Tuesday 14 August 2007 by Craig Tibbitts. 21 comments
To Flanders Fields, 1917, Frontline troops, Passchendaele (Ypres)

The Third Battle of Ypres (a.k.a the Battle of Passchendaele) that began on 31 July 1917 was a series of pushes from the Ypres Salient eastwards to the village of Passchendaele atop the final ridge. The Australian infantry first became involved on 20 September in the Battle of Menin Road, spearheaded by the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions in the centre, with five British divisions on their flanks. The result was a complete success. The next push was set to commence on 26 September with the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions taking the lead this time. Australians would come to know this battle as ‘Polygon Wood’. The objectives on this occasion were to advance approximately 900 yards, capturing the remainder of Polygon Wood in the first stage, then a few hundred metres more to capture a section of the main German defensive line known as ‘Flandern I’.

The 5th Australian Division would attack with its 14th and 15th Brigades. One of the 14th Brigade’s four battalions involved was the 56th. This battalion had been raised in February 1916 in Egypt, with half its establishment coming from the older 4th Battalion and the remainder being new recruits. Most of the battalion were New South Welshmen. Their first taste of action as a unit was the disastrous Battle of Fromelles in July 1916, where having the good fortune of being in reserve, their casualties were light. Then in early 1917 they saw their next lot of fighting before the Hindenburg Line and at Bullecourt. In early August they moved north to Flanders for the great offensive at Ypres.

The 56th Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey Scott, DSO of Wahroonga, Sydney, only 26 years old and a hero of Lone Pine, Gallipoli. This much admired young leader was ably supported by a host of similarly young officers, all talented and brave leaders in their own right. In charge of A Company was the youthful Captain Vernon Smythe, just 23 years old, but a veteran of the Gallipoli Landing and Fromelles where he won the Military Cross. B Company was commanded by Temporary Captain Raymond Single a 31 year old accountant from Mudgee. C Company was led by Captain Hubert Thompson, also 31 and a solicitor from Bathurst. D Company was commanded by Captain Norman Plomley, 25 years old from Manly in Sydney. Plomley also held the Military Cross for his brave and resourceful leadership at Bullecourt earlier in 1917. In fact all four company commanders had cut their teeth at Gallipoli and rapidly risen through the ranks. On account of their battalion number, they adopted the nickname ‘The Half Hundredweights’ (i.e. a hundredweight being 112 pounds, and 56 being half that).

Raymond Single Raymond Single
Hubert Thompson Hubert Thompson

Left to Right: Lieutenant Colonel Alan 'Humphrey' Scott DSO, Officer Commanding 56th Battalion; Captain Vernon Smythe MC; Captain Raymond Single; Captain Hubert Thompson.

Unfortunately the 56th did not produce a battalion history after the war, however from their unit war diaries, the files of the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau, the AIF Official History and the letters and diaries of men who served in the battalion, we can gain a reasonably clear picture of their ordeal at Polygon Wood.

At 7:30 pm on the evening of 25 September, Scott held a conference with his company commanders. At this meeting he informed them that zero hour for the attack was 5:30 am the next morning, Wednesday 26 September. This was later postponed to 5:50 am. He also gave instructions regarding the methods to be adopted in the attack, what to do when resistance was encountered, and particularly stressed that the attacking troops must follow their protective artillery barrage closely. Raymond Single had been wounded in the arm a couple of days before, but chose to remain on duty.

During the night of the 25th, the battalion moved up for the attack through Glencorse Wood and Nonne Bosschen through continuous shelling. Shortly after 1:00 am whilst moving up to their jumping off point, the battalion suffered a bad setback when a shell killed two members of the headquarters staff including their medical officer, Captain George Elliott, the younger brother of the 15th Brigade’s commander Brigadier ‘Pompey’ Elliott. Pressing on, the battalion set up headquarters in a blockhouse just behind the line. By 3:46 am they had made it to the start line for the attack and wired the codeword ‘Manly’ to brigade headquarters indicating their arrival and readiness.

53rd Battalion was to take the first objective (Red Line), which included all of Polygon Wood and the important Butte feature (a prominent earthen mound), at its eastern end. After a short pause to consolidate and reorganise, the 55th and 56th would then press on and take the second objective (Blue Line). This second objective was the capture of the major German defensive line (Flandern I), portions of which had the codenames Jetty and Jubilee.

