Sunday, April 13, 2014

WWI Commonwealth War Cemeteries

Actual Event Date: March 14,2014
Continuing the series of posts from the past couple of weeks about the Commonwealth War Graves I'd like to share some information about the specific World War I cemeteries L and I were able to visit while in Ypres last month.

Perth Cemetery {China Wall}

Just a few kilometers outside of Ypres this was the first cemetery we stopped at. It was along the road we were traveling to visit another site so it wasn't a planned stop on the Battle Plan but I'm very glad we did.

This cemetery was started by French troops in November 1914 and was adopted by the 2nd Scottish Rifles in June 1917. The French graves were removed after the Armistice. It was used for front line burials until October 1917 and up to that point contained 130 graves. After the Armistice, graves were brought in from the battlefields around Ypres and from about 30 smaller cemeteries. Today there are 2,791 Commonwealth soldiers of WWI buried or commemorated here. 1,369 of the graves are unidentified, 27 casualties believed to be buried among them are commemorated on special memorials, and names of another 104 casualties are inscribed on memorials for those whose graves could not be found.

It was called Perth because the predecessors for the 2nd Scottish Rifles were raised in Perth, and China Wall from the communication trench known as the Great Wall of China. It was also called Halfway House Cemetery. 

Sanctuary Wood

Sanctuary Wood Cemetery was the 2nd one we visited during our afternoon in the Ypres area. This area is one of the larger woods in the commune of Zillebeke and was used in 1914 to screen troops behind the front line. It was at the centre of the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916 involving the 1st and 3rd Canadian Divisions. There were three Commonwealth cemeteries in this area until this battle and after only traces of one cemetery was found. It is here that they built the present day Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. 

At the Armistice there were 137 graves, but like Perth Cemetery, many more were brought in from surrounding smaller cemeteries until it reached the present day number of 1, 989 Commonwealth servicemen of WWI being buried or commemorated here. 1,353 of the burials are unidentified and many graves are identified in groups but not individually. 

In this cemetery we chose to leave our cameras in the car and just take a quiet stroll around the cemetery. 

Hooge Crater

This cemetery we found quite by accident. It wasn't on our route but we saw several tour buses on a street we passed so we made note to come back to see what was up that street. We found a museum that we now have on the list for our next trip to Belgium and the Hooge Crater Cemetery.

At one time there stood Hooge Chateau which was the scene of much fighting during WWI. In October 1914 the 1st and 2nd Divisions were wiped out when the chateau was shelled. In May and June of 1915 the chateau was defended against the attacking Germans and in July of the same year the crater was created by a mine detonated by the 3rd Division. The chateau was then taken by the Germans four times between July 1915 and April 1918, and finally regained for the last time in September 1918 by the 9th (Scottish) and 29th Divisions. 

The cemetery itself was begun in October 1917 and originally contained 76 graves but was greatly increased after the Armistice to the current number of 5,923 Commonwealth soldiers commemorated within its low walls, with 3,579 of the burials unidentified. 

Tyne Cot

Tyne Cot received its name from the Northumberland Fusiliers who dubbed the small barn by the rail crossing on the Passchendaele-Broodseinde road "Tyne Cot" or "Tyne Cottage". The barn had become the centre of half a dozen German pill-boxes. One of these pill-boxes was unusually large and was used as an advanced dressing station after its capture by the 3rd Australian Division. In late 1917 through early 1918, 343 graves were made on two sides of it. The cemetery fell back into German hands from April to September but was finally recaptured by the Belgian Army.

There are four pill-boxes in the cemetery with the Cross of Sacrifice placed on the largest one at the suggestion of King George V. 

Image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

Tyne Cot is now the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world in terms of burials. There are 11,956 servicemen buried or commemorated here with 8,369 of the burials unidentified. There are also 4 German soldiers buried in this cemetery. In addition to the graves the Tyne Cot Memorial forms the north-eastern boundary around the cemetery and commemorates another 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who died in the Ypres Salient after August 16, 1917 and whose graves are not known.

Essex Farm

We finished off our day in Belgium with a stop at Essex Farm Cemetery which is the resting place for 1,200 servicemen of WWI. Of these 103 are unidentified and it was here that we saw the youngest soldier in all the cemeteries we visited. Rifleman V.J.Strudwick was just 15 years old when he was killed in 1916.

It was also here that Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps wrote his well known poem "In Flanders Fields" in May 1915. It is believed he started this poem the evening after he performed the burial service for his friend, and fellow soldier, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. His poem has become one of the most enduring poems of the First World War and made the poppy a lasting symbol of self-sacrifice in war. I remember well reciting this poem each year at our Remembrance Day services in elementary school.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

~ John McCrae, May 1915

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