Polygon Wood September 25-26, 1917
Following the ‘success’ of Menin Road, the British high command was keen to push their advantage and cut deeper into the German line on the Gheluvelt Plateau. As before, 2 Australian divisions – 4 and 5 on this occasion – were to support 5 British divisions. Also as before, the use of artillery was to be the defining tactic. At the same time, Polygon Wood was to be a scaled-back attack: there was less artillery, the front was not as wide and the ground to be taken was not as deep.
But events did not go as planned. On the morning of 25/9/17, the day before the scheduled attack, the Germans launched their own attack on the section of the front defended by the Australian 5 Division and the British 33 Division. The German attack, supported by an intense artillery barrage, was eventually contained but not before 3 Australian battalions – 57, 58 and 60 – had suffered heavy casualties. Moreover, the plans for the scheduled attack the next day were thrown into disarray. Brigadier-General Pompey Elliott (15 Brigade: 57, 58, 59, 60 Battalions) wanted the attack called off. Birdwood insisted it go ahead. Elliott’s forces had to be supported by 2 additional battalions: 29 and 31.
The next morning (26/9/17) the planned attack commenced at 5.50 A.M. The AIF forces captured their targets relatively easily and, again, Bean was fulsome in his praise of the artillery. The barrage was said to have rolled with precision across the German lines and it was so accurate and powerful that the Australians were on top of Germans before they could get out of pill boxes and fortified positions. As at Menin Road the Germans were said to be shell-shocked. Many German prisoners were taken.
However, the British 33 Division ran into difficulties and the Australians were critical of their efforts. They thought the British had failed to protect the Australian flank.
The overall battle was considered another ‘success’. The total cost over the 3 days of fighting from 25 to 27 September – was 15,300 British and Australian casualties. For the 2 Australian divisions the total figure was 5,460: 1,730 dead and 3,730 wounded. 5 Division suffered the higher level of casualties. The running score of AIF casualties – from September 20 to September 27 – was approximately 9,500.
Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume IV – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, 11th Edition 1941
Chapter XIX – Second Step – Polygon Wood
For a general background on Polygon Wood see,
Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW. [p 343 ff]
Carlyon, L 2006, The Great War, Pan Macmillan, Sydney NSW [Chapter 30]
Sydney JOLLY (2679)
58 B KIA 25/9/17
Sydney Jolly was born in Brighton, Middlesex and was another young English immigrant to come to Australia prior to WW1. He migrated at the age of 26. At the time of his enlistment he was married (Elizabeth Jolly) and living at Gelliondale. His occupation was variously given as labourer and horse driver. At the same time, he appears to have had a more senior position – a ‘manager’ of some kind – with a butter factory (Handbury & Son) at Gelliondale. His religion was given as Church of England.
He enlisted in July 1916 (6/7/16) in Melbourne in 58 Battalion. At the time he was 33 yo, suggesting that he had been living in Australia for about 7 years. It appears that his wife was also English. It is not clear if she came to Australia with him or joined him later.
Private Jolly had failed the medical test on multiple occasions before finally being accepted in the AIF. His name appears on the list of those rejected by the local doctors and he acknowledged on his enlistment forms that he had been rejected. In the end he underwent some form of operation – it appears to have been on both legs – to meet the medical standard.
His group of reinforcements left Melbourne in October 1916 (2/10/16) and reached England in mid November. Another 2 months of training in England followed. He was finally taken on the strength of the 58 Battalion in France in early February 1917. Barely 3 weeks later he was wounded – shrapnel or gun shot wound to right elbow – and repatriated to hospital in England. He was discharged from hospital at the end of April and at this point was transferred across to 67 Battalion. However he continued to remain in England until the end of June 1917 when he left again for France and finally rejoined his original unit (58 Battalion) at the start of August 1917.
Less than 2 months after rejoining his unit, he was killed in action on 25 September, the day before the attack on Polygon Wood. There was no record of any burial. The only reference at the time was the very general reference that he had been buried …in the vicinity of Polygon Wood.
