Today marks the centenary of the battle of Polygon Wood, a rare Allied victory during the infamous third Ypres (Passchendaele) offensive. The battle is one of many the Australian government has selected to commemorate as part of its extravagant Anzac Centenary program (costing around $175 million).
But unlike most anniversaries earmarked for official commemoration between 2015 and 2018, the Passchendaele campaign has rarely been the focus of major Australian remembrance initiatives. One hundred years on, it is time to interrogate why this offensive does not resonate as deeply in Australian collective memory as other battles, such as Gallipoli, Fromelles, Pozières and Villers-Bretonneux.
Antipodean indifference to Passchendaele has a long history, but it has become particularly conspicuous over the past two decades. In this time, Fromelles, Pozieres, Bullecourt, Le Hamel and Villers-Bretonneux have received new or updated memorial parks, statues and museums thanks to generous Australian sponsorship. Expenditure on similar projects just across on the Franco-Belgian border has been pitiful by comparison.
Moreover, while many of the Anzacs’ 1916–18 engagements in France have been the objects of detailed academic or popular histories, we are still waiting for a book-length study on the Anzacs at Ypres. Nowhere is this gap in the literature more marked than in the work of the popular ‘storian’ Peter Fitzsimons, who manages to skip 1917 altogether in his tub-thumping First World War trilogy.
That Passchendaele does not currently occupy a more salient position in the canon of Australian 1914–18 battle honours is baffling given the extent of the Anzacs’ involvement in the 1917 offensive. During the fighting in the dreaded Ypres salient, all five Australian Infantry Force (AIF) divisions were engaged on the same front for the first time in the war. More importantly, by the time their main contribution to third battle of Ypres ended, the Australians had suffered over 38,000 casualties, including 10,000 dead, far outweighing their losses in any other First World War campaign.
In order to understand Passchendaele’s marginal place in Australian memory today, we need to consider the legacy of Anzac commemoration during the interwar years. Unsurprisingly, the Anzacs’ ‘baptism of fire’ at Gallipoli was central to the dominant war narrative of the period, but many returned men and politicians regularly recalled the AIF’s ‘victories in France in 1918’ with relish, proffering them as evidence of Australian martial prowess.
The third battle of Ypres did not fit easily into this celebratory narrative. Despite having played a leading role in the British victories at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, the Anzacs’ contribution to the offensive ended in muddy, bloody defeat in front of Passchendaele. It was hardly the stuff upon which to build a bellicose national legend.
After the war, the Australian Government erected memorials where the AIF ‘had performed some outstanding feats of arms in Europe. Only one such structure was built in Belgium: the 5th Division’s obelisk in Polygon Wood. As a divisional monument, it lacked the significance of the Australian National Memorial, which Prime Minister William Hughes planned for Villers-Bretonneux. Widely publicised as a site where ‘the Australian Divisions stamped their influence upon the war… in the hours of highest critical importance to the Allies’, Hughes’ selection of Villers reflected the triumphalist streak that underpins the contemporary Anzac legend.
Some AIF commanders did meekly push for a national monument in Belgium as they believed ‘a single memorial for the whole of the AIF [in Europe] was not adequate’. Hughes was not of the same opinion, objecting on the grounds that the 5th Division’s monument at Polygon Wood would be less than a mile away from the proposed national memorial site. It is likely that this objection was not only practical, but ideological. Writing about Passchendaele a decade later, Hughes branded the campaign as:
the most useless, bloody and deplorable battle of the whole war, which swept away the flower of the British Army, left the troops utterly worn out, their morale seriously impaired, and won nothing.
Hughes’ rejection of the proposal left Australians with a weak ‘memorial footprint’ in Belgium, especially compared to the concentration of structures in the Somme, including the memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, four out of the five divisional memorials and a section of ‘Australia’s most sacred acre’ at Pozières. Participation in the Imperial War Graves Commission’s popular Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing did somewhat strengthen Australia’s memorial presence in the Belgian battlefields. Nevertheless, with the Commonwealth’s missing only making up a small portion of the over 54,000 names on the arch, there is no doubt that the Menin Gate was, above all, an imperial monument.
Several years later, the outbreak of a second, more devastating global conflict dampened enthusiasm for the commemoration of a martial Anzac tradition and, after 1945, the First AIF’s triumphs on the Western Front all but disappeared from popular memory.
High-profile anniversaries, the need for a unifying national story free of black armbands and white blindfolds and contention over the ‘ownership’ of Gallipoli are among the reasons why Australians have gradually turned their attention back to AIF’s European battles. At the same time, it is clear that the Anzac narrative we regularly invoke in commemorative rituals, and on film and television screens, and read in (most) books is no longer the exceedingly militaristic legend of the interwar years. Instead, Anzac is now rather more tragic, traumatic and anti-imperialist in tenor.
Yet, despite this traumatic turn, the present wave of Australian commemorative activity on the Western Front has centred on the site that best encapsulates Anzac’s interwar triumphalism in Europe: Villers-Bretonneux. Crucially, it has been the national scope of the memorial at Villers that has channelled interest towards the village, which now hosts a popular, official Anzac Day dawn service and will soon be home to the multi-million dollar Sir John Monash Centre.
The commemorative legacy of the interwar years does not explain why previously neglected battlefields – notably Fromelles, Bullecourt and Le Hamel – have received large sums for shiny new memorials and revamped exhibitions. These developments are the result of collaboration between Australians and enthusiastic locals who are happy to support projects that emphasise the Anzacs’ contribution to battles sharing the same names as their villages. Framed as a devoir de mémoire français, these collaborative initiatives entice Australians to townships that are not traditional tourist hotspots.
Similar Australian-specific developments have been more subdued in Belgium because the Ypres salient – the final resting place for men and women of over fifty nationalities killed between 1914 and 1918 – does not easily lend itself to a single national narrative of the war. Of course, Belgians working at sites and institutions on the official Australian Remembrance Trail (the In Flanders Fields Museum, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 and the Plugstreet Experience 14–18 Interpretation Centre), but antipodean tourists are neither their sole nor primary target audience.
The centenary ceremony at Polygon Wood is evidence that some Australians have not yet broken faith with their countrymen lying in Flanders Fields. But once the ephemeral fanfare of 26 September is over, antipodean voyagers to Belgian Flanders will have to look much harder for traces of the Anzacs.
Image: Panorama of Polygon Wood and the Buttes, 28 September 1917.