Marple Remembers - 2003
The Ypres Salient
By Ian Rice

Day 2 p1 Day 3

TUESDAY 16th APRIL 2003 (Day 2, part 2)


Langemarck was the scene of heavy fighting throughout October and November 1914. In April 1915 the village fell into German hands following the first gas attack and was only recaptured by the British on 16th August 1917 during Third Ypres. Once again the village fell into German hands during the great German push of Spring 1918. The Belgians finally retook it on 28th September 1918.

After the war the Belgian authorities were less than willing to give up land to the German enemy. Langemarck Cemetery is the only German one in the Salient and contains over 44,000 burials, concentrated from many smaller cemeteries in the Salient. An oak panel just inside the entrance to the cemetery lists the names of the German missing.

The first large headstone encountered once the visitor enters the cemetery marks a mass grave containing 25,000 soldiers that is planted with flowering shrubs. Bronze panels are carved with the names and regiments of the soldiers in the grave.

At the rear of the cemetery is a sculpture, by Professor Emil Krieger, of four mourning figures seen in shadow from the front of the cemetery. Dotted around the cemetery are small ceremonial crosses; they do not signify burials. Flat stones mark burial plots. Often several soldiers share a grave.

Along the north wall are the remains of a number of large German blockhouses.

The afternoon's first stop was at one of only four German war cemeteries. It is at Langemarck and contains the remains of over 44,000 Germans killed in the Salient. It has a very different appearance from the British and Commonwealth cemeteries that we have visited. Entering through a dark stone archway one is immediately faced with a large oak wreath fabricated in black metal. Beyond this is a large bed of roses that covers the mass grave of 25,000 soldiers. Behind and to both sides is a grass lawn broken by hundreds of flat black slabs covering the graves of yet more soldiers. Each slab bears the name of several men. Some carry only four or six names while others can have up to twenty men lying beneath them. Scattered among the slabs are groups of heavy black stone crosses. To the right are the remains of old German bunkers. These too contain many graves. Beyond the wreath, the rose bed and the lawn, at the furthest extremity of the cemetery, is a group of four dark, brooding figures. They stand there in the distance, little more than silhouettes, a reminder of the sad men whose remains surround us and of those who had no remains to be interred. The Germans have no Menin Gate, no Tyne Cot and no Thiepval. They lost the war and part of the revenge exacted by the victorious nations was this sombre disposal of their vanquished dead. It was to settle in the German subconscious and fester there. Most German towns still have a Langemarckstrasse and it was significant that in 1940 Adolph Hitler chose to come to this cemetery to announce the fall of Belgium to his then victorious armies.

The cemetery grounds are punctuated by several large oak trees which, when in full leaf, must cast an oppressive shade on the scene. However, on the hot, sunny spring afternoon that we visited, with the leaves still no more than promising buds and the open branches casting intricate dancing patterns on the grass, the scene was one of pleasant contrasts which added to the sadness rather than distracting from it. The young green of the grass and the brightness of the surrounding Belgian countryside gave emphasis to the darkness of the bronze wreath, the memorial stones and the strange black figures.

I particularly noticed three things about this cemetery that will stay in my mind for some time. Firstly, the metal wreath was surrounded by several wreaths of bright red poppies. Each of these wreaths had been laid by British visitors, for the most part by schoolchildren. It is good that our children should see and honour all those who lost their lives in this war and not just the British soldiers. In the whole cemetery there was only one wreath laid by a German visitor. One of the graves over by the Bunker had a wreath but not of poppies. It was a smaller version of the black metal one by the entrance, made of oak leaves, brown and hard and dry.

Also strangely apparent as I walked among the black memorial stones covering the graves was the absence of any officers' names. The highest rank I discovered was sergeant-major. This mirrors the situation I have noticed in the French cemeteries we have visited. Where did they lay their officers? It contrasts so strongly with the equality among the British and Commonwealth dead, where officers lie among other ranks without precedence and a VC winner can lie next to a more ordinary soul.

My final observation is very ironic. As I gazed at the brooding figures at the back of the graveyard I became increasingly struck by one overpowering thought; how like some of the images generated by the Holocaust they were. These black figures could so easily have represented a group of concentration camp victims. I wonder if Hitler noticed this during his visit?