The battlefield at Polygon Wood: At left a long shot of the area with the Butte looming in the distance. Centre: a closer view of the Butte which hosted a network of German dugouts, tunnels and shelters. Right: an aerial photo of Polygon Wood showing the utter devastation caused by incessant shelling.

The attack commenced at 5:50 am with a mighty barrage, the most powerful and awe-inspiring any of the men had ever seen. Next, the men stood up, fixed bayonets, and as one man described, shook off their nerves and tension of the past few hours with nearly every man lighting up a pipe or cigarette they’d been craving. They advanced in waves behind the barrage, which the Official Historian likened to a massive ‘Gippsland bushfire’, roaring slowly and inexorably across the landscape. The men following closely behind this creeping barrage quickly overran the German defenders, who were stunned and depleted by the intensity of the barrage. A few sharp fights occurred around some concrete pillboxes but these were quickly dispensed with. No quarter was given except to those who surrendered quickly, while the more resolute German machine gunners and snipers were ruthlessly hunted and killed.

The German defenders in the Polygon Wood area comprised elements of the 3rd Reserve and 220th Divisions, and later in the day the 50th Reserve Division. The morale of the 3rd Reserve Division in particular was very poor even before the battle. This division had until only a few weeks ago been exclusively on the Eastern Front, and were now getting their first taste of the intensity of battle on the Western Front. In particular the division's 49th Reserve Infantry Regiment had problems with a high desertion rate and among some of their number, a refusal to attack on this day of battle. Australian battlefield intelligence confirmed this, describing the prisoners taken from the 3rd Reserve Division as 'rather rattled.'

The attack was progressing very well indeed. But shortly after 6:00 am a message arrived at headquarters from B Company stating that they had ‘lost Captain Single, presumably killed.’

The second phase of the attack commenced at 7:30 am with the 55th and 56th Battalions pushing further on and capturing the Flandern I line and clearing the enemy pillboxes immediately beyond it. In this final action Captain Smythe led an attack with some of his men on a troublesome pillbox and cleared it. Also prominent was Colonel Scott’s younger brother, Lieutenant Lee Scott, who led a party to secure the battalion’s right flank, which was for a while dangerously exposed.

At 8:20 am a runner from D Company delivered a message to battalion headquarters confirming that Captain Single had been killed in action. One of his lieutenants had taken charge of his company. It was also reported that Captain Thompson of C Company was ‘OK’. Only later was it learned that Single had been killed by a shot through the head, presumably from an enemy sniper prior to the commencement of the attack.

According to Company Sergeant Major Sidney Dewey of C Company, this happened sometime shortly after 5:00 am, before the attack commenced. He wrote,

‘A captain from B Company [Captain Single], a noted cricketer, came to visit the company commander of C Company [Captain Thompson], and had a luminous watch on his wrist. He was being told about how his watch showed up in the dark when crack went a bullet. The thought of the company commander and his company sergeant major was that he had yawned, but as he seemed to stay in the sitting position something was said to him, but no answer. He had been shot dead, and there is no doubt it was his watch that directed the fire of the vigilant Hun sniper.’ (Private papers of CSM S. C. Dewey, 3DRL/6620).

Although there were the usual variations on how he died, most witnesses supported Dewey’s account.

With their objectives met, the men of the 56th and their neighbouring battalions spent the remainder of the day consolidating and strengthening their newly won positions. During the afternoon the Germans made a concerted effort to counterattack but this was broken up at length by the protective artillery fire and the machine guns immediately set up in the forward posts and atop the Butte. At 7:30 pm the battalion reported they had sustained 109 casualties including nine officers so far. At 8:30 pm, 56th Battalion established its headquarters at the Butte on the eastern edge of Polygon Wood. But later that night it was reported that Hubert Thompson, commanding C Company had been killed by a shell.

14th Brigade had taken this important ground, capturing 439 Germans and 34 of their machine guns. The remainder had been killed or put to flight. Ultimately 14th Brigade suffered 1,100 casualties, with the 56th Battalion losing 255 of those.

