The Menin Road, 2013. Somewhat different to, and considerably safer than, a hundred years, or thereabouts, ago. How many photos have you seen taken from this viewpoint during the first three years of the War? Not that many, I would suggest. This view looks east as the road rises slightly towards Hooge on the horizon.
On our right, Birr Cross Roads Cemetery, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of 135 cemeteries he designed in France and Belgium alone. Baldrick and I spent some time visiting the men who lie within, the results of which you can see if you click here:
Before we continue up the road, if we briefly turn round and look back down the way we have just come, a few hundred yards away, and visible if you enlarge the photograph (click on it!), is the modern roundabout at what was once Hellfire Corner. You’ll get a closer look later, if roundabouts are your thing. A mile and a half away, the spires of Ieper (Ypres) can be seen on the horizon.
By the way, if you are going to take photographs standing in the middle of the Menin Road I suggest you choose a day like this one. And it helps to have a Baldrick around to look out for you. Seriously.
A little further up the road towards Hooge our route to the Canadian Memorial at Hill 62 follows a side road (known as Canadalaan) off to the right, but before we leave the Menin Road…
…allow me to give you a brief historical summary and point out a couple of things of interest just a little further to the east. When the front lines stabilized in November 1914 as the first snows of winter fell, the British, along with their French and Belgium allies, had prevented the Germans’ first attempt to take the city of Ypres, but only just. The Second Battle of Ypres, begun on 22nd April 1915 with the first use of gas by the Germans a few miles north of here, pushed the Allies ever nearer the city outskirts, but when the battle ended in late May the Germans had once again failed to make a decisive breakthrough. We are standing in what was No Man’s Land in early June 1915; the German front line ran laterally across the field to the left before turning 90 degrees just short of the road and following its course up to the crest of the rise, and the British lines ran just behind us and then east up through the fields just visible to the right of the photo. Fighting would continue around Hooge throughout the summer and autumn, including the first use of liquid fire by the Germans at the end of July, the front lines running by then from left to right roughly along the crest of the rise as they would do, with minor variations, for much of the next two years. The trees on the horizon to the left of the road, those of Chateau Wood, hide the now water-filled crater left by the mine exploded by the British on the early evening of 19th July 1915, as well as the much larger Bellewaarde Lake. Just visible on the right, beyond the snowy field, is Hooge Crater Cemetery, another Lutyens-designed cemetery. We shall visit both crater and cemetery later in the day.
So, on towards Hill 62. We are following the course of the British front line trench system as it was during the second half of 1916 and the first half of 1917 as we travel up Canadalaan. The peaceful, snowy views you are about to see here and from Hill 62 would have been nothing of the kind for much of the Great War, and many men who fell here from both sides still lie beneath these silent fields.
The trench map you will find if you click the link below shows these front line trenches in early 1917, from Hooge in the north to Hill 62 in the south. British trenches are marked in blue, those of the Germans in red. Hooge Crater is also marked, if you look carefully, and you can follow the course of the Menin Road back past Birr Cross Roads and Hellfire Corner to Ypres itself (far left of map). Note that the side road we are taking to Hill 62 did not exist at the time the map was made. If it had, it would leave the Menin Road just south of the site of Outpost Farm and wind in a southerly and south easterly direction along the southern edge of Zouave Wood (which itself no longer exists), following the British trenches towards Hill 62 in the bottom right corner of the map.
Half a mile up the road, the boundary wall of Sanctuary Wood Cemetery comes into view, and behind it the southern part of Sanctuary Wood itself. As the road follows the progress of the British front line here, one wonders whether the ditch that remains on the right of the road has any significance?
If we turn to our left and look across the fields to the north across what was once No Man’s Land we get another view of Hooge Crater Cemetery (above and below) with Chateau Wood beyond.
The German front line, referred to by the British as Ignorance Trench, stretched diagonally from the cemetery some 500 yards away across the upper snowy field to the right (see trench map)…
…before turning south through Sanctuary Wood (above) towards the slopes of Hill 62, by which time N0 Man’s Land was no more than 100 yards across, and in some places considerably less.
Sanctuary Wood Cemetery entrance, yet another Lutyens design. We shall visit those who lie inside at a later date.
Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, with the memorial cross to Lieutenant Kenneth Rae of the Rifle Brigade, killed at Hooge during the German flamethrower attacks in July 1915, in the foreground.
Our route then passes the Hill 62 museum…
…and the famous trenches in the wood beyond. Whether or not you consider them original, and there has been much debate, they do follow a known trench system (opposite the Jam complex of German trenches, dug late in 1916) and I prefer to think of them as authentic. If you’d like to see some photos of them, taken on a warmer day several years ago, by all means click here: Hill 62 Museum Trenches
French howitzer outside the museum.
And so, at last, to Hill 62.
The memorial atop Hill 62 commemorates the Canadian troops who fought in the area from Hooge to the north to St. Eloi to the south, between April and August 1916.
There is a register here to sign, just as in most of the CWGC cemeteries we visit. Unlike some, however, this register is just about full, as Hill 62 is a frequently visited site even on days like this…
…as footsteps left in the snow by visitors from earlier in the day testify.
Somewhere beneath the snow direction markers point towards Ypres, Messines, Kemmel, Hill 60 and other sites where the Canadians fought and died.
On 2nd June 1916 the Germans launched attacks on Hills 61 & 62 and, further south, Mount Sorrel, the only positions along this section of the front where the Canadian trenches overlooked those of the Germans. An intense preliminary bombardment, combined with the use of gas and liquid fire, forced the Canadians to retire and although counterattacks on the following day prevented the Germans from advancing further, they failed to retake any of the lost ground. At Hooge on 6th June the Germans detonated four mines beneath the British trenches and forced the British off the crest of the ridge. It was decided that recapturing the three hills to the south would take precedence over the situation at Hooge, and on 13th June it was the British turn to bombard the German trenches prior to an attack by the 1st Canadian Division. Despite torrential rain the Canadians retook and held much of the ground lost a fortnight earlier; it would be April 1918 before the Germans would again look down on Ypres from the summit of Hill 62. The Canadians suffered nearly 8500 casualties in the fighting in June 1916, and the memorial now sited here at Hill 62 remembers each and every one of them.
Click the link to see a map showing the extent of the German advances in June 1916 from Hooge in the north to Mount Sorrel in the south: Canadian Corps Trench Map
The Canadian Memorial itself, fifteen tons of white Quebec granite, with Ieper in the distance.
You may have noticed that, for some reason, the inscription begins ‘Here at Mount Sorrel…’, but I can assure you that this is Hill 62; Mount Sorrel is actually more than half a mile south of here.
Away to the north west the spires of Ieper (Ypres) can clearly be seen on the horizon; the strategic importance of these small ridges and hills that encircle Ypres to the east of the city is self evident.
Looking due south. The trees on the horizon to the far right obscure the top of Mount Sorrel.
Panoramic view from the memorial looking west towards Ieper to the left, and north towards Sanctuary Wood on the right.
The importance of the hill to both sides is evident again in this view looking north west towards Ieper across what was once the British forward area. The fence posts running across the picture could almost be belts of barbed wire.
And with that thought it’s time to take our leave of Hill 62.
As we head back towards the Menin Road we once again look across the fields to the north at Hooge on the horizon (above & below) with the trees of Sanctuary Wood on the right.
Many of the Canadians killed in the fighting around Hill 62 are buried in Hooge Crater Cemetery.
Back at the Menin Road, it’s worth pointing out that a little further east, just before the trees begin on the left side of the road, a tunnel known as the Culvert (see trench map) provided the only safe way to cross in daylight.
Although the crossroads at Birr Cross no longer exists, the warren of tunnels beneath the road here, which included a dressing station and dugouts, caused the whole road to collapse at this point some years after the war (see below).
Finally, back to roundabouts…
…and the one now to be found on the site of the infamous Hellfire Corner.
German artillery knew the range of this spot on the main route from Ypres to the front line at Hooge well, and at any time, day or night, a shell was likely to find a target here. This was no place for the fainthearted. The German advance in 1918 was halted at this point; so close to Ypres, yet so far.
Much earlier I promised you we would take a look at Hooge Crater Cemetery & Hooge Crater itself, and if you click on the links below, you can do just that.