His wife, as next-of-kin, was advised of the death by cable dated 8/10/17 and the formal report of death was dated 14/11/17. His death was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 17/10/17:
Many of our readers will have pleasant recollections. of Private S. Jolly, of Gelliondale whose genial personality won many friends. Eighteen, months ago he was accepted as a soldier, after repeated attempts to enlist, and got his wish gratified to join the boys at the front: -We regret to announce he has paid the supreme penalty for his country.’Word came to Mr: Amos Wood on Friday to break the news to his widow, but being an intimate friend of the deceased soldier his heart failed him. Mrs. Jolly was in Yarram when the wire came and the sad task was entrusted to the Rev. Mr. Raymond. Private Jolly. No. 2697. was killed in action on 25th Sept. He was before enlisting manager for Handbury & Son. Gelliondale.
An in memoriam appeared, much later, on 27/2/18:
JOLLY.-In loving memory of my dear husband, Private Jolly, who gave his life for his country on 25th Sept., 1917.
In the bloom of life God claimed him.
In the prime of his manhood days;
None knew him but to trust him,
None mentioned his name but to praise.
There came a day when the roll was called,
That he did not answer “Here!”
For he slept with comrades his last long sleep.
And he died without a fear.
To live in hearts we leave behind
is not to die.
-Inserted by A. E. Jolly, Gelliondale
Private Jolly’s kit was returned in May 1918. It was very basic: 2 photos, Card, Wallet. His wife received a widow’s pension of £2 per fortnight from 11/12/17. There was no indication of any children.
There was no Red Cross report for Private Jolly, although there was a brief, undated, note from the CO of the 58 Battalion – Major H Lane – indicating that,
No. 2679. Pte. S. Jolly late of this Unit was killed in action on 25.9.17. He was badly wounded about the head and died instantaneously. He was not buried by this Unit. Map location of where he fell is (Sheet. 28. J.9.b. Central.).
The war diary for 58 Battalion indicates that on the morning of 25/9/17, the day before the scheduled major attack by the Australians on Polygon Wood there was a heavy enemy artillery barrage which was followed by an all out German assault on the lines. The Germans made some advances but by early afternoon, after heavy fighting, the original lines had been retaken.
The war diary also records the very high casualty levels sustained by the battalion over the 3 day period 25/9 – 27/9. Total casualties were 290. Private Jolly was one of 54 killed.
It is clear that at the time of his death there was no formal burial and, like so many others killed at Menin Road and Polygon Wood, there was little chance of his body ever being recovered. However, in 1921, as part of the work of the Graves Registration Unit, the body of Private Jolly was recovered. He was then re-buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery.
It is not entirely clear how the body of Private Jolly was identified, but it appears that a diary belonging to him was found on the remains. There may well have been other evidence – for example, his medical report from the time of enlistment was very detailed, even including the observation that a portion of his first finger on the right hand was missing.
When it was recovered with the body, the diary was in a poor state of preservation. However it is possible to read some entries that cover the time when he was recovering in England in the first part of 1917. There are several entries about ‘doing nothing’; and he was obviously trying to get himself returned to France. There is one entry, apparently June 11th 1917, when he wrote … Saw Colonel playing golf so went right up to him and asked to be transferred to France. The day before he had written, Still going for my transfer. He wrote elsewhere how he didn’t like the idea of being in England while … someone else is doing my bit. Far from being relieved to be out of the fighting and back in England with a ‘blighty’, the diary suggests that Private Jolly was keen to get back to his unit and do his ‘share’ of the fighting.
Private Jolly’s determination to rejoin his unit after being wounded and then hospitalised in England was also referred to in a letter written to his wife by one his officers in 58 Battalion. The letter was published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 27/2/18.
THE LATE PRIVATE JOLLY.