For their actions at Polygon Wood, Smythe was awarded a second Military Cross, Lee Scott a Military Cross, and Plomley a second Military Cross. Hubert Thompson was recommended for a Military Cross as well, but unfortunately this was not granted. With the new positions consolidated, preparations began in earnest for the next push scheduled to begin on 4 October, with the vital Broodseinde Ridge as its objective. Sadly, only a few days later on 1 October as the 56th was about to come out of the frontline, their much loved commander Humphrey Scott was shot dead by a sniper at the Polygon Wood Butte whilst showing the front line positions to a relieving British unit.

The deaths of Scott, the two staff officers and two company commanders was a grievous loss to the battalion. But the loss of Captains Single and Thompson would be more keenly felt back in Australia, for Raymond Single and Hubert Thompson were cousins. And to further compound a disastrous day for the family, another cousin, 23-year-old Wilfred Single was also killed on 26 September, serving with the 29th Battalion, operating just a few hundred yards away on the 56th’s flank. Wilfred was wounded in the arm at some stage during the attack and was sent to the rear for treatment, escorting two German prisoners on the way. A sniper shot him through the back of the neck and he was killed instantly.

All three men were descendants of the grazier John Single (1791-1858), who in 1822 built Nepean House at Castlereagh (just west of Sydney), and pioneered the northwest plains of New South Wales. Thirty-three of John Single's grandsons or great grandsons served in the First World War. Of this extended family, nine did not return, either being killed in action or dying of disease. Their sacrifice plots a virtual map of the momentous battles of the AIF during the war:

  • John Digby (Gallipoli, 1915)
  • Percy Single (Pozières, 1916)
  • Gordon Yeoman (Died of Disease, France 1916)
  • Alexander Frank Fraser (Passchendaele, 1917)
  • Horace Thompson (Hill 60, Belgium 1918)
  • Francis Digby (Mont St Quentin, 1918)

And of course the three who died on that fateful day, 26 September 1917 at Polygon Wood.

Humphrey Scott's body was recovered and he now lies near where he fell in the Buttes War Cemetery, Polygon Wood. Raymond, Hubert and Wilfred were all given battlefield burials, however due to the intense shelling and the subsequent heavy rain, their remains were either never found again, or never identified. Their sacrifice is therefore commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing.

Captain Raymond Single (photo courtesy of Rian Willmot) Captain Raymond Single (photo courtesy of Rian Willmot)

Captain Hubert Thompson Captain Hubert Thompson

A humourous advertisment of the 56th Battalion's line of work at Ypres in 1917, discovered in the back of their battalion war diary. 'Strong points and machine guns captured at a moment's notice. Specialists in dealing with mustard gas, pill-boxes, barrages, barbed wire, counter-attacks and frightfulness. A humourous advertisment of the 56th Battalion's line of work at Ypres in 1917, discovered in the back of their battalion war diary. 'Strong points and machine guns captured at a moment's notice. Specialists in dealing with mustard gas, pill-boxes, barrages, barbed wire, counter-attacks and frightfulness.

The author of the above article along with a colleague at the Memorial are now researching and writing a complete unit history of the 56th Battalion. It will be published as part of the Australian Army History Publications Series, sometime in 2009. The authors would be very grateful to hear from members of the public who might have information, letters, diaries or photos of any men who served in the 56th. Contact: Craig.Tibbitts@awm.gov.au or phone (02) 6243 4318.  Alternatively visit the project's new blog.

Comments

Aaron Pegram

What a cracker of an article on Polygon Wood Craig. I spent some time in Polygon Wood in April this year to visit the place where a great-great-uncle, Albert George Pegram of the 55th Battalion, was mortally wounded by a sniper. Rumor has is that his section was jumping across an exposed part of a trench, and when his turn came a sniper's bullet found its mark in his stomach. He died two days later and is buried at Lijssenthoek.

When I was there I came across 'Scott's pillbox', which presumably was named after the Lieutenant Scott in your story. The pill box was slap-bang right on the former racetrack. What was interesting was the damage to the rear of the structure which FACED the Butte, ie. German machine gun rounds aimed at the advancing 14th bde which had been stopped short by the pillbox.

Unsuccessful attempts were made in the 1930s to dislodge the pill-box with TNT, and it suffered extensive damage to the front.

