56th Battalion at Polygon Wood: a unit and a family's sad loss
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).
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.
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.