Across the road from Bethleem Farm East Cemetery Baldrick, still shell-shocked, attempts to clean the mud off his car with handfuls of grass! No, it was never really going to work, now was it.
A grassy track thankfully leads us through this sodden field towards the cemetery. The rebuilt Messines Church is not far away on the horizon to the north west. The southern edge of the Messines Ridge doesn’t appear to be much of a ridge at all from this viewpoint.
The cemetery name is clearly inscribed as Bethleem Farm West Military Cemetery, yet nowhere else can I find the word ‘Military’ in association with this place, including on the cemetery plan, as you will see, which would have been originally drawn up in the 1920s. I am beginning to wonder whether it was an error by the stonemason, and that ‘Military’ should never have been inscribed on the cemetery entrance at all.
Cemetery entrance and register box.
The cemetery consists of six long lines of headstones, as you can see on the cemetery plan below, and was begun by the Australians on the first day of the Battle of Messines, 7th June 1917.
The Australians originally called the cemetery ‘3rd Division General Cemetery’ and it was used until just before Christmas 1917. By far the majority of the 164* burials here, 113 of them, are Australians; during May and June 1917 35 officers and 1631 men of the A.I.F. were killed in the Ploegsteert/Messines area. Just the day before the battle here began, on the 6th June, many Australians had been caught by German gas shells as they made their way up the Ploegsteert trenches towards the front line ready for the attack. Caught before they could don, and in some cases without, their gas masks, the Australians sustained some 500 casualties and were so delayed that some men reached the front line and, without stopping, continued over the top as the mines exploded away to both their left and right and the battle began.
*The CWGC Casualty Details List records 165 burials in total, but one man enlisted under an alias and is listed under both names.
Three Australians of the 30th Battalion, all killed, one would presume together, on 18th November 1917. Left to right:
|PRIVATE A, H, HUNTRISS||30th BN, AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY||26||18/11/1917||F 7|
|CORPORAL A. G. FARMER||30th BN, AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY||22||18/11/1917||F 7A|
|PRIVATE E. V. TAYLOR||30th BN, AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY||u/k||18/11/1917||F 7B|
All the burials here are identified except this one unknown soldier of the Second World War, whose story we will sadly never know.
23 men of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade lie buried here, all killed in August 1917.
More New Zealand casualties. Left to right:
|LIEUTENANT E. A. MAUDE||NEW ZEALAND RIFLE BRIGADE||35||18/08/1917||D 3|
|PRIVATE W, E, CODD||WELLINGTON REGIMENT, N. Z. E. F.||26||16/08/1917||D 4|
|SERJEANT R. W. GUY||OTAGO REGIMENT, |
N. Z. E. F.
There is one burial from earlier in 1917, that of Private Harold Brooksbank, but I rather suspect he was originally buried nearby, or his body was found nearby, and moved to Bethleem Farm West after the tide of war had moved east. Update November 2018: The real reason behind the date on Private Brooksbank’s headstone can now be found among the comments that follow this post.
Three more men of the Machine Gun Corps, all buried here on the same day in September 1917. I’d like to know whether there’s a reason why two men of the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry) are buried next to a Cavalry machine gunner, which makes them unlikely to be part of the same machine gun team. Or am I wrong in that assumption? Left to right:
|PRIVATE J. H. COTTON||MACHINE GUN CORPS (INFANTRY)||22||03/09/1917||D 28|
|LANCE CORPORAL G. W. BATE*||MACHINE GUN CORPS (INFANTRY)||21||03/09/1917||D 29|
|PRIVATE G. FAIRBROTHER||MACHINE GUN CORPS (CAVALRY)||23||03/09/1917||D 30|
*Lance Corporal Bate’s brother, Private J. T. Bate, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, killed on the 9th August 1915 aged 21, is also remembered on the headstone.
Six Australian headstones, casualties from July 1917, buried together in Row B.
This view looks north west, the six Australian graves in the previous photo in Row B to the right, and the Irish Peace Tower on the horizon to the left.
I believe that the Cross of Sacrifice pictured here has been replaced by a new one since our visit. As I am occasionally wont to remind you, the CWGC’s work of maintaining the cemeteries along the Western Front, and elsewhere, never ceases.
Looking south east past the Cross of Sacrifice across the headstones of Rows D (far right) to A in the background.
Four men of the Royal Scots Fusiliers were buried here on 1st September 1917. The three pictured above are, left to right:
|LANCE CORPORAL W. McLEAN||ROYAL SCOTS FUSILIERS||u/k||01/09/1917||D 24|
|PRIVATE J. RENWICK||ROYAL SCOTS FUSILIERS||u/k||01/09/1917||D 25|
|PRIVATE T. DONNELLY||ROYAL SCOTS FUSILIERS||u/k||01/09/1917||D 26|
Australian grave, Canadian flag. Rest in peace, Private Willmer.
“What’s that Balders? Time to call it a day? Yes, I think you’re probably right. I suppose I’m paying for the carwash? Thought so. So who’s paying for the beers?”
Somebody did. End of a long and eventful day.