Blog editor/administrator's note: Many thanks for your positive feedback on the article Aaron, I'm glad you liked it. I've put a link on your relative's name to our Roll of Honour database. I'm led to believe that the pillbox you mentioned as 'Scott's Post' in Polygon Wood was named after the 56th's battalion commander, Lt Col Humphrey Scott, rather than his younger brother Lt Lee Scott. I found a good photograph of it on another website.

Claire Dujardin

I like to read your articles about the WW1 Aussies. sincerely, Claire

Michael Molkentin

I will second that Craig - great article!! The map from the war diary is excellent and really demonstrates the nature of German defences NW of the wood. I walked around Polygon Wood just a few weeks ago. Around where I thought the jump-off positions should have been there are still some shallow trenches and scrapes that may have been prepared by the assault units before the battle. There were also a couple of German pill-boxes about where the Australian jump off line was, and while I am yet to identify these, I think they may have been captured during the Menin Road Battle. Can I post photos Craig? Perhaps someone can identify these pill-boxes? Blog Editor's note: Thanks for that Michael, nice to hear from you. Perhaps I'll create a seperate post on the blog where we can address pill boxes as I wanted to mention another pill box and link it to the article about the 56th Bn. I'll be in contact with you seperately about this and we'll figure out the best way to handle it. Cheers, Craig

James McAlpine Woolley

I was delighted and interested to read your 56th Btn story. My uncle James McAlpine was KIA on that 26th day of September. He was a Lewis Machine gunner in the 29th Btn, as you mention, it served alongside the 56th. Jim's cousin who served alongside him, after the war, told us Jim was killed by a sniper. This was confirmed at a later enquiry. Jim is buried, alongside others in the Buttes War Cemetery, their graves marked 'An Unknown Soldier of the Great War - Known Unto God'. Also, listed on the Menin Gate Memorial. After the war, with others he was exhumed from the battlefield and laid to rest in that portion of the cemetery. I have visited the area on a couple of occasions. The book title 'Black and Gold' (29th colors) by Ron Austin includes the Battle of Polygon Wood. Publisher Slouch Hat Publications. Phone 03 5986 6437. As you can see - I am named after my uncle. Thank you Best regards Jim

Aaron Pegram

I too can chime in with some photos of pillboxes and the shellscrapes Michael referrs to Craig.

Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 published stories of the men of the 5th Division in its new book: Passchendaele 1917 The story of the fallen and Tyne Cot Cemetery. Mr Pegram, your relative is in the book as wel. Kind regards, Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

Mark Harvey

I read with great interest Craig Tibbitts account
I had 2 grandfathers and 2 other uncles that fought at Passchendaele.
One of my Grandfathers John Henry Jose was a captain in the 5th Div Artillery, his son Ernest who joined with him in 1916 they arrived in France 8.7.16,he was an amunition column driver. The other grandfather James Henry Harvey was in the 4th Div, 46th btn and arrived in France on 21.6.17. The other uncle Cpl JN Dennison was in the 43rd Btn. All remarkably survived and returned although grandfather Harvey was badly wounded at Anzac Ridge on the 19.9.17 and didn't return to his battalion until 17.5.18. I was very close to JHH growing up and as a young man so I have a strong association with what Craig writes. I am intending to go to the 90th year commemerations being conducted by the communities of Passchendaele and Zonnebeke on the 4 Oct where the reinterment of the five 4th div men who were killed during the battle of Polygon Wood and were recently discovered in a battlefield grave will be conducted. 2 of these have been identified by DNA, one from Boulder WA and QLD

Aaron Pegram

Mark raises an interesting point which has surprisingly eluded this discussion on Polygon Wood, but is very fitting for this section of the 1917 blog.

The identification of the bodies of George Calder and John Hunter by DNA is absolutely fascinating, and must be very rewarding for the families of these two men and the archeologists and researchers involved. I had a chance to meet Johan Vandewalle, who owns the little cafe next to Polygon Wood, and who helped excavate one of the bodies. Johan is a man who has seen his share of digs in the Zonnebeke area, but it was very clear that this one was particularly special to him.

If this and the successful discovery of the two 1RAR diggers in South Vietnam is the standard of modern battlefield archaeology, I hold my breath in anticipation for what may unfold at Fromelles.

