A story of commitment to the cause.
“It’s down this track to the left”, says I to Baldrick as we drive south from Messines* searching for the next cemetery on our tour. We turn off the main road and before long our task appears a tad more problematic than it first appeared (see above). “Never fear, we’ve encountered worse than that”, chorus your intrepid adventurers. Except, as it turned out, we hadn’t.
*No, you haven’t missed anything. On this tour we shall find ourselves up on the ridge at Messines in Parts Eight & Nine.
Somewhere considerably beyond the tractors you see in the above photograph, with the track narrowing rapidly, becoming more and more rutted and waterlogged, and still with no cemetery in sight, Baldrick’s trusty auto cried ‘enough’ and began to slide gently off the track, coming to rest at a jaunty angle in the muddy ditch surrounding the adjacent field. After a slip-sliding walk to the nearest farm, to our great relief the farmer’s son commandeered a tractor and, with yours truly in the driving seat after Baldrick’s terse “you got us into this, you get us out”, and after one snapped rope returned us briefly to the aforementioned field, we were towed, desperately seeking grip as we zigzagged backwards up the muddy track behind the tractor, back to the safety of solid ground (see below). The last word goes to our rescuer who, as he clambered back into the tractor after receiving hearty thanks from both Baldrick and myself and, it should be mentioned, a previously agreed ‘rescue fee’ (you don’t get nowt for free these days), looked at us sympathetically before suggesting, “Now you have an idea of what it was like for the soldiers here”.
A bespattered Baldrick wonders how he got roped into all this nonsense in the first place. I should have mentioned that a Balders-eye view of the rescue included sliding wheels and flying mud – yep, the old comedy routine of man pushing car getting covered in mud from furiously spinning wheels. Laugh? He didn’t. Well, not until later.
So where exactly is Bethleem Farm East Cemetery? Well, it’s almost due east of the southern tip of the Messines Ridge (check out the Google map that accompanies this tour by clicking the Tour Maps link near the top of the page), in the field directly north of the track down which we have just had our adventure, no more than 100 yards from the main road. I have no explanation as to why neither of us spotted it, except that we are complete incompetents, but on the other hand, had we found it first time round, there’d have been no story to relate in the first place.
This trench map shows the German trench system around Messines and the position of Bethleem Farm (note the spelling mistake) to the bottom right of the map.
Early in the war, the farm sited here had been transformed by the Germans into a strongpoint and used as a local headquarters. Captured by the Australians on the first day of the battle, and converted into a field hospital for the next few days, the majority of burials here were made between the 8th & 10th of June.
This little L-shaped cemetery contains just 44 burials (including one special memorial), eight of which are unidentified.
In this shot Row C is in the foreground with Row B behind, and the start of Row A is visible in the right background. Up on the ridge, almost due west of our current position, you can see the Irish Peace Tower and Messines Church on the horizon to the left and right respectively.
The cemetery is actually quite some distance into the field, as you can see from the position of Baldrick’s rescued car in the background, so perhaps I was a little harsh with my evaluation of our competence earlier on. To the left, the tractor that came to our rescue heads back from whence it came.
There are just five rows of graves here, the view above, looking back towards the cemetery entrance, showing rows B (nearest camera) to E…
…as does this shot, taken from the other side of the cemetery.
Above & below: Row A, with the one special memorial in the cemetery at the far end.
Private Maurice Surrey Dane, who actually hailed from London although he served with the Australians, was one of many soldiers who, for numerous different reasons, enlisted under an alias, in his case R. E. Sanders. You will notice that his exact date of death is unknown.
Above & photos below: All the headstones in Row A. You may, of course, enlarge them if you wish to study them more closely. You can see the only non-Australian grave in the cemetery (unless you wish to include Private Dane), that of Private E. Tustin of the Machine Gun Corps, the final burial made here, in the photo above left.
If you read the comments at the end of this post, you will find out a little more about Private James Crompton (above left).
View looking east from the base of the Cross of Sacrifice, showing Rows B (nearest camera) to E, with the cemetery entrance beyond to the right.
According to Peter Oldham in his excellent Battleground Europe book on the Messines Ridge, Hitler was billetted at the German strongpoint here for a time when he served as a messenger in the winter of 1914/1915. In 1940 he revisited the farm, which had been rebuilt nearby, and presented the farmer’s wife with a bunch of flowers.
It all looks relatively simple from here, back at the start of the track. If only we’d known. Over the road, in the centre distance, Bethleem Farm West Cemetery awaits us.
As we cross the main road, another view of the land at the southern tip of the ridge captured on the first morning of the battle. It must have felt like a daunting task to the Australians as they attacked up this gentle slope in the darkness following the mine explosions and artillery barrage that signalled the start of the offensive, yet within hours they, and the New Zealanders to their left, had captured the whole of the southern edge of the ridge, including the village of Messines itself.
There is a possibility that Baldrick might care to offer his own viewpoint of our Bethleem Farm East adventure. As is the way of things, what’s the betting that there are notable differences to my version of events. I wonder. Over to you Balders.