On this tour we shall visit six CWGC cemeteries that lie between Ploegsteert village and the town of Armentières, just across the French border a couple of miles to the south. Six small cemeteries, somewhat off the beaten track and seldom visited, the final resting places of 1291 soldiers from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. No major battles were fought here, and until the Gemans overran the area in April 1918, the trenches on both sides remained more-or-less static throughout the War. The men buried here were killed during the day-to-day fighting that took place all along the front line, many the result of shellfire, some from snipers’ bullets, and some as a result of the ubiquitous trench raids which both sides carried out on a regular basis.
You will find a map showing the locations of all the cemeteries on this tour, as well as those visited in the ‘Tour of Ploegsteert Wood’, if you click the Tour Maps link near the top of the page.
First stop, just half a mile south of Ploegsteert village, is London Rifle Brigade Cemetery, begun in December 1914 and used on a regular basis by the regiments holding this section of the line until August 1917, although the occasional burial was made after that date.
The road north past the cemetery leads to Ploegsteert Village, past Ploegsteert Wood and Hyde Park Corner and, eventually, to Ypres (Ieper) itself.
London Rifle Brigade Cemetery is laid out in a north easterly to south westerly direction, and is the largest of the six cemeteries we shall visit, the burial place of 353 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers.
In the northern corner of the cemetery, a plaque commemorates the dedication of the cemetery by Lord Bishop of London, Chaplain to the London Rifle Brigade, on Easter Day, 4th April 1915.
The Cemetery Plan, courtesy of the CWGC, can be seen here:
The cemetery was little used after the end of 1917, although a few Australian burials were made here in February and March 1918, and two final burials, from early October 1918, lie just inside the cemetery entrance. Left to right:
|PRIVATE S. A. BAYNTON||ROYAL INNISKILLING FUSILIERS||32||02/10/1918||I E 1|
|PRIVATE A. S. DAGGER||EAST LANCASHIRE REGIMENT||u/k||01/10/1918||I E 2|
View looking south west down the length of the cemetery with Plot I nearest the camera and the Cross of Sacrifice in the distance. The two headstones to the right of the yellow flowers in Row B (to the left) are those of two Rifle Brigade men, buried here on 20th December 1914, the earliest burials in the cemetery (also visible in the third row in the photograph below).
Men from the East Surreys (front row), all three killed on 30th June 1916; the row behind contains the graves of men of the Royal Warwickshires and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died a year earlier, in the spring of 1915.
More East Surrey men (front row) in Plot I, also killed on 30th june 1916. The 12th Battalion had a rough time that day, as their war diary confirms:
“Bn. In Trenches. During the morning our divisional (41st) Artillery bombarded enemy’s trenches & wire at selected points, cutting the latter. Enemy retaliated damaging our trenches. At 9.15p.m. Div. Art. Commenced intense bombardment along Divn. Front. Gas emitted by Divn. At 10 p.m. Raiding parties sent out to enemy’s trenches. Our party under Capt. Jessop & Lt. Fox, consisting of 34 N.C.O’s & men entered trenches & returned safely, 4 casualties only – Gas again emitted 12.20 p.m. Total Casualties 14 killed 25 wounded.”
Now, I make no apologies for the plethora of Surrey headstones you are about to encounter. Although, as you will find out later, perhaps I should. Anyway, between early June and mid-August 1916 both the East Surreys and the Queen’s used the cemetery to bury their dead, and as they are both my local regiments, I have shamelessly photographed quite a number of their headstones. However the action that took place on the 30th June is worth recounting, so perhaps that will retain your interest…
|LANCE CORPORAL J. T. MOORE||THE QUEEN'S (ROYAL WEST SURREY REGIMENT)||u/k||09/06/1916||II C 39|
|PRIVATE W. C. BIRD||EAST SURREY REGIMENT||u/k||29/06/1916||II C 40|
The map above shows the East Surrey’s sector, south of Ploegsteert Wood, in the summer of 1916. Battalion headquarters was sited at Soyer Farm (well within range of German artillery). London Rifle Brigade Cemetery is situated slightly to the east of the farm, where the Armentières road crosses the river.
Plot II. More East Surrey men, all casualties of the fighting on 30th June 1916.
The raid that took place that night had been planned for weeks. 1st July would see the great British attack on the Somme, and in order to divert the German’s attention elsewhere (at least that was the idea, although the week-long bombardment on the Somme probably gave the game away somewhat), raids were to be carried out on other parts of the front. South of Ploegsteert Wood three raiding parties, one each from the West Kents, the Hants and the East Surreys, were scheduled to attack strongpoints in the German front line. In the week preceding the raid, 1000 gas cylinders were installed in emplacements in the parapets along the Surrey’s front, and early in the morning of the 30th, British artillery started a final bombardment, aimed mainly at cutting the enemy wire to allow the raiders to reach their objectives. The Germans retaliated fiercely and accurately, as the East Surrey headstones in these photographs bear witness.
|PRIVATE E. H. KELLOW||EAST SURREY REGIMENT||21||30/06/1916||II D 39|
The bombardment, on both sides, lasted throughout the day and into the evening. At 10.00 pm, gas was emitted from the cylinders placed along the British front line, and precisely twenty eight minutes later the raids began. 36 men of the 12th Surreys, faces blackened and carrying knob-kerries and bombs, left the trenches and crossed no-man’s land, and although heavy German machine gun fire wounded two of them before they had even left the parapet, the remainder succeeded in reaching the German front line. Their objective, a strongpoint called ‘The Fort’, had been sensibly evacuated by the Germans but the Surreys destroyed it and searched nearby trenches before returning to their own lines, at a cost of four men dead. Unfortunately, neither the West Kents nor the Hants had managed to find a way through the German wire.
