Seaforth Cemetery Cheddar Villa

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As you know, we recently visited two little cemeteries tucked away in the fields to the north east of Ieper, just off the road to Sint-Juliaan (St. Julien, as was).

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It was a pretty grim day, frankly, and by the time we arrived at our next stop…

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…a light blanket of snow had already begun to cover the surrounding fields.

The farm buildings visible on the horizon, away to the west, have, by the way, been rebuilt on or near the site of a famous Great War landmark; this was Mouse Trap Farm, or Shell Trap Farm, as it was also known.  Mousetrap?  Cheddar?  Co-incidence?  I think not.

Seaforth Panorama

Cheddar Villa Cemetery, as it was originally known, is unusual not only in its layout, as you can see in the photos and by perusing the cemetery plan, but also because it was first used on 23rd April 1915 and closed just six days later, on 28th April; indeed all but four of the burials here were made on the 25th & 26th.

Seaforth Cemetery Cheddar Villa Cemetery Plan

Boezinghe Wieltje St Julien - Copy (3)

You will be familiar with parts of this 1917 trench map from previous posts.  Seaforth Cemetery is marked in green (behind the German lines by the time this map was issued), and you will also notice that the farm next to the cemetery is marked as Cheddar Villa, hence the original name for the cemetery.  The majority of the burials here are men of the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, and it was because of this, and at the request of the battalion, that the cemetery was renamed Seaforth Cemetery Cheddar Villa after the war.

In case you hadn’t noticed, you’ll also see Mouse Trap marked on the map.

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There are 148 headstones in this cemetery, although very few are placed above the bodies of the men whose names are inscribed on them.  These headstones along the south western boundary wall remember 75 men of the Seaforths (four are unidentified) who were killed in the fields around here and were buried in a mass grave in the centre of the cemetery.  The headstones facing the camera in the background are special memorials to men buried here whose graves were lost due to later shellfire.

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The Seaforth mass grave is now marked by a Duhallow Block (designated Row B Grave 1) and the cemetery plan suggests that there was once a long line of burials beneath it.

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A second Duhallow Block (Row A Grave 8) remembers a further eighteen men buried beneath in another mass grave.

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The headstones associated with this block are those in the background of this picture; we shall look at them later.  Although the eighteen headstones (part of Row A) nearest the camera are among the comparative few here which were erected above the site of known graves, ten of these men could not be identified.

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Row A continues beyond the block along the wall.  Six of these men are Seaforth Highlanders…

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…which, along with the eight headstones of Row C above, are the only Seaforths in the cemetery whose exact burial sites are known.

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Along the north west boundary wall a memorial plaque is flanked by nineteen special memorial headstones to men ‘believed to be buried in this cemetery’.  This area was heavily fought over and shelled throughout much of the war, and the exact position of their graves has subsequently been lost.

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As the plaque was being renovated at the time of our visit, you might like to know what it actually says:

‘Of the graves in this cemetery 99 are those of officers and men of the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders who fell in attacking St. Julien on the 25th and 26th April 1915.’

In addition to those officers and men of the Battalion whose names are recorded on the headstones, there fell also in the same action:’

CAPTAINPRIVATEPRIVATE
W. A. A. MIDDLETONJ. CUNNINGHAMM. McIVER
LIEUTENANTJ. HAMPTOND. MacKAY
W. N. L. BOYDJ. HENDRYR. McLEAN
SERJEANTA. KENNEDYJ. McLEMON
H. MACPHERSONT. J. KILROYJ. MELVILLE
PRIVATEJ. LAWR. RAESIDE
A. ARBUCKLED. LEESG. REID
M. J. BENSONM. MACDONALDR, RENNIE
 A. McGREGORR. TWEEDIE

These men are not buried here as far as is known and are officially commemorated by name on the Menin Gate.

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You will doubtless have noticed earlier that one of these headstones to the left of the plaque had, at the time of our visit, also been removed for renovation.

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The majority of the men remembered by these memorial headstones, on both sides of the plaque, are yet more Seaforth Highlanders.