As a final note to this cemetery, the German bunkers were also the place where a Victoria Cross was won by Private Frederick Dancox of 4th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment. During an attack on 9th October 1917 the Worcesters' advance was considerably hampered by a German machine-gun firing from the concrete emplacement. The citation goes on to say:

Private Dancox who was one of a party of 10 detailed as moppers-up, managed to work his way through the barrage and entered the 'pill box' from the rear, threatening the garrison with a Mills bomb. Shortly afterwards he reappeared with a machine-gun under his arm and about 40 of the enemy. He brought the gun back to our position and kept it in action throughout the day.


Tyne Cot is the largest British war cemetery in the world. 11,908 graves are registered. On the wall at the back of the cemetery are the names of 34,927 soldiers who have no known grave and who died from August 1917 to the end of the war, a continuation of the names inscribed on the Menin Gate.

The long slogging fight of the Third Battle of Ypres began on July 31st 1917 and ended with the capture of the village of Passchendaele on November 6th. The battle entered its final stage when the Germans were cleared from the Passchendaele Ridge.

By the beginning of October the advancing 3rd Australian Division had captured the area near to an old farm building which was marked on British maps as Tyne Cottage or Tyne Cot. The area near the barn had been very heavily defended by several concrete machine-gun positions. It was these pill boxes that had given the location its map name after an alleged reference by Northumberland Fusiliers to their likeness to Tyneside cottages. As the general advance in the area progressed, the British began to use the largest bunker as a dressing station and began a cemetery outside. The dressing station and its cemetery continued in use until the German advance of March 1918 when the area fell into German hands again. In due course the British made their final advance and regained the area. By the end of the war there were about 300 burials in the cemetery behind the blockhouse plus other isolated burials in the surrounding area.

After the war the decision was taken to use the site as a concentration cemetery for the area. Sir Herbert Baker designed its final layout. He incorporated five of the German blockhouses into his design although only two of them are obviously visible. They stand to the left and right of the main cemetery area. When King George V visited the battlefields in 1922, he was at Tyne Cot while the construction works were still in progress. He suggested that the Cross of Sacrifice should be built over the largest of the blockhouses. The cross now stands much higher than is usual, above a stepped pyramid of white stone, which covers much of the blockhouse. In the side of the pyramid facing the entrance gate a small section of the original concrete is still visible. The two remaining bunkers are hidden from view under each of the two domed pavilions at either end of the far wall.

If Langemarck made a statement about the German losses around Ypres, our next stop was intended to do the same for the British and Commonwealth dead. Tyne Cot cemetery is built on land captured by the Australians in 1917.

The cemetery is equally as memorable as the one at Langemarck but for different reasons. It is a grand interpretation of the basic style adopted for all British and Commonwealth war cemeteries. As you enter through the usual brick and stone arch, the vista stretches ahead and to each side. It is impossible to take it in at one glance. Rather it offers a staggering panorama of row after row of straight white headstones. At the centre, raised above the surrounding graves, is the white stone Cross of Sacrifice bearing its dark bronze sword. Beyond this is the plain Stone of Remembrance and finally, bringing the scene to a conclusion, is the surrounding wall with its endless parade of blindingly white panels naming the lost men. A counterpoint to all this white was the green of the grass and the bright yellows and reds of the fresh spring flowers between the headstones. The only dark shades in the cemetery are the two visible German bunkers that now stand stark and grey to either side of the entrance. The headstones all present their plain side to the entrance but their faces look in the same direction as did the eyes of the men who now lie beneath them - towards their enemy.

As we sat below the cross Andy and Pete explained how the cemetery came to be here, how it got its name and the reasons for its dramatic, almost theatrical design. Finally Andy read E A Mackintosh's poem, "In Memoriam".

In Memoriam

By Ewart Alan Mackintosh
(killed in action 21 November 1917 aged 24)

So you were David's father,

And he was your only son,

And the new-cut peats are rotting

And the work is left undone,

Because of an old man weeping,

Just an old man in pain,

For David, his son David,

That will not come again.


Oh, the letters he wrote you,

And I can see them still,

Not a word of the fighting,

But just the sheep on the hill

And how you should get the crops in

Ere the year get stormier,

And the Bosches have got his body,

And I was his officer.


You were only David's father,

But I had fifty sons

When we went up in the evening

Under the arch of the guns,

And we came back at twilight -

O God! I heard them call

To me for help and pity

That could not help at all.


Oh, never will I forget you,

My men that trusted me,

More my sons than your fathers',

For they could only see

The little helpless babies

And the young men in their pride.

They could not see you dying,

And hold you while you died.


