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100th anniversary of the Battle of Polygon Wood


Today—26 September 2017—is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Polygon Wood, which took place in Belgium. This battle was part of the wider ‘Third Battle of Ypres’ campaign on the Western Front, which occurred from July to November 1917. In his official account of the war, historian Charles Bean recorded that 5,744 Australians were killed during the Battle of Polygon Wood, in which Allied forces reportedly captured less than four square miles of ground. Five of the Australian contingent who served at Polygon Wood went on to become federal parliamentarians: Charles Brand, Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliot, John McCallum, William Spooner and Allan McDonald.

Already a veteran of the Boer War, Charles Brand received the Distinguished Service Order for gallantry at Gallipoli before taking command of the 4th Infantry Brigade in July 1916. Having been wounded at Messines by an exploding enemy shell, Brand returned a month later and led his brigade into battle at Polygon Wood. In 1935 Brand was elected to parliament as a Senator for Victoria, a role in which he served until 1947. Speaking in Parliament in November 1936, Brand lamented:

One would think that the colossal human wastage of those years [1914—1918], and the aftermath of misery and human wreckage, would cause all nations to hesitate to precipitate a similar conflict. Unfortunately, the road to peace seems to be deserted. We and the Empire generally owe it to those who are coming after us to keep our eyes on that peace road; but, at the same time, we must keep our lantern alight.

Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliot was also a senior officer at Polygon Wood, where he commanded the 15th Infantry Brigade. Like Brand, Elliott had grieved over the high level of casualties suffered by the Western Front battles, and in the wake of Polygon Wood, Elliott reportedly wrote to his wife:

It is wonderful the loyalty and bravery that is shown, their absolute confidence in me is touching—I can order them to take on the most hopeless looking jobs and they throw their hearts and souls not to speak of their lives and bodies into the job without thought. You must pray more than ever that I shall be worthy of this trust, Katie, and have wisdom and courage given me worthy of my job.

Elliott’s brother George, a captain in the Medical Corps and a Military Cross recipient, was killed in action at Polygon Wood. Elected to parliament shortly after the war’s end, Pompey Elliott served as a Senator for Victoria from 1920 to 1931.    

John McCallum enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in September 1915 at the age of 23 and served in both Egypt and the Western Front. As part of the 55th Infantry Battalion at Polygon Wood, he was wounded in action and subsequently repatriated to England before his return to Australia. McCallum entered parliament as a Senator for New South Wales in 1949, and served until 1962.

William Spooner was only 17 years old when he enlisted in the AIF on 8 June 1915, but was accepted, having overstated his age upon recruitment. Shortly before the Battle of Polygon Wood, where he was wounded in action, Spooner was recommended for the Military Medal, with the citation recording:

This man at Bekkewaarde Ridge north east of Hooge on 20th September 1917, as a bearer dashed out under heavy shell fire and dressed a man who had been dangerously wounded and with the assistance of Pte Hope J. brought him in. This incident is especially worthy of mention as his example is at all times a valuable factor in the morale of the bearers of this unit.

Like McCallum, Spooner was also elected as a Senator for New South Wales in 1949, and he remained in the Parliament until 1965.

Allan McDonald worked as a farmer at Winchelsea, Victoria, before enlisting in the AIF on 6 April 1916 and serving in the 14th Infantry Battalion. Having been wounded at the Battle of Bullecourt in April 1917, he returned to his unit for the Battle of Polygon Wood where he fought under the renowned Victoria Cross recipient Albert Jacka. During this battle, McDonald’s brave actions in maintaining an advance post under heavy attack by repeated enemy shell fire were noted. Having unsuccessfully stood for the seat of Corangamite in 1919 and 1922, McDonald was eventually elected as a federal member in 1940, after serving in the Victorian state parliament from 1933. McDonald remained the Member for Corangamite until 1953.     

For additional information, the Parliamentary Library has published two research papers on parliamentarians who served in the Colonial wars and the First World War as well as the Second World War.

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