones, mud, tin or iron. All had a chimney of some sort with a bend as the smoke had to get out and the chimney couldn’t go straight through the roof. Petrol tins made the best elbows. By the time Harry arrived on 29 December the Christmas fayre would have long gone. However the card games which took up much of the time due to the short days would still be going on, and gambling was fairly common.

The new year came in cold and snowy, and the band played 1918 in, and serenaded the General. Training for open-warfare continued, often in blizzards.On the 11th January the Battalion was on the move again with a train journey from Peronne to Bailleul. Arriving at Bailleul at 3am it marched through knee deep mud to bivouacs in Meterem and later same day marched to Curragh Camp near Locre. The men were back in the north again.

As the frozen mud began to thaw  it became sloppy and this required constant attention to feet. Officers had to exam their platoon’s feet every day.  Each day 200-400 men went up to near Spoilbank and White Chateau by decauville train (the type of railway commonly used at the Front) to dig and wire the reserve line , carry material for engineers constructing dugouts and strong points or build bomb proofs around transport lines. Salvaging was routine, the material being sent back to the factories near Calais. On the 20th the battalion moved forward by light railway and marched to relieve the 49th Battalion on a line of 13 outposts between Hollebeke and the 15th Battalion’s line. Two companies were placed in reserve in the ruins of the White Chateau, whose stone and iron girder still gave protection.

The release of 40 German divisions from the East following Germany’s peace with Russia made it clear that the Allies would be put on the defensive in the West. The 13th engaged in strengthening all posts and trenches, wiring heavily and making dumps of rations, water, ammunition at convenient places. Each night they tried to capture a German soldier for identification, but without success. The outposts were manned by 5 officers 118 other ranks and five Lewis gun crews, in support one company as well as the two reserve companies in White Chateau. The reserve companies provided 50 ration carriers, 50 shovel men for strong posts, 12 trench repairers, 10 duckboard repairers, 130 truck-pushers pushing loads for engineers, 12 pill-box cleaners, 52 Reserve line wirers working in water in gumboots, 44 carriers,10 bunk-makers working in the chateau and about 40 other working on permanent Battalion jobs. In the White Chateau as men came off fatigues they were provided with warm water and powder for their feet and hot cocoa. Watching air fights made an interesting diversion, some planes were American.

The Battalion was relieved on the 29th and crossed the canal by Sandbag Bridge, A and B going to into Crater Dugouts in the Bluff, C to Canal Dugouts and D to Gaspus Dugouts nearby, From here working parties went out by night or during the day in fog. Two officers and 90 men pushed stores for Canadian tunnelers, two officers and 50 pushed other stores. 2 officers and 50 revetted the Front Line using shovels, nine camouflaged posts, 12 camoufled trenches, seven mended duckboards, 12 cleaned pill boxes, two officers and 50 men wired and 90 were on regular Battalion work. Gas came again but not as severe as in October.

The 5th saw them being relieved and return to Curragh Camp most of the way by decauville train. The main advantage of Curragh was the comfort of huts. From them 300-400 would rise early and be taken to work near Spoilbank or White Chateau. As it was thought raiding would form part of the next Front Line spell 40 picked men were trained for this. It never happened but they were utilised as scouts, with success as the enemy was quite unable to send a patrol out,  The prize of leave was offered to scouts for the first German caught, and eventually a scout did find one,

This time on the front line was one of tension as it was obvious that the enemy was being very active and massing troops and guns. Further attempts to capture a German were unsuccessful.  Several mornings  they stood to from 2am to 6.30am and a dump of rations, ammunitions and water  was made to last a month. Long journeys to collect the regular rations were still made three times a day and camaflouging amongst other works continued. On the night of the 1st March he Battalion was due to be relieved by the 10th. This was just achieved when the anticipated attack finally happened. A lucky escape for the 13th but not the 10th.