Evening in Ieper, and snow begins to fall as we arrive at the gates of Ypres Reservoir Cemetery.
One of three cemeteries at the time sited near the city’s western gate, Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, previously known as Ypres Reservoir North Cemetery, and before that the ‘Cemetery North of the Prison’, was begun in October 1915 and used until the end of the war, at which time there were 1099 burials here.
Post-war burials, either from battlefield graves or from other smaller cemeteries, increased the number to 2613, of which 1034 are unidentified.
The cemetery is about a quarter of a mile to the north west of the Cloth Hall in the centre of Ieper; we are well within the city limits here, and the cemetery is surrounded by housing and industry. Through the falling snow, beyond the Cross of Sacrifice, you can just make out the tower of St. Martin’s Cathedral, the scene of a tragedy in 1915 that we shall return to later. The cemetery plan, by permission of the CWGC, can be viewed here:
In the eastern corner of the cemetery, beyond Plot II to the left and the end of the vast Plot I to the right…
…ten headstones and a Duhallow Block commemorate ten British soldiers, killed in action in 1915 & 1916 and originally buried in Ypres Reservoir Middle Cemetery and the Cemetery at the Infantry Barracks, whose graves were lost in later fighting. The remaining graves from these two cemeteries were brought here after the war, as well as those buried at Ypres Reservoir South Cemetery.
Above & below left: The ten headstones in close-up.
Above right: A little to the right of these headstones, two more special memorials remember two men ‘known’ to be buried here but whose graves have been lost.
This view looks roughly west down the length of Plot I. I told you it’s vast. More than 800 of the burials in the cemetery are in these lengthy rows that make up the plot.
Moving to our right from the same position as the previous photo, Plot I Row A in the foreground, Plot VII just beyond in the centre, and Plot X in the right distance…
…and further right, Plot VI in the centre, Plot X this time in the left background.
This view looks north from the end of Plot I, Row A in the foreground, Plots VI (left & centre) & III (far right) bey0nd, and Plots IV & V in the right background.
Another fine mess…..
The Stone of Remembrance with, in the row in the foreground, the grave of…
…Brigadier General Francis Aylmer Maxwell, VC, CSI, DSO, Mentioned in Despatches. He won his VC on 31st March 1900 in South Africa, and was killed in action, aged 46, commanding the 27th Infantry Brigade at Ypres on 21st September 1917.
By far the greatest number of burials here, 900 identified, are men killed in 1917, such as those in the photos above in Plot I Row H, all casualties from October that year.
At the end of Plot I Row I lies the body of Private Ernest Lawrence of the Devonshire Regiment, executed by firing squad in Ypres prison on 22nd November 1917 aged 21. A South Londoner (like me!), he had deserted three times, the third time escaping from his army escort and finding a job at the Royal Flying Corps workshops at Rouen, where he worked for two and a half months until 9th August 1917, when his identity was finally discovered. At his field general court martial in Ypres on 7th November, three counts of desertion and two damning character assassinations by two senior officers were more than enough to seal his fate. Private Lawrence is one of three executed men whose remains lie in this cemetery.
Casualties from October 1918 in Plot II, Plot I beyond.
Many of the burials in Plot VII are unidentified.
Above & below: At approximately 6.15 on the morning of 12th August 1915, a shell fired from a massive German howitzer nicknamed the ‘Ypres Express’ and based over five miles away in the Houthulst forest, landed on St. Martin’s Cathedral in the centre of Ypres, collapsing the cloisters and burying twenty men of the 6th Bn, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry who were billeted in the vaults below. Over the next few hours four men were extricated by rescuers who themselves suffered casualties during their attempts, including at least five men killed by further shelling, but by the end of the day sixteen men of the D.C.L.I. lay dead in the cathedral crypt. Although a number of bodies were taken away on the following day, most lay entombed there for more than three years until after the Armistice, when they were finally removed and interred here, side-by-side, in Plot V, Row AA.
Every headstone in every cemetery has a story to tell. Sadly, the vast majority remain untold, lost, in many cases, at the moment of death. But the story behind this row of headstones is one that is always in my thoughts every time I visit Ieper and walk past the rebuilt Cathedral.
Plot X, looking south past the Cross towards the Stone of Remembrance and Plot I beyond.
Final view of the Cross of Sacrifice, as the snow settles and night draws in…
I’m researching a book on post-WW1 battlefield clearances and the reconstruction of Ypres and need to find out when the remains of the men buried in the cathedral crypt were exhumed and buried in this cemetery… but it’s proving difficult! Don’t suppose you’ve any idea? Any help would be very much appreciated!
You’ve got me at a bad time, Tim. You will find elsewhere on this site, in a couple of rare non-WWI posts, about my flooding problem a while back. I’m afraid my library is either lost or in storage, because I’m sure I have read about their exhumation from the crypt in great detail somewhere or other. All I can say that if I do come up with anything, I shall let you know.
Sorry not to have replied sooner – and sorry indeed to hear of the flood damage. (We’ve been dangerously close ourselves, in last year’s storm surge so can sympathise!) After commenting last September I fired of email enquiries to several people including the CWGC and was hoping to be able to get back to you with some specific information. But I’ve drawn a blank. It would appear that no one knows when the remains were recovered and re-buried, other than that it was ‘sometime after the Armistice’. I will, of course, keep searching but I’ve decided to include the episode anyway. In the meantime, if you do uncover anything, I’d still be very grateful to know more.
Hi Tim. Yeah, eleven and a half months away from home, but at least we are back now, although most of my books are still in storage until we can make some order out of the chaos. And I know that there are other flood victims who are still far from getting home, so I can’t really complain.
I haven’t forgotten your query, and will see what I can find out. Anything for a fellow Jake Thackray fan! Check out John Watterson, who keeps Jake’s music alive, if you haven’t already.
Apologies for the interjection of this conversation, but I’m also researching this particular incident, my great great grandfather Silas Bailey was one of the poor unfortunate men caught in the cathedral crypt and I’m looking to find information on the exhumation of the bodies. Sorry to read that you’ve had problems with flooding, but I wondered if you ever did find the source of the information regarding the recovery of the bodies? Many thanks!