Half a mile east of Wulvergem, just south of the road that leads towards Messines (now Mesen), this farm down in the valley of the River Douve plays host to two CWGC cemeteries.
Signposts usher us off the main road, but not before the outskirts of Messines become visible on the horizon ahead.
The River Douve, in reality more a stream than a river, flows in a west to east direction, bisecting the land between Messines to the north and Ploegsteert Wood to the south, on its way to join the River Leie (Lys) at Warneton, several miles to the east.
The earliest of the two cemeteries sited here, although not by much, is Ration Farm (La Plus Douve) Annexe, which nestles in the fields to the west of the road as we approach the farm…
…and which is entered via this long grass pathway.
Before we go into the cemetery, this panoramic view of the farm shows you the juxtaposition of both cemeteries, with Ration Farm (La Plus Douve) Annexe beneath the trees to the right, and the Cross of Sacrifice within La Plus Douve Farm Cemetery visible between the trees near the buildings to the left. At times during the war this view would have looked somewhat different:
“As one approached the place, one saw no sign of human occupation, nor of its possibility. There was nothing but a huge roofless farm, built round three sides of a square, as is common in Flanders. But inside one of the wings was an unobtrusive concrete structure thirty feet long, wherein the commanding officer and his staff dwelt in great comfort, above ground, with ample head-room, real windows and protection from ‘five-nines’.”
The cemetery was begun in January 1915 and was used on a regular basis until the end of 1916, after which just seventeen burials were made in 1917, and a further half-a-dozen in January 1918. There are 202 burials in total here, of which nine are unidentified. Although officially split into three plots, the cemetery is essentially, with a few exceptions, four long rows of headstones. Immediately on entry we encounter Plot III where all of the 1917 & 1918 burials are to be found.
The cemetery plan can be viewed here:
Cross of Sacrifice. The cemetery entrance is at the far northern end of the cemetery, but Plot I, the earliest plot, is at the southern end, so we shall begin our look around there and work our way north back to the entrance.
Above and below: The lone grave of Private David Turton of the Manchester Regiment, one of the earliest burials here. His grave reference, somewhat unusually, is ‘Plot I Behind Row D’.
View from the southern end of the cemetery looking north with Plot I nearest the camera. The Wulvergem – Messines road follows the line of the horizon from left to right. La Plus Douve Farm was not far behind the British front lines for much of the war and was used, among other things, as a ration dump, hence its given name of Ration Farm.
A mile away, if we walked across the fields to the south east beyond La Plus Douve Farm Cemetery on the other side of the pond, we would come to Ploegsteert Wood, about which you can read elsewhere on this site.
It all looks peaceful and picturesque today. Once upon a time:
“The valley of the Douve, above all, from Wulverghem to the front line, became a muddy swamp, in which the water lay in sheets. At such times, and indeed during a great part of the winter, many trenches simply could not be occupied. No adequate idea of the impression conveyed upon the mind of a man coming up north from the clean, white trenches of the Somme can be obtained of all this area unless it is conceived as dirty, mournful, and disconsolate; haunted by the evil stench of blue clay, and brooded over by an atmosphere of decay.”
Four men of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, all killed together, most likely by shellfire, in April 1915. Left to right:
|PRIVATE J. DOHERTY||ROYAL DUBLIN FUSILIERS||u/k||12/04/1915||I D 2|
|PRIVATE E. SAUNDERS||ROYAL DUBLIN FUSILIERS||u/k||12/04/1915||I D 2|
|PRIVATE H. CONLON||ROYAL DUBLIN FUSILIERS||22||12/04/1915||I D 2|
|PRIVATE E. McQUIRK||ROYAL DUBLIN FUSILIERS||u/k||12/04/1915||I D 2|
Plot I (note the single German headstone at the start of Row A to the far left). You can see the four headstones in the previous photo near the far end of the back row. The four touching headstones in the right foreground are in Plot II Row A (see below).
The Royal Sussex Regiment buried 24 of their dead here during their time in the nearby trenches between March and June 1916. Left to right:
|PRIVATE E. GORRINGE||ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT||23||26/03/1916||II A 3|
|PRIVATE J. RAFFLE||ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT||23||27/03/1916||II A 3|
|LANCE CORPORAL F. GOLDING||ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT||22||18/04/1916||II A 4|
|PRIVATE C. MOORE||ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT||25||18/04/1916||II A 4|
Left to right:
|PRIVATE H. J. FREELAND||ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT||u/k||17/05/1916||II A 9|
|PRIVATE F. BERRIMAN||ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT||u/k||17/05/1916||II A 9|
|PRIVATE A. J. PEPPER||ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT||35||17/05/1916||II A 9|
Looking north, Plot II Row A in the foreground and Plot III at the far end.
Further along Plot II Row A lie eight more of the men from the Royal Sussex Regiment, all killed, presumably together, on 17th June 1916. Soon after midnight, the Germans launched an attack accompanied by a heavy bombardment which included gas shells. It seems that a number of men were fatally gassed that night, including the Royal Sussex men whose graves are pictured above.
The northern end of Plot II Row C contains men of the Royal Irish Rifles killed on 1st September 1916.
Plot III was begun in July 1916 and also, as I mentioned earlier, contains the later burials from 1917 & 1918.
At the time of our visit, Lance Serjeant Grant’s headstone was undergoing renovation.
Despite our proximity to the Messines battlefield, only one soldier, New Zealand Private John Timuiha, was buried here during the battle of June 1917; by that time the adjacent La Plus Douve Farm Cemetery had taken over as the main burial ground.
Having signed the visitor’s book, Baldrick cheerily reminds me of our mission. Did I mention that we were on a mission? No? How very lax of me.
Looking back towards the cemetery entrance as we take our leave. Despite the flooding that was mentioned earlier, over time, the deepening of the bed of the Douve, and the removal of obstructions by the Royal Engineers helped to alleviate the problem to the degree that trench tramways could be laid, and shelters, often using reinforced concrete, could be constructed.
Ration Farm was a busy, if unhealthy, place, consistently and accurately shelled by German artillery. The entrance to the Douve sector was by Plum Duff Sap, a narrow trench beside a road that ran past the farm along which all reliefs were made; men were constantly moving up the trench towards the front lines, or down the trench towards their billets in the rear. The farm was also the closest place to the front lines where transport could unload rations during the hours of darkness, ammunition was stored here, it was used as a battalion headquarters, certainly by the British in 1915 and the New Zealanders in 1917, and a regimental aid post was sited nearby. An incident in April 1917, when German artillery hit a store of bombs stacked next to the gate leading to the courtyard of the farmhouse, killing five New Zealand soldiers and wounding eleven, illustrates the dangers that men faced here on a daily basis. As do the cemeteries.
But we must move on. Our next stop, as we have seen, is just a stone’s throw away. And the mission? Next post.