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So what caused the loss of life during those few days of April that necessitated the creation of this cemetery?  Late in the afternoon of 22nd April 1915, a glorious spring day, the French Algerian and Moroccan troops facing the Germans a little way to the north of here noticed a greyish, greenish, yellowish cloud, darker near the ground and lighter in colour at the top, slowly drifting across No Man’s Land towards them.  Within minutes, along a four mile front as far as the Yser Canal away to the west, chaos ensued, as men ran for their lives in a desperate attempt to outrun the chlorine gas that the Germans had released from several thousand cylinders that had been carried in to their front lines over the previous days, German troops attacking in the lee of the cloud.  This was the first use of gas on the Western Front, and the failure of the Germans to exploit this breakthrough, and the heroism of the Canadians in particular in breaching the gap the following day, is worth researching, as it is far too large a subject to do justice to here.

At dawn on the 24th April, the Germans struck again.

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This time the gas was directed at the Canadians manning the trenches to the north east of St. Julien, the Germans again advancing behind the cloud, forcing the Canadians back, despite desperate defending, towards the village and inflicting 647 casualties on the Canadian 15th Battalion, the greatest loss that the Canadians were to suffer in a single days’ battle during the entire war.  More attacks followed in the afternoon, the Germans advancing both to the north and west of St. Julien, taking the village and advancing a further half a mile beyond as the Canadians continued their dogged retreat.  At this point two factors intervened to halt the German advance.  Firstly, the Germans themselves, with few reserves immediately available to them, paused, unsure of what to do next.  And at that moment British reinforcements, in the nick of time, arrived on the scene and almost immediately counterattacked.  Now it was the Germans’ turn to retreat back towards St. Julien.

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At 5.30 on the morning of 25th April a further British counterattack was ordered to retake Kitchener’s Wood, a little way to the north west of where Seaforth Cemetery now stands, and to force the Germans out of St. Julien.  The Germans had spent the night improving their defences and the attack was a failure; the men of the Seaforths, alongside eight Royal Warwicks, eighteen Northumberland Fusiliers, eight Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, one Royal Irish Fusilier and one Canadian infantryman, who now lie in this cemetery, were just some of the victims of the German machine gunners and artillery that day, or the following day, as fierce fighting continued in this area for much of the next week.

Although it would be a further month before the Second Battle of Ypres officially ended, by which time the British salient around Ypres would have shrunk considerably, the city itself remained in British hands, the Germans’ first use of gas having failed to achieve the breakthrough they had hoped for.

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These eighteen men of the Northumberland Fusiliers, of whom four are unidentified, are buried in the mass grave beneath the second of the Duhallow Blocks, and are remembered by name on these headstones along the northern boundary wall.  These men all lost their lives in the fighting on 26th April.

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The identified burials in the section of Row A in the centre of the photo are all at this end, with a single Canadian burial beneath the penultimate headstone (just visible if you enlarge the picture).  The two Duhallow Blocks are to the left, the Northumberland headstones to the right.

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The work of the CWGC is never-ending.

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Not smart.  And yet appropriate, I suppose.  Duckboards.  We need duckboards.

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Baldrick strikes a pose.  Never less than stoic, our Balders.  Is that a duckboard?  I do believe he’s brought his own!  How cool is that?

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As we leave, CWGC signposts (above & below) suggest that our afternoon’s exploits are not yet over, despite the cold.

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Next: Bridge House Cemetery

Or, if you prefer, another look around Seaforth Cemetery on a much nicer day.  Click the link.

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2 Responses to Seaforth Cemetery Cheddar Villa

  1. Sid says:

    Again thank you MJS for a most insightful presentation. Your description of the Hun using mustard gas on 22nd and 24th April 1915 was harrowing. In 2015 we can only but imagine the helpless terror our brave soldiers must have gone through. Yet today terrorists use gas and chemicals in the Middle East. Will mankind never learn not to use this cowardly stuff!

    By the way – the photo of Balders on his duckboard magnificently indicates the cold. We’re down to Winter’s 3 degrees overnight here but not as cold as Balders looks

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