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WW1 Polderhoek Chateau: ‘This is where I was wounded’

On 3 December, 1917 the men of the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago battalions assembled along the front line opposite a German strongpoint that was backed with pillboxes, machine-guns, trenches; and at the heart of the position, the ruins of Polderhoek Chateau.  At midday the whistles blew and the New Zealanders went over the top.

It has been a while since I’ve shared one of my First World War postcards.  I’ve collected them since I was a teenager; finding them at stamp fairs, second-hand bookstores, antique shops and more recently on Internet auction sites.  Sadly, many of them have lost their provenance, but with a bit of a research I do what I can to give each one context.  The one I’m sharing today gives a unique and personal insight into a desperate battle on the Western Front.

The image on the front of this example shows a pre-war view of Polderhoek Chateau in Ypres, Belgium.

Pre-War view of Polderhoek Chateau Lemuel Lyes Collection

Postcard of Polderhoek Chateau
Lemuel Lyes Collection

The message on the back is among the most poignant of any in my collection.

Message from soldier wounded at Polderhoek Chateau Lemuel Lyes Collection

Message from soldier wounded at Polderhoek Chateau
Lemuel Lyes Collection

“This is where I was wounded, at the foot of the tree at the left hand side of this picture” – George Cochrane

It is hard to not do a double take when you read this short but striking message; quickly turning the card over to see the tree the soldier is referring to – and the story immediately seems clear – one imagines a serviceman who while recovering from his injuries finds a postcard with a pre-war view of the exact spot on the battlefield where he had been wounded.  The contrast between the peaceful scene on the front and the message from the soldier on the back is compelling.  I made it my mission to find out what I could about both the place and the person.

Polderhoek Chateau was the scene of more than one bloody battle, falling into German hands early in the war and witness to fierce fighting in the following years.  It came under heavy shellfire and was apparently used as everything from a headquarters and dressing station to a fortified machine gun position and sniper nest.  In October 1917 it was even briefly recaptured by the 5th British Division, before being retaken by the Germans.  In December it was the New Zealand Division’s turn to storm the ruins.

Considering the multiple battles fought at this site I couldn’t be sure if the message on the postcard was written by a New Zealander, or perhaps by another Allied soldier who fought during one of the earlier battles, at least, that was until I tracked down the service record of a soldier by the name of George Cochrane.  The same name that was written on the back of the postcard.

Private George Cochrane embarked with the 13th Reinforcements Otago Infantry Battalion in May 1916 – at about the same time that the New Zealand Division first arrived at the trenches of the Western Front.  Cochrane’s military record confirms that after being promoted to Lance Corporal he was wounded in action on December 3rd, 1917.  The same day that the New Zealanders assaulted Polderhoek.  It seems highly likely that he was the one who wrote the message.

The attack on Polderhoek is one of the many lesser-known episodes of New Zealand’s military history.  Its memory has remained very much in the shadow of the disastrous slaughter at Passchendaele, only a few months earlier, and also in Ypres.  Polderhoek would take yet another heavy toll on the New Zealanders.

This fantastic interactive map on NZHistory shows how the planned attack was to take the strategic position of the chateau and its surrounds.  On the right the 1st Canterbury was tasked with taking out a series of pillboxes and other German defensive positions, while on the left the 1st Otago were to take the chateau on directly.  At least, that was the plan.

 Polderhoek Chateau Courtesy of GreatWarPhotos

This postcard shows the Polderhoek Chateau as it was in 1915, by late 1917, after several more years of war, it must have been nothing but a shell of its former self. Notably, the tree on the left is still standing.
Image courtesy of GreatWarPhotos

The weary troops assembled in the forward trenches.  Some were veterans but many were inexperienced recruits.  At noon the signal was given and they climbed over the top and advanced towards the German positions.  Unfortunately, the attack seemed doomed to fail from the start.

Things first went wrong when Allied artillery shells fell short of their mark and landed among the advancing New Zealanders.  This was followed by a hail of machine gun fire from the entrenched Germans, followed shortly by their artillery.  Even the account published by the official war correspondent paints a pretty bleak picture.

“Officers and men strode forward with elan across the open ground towards the chateau and the tree trunks of what had been Polderhoek wood.  Meantime the enemy had sent his S.O.S. soaring heavenward, and in six minutes his stopping barrage had come down, while his machine guns were spitting venomously from the chateau and the adjacent “pill-boxes.”  The German gunners on the Chelevelt ridge added their streams of machine bullets to those already sweeping the position, and officers and men began to fall.” – Malcolm Ross, War Correspondent with N.Z. Forces, Hawera & Normanby Star, 22nd March 1918

The troops of the 1st Canterbury Battalion bravely advanced through the heavy machine-gun fire and assaulted the German pillboxes.  Notably, one position was rushed by Private Henry Nicholas who single-handedly overwhelmed the sixteen defenders.  He was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action.  Despite the exceptional gallantry displayed by Nicholas and other soldiers of the 1st Canterbury, the assault came under concentrated enemy fire and eventually ground to a halt.