Happy and young and gallant,

They saw their first-born go,

But not the strong limbs broken

And the beautiful men brought low,

The piteous writhing bodies,

They screamed 'Don't leave me, sir',

For they were only your fathers

But I was your officer.

The names of the following men from Marple are inscribed on the walls of the Tyne Cot Memorial (with the dates of their death): -

Robert Clifford Dawson 16/08/1917
William Arthur Stott 16/08/1917
William Austin 22/10/1917
Ernest Greenhalgh 22/10/1917
Samuel Thelwall  25/10/1917
Josiah Bennett 18/04/1918
Egbert Mackereth 30/04/1918

Moving on, we made a brief stop in the village of Passchendaele to view a memorial stained glass window before continuing on to Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood.


In October 1914 the wood was a quiet area - hence it became known as Sanctuary Wood. But by 1915 it had become part of the front line. In the summer of 1916 the Germans launched a number of attacks in the area but were eventually driven back by the Canadians who retook Hill 62 (so named because it was 62 metres high - a considerable height in this area).

It was in this area that the first flame-thrower attack by the Germans in the Great War took place and where Captain Noel Chavasse won his Military Cross in June 1915. He took part in an attack on Sanctuary Wood in September 1915 and in a letter home described it as:

…the dreariest and most dreadful spot in the whole of that desolation of abomination called the firing line.

This place is a bizarre mix of memorial and mammon. Behind his bar and its associated museum, and for the price of a few Euros, the owner will grant you admittance to his own private trench system.

First comes the dusty, rusty museum. In a first room are a number of ancient stereoscopic viewers. If you gaze carefully through the twin eyepieces you can clearly see images of the war in three dimensions. The pictures seem to have been carefully chosen for their horror. Scenes of dead and mangled men and animals, all lying amid the dirt and squalor of the war, follow each other in quick and seemingly endless succession as you turn the knob on the side of the viewer. The strange, cut-out effect lent by the ancient 3D image and the faded sepia hue of the ancient photographs cannot detract from the frightfulness of what they depict. Despite their similarity to the old end-of-the-pier What The Butler Saw machines these viewers offer a very different experience.

The rest of this room is crammed with old, dark glass cases filled, in no particular order or system, with all kinds of mementos of the fighting. Helmets, weapons, equipment, cap badges - all are crammed in behind the grimy glass. Moving to a second room we discover further huge piles of rusting relics - shells, guns, bayonets…

From this last room we gained the outdoors. Here we found that we had stepped back into an extremely sanitised facsimile of the war. Actually these are the only set of original trenches preserved virtually unchanged within the Ypres Salient and give a good idea of what the trench system looked like with saps, listening posts, dugouts, shell holes and blasted trees all left as they were at the end of the war. There is also an underground passageway dug towards the German lines with the aim of placing explosives under their trenches. The trenches wind along between trees and shell holes in all their sandbagged, duck-boarded, rusty corrugated iron pathos. Most of the trees are obviously post war but enough blasted and bullet scarred stumps remain to give a suitable effect to the scene. But the sun shone, the newer trees grew and leafed and only the sounds of chattering visitors and playing children broke the silence. The trenches may still be damp and muddy but we could remain clean and dry by walking above them in what had been no-man's-land. Their previous occupants may never have seen these trenches from this perspective, upright and in the full light of day. They would have been forced to stay down there in the sticky mud, hiding from the artillery that had left the shell holes that the present owner now so diligently keeps clear of debris. Only on the darkest nights might they venture out and then only at a hunch as they set out on patrol or to mend the wire. To them the trenches were a reluctant home, a defence, a place from which to retreat or leave when wounded. I wonder if they would understand people paying money to be there or comprehend the attitude of many of the visitors as they played among the old blasted trees and tunnels?

Back in his bar the owner was increasing his fortune as we enjoyed a couple of beers in the sun before returning to Ypres. Is it significant that this busy tourist site, constantly full of curious visitors, issues no tickets and seems to keep no records of the money taken at the turnstile?

As soon as we got back to the hotel Andy whisked off those who had shown an interest to a couple of chocolate shops. Belgium is justifiably famous for its chocolate and I certainly was not ready to return to my wife without some examples of their art.

Dinner was eaten at Vivaldi's on the other side of the Market Square from the restaurant we visited last night. I had some excellent pork fillet with a salad and a good bottle of red wine.


Day 2 p1 bar.gif (292 bytes) Day 3

Back to top of page