The Surrey’s raid became famous throughout the Division as the raid of the “Black Hand Gang”, referring to a board with a black hand painted on it that they had left in the German trenches. Evidentally a number of the raiders were well acquainted with the Bermondsey police before they joined up! The black hand board would be seen again, most notably a year later on the Messines Ridge.
The 11th Queen’s, meanwhile, had moved up to this section of the line on 5th June and would remain here, alternating with the West Kents, until the end of August 1916, when they would head south for the battlefields of the Somme.
|LANCE CORPORAL A. S. MORRIS||THE QUEEN'S (ROYAL WEST SURREY REGIMENT)||u/k||21/06/1916||II C 29|
The grave of Private Arthur Greenway, just 17, and most likely, as it appears that his age was added to his headstone at a later date, one of the many boys who lied about their age in order to join up and fight for their country.
|PRIVATE A. H. GREENWAY||THE QUEEN'S (ROYAL WEST SURREY REGIMENT)||17||29/06/1916||II C 23|
Corporal Garrard and Private Russell, killed on a working party, were the first fatalities the 12th East Surreys had suffered due to enemy action since their arrival in this sector in early May. Left to right:
|CORPORAL A. GARRARD||EAST SURREY REGIMENT||20||19/06/1916||II B 13|
|PRIVATE F. RUSSELL||EAST SURREY REGIMENT||18||19/06/1916||II B 14|
Lance Corporal Sandford (right), however, had been accidentally killed a few days earlier, although whether he was the unfortunate man who left a dugout to relieve himself and was bayonetted by a frightened young sentry, I have yet to ascertain. Left to right:
|PRIVATE A. J. HARDWICK||THE QUEEN'S (ROYAL WEST SURREY REGIMENT)||u/k||24/07/1916||II B 15|
|LANCE CORPORAL J. H. SANDFORD||EAST SURREY REGIMENT||u/k||13/06/1916||II B 16|
Queen’s men killed in late July 1916.
Left to right:
|SERJEANT A. H. CHEESEMAN||THE QUEEN'S (ROYAL WEST SURREY REGIMENT)||39||02/08/1916||II C 13|
|PRIVATE F. A. SADLER||THE QUEEN'S (ROYAL WEST SURREY REGIMENT)||u/k||01/08/1916||II C 14|
Left to right:
|PRIVATE W. E. PICKTON||THE QUEEN'S (ROYAL WEST SURREY REGIMENT)||u/k||09/08/1916||II C 1|
|PRIVATE E. W. H. J. BIGWOOD||THE QUEEN'S (ROYAL WEST SURREY REGIMENT)||u/k||09/08/1916||II C 2|
30 men of the 11th Queen’s were buried here between 7th June and 12th August 1916.
Plot IV Row B (centre) and Row A (left). There were three Australians buried here in March 1918, after which the cemetery was unused until October, as we have already seen. Corporal Harry Chandler, nearest the camera was the first of these three. Note the lone German grave to the far left.
View looking north east from Plot IV along the length of the cemetery. The headstones to the far right are German graves (see below), and the two headstones in Row C (centre) nearest the camera are the two other Australian burials from March 1918. Rows A & B (previous photograph) are on the left.
There are in fact eighteen German graves, dating from April and May 1918 after the cemetery had fallen into German hands, the majority located in this row in Plot IV.
The grave of three unknown German soldiers. The New Zealand and Australian headstones behind all date from 1917.
Plot IV and the Cross of Sacrifice. The row of German headstones are those furthest left.
Now, by this time you are probably wondering why this cemetery is called London Rifle Brigade when we haven’t seen any London Rifle Brigade headstones? And a good point you have. Well, the London Rifle Brigade did indeed bury 22 of their dead here between January and March 1915. They are all in Plot III. Plot III is only a little plot, just this side of the Cross. Had I turned slightly to my right after taking the photograph above, I could have shown you Plot III, but I didn’t, so I’m afraid I can’t. Too much time spent photographing the Surrey headstones, I guess. And even more galling, I know for a fact that one of the London Rifle Brigade burials, Rifleman Cuthbert Young, went to my school! Note to self: must do better next time.
Back at the cemetery entrance, Baldrick peruses the cemetery register (if you ever visit, don’t forget to sign) before we head south towards the second stop on our tour…
…which is handily signposted outside yer local Aldi just down the road. On the way, you might like to take a look at a couple of interesting documents pertaining to the East Surreys’ raid, including the relevant page from their war diary.