Polygon Wood | 24 Oct 1914

Polygon Wood is either a large wood or a small forest about four miles east of Ypres, located on undulating terrain between the Gheluvelt plateau and Bellewarde Ridge. This is what it looks like to go walking through it. Sci-fi nerds might like to compare it to the Mutara Nebula. Its strategic importance should be obvious.

(Incidentally, some contemporary sources name it Racecourse Wood, on account of a horse-racing track inside. Some cavalrymen had earlier in the month taken to bringing their horses for impromptu races over the course.)

Before we get into the meat of the battle, let’s have another look at the MSPaint map of the Ypres salient, now with different arrows!

Polygon Wood & Ypres, 24th October 1914

Polygon Wood

So we can see that the French 7th Division has now taken over plenty of line from the BEF, and they’re eager to launch an offensive from Langemarck and Zonnebeke. The French go into action and achieve some local successes, but the BEF is unable to join them. The Germans have failed to pinch out the bases of the salient, and lost a staggeringly high number of officers and NCOs. This has deprived the surviving reservists of any kind of leadership, so it’s time for the Germans to attack at another location. This time they’re going right for the meat of the salient, and the British 2nd Division is far too busy defending to consider helping the French.

The men in this sector have just come out of the northern part of the line, having taken serious casualties. Soon enough, many of them are being ordered forward again, this time to Polygon Wood. An order is sent out for the men at the front to retire and make another stand in the western part of Polygon Wood, rather than the eastern part. Some of the runners get lost and deliver their messages hours late. The 2nd Wiltshires never receieve the message at all, and hold on almost past the point of endurance. Their initial strength in August was a shade over 1,000. By the time they went up to Polygon Wood they were down to 450. At the end of the day, less than 200 escape on their own initiative, every man for himself.

The line has broken. Germans are heading cautiously through the northern part of the wood, without opposition. But they have no way of telling anyone. Runners are dispatched, but it will take hours for them to deliver their messages, which will then be out of date. The weather today is clear, but German aircraft can’t see into Polygon Wood. Their commanders have no way of knowing that they now have a chance to split the British forces in two and drive deep into their rear areas.

The BEF is almost out of reserves around Ypres. The last men to throw into Polygon Wood who are close enough to help are Territorials from the Northumberland Hussars. The cavalrymen are ordered to dismount and head into the wood to look for trouble. They’re accompanied by rifle-toting message runners, officers’ batmen, clerks and cooks. Soon enough they find it. The German advance slows again. Reinforcements now, and reliable intelligence, would surely enable them to punch straight through Polygon Wood and on towards Ypres.

Other

The supply situation at St Nazaire has already been mentioned, and now the British supply effort begins to wobble. Sir John French sends a telegram to the War Office warning them that the BEF is starting to run dangerously low on artillery shells. This is partly the fault of the chaos at St Nazaire, but there is a more fundamental underlying problem. The guns are simply firing far more shells than anyone ever expected them to have to, and high-explosive shells are in particularly short supply. Britain lacks the manufacturing capabilities to make enough for the guns. It’s not a shell crisis yet, but unless something is done, the artillery will have to be rationed.

On the Yser, Dixmude takes yet another pasting. Dixmude continues to hold out. A Franco-Belgian force makes a counter-attack against the Lombartzyde bridgehead, preventing them from bringing over any artillery. Small adjustments to dispositions are made to reinforce the centre.

The Germans launch a night attack against Neuve Chapelle. Indian Sikhs of the Jullundur Brigade stand shoulder to shoulder with the 1st Gordon Highlanders. They have yet to learn the importance of keeping their heads down and the line wobbles for a time as the German infantry advances, but another unit is brought up to counter-attack and the positions are taken back. The Gordons are for all intents and purposes a new unit; they had lost 88% of their strength on the retreat from Mons, and now they’re back in the line, composed almost entirely of reinforcement drafts, and are taking casualties again.

This forms part of a wider general offensive all along the Armentieres/La Bassee front. A couple of other areas see wobbles, and brief gaps appear that are quickly plugged, but the line continues to hold. The Engineers continue to prepare reserve positions in case a retirement is deemed necessary.

Actions in Progress

Battle of La Bassee
Battle of Armentieres
Battle of the Yser
Battle of Ypres (First Ypres)
Battle of Messines

Further Reading

I’d first like to draw your attention to the launch of the British Journal for Military History, a new open-access peer-reviewed academic publication that aims to bring academic writing (but not stodgy unreadable academic writing) to a general audience. Volume 1 Issue 1 is available here. (All right, so they lead off with Gary Sheffield’s latest lament about how tragic and unfair it is that the general public still doesn’t like that nice Mr Haig – but like him or not, he’s still the highest-profile revisionist voice and he’s mostly intellectually consistent.)

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: it’s Saturday, and that means it’s time for the fairer sex to once again enjoy the delights of Mrs Eric Pritchard and “A Page for Women” (page 12). Today, the effects of the war on the dye industry (and what this means for one’s dressmaking), it’s every woman’s patriotic duty to cook cheap breakfasts, and “The Vogue for Lace”. Page 11 chortles over the “Complete Failure of the German Troops” on the Aisne that is obliging them to hide in their trenches like cowards. How very dare they? Page 13 claims to have “Some Amusing Episodes” from the war, entirely about the misadventures of comedy foreigners, and asks “Writers of comic opera libretti, take notice.”

To my knowledge, there have yet to be any comic operas written about the Great War.

 

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