Blog editors comment: Yes, the discovery of bodies of the 'Westhoek Five' has come to a remarkable conclusion - at least moreso for the two identified. I was involved in this case early on, assisting the army with finding relevant maps and documents in the Memorial's collection that may have provided clues to the mens' identities. I do plan to put up a post soon about this case, but I've been snowed under with other duties the past few weeks. I still hope to get something up before their re-interment on 4 October. The use of DNA testing in this case (and for the 1 RAR men from Vietnam) has produced some pleasing results. Where DNA testing will lead in these sorts of cases, I don't know. I am also on the panel that investigated the Fromelles case where it is believed that around a hundred bodies (more or less) may still be buried in an unmarked mass grave. We must consider what the implications are for DNA testing if bodies on such a scale are indeed discovered to be there. How much time and resources is that likely to take? It could be many years. Is it a reasonably viable task to undertake? Also, how do we reconcile the difference in treatment given those men who have a successful DNA identification with those who do not, or those that were buried as 'known unto God' alone all those years ago? Should we then dig up every known burial of an unidentified soldier? I don't know the best way to proceed here, but I am sure we all need to give it very careful consideration. Cheers, Craig.

Aaron Pegram

I totally agree Craig, and how amazing must it be to have worked on such a project! Whilst DNA has proven merits for identifying previously missing soldiers, the implications of its wider use in the future is something well beyond the limits of available resources. This is where I think shows such as 'Finding the Fallen' and 'Digging up the Ancestors' - although very interesting - can potentially be damaging because they can create a public expectation which may not be possible to carry out. I think we've struck the tip of the iceberg here, and I for one would be very interested to see what the policy is to be on conducting these sorts of forensic investigations in the future.

Carol Anne Said

My mum's uncle Vern is featured in this article. Thanks so much for this. We will be visiting there very soon. More information on my mum's pages on my website. Editor's comment: Hi Carol, thanks for your comment. One of my colleagues and I will soon begin writing more about the 56th Battalion (not necessarily for this blog). We'd be interested in talking to your family about Vernon Smythe, since he was obviously a prominent member of the battalion. Please let me know if your family may be willing and/or able to help with more information, perhaps including photos, letters, diaries etc about him. I'd be most grateful. You can contact me direct via email at Craig.Tibbitts@awm.gov.au, or phone (02) 6243 4318. In the meantime, I'll have a look at your website. Hope you have a good trip to Belgium. Regards, Craig Tibbitts.

Mardi Clarke

Capt. Vernon Smythe was one of my mother’s four brothers who fought in France. Although there was not a 56th Battalion History written, two books by H. W. Williams cover most of its actions. They are well worth reading. My Uncle is mentioned many times in both editions. He and another brother are also mentioned on many of Bean’s pages. One brother was killed in the 2nd battle of Bullecourt but the three who returned home were awarded a total of 3 Military Crosses (two with Bars), a Mons Star (Capt. Vernon Smythe) and two M.I.D. ’s. All these details and a full documentation of the family’s war history are on my pages on my daughter’s website -- www.angelofoz.com/mardi/index/index.htm and click on Lest We Forget --- Mardi

Mardi Clarke

My Uncle, Cpl. Herbert Andrew Smythe, died on 3rd May at about 3.30 a.m in the 2nd German trench, in the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt. He was one of my mother’s four brothers who fought in France. His brother Capt. Edward Smythe was able to obtain the coordinates of the place where he died. I am going with some family members to France in October 2007 to visit the Battlefields.
Letters that he (Bert) wrote about the landing at Gallipoli were published in newspapers and make interesting reading. After that evacuation, he was sent to England to train other soldiers and felt he safe there, while his three brothers were facing danger in France. He asked to rejoin his 3rd Battalion and sadly three weeks later was killed. He kept a diary from the time he departed England until a couple of days before his death. He wrote of some very amusing and other incidents in France and these, as well as his published letters are in my pages on my daughter’s website. I have also documented all the family’s war history, as I know it to this date.

www.angelofoz.com/mardi/index/index.htm Click on Lest We Forget. Mardi.

