I considered including this little cemetery in the series of posts that made up the Tour of the Messines Ridge that you will find elsewhere on this site, as just half a mile up the road towards Wyschaete (Wijtschate) are the Kruisstraat Craters that we visited during that tour, and a little further on we would come to the Pool of Peace at Spanbroekmolen, but I decided against it, the burials here having little connection with the Battle of Messines, only a handful being made after April 1916.
We are, however, just three quarters of a mile north of the village of Wulvergem, and the site of this cemetery does have quite a lot in common with those we have recently visited south of the Wulvergem – Messines Road, so you could treat this post as an extension of that tour if you wish.
As at La Plus Douve Farm, regimental transport could bring rations, ammunition and stores as far as R. E. Farm, and an aid post was set up here early in the war.
There are 179 burials in the cemetery, the majority made between December 1914 and April 1916, of which eleven are unidentified. The first burials, on 3rd December 1914, were made by the Dorsetshire Regiment, who buried five men in what is now Plot III Row C (the group of five almost touching headstones in the centre left of the photo above).
The cemetery plan, courtesy of the CWGC, can be seen here:
47 of the burials here, nearly all in Plot III, are Canadian troops killed between September 1915 and March 1916. The 9th Bn. East Surreys, who took over this section from the Canadians in March 1916 and billeted their reserve company in dugouts near R. E. Farm, considered the front line trenches in this sector to be in the best condition of any they had yet taken over (unlike a year earlier, as you will find out later). The battalion history states; “The Canadians, who had been holding this sector of the line for six months, had had a very quiet time of it and had suffered practically no casualties.”
47 Canadian families would beg to differ.
Plot I Row B (foreground), with the headstones of Plot II, where the majority of the unidentified casualties are buried, behind. R.E. Farm was the name given to Des Douze Bonniers Farm which was sited here and, as already mentioned, was used as an aid post, hence the creation of the cemetery to the east of the farm buildings. The modern day farm appears to have been rebuilt on the same site, which is quite unusual in certain parts of Flanders, for reasons which I will either explain if you ask nicely, or you can work out for yourselves. Or you already know. In January 1915 the Dorsets began another cemetery on the west side of the farm, and after the Armistice the 23 men buried there were re-interred here in Plot II.
Above & following three photos: Moving from west (left) to east (right) along the four rows of graves in Plot IV. During the summer of 1916, when the 36th Ulster Division was holding the line in this sector, R. E. Farm was the site of a heavy trench mortar, firing huge 180 pound projectiles – flying pigs, as the soldiers called them – at the German front line trenches less than half a mile away. Smaller mortars and artillery would join in, machine guns would fire on the communication trenches, and the daily ten minute ‘hate’ would ensue. German retaliation was frequently heavy and accurate. The men of the mortar teams knew they were marked men, and their officers were, I have read more than once, a special breed, “resolute, hard-bitten, perhaps often careless and unconventional, but capable in great moments of the most splendid courage”.
Amusingly, it appears that when the first ‘flying pig’ was fired from R. E. Farm the charge failed to ignite properly, “and the big shell went forth, flaming gun-cotton marking its path, to land three hundred yards away just behind the British front line, making a huge crater and demolishing the local company headquarters”. More amusingly, despite improvements in propellants, it was decided that the wisest option would be to evacuate the front line trench ahead of the mortar during the ten minutes of firing. Based, presumably, on the premise that the Germans would all be keeping their heads down during the bombardment and be in no position to take advantage of empty British trenches. Brilliant.
In Plot IV there are 28 men of the North Staffordshire Regiment, who held this part of the line between April and June 1915. When the Staffordshires arrived here, the trenches consisted of single lines of ditches, in places unconnected to each other, protected by breastworks. There were no communication trenches nor second line trenches, and men had to reach the front line by taking their chances above ground, reliefs only being possible at night.
Working parties, often under small arms fire, would also be out each night, maintaining and improving the trench system, or undertaking the perilous task of laying belts of barbed wire out in No Man’s Land. Even in early 1915 mining operations were already taking place in this sector, and some men of both the North & South Staffordshires, miners during peacetime, were engaged with Royal Engineer tunnellers in primarily defensive mining, laying explosive charges known as camouflets beneath the German tunnels to try to collapse them.
A handful of burials were made here in the summer of 1917, including three men of the East Lancashire Regiment, killed on 20th June 1917, and buried together at the start of Plot III Row B (centre)…
…but after one final burial in July 1917 (an anti-aircraft gunner, actually. Forty two year old Gunner Reginald Willshee. I wonder what happened?), the cemetery was closed for good.