Things weren’t going much better for the men of the 1st Otago Battalion.  After emerging from the chaos caused by the shortfall of the opening barrage their smokescreen dissipated in the wind and they came under concentrated fire from the German pillboxes, entrenched positions and distant artillery.  Despite the overwhelming opposition, they slowly advanced towards the fiercely defended ruins of Polderhoek Chateau.  They fought desperately among the shell-holes on the edge of the ruins, at times even advancing slightly beyond them, but despite their best efforts the chateau itself remained in enemy hands.

The message from Lance Corporal Cochrane is firsthand evidence of how tantalizingly close the New Zealanders got to the chateau – if the message on the postcard is accurate then he must have sustained his injury within what seems like only yards of the ruins.

By the end of the afternoon both the Otago and Canterbury battalions were pinned down, trying to hold onto the ground they had gained.  Total casualties were as high as fifty percent.  The Germans were reinforcing the chateau.  And it was snowing.

Lance Corporal Cochrane was admitted to No. 3 N.Z. Field Ambulance and then to hospital where at some stage it seems that he managed to find a postcard of the Chateau to either keep or send as a souvenir.  His war wasn’t quite over yet – he returned to the front line and was taken as a prisoner of war at Meteren in April 1918.  By coincidence my great great uncle was also captured during that same action.  Fortunately, both of them survived their time in captivity, dodged the influenza and returned to New Zealand after the war.

Sadly Private Henry Nicholas was killed near Le Quesnoy on 23rd October 1918, less than a month before the armistice.  His Victoria Cross is on display at Canterbury Museum and his memory is immortalized in the form of a bronze statue in Christchurch.

Today, nothing remains of the Polderhoek Chateau in Belgium and the events of December 3rd, 1917 have largely been forgotten, surviving almost only as a footnote to Passchendaele.  It was just one in a series of battles fought by the New Zealanders on the Western Front – but after learning about it, and discovering a message from one of the soldiers that was wounded there, it has really brought home the senselessness of a conflict that rendered picturesque chateaus into ruins and brave young men into names on memorials.

I’m greatly indebted to Paul Reed at GreatWarPhotos for giving me permission to share the 1915 postcard showing the battle-scarred chateau.  His site includes many fantastic images from the First World War and I look forward to seeing more of his content during the build up to the upcoming centenary.

For further reading on the New Zealand attack at Polderhoek I recommend the Official History’s of the Otago Regiment, and the Canterbury Regiment both of which are available through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.  Check out this excellent article at NZHistory.  Also ‘New Zealand and the First World War: 1914 – 1919’ has just been published by Penguin, I haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet but look forward to doing so.

© Lemuel Lyes

42 replies »

  1. This is such a moving story, thanks for sharing it. The photo of the chateau in 1915 conveys a real sense of the grinding attrition of the fighting on the western front. I love the interactive map too!

  2. I commented on this post a couple of days ago, but it seems to have disappeared into the ether…I really love this post, it’s very moving, both the story of George (I’m glad he survived the war) and the poor beleaguered chateau. I love the interactive map too – a great way of depicting a battle.

    • Apologies, I missed your first comment. Thanks so much for your thoughts. The experiences of the Western Front sometimes seem so incredibly difficult to understand, being so horrific and so foreign to anything in our own experiences; but I find that the stories of individuals can help to give a personal perspective.

      I agree about the chateau, I just wish that I could find a photo of the ruins as they were in late 1917. I imagine that they would be scarcely recognizable, and that perhaps the “tree” that George references might be little more than just a stump.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • Sorry for commenting twice – I think wordpress confused me 🙂 I completely agree about using individual stories to help develop a perspective on the past – and likewise with places, as with the chateau. Looking at that 1915 photo, it’s hard to believe there would have anything left of it by 1917.

  3. Fabulous postcard – and, indeed, absolutely poignant. Underscores the point that this war did not occur in a vacuum of trenches and no man’s land; it was also fought over positions, buildings and places – just like all those before it. The difference was in the industrial technology that was applied. With all that this meant when it came to the lethality of those battles. The frightening part is that this was known to military planners before 1914, on the strength particularly of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 – it came out, for instance, in the scale of the expected replacements prepared in the pre-war planning by the New Zealand army for an expeditionary force. Something that passed public attention by. The problem was that technology did not then provide an answer – which was the introduction of the tank, aircraft and combined tactics that the British used in 1918 to break the deadlock. They took time to provide, however, and until then the deadlock was always going to happen.