Lieutenant George Wood, France, writes Mrs. Jolly, Gelliondale, 7/10/17, as follows:-You will have been notified ere this of the death of No. 2679 Private S. Jolly, who was killed in action near Polygon Wood on 25th September 1917. He was killed instantaneously by a machine gun bullet through the head, and we buried him just behind the front line. He was doing splendid work in the brilliant engagement fought by our battalion. He came over from Australia with me and when transferred to the 6th division in England, after being in hospital, pleaded to get back to our company, and to my platoon. All through he earned the highest respect and reward of all his officers and mates. I regarded him as a personal friend, and he was due for promotion. He always worked with enthusiasm and cheerfulness, and in battle showed no trace of fear. He died a hero’s death and earned the admiration of his comrades by his gallant actions. On behalf of the officers and men of A Company I beg to tender you our deepest sympathy in your sad bereavement.
Similarly, his determination to enlist was common knowledge in the local community. The following account of a farewell for him was published in the local paper on 1/9/16:
The residents of Gelliondale gave their old friend, Private S. Jolly, a send-off in the West Alberton hall on 30th ult. This soldier tried no less than five times to pass the medical test, and eventually got fit by undergoing an operation, necessitating 66 stitches. He would not accept leave from camp—only final—for fear he would not get back again. Private Jolly is a married man, having married an old sweetheart whom he met in the Old Country. He gave her the choice of returning to England, or remain at Gelliondale. She chose the latter. At the social Mr. F. Blane presided, and eulogised Private Jolly for his tenacity of purpose. He was presented with a marble clock, wristlet watch, and a purse of sovereigns is to follow. Mr. N. H. Lowe congratulated the popular soldier on the step taken. Private Jolly excelled himself in his response, and pleasingly referred to all kind friends he was parting with for a time.
Private Jolly’s name is included on both the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
Alfred JONES (2198)
59 B KIA 26/9/17
Alfred Jones was born in Bung Bong near Maryborough. When he and his older brother – Arthur Jones – enlisted together in March 1916, they gave their father’s address, as next-of-kin, as PO, Bung Bong. However, by that point the brothers themselves were living and working at Madalya. The 1915 rate book indicates that they had some land – 10 acres, held in joint names – at Binginwarri, but the extent to which they were farming in their own right is unclear. Probably they were trying to establish themselves as farmers and working on other local properties at the same time. Nor is it clear what happened to their small holding when they enlisted.
The farewell of the 2 brothers from Madalya was written up in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 19/5/16. The tension at the time associated with recruitment and the prospect of conscription was very evident:
The residents of Madalya and the surrounding district gathered in the hall on Friday night last to enjoy a social dance. Mr. Recruiting Sergeant Newland happened to be there, and somewhere about midnight a halt was called for the business of the evening, to bid farewell to the recruits, Messrs. Alf. and Arthur Jones, and Ernest Anderson. …
The boys were then presented with wristlet watches, fastened on by three young ladies.
The Chairman then called on the recruiting sergeant-to make a few remarks, which was done in full earnestness. He expressed pleasure at being present to wish the three men good luck, but by the appearance of the hall he felt sure there were at least a dozen more eligible to go than the three who had enlisted. The Jones Bros, were only just making a start in life, and as to young Anderson, he was only a boy. It was, he thought, a shame that one so young should have to go, when older and more mature men hung back. …
Mr. Alfred Jones replied on behalf of himself and brother. When he got his card [as part of the Government’s ‘Call to Arms’] he replied flippantly, but after speaking to the recruiting sergeant his views had changed. He thanked the people for the present and the nice evening’s entertainment. Personally, he would prefer to have gone as a conscript, knowing that everyone eligible would be doing his share.
The brothers had their initial medical in Yarram and then completed their enlistments in Melbourne. They both enlisted on 17/3/16 and they both joined as reinforcements for 59 Battalion. Alfred was 22 yo and Arthur 24 yo. Both were single and their religion was given as Church of England.
Arthur Jones survived the War but he was badly wounded in March 1917 – shrapnel wounds to both legs – and was repatriated to Australia and given a medical discharge in April 1918. After the war he became a soldier settler in the local area.
The 2 brothers embarked for England at the start of August 1916. They joined 59 Battalion in France in early December.
