One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler’s boys, protected by a barrage of heavy artillery, charged German pillboxes at Polygon Wood. Thousands of shells pounded the ground creating a dust and fire storm that slammed into the terrified German soldiers. Charles Bean described the barrage as “the most perfect that ever protected Australian troops.” William Glasgow’s 13th Brigade comprised of the 49th,50th,51st and 52nd Battalions were part of the charge. Polygon Wood, a clump of forest near Ypres, already battered by previous battles was razed. Victory was achieved in just under four hours.
Two days later William wrote to his wife Belle in London revelling in the success, “We have been in and had a most successful show – everything went according to programme and our own casualties are very light. From our point of view the most successful we have ever been in.” Unfortunately, while it was the most successful battle since Messines, casualties as a whole were not light; 15,375 allies were killed, wounded or missing for the capture of 3.5 square miles. William and Belle wrote to each other almost every day and on the 28th September, he reassured her “you poor old thing you think that I am unsympathetic. No girl never when you are concerned and my actions have never shown it. What you have read is apparently my bad way of expressing myself. I am sure when we meet we will be only too glad to help one another.”
Belle’s chief complaint was her husband’s lack of leave. She had left her young daughters in Australia and moved to London to be closer to William but the reality of war meant long absences and shifting promises of leave. William’s letters often portray an emotional needy and self-centred Belle in need of soothing reassurance. In fairness to Belle only William’s letters survive; she may have had reason to be anxious about their relationship. That aside, being adrift from her family and friends, living in the centre of London in 1917, in one of the worst weeks of the war would have made most people fret.
The harvest moon bombings in London from the 24 September to 1 October killed hundreds and created widespread fear and panic. The nightly raids while the moon shone brightly became intolerable as hundreds of thousands of people took to the underground stations for protection. On 28 September, a woman was killed in a stampede at Liverpool Street tube station. Once people were in the stations it became impossible for the passengers to get in and out. And there were concerns about sanitation, prompting buckets of sand and disinfectant to be handed out to be used as toilets. Hospitals and schools were forced to open their basements as shelters and people fled London, the poor sleeping in parks on the outskirts of the capital.
The harvest moon raids forced Londoners to experience some of the anguish and carnage of war but as the moon waned and the raids stopped the panic lessened. Not so in Ypres. The success at Polygon Wood would soon fade as the push for Passchendaele resumed and the rain fell.
William and Belle Glasgow’s letters are part of the State Library of Queensland collection.
Zeppelin Nights – London in the First World War by Jerry White published by Vintage Books 2015.