    To me the events around Polderhoek also underscore the fact that, despite the disasters at Passchendaele less than eight weeks earlier, morale had not broken. The Kiwis did their very best – whatever it took.

    • That is a very good point – the bravery of the New Zealanders has to be admired, especially considering their very recent losses at Passchendaele. It is incredible that so many were willing to “go over the top” knowing full well what waited for them.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Hello,

    I have written a book about Geluveld during the First World War and of course the fighting around Polderhoek Chateau is described there (the book is only in Dutch though): “Halfweg Menin Road en Ypernstrasse”. I know the area very well as my grandparents lived on the farm at the site of the Chateau. My grandfather had a small collection of battlefield relics (which I inherited) from the area and I roamed the fields there as well. I have found plenty of things that refer to the New Zealand attack on the chateau, among these a cap badge, a shoulder title and several buttons.
    Some of the items will be on display in Hohenlockstedt from early February on (until November) as there were quite a bit of units from Schleswig-Holstein engaged in the area late 1917 until early 1918.

    Regards,
    Jan Vancoillie

    • Hi Jan,

      Thanks for stopping by, and congratulations on your book! What an amazing family connection to have with the former battlefield and that is incredible that you have even found relics associated with the New Zealand assault. I am yet to have the opportunity to visit the area but hope to do so one day.

      I don’t suppose you know of any photographs of the Chateau taken towards the end of the war? From what I understand there was very little left of it? Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can ever help you with any research from here in New Zealand.

      Kind Regards,

      Lemuel

  5. My great-uncle’s battalion on the left side of 2nd NZ Infantry brigade which had attacked the chateau, that night he lead two men on a patrol, for this he was awarded the military medal.

    • Your uncle sounds like a very brave man. What a trying time that must have been and how proud your family must be to this day. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Hi Lemuel, very pleased to find your site. My Great Uncle (Charles Jeayes) was with the 1st Canterbury Regiment in the battle at Polderhoek Chateau 3rd December 1917, Platoon No. 10. From what I have read in the official history they /didn’t/don’t know who exactly was killed/wounded in this battle. I have just got around to transcribing a list my Great Uncle did at the time (one wonders was he supposed to hand it in) of the members of the Platoon, their Sections and who was killed or wounded. Not sure what to do with it apart from keeping it in my own archives – do you have any suggestions as I would like to share. Some of their descendants might be wondering.

    • Hi Lyn, thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. How incredible that the list your great uncle wrote has survived all this time. What a great idea to try and share the list and I’m sure it will prove useful to descendants and other researchers. My best suggestion is to keep an eye on the redevelopment of the Cenotaph database at Auckland Museum. You can read about the redevelopment here:

      http://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-and-library/library-info-centres/information-centres/armoury-information-centre/the-enhancement-of-cenotaph-has-begun

      Once completed there will be a way for the public to contribute photos or information about any individual NZ serviceman or woman.

    • G’day Lyn, my Great Uncle also suffered wounds and died as a result of them (I believe) after the battle at Polderhoek Chateau on 5 Dec 1917. He was serving with 13 Company, 1 Battalion, Canterbury Regiment. I would be very interested in whether his name, James Whiteford 6/2010, was on the list your Great Uncle compiled. Any information you may have would be very much appreciated.

    • Hi Lyn, Lemuel et al
      My great uncle John Horgan (1st Battalion Canterbury Regiment) died in this attack on the 3rd December 1917. I have just finished reading a terrific description of this by Philip Lascelles. Fascinating and utterly courageous. His brother (my grandfather William) landed at Gallipoli on the 25th April 1915 was wounded and eventually discharged in 1916 after being wounded again. Thank goodness their mother only lost one son but sadly William died in 1926 when my mum was about 2years old. May they rest in peace.
      Thanks so much for your efforts – very appreciated
      PF

      • Kia Ora Peter
        Can you please contact me off list. I am researching the Fairhall, Stapp and Horgan Families.
        Ka kite ano
        Jacqui Gee

      • Hi Jacque – please send me your email address. Mine is peterfairhall@hotmail.com – Am not sure who you are but presume you are a Horgan? One who I may have read about and oh so happy to have done so. Uncle Clen would have been encouraging you without doubt. He certainly had an impact on my life. Cheers Peter

  7. Seems quite a few of us had Great Uncles who died on or around 3 December 1917 at or near Polderhoek Chateau. I have my Great Uncle’s letters from the time which I’ve typed up. Happy to share the pdf with anyone interested… 12 Company 1st Battalion Canterbury Rgt

    • Thank you very much for stopping by and for the kind offer to share your great uncle’s letters. I’ve responded to your email and look forward to reading them. Thanks again.