Private Alfred Jones was hospitalised with mumps just before Christmas 1916 and did not rejoin his battalion until mid February 1917. Then on March 3 he was wounded – gunshot wound left elbow – and repatriated to hospital in England. As indicated, his brother was also wounded round this time (20/3/17) and also transferred to England. The 2 brothers were charged with being absent without leave for 1 day in July 1917 when they were recovering in hospital. Each received the fairly severe punishment of 8 days field punishment No. 2 as well as losing 11 days pay. As indicated, after this Arthur was repatriated to Australia while his brother went back to the front.
Private Alfred Jones rejoined 59 Battalion in August 1917 (26/8/17). Exactly one week later, he was killed in the battle of Polygon Wood (26/9/17).
It appears that the family was advised of the death in late October. The cable was dated 25/10/17. The formal report of death was dated 7/11/17. Correspondence from a member of the family shows that the father had died in May 1917, 4 months before his son was killed.
There is no record of any burial or grave and Private Jones’ name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial. Nor was there a Red Cross report completed on his death. There was not even any kit returned to the family. A letter from Base Records in March 1921 acknowledged that …no personal effects of any description have been received here in connection with the late No. 2198 Private A. Jones 59th Battalion. It went on to point out that given the length of time already elapsed … it is considered improbable that any of his personal belongings were recovered at the time of the casualty.
As already indicated, the particulars for the (National) Honour Roll were not completed. There is also a declaration from Private Jones dated 19/9/17 – just a week before he was killed – that he did not desire to make a will. It was as if fate conspired to leave hardly any trace of Private Alfred Jones.
The war diary for 55 Battalion gives some indication of the events surrounding his death. Prior to the battle there had been training to rehearse the attack at Polygon Wood. 59 Battalion launched its attack 3 minutes after the barrage started at 5.50AM on 26 September and quickly captured its first objective; but its flank was exposed and there was specific criticism of the effort and effectiveness of the British troops in the adjoining sector. There were numerous German counter attacks throughout the day that were repelled. The following day there was a heavy German bombardment:
The whole of this day [27/9/17] we endured the heaviest of shell fire which hardly ceased all day. The enemy had excellent observation by balloon. It was remarkable that the casualties were not more than they were. I think it was because the men were distributed in irregular shell hole positions. They showed wonderful endurance; I did not see a man stir.
The battalion was relieved on the night of 27 September. Casualties were very high. For just 2 days of fighting the battalion suffered 268 casualties. The diary gave a more detailed breakdown: 48 killed, 203 wounded and 17 missing. The diary also gave the battalions strength prior to the battle – 22 officers and 694 other ranks – and calculated a casualty rate of 37.4%. Basically, over just 2 days, the battalion lost one third of its fighting strength.
Private Alfred Jones’ name is included on both the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. The 2 brothers’ names are also recorded on the Madalya School and District honor roll.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
John Douglas ROBERTSON (7244)
14 FCE KiA 26/9/17
John Douglas Robertson was born in Glasgow, Scotland. It is not clear when he came to Australia. On his enlistment forms he recorded that he was a widower – again, it is not known when or where, he married – and that both his parents were dead. He gave as his next-of-kin a sister – Mrs Grace Hanley – who was living in Scotland. This sister completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour and noted that her brother had moved to Australia when he was 32 yo.
On the same form, the sister was obviously not sure about her brother’s location in Victoria as she gave ‘Melbourne, Gippsland’ as the place with which he was ‘chiefly connected’. In fact, there is no doubt that John Robertson was living and working at Mullundung. His name appears on the local (Yarram) 1915 electoral roll as a carpenter of Mullundung. On his enlistment papers he described himself as a carpenter working for the Goodwood Sawmill Company, Port Albert.
He was obviously well known in the local area and received, in absentia, the Shire of Alberton medallion. In fact, on 3/3/16 the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published a short piece acknowledging his gratitude for receiving the medallion:
Sapper J. D Robertson, writing to Mr. G. F. Sauer from Egypt, says: – I received the shire medal and card alright, and I must thank you and the shire people for the kindness. I am very proud of them both. I only hope I will be able to show you the medal if I come back from the front, as I expect to be sailing in a fortnight’s time. Give the Alberton shire people my best thanks.