Editor's comment: Many thanks for that info Mardi, it's really great that you've taken such care to document your family's war history. I will have a good look through the info on the website. I'd like to get in contact with you again soon; I'll most likely use direct email rather than the blog for this though. Cheers, Craig.

Ruta!

well..im not really into the army thing and all of that..but ofcourse I'm only a teenager! and at school on the computer my history teacher told me to come on this site..but also i do want to pay my respects to all those who lost somebody in the war.They were all good men!!
... may all the soldiers that died R.I.P.
yOurs sincerely: RUTA!

Bob McIntyre

I read with great interest and sadness this article re the 56th BN AIF. My Great Great Uncle Harold William Russell served with the Battalion and died of wounds received from shrapnel in COWS trench, Le Transloy in February, 1917. He lingered 36 hours in the field hospital and upon passing away he was buried next door in the Bernafey Wood British cemetery. He was a machinist from Sydney and aged 33 years. Initially his parents received a communication saying he was wounded but as they had heard nothing further presumed he was making a full recovery, wrong, next letter he was dead. His parents were still communicating with the Army into 1922! All they received of his possessions were a gauntlet, arm band and a small tin. Anyway keep up the good work and please contact me I have heaps on this fellow. Have sent you an email anyway.

Regards, Bob Mac

Editor's comment: Thanks Bob, great to hear from you. I'll drop you an email, then give you a ring. I am hopeful that plenty of relatives of the 56th will come out of the woodwork so we can relate a few more personal experiences to the history we're writing. Cheers, Craig.

m english

Dear Sir When will the history of the 56th battalion be published

Editor's response: Hi there, we anticipate the latter half of 2009. There's a new blog about the 56th Battalion project where you can track its progress at http://halfhundredweights.wordpress.com/ Cheers, Craig.

Ann

After reading an article by Mark Day in The Weekend Australian a few months back, I learnt that descendants of John Single had lost 33 men in the first world war. I am myself a descendant of this family, but know very little of the history of the family, so I was interested to read this article. I vistited Gallipolli in 1976, completely unaware that I had relatives that had fought there. My family were more of the forget and get on with things people, and the wars were never spoken of. Editor's response: Hi Ann. I wrote the above article sometime last year and it has been picked up by a couple of newspapers who have made mention of it in some way or another through short articles. My interest in it has since transformed into a book, being a complete unit history of the 56th Battalion, to whom Captains Raymond Single and Hubert Thompson belonged. There is a separate blog for this project. You can find it here. Cheers, Craig Tibbitts Curator Official Records Australian War Memorial

Rian Willmot

I am A Single descendant and have quite a lot of information about them. so I would be happy to contact Ann if that is possible. Cheers Rian

Jenni Yeoman

Another sad chapter of the Single family is that a (?) brother of Gordon Yeoman listed above, was a stoker on HMAS Sydney and lost his life when the Sydney was sunk in 1940. I am interested in tracing the father ,Francis Yeoman ,of these two - does Rian have any details on him as Francis must have married into the Single family? Thanks Jenni

rian willmot

Hi Jenny You can contact me on rianwillmot@hotmail.com

Alison Jordan

Hi, I have just been watching a TV programme on the BBC about the Egypt. They were inside the great pyramid, and at the top of the 5 chambers inside there was some graffiti of people who had been there. On the 6th February 1915 the name was Norman Plomley, 1st Australian Force! Just thought it would be amazing to know that your relatives had been inside one of the pyramids back in 1915 and I did a quick search on his name and found this article - just thought it was worth mentioning!

Jennifer Anderson

I would like to reinforce your article's description of Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey Scott as a "much loved commander". My grandfather, William Parker, served in the 56th and miraculously survived the war. He was a country boy and returned to western NSW after he returned home. He married and raised three daughters. When his eldest daughter, my mother, married in Sydney in 1955, William came to Sydney to give his daughter away. His soon to be son-in-law, my late father, Ken Austin, took him on a tour of Sydney Grammar School, where his own father was still a Master. In the historic "Big School" building William silently viewed the World War I memorial. My father was perplexed when William turned before departing the hall, stood to attention and saluted. He had read the name of his commanding officer, Humphrey Scott, on the memorial and all those decades later wanted to show his respect. Within the year, William was killed when struck by a train whilst at work with the railways. He was close to retirement.