    • I’d be very interested too. My Great Grandfather – David Henry Plumridge was killed on 3 Dec 1917. His death as reported on his service record. “Pte W.J.Kenny (1st Coy) States: On the night of the 5th Dec I was laying a telephone wire in vicinity of Polderhoek Chateau and found the dead body of Pte Plumridge laying in a shell hole about 50 yards in front of of a broken up pillbox. I recovered his pay book and handed it to Lt. (H…..) my company commander.” Killed in Action 3-12-17.

    • Good morning Tony, I would be very interested in getting a copy of your pdf file of your Great Uncle’s letters from the time please. Thank you very much for sharing them. My email is paultc@tpg.com.au

  8. Ernest Alfred Billing (known as Alf) was 27 when he died of wounds on 12 April 1918. He was awarded the Military Medal following action at Polderhoek Chateau as described in the London Gazette 13 March 1918.
    “On the 3rd December 1917 near Ypres, this NCO displayed the very greatest courage and good leadership. His Battalion was on the left of the 2nd NZ Infantry Brigade, which had that day attacked Polderhoek Chateau, and no information could be obtained as to the situation. That night, in charge of a patrol of 2 men and in spite of heavy shell and machine gun fire this NCO reconnoitred the ground between his Battalion and the enemy, and pushing his way across the Rueutelbeek, which was almost impassable, he advanced to within 40 yards of the Chateau, finding it strongly held by the enemy and reconnoitring the whole of the position, held by the 2nd Brigade, returned with most valuable information. The patrol was a very hazardous difficult task. Throughout this NCO displayed the very greatest courage and the highest quality of good leadership.”

  9. These are the Surnames from the list of men in no 10 Platoon 1st Battalion Canterbury Regiment Battle of Polderhoek 3 Dec 1917. If anyone would like more information please contact me via reply if that is OK with Lemuel?

    Clarry
    Tomes
    Forgie
    McLachlan
    Gifford
    Dodson
    Jans
    Eskett
    Nelson
    Pitcher
    Reeves
    Bainbridge
    Jeayes
    Edwards
    Dryden
    Pitcher
    Skilton
    Butt
    Ashby
    Keys
    Kenny
    Gills
    Harris
    Grant
    Turner
    Marshall
    Glover
    Cummings
    Hodgkinson

  10. My Mothers Uncle was killed 3rd Dec 1917 at Polderhoek
    His name was Edmond William Thomas Dorward age 22 , known as Willie , 1stt Bn otago Reg
    My wife and I are visiting the Buttes New British cemetery where we hope to find his name on the New Zealand memorial .

      • Thanks Paul , I hope to stand on the spot where the polderhoek chateau stood
        There is still confusion on the exact coordinates , i hope some locals can point me in right direction

      • Hello Jan
        That would be great if you could show us the site , we will be on a small mini bus tour of ypres including polygon wood around 15th to 25th june …. exact date yet to be confirmed , what would be the best way to contact you?

    • G’day Chris, I am very envious of you visiting the site of the Chateau!
      Can I please ask that if you take any photos of the location and environs of the chateau, would you be kind enough to send me copies via email? I doubt whether I will ever be able to visit there. My email is paultc@tpg.com.au
      Thank you very much.

      • No worries mate, I cant imagine what it must have been like for the young men who fought there and throughout Europe
        Going to be quite emotional.
        I will take lots of Photos .

      • I’ve been reading a couple of Peter Fitzsimons’ books lately, “Fromelles and Pozières: In the Trenches of Hell” and “Victory at Villers-Bretonneux” and they have really opened my eyes to what those brave men endured. As you say, very emotional! I appreciate you taking photos and sending me a few.
        I know you will find your trip something to remember.
        All the best, Paul

  11. I have been researching Alfred CLARK’s late and brief time on the battle field WW1. He with a large group (records vary between 100 and 210) were captured and became POWs between 12-16th April 1918 at Meterens. I am now checking on my research findings and have the names and service record details of some men who were alongside him after they left Etaples on about 28th March for the front line (Alf supposedly to dig trenches!!). He remained a POW in a variety of German camps until the end of the war. I want to know how I can get more detail about the movement of these NZ POWs after their capture. Of course he did not talk about his experiences when he returned to the safety of NZ, but did get the bullet in his leg removed once home. Thanks for the information previously logged, Beth.

    • Hi Beth, thanks for stopping by! I’m familiar with the incident at Meteren, one of my great great uncles was also among those who were captured. I’d love to find out more myself about what happened to the NZders after they were taken prisoner. I’ve met a few others with a similar interest who may be able to help. I’ll send you an email with more details.

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