John Robertson’s name appears on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll. However, his death on active service is not acknowledged on this roll and nor is his name included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. It is hard to believe that word of his death never made it back to Gippsland but, at the same time, because the sister in Scotland was the next-of-kin, news of the death and other formalities – e.g., return of personal kit – would have been directed to her rather than anyone back in Australia. In his file there is latter from someone in Australia enquiring after him, in June 1918. However, the person – Mrs M Campbell – who stated that she had not heard from him for 12 months was in NSW. She was then informed of his death but, again, people in Gippsland could have remained in the dark and assumed that, like many others, John Robertson was given his discharge from the AIF in the UK and did not return to Australia.
Sapper John Robertson enlisted in Melbourne on 29/12/15. He had been rejected earlier. His name appeared on the list, compiled in July 1915, of those rejected by the local doctors at Yarram. He was 34 yo when he enlisted and he gave his religion as Presbyterian.
He enlisted as reinforcements for 5 Field Company Engineers and left for overseas from Melbourne in late March 1916. His unit proceeded to France in August 1916 and he was taken on strength for 14 Field Company Engineers on 1/9/16. He was hospitalised for about one week in December the same year.
Initially he was reported as wounded in action on 26/9/17. On 2/11/17 this was changed to ‘wounded and missing’ and then on 5/11/17 it was changed to ‘killed in action’ on 26/9/17. The body was never recovered and Sapper Robertson’s name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial.
There is a detailed Red Cross report and, allowing for the usual inconsistencies, it appears that he was caught in an artillery barrage when the engineers were digging strong points as part of the infantry advance towards Polygon Wood very early on the morning of 26/9/17. Witnesses saw him fall – they were unsure if he was dead or wounded – but he was left lying in a shell hole as the advance continued. Later that day they tried to locate him but there was no trace. A couple of the witnesses, from his unit, thought that he came from, and had enlisted in, Sydney. Probably he had spent some time working in Sydney before he moved to Gippsland.
The war diary for 14 Field Company Engineers does not provide much detail for 26/9/17 but it does state that one of the strong points it was tasked to set up was only … partially dug but not garrisoned, a failure owing to swampy ground and heavy casualties.
The following witness statement gives some idea of the intensity of artillery fire on the battle field. Essentially it suggests that Sapper Robertson, either dead or wounded and lying in a shell hole, left behind when his unit continued its advance, was buried not by human hand but by the shell fire itself:
He was badly wounded in the head [others claimed it was the stomach], about 6 o’clock on Wednesday morning 26.9.17, whilst going through Glencorse Wood. He was left there whilst the remainder of No. 3 Section went on. At 10 o’clock, 4 hours later, I passed over the ground, but could not find any trace of him. Enquiries were made at the dressing station near by, but he had not passed through. No. 3 Section officer and some sappers made a thorough search next morning, but could not trace him. It is probable that he was buried by the heavy shell fire at the time of being wounded.
Sapper R H Mitchell 2614 (No. 3 section,14 FCE)
As indicated, the sister, as next-of-kin, was advised on 12/10/17 that her brother had been wounded. The on 29/11/17 this was changed to ‘wounded and missing’. Finally, the cable advising of the death was sent on 8/12/17.
It appears that personal kit was returned to the sister in Bathgate, Scotland in April 1918 but there is no list in the file of the actual items. On 4/6/17, Sapper Robertson 7244 had formally advised the Estates Branch of the AIF that he had ’no desire to make a will’. There is no record of any pension being issued to anyone – e.g. dependent children – in his name. Sapper Robertson was yet another member of the AIF who in so many ways ‘disappeared’ in the intense fighting near Ypres in September 1917.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
National Archives file for ROBERTSON John Douglas 7244
Roll of Honour: John Douglas Robertson
First World War Embarkation Rolls: John Douglas Robertson
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: John Douglas Robertson