The colours of autumn stain the trees of the Forest of Houthulst as the evening sun begins to set.
Twenty five minutes drive north, and a little east, of Ieper (Ypres)…
…there’s a forest where, in 1923, the Belgian authorities purchased some land as a final resting place for Belgian soldiers killed in the area during the war, whose remains had not been returned to their home towns or villages.
One of nine main cemeteries where the war dead of Belgium lie, the others being at Hoogstade & Oeren, both near Alveringen, Adinkerke, De Panne, Keiem near Diksmuide, Ramskapelle*, Steenkerke near Veurne, and Westvleteren,…
*Where, you may, or you may not, remember we visited a little while ago.
…this is the Belgian Military Cemetery at Houthulst…
…where over 1,650* Belgian soldiers, the majority killed during the liberation battles of the last few months of the war, are laid to rest.
*Different sources quote quite different totals, but this is about right – without counting!
You will notice the occasional photograph at the base of a few of the headstones in the cemetery as we wander round…
…some, such as this one of twenty five year old Private Robert Haegeman, killed on 14th October 1918, have been left here fairly recently, the photograph having been encapsulated.
Whereas this one,…
…of another twenty five year old private (born exactly a week after, and killed two weeks before, Robert Haegeman), Julius Ervyn, has been here much longer.
It’s impossible to show without a cemetery plan, but from the air the cemetery can be seen to be laid out in the form of a six pointed star. If only I had a photo taken from the air…… Anyway, the whole design is extremely complex, and I have read that it is intended to evoke the disorder and chaos of the fighting that took place here among the shattered trees, shell holes, barbed wire and trench systems. We shall look around the northern (left) half first……which would make sense to you if I had an aerial photo, of course.
At the far eastern end of the cemetery (the top of the aerial photo I don’t have), eighty one Italians are buried on either side of an Italian flag.
This view from the Italian flag looks due west past the Belgian flag towards the cemetery entrance in the distance.
…and south from the same spot,…
…and down the row of Italian graves, this time from the far end of the previous shot, the Italian flag in the background.
A strange place, you might think, to find Italian graves. These men were actually all prisoners of war who were used by the Germans as labourers behind the lines in Roeselare and Izegem, the majority dying of sickness or disease.
The long row of Italian graves continues to the north of the flag…
…as does our tour.
The Germans occupied both Houthulst village and the adjacent wood in October 1914 and it remained in their hands until late September 1918.
During that time they set up a major defensive bastion within the forest, which was more than four times larger than it is today, incorporating a railway system to transport ammunition and supplies to the front line troops.
The grave of twenty five year old Sergeant Valère Vilain, killed on 14th October 1918.
Some of the old photographs are so nearly gone now.
484 of the Belgian burials here are unidentified.
All the headstones of unidentified soldiers are inscribed in both Flemish and French, the Belgian Army being made up of men from Flanders, who spoke Flemish, and Wallonians, who spoke French.
The forest was finally recaptured by the Belgian 7th Infantry Division on 28th September 1918, and most of the burials in the cemetery are men killed on that date, or during the fighting that followed during the final weeks of the war.
This soldier, thirty four year old Private Jan Ruyters, was one of the many who died on 28th September 1918. He fought at the Battle of the Yser in October 1914 – the ‘Y’ in the centre beneath the two medals on the headstone signifies the Yser Medal, awarded to all those who fought in the battle – and one wonders why he was still just a private nearly four years later.
Private Franciscus Janssens, just twenty one, another casualty of 28th September (above & below)…
…as was thirty year old Private Franciscus De Smet (above & below).
And as always, it seems, in Flanders,…
…a reminder of the conditions that faced the men of both sides who fought here during the Great War.
The grave of thirty one year old Private Arthur Popeye, killed on 2nd October 1918, a man whom you may remember we encountered once before when Baldrick spotted his name on the war memorial in Ramscappelle.
Much earlier in the war, on 17th April 1915, the Germans had begun a long-range bombardment of Ypres to draw attention away from preparations for the Second Battle of Ypres, the start of which was just days away. On 19th April a 42cm (17 inch) howitzer, one of only two built by Krupp for the German Army (the other was on the Eastern Front), added its one ton shells to the pounding, the beginning of the near-total destruction of Ypres that would take place over the following months.
This massive gun was the famed ‘Big Bertha’, as it was known to British troops…
…and its location was somewhere in the vicinity of Houthulst.
Thought you might like to know that.
The Nazis, by the way, constructed a V-1 launch site in the forest, but it was never used.
I wonder if anything remains of it?
For what it’s worth, we are now crossing over to the southern half of the cemetery.
One of the few earlier deaths to be found in the cemetery, twenty two year old Private Robrecht Rottiers (above & below) died on 16th November 1917.
His body may not have been recovered until after the war, which is why he now lies here.
All the identified burials are also inscribed in either Flemish (above centre) or French (either side), depending on the area from which the deceased came.
Following the eventual failure of the German Spring Offensive outside Amiens in August 1918, and the steady arrival of more and more American troops on the Western Front, the Allies turned from defense to attack, by late September 1918 pushing the Germans back to the defences of the Hindenburg Line.
On 26th September, the French and Americans began what was known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a battle that would continue until the Armistice. Two days later in Flanders the Belgian Army, consisting of some 170,000 men, attacked the Germans in the area of Houthulst.
Part of the battle for the ridges to the east of Ypres, supporting British and French attacks to their south, the Belgians were tasked with initially taking the forest, before the second phase of the attack, aimed at capturing the town of Diksmuide, could proceed.
On the night of 27th, a preparatory bombardment began, presaging the Belgian attack, which began at 5.30 on the morning of 28th September.
Breaking through the German lines, the Belgians advanced an average of more than four miles (in some places as much as ten!) all along their sector, despite the losses to which this cemetery now bears witness.
As the British and French made gains further south, Belgian attacks continued; by the end of the 28th September, they had captured 6000 prisoners, as well as 150 guns.
On 29th September the offensive continued as Dixmuide was taken, and over the next three days, supported by French troops, the Germans were forced back a further eight miles before a temporary halt was called.
The second phase of the Belgian attack would begin nearly two weeks later, and by 17th October the Belgians would be nearing Ostend and Bruges as the battle for Flanders ended, and the war moved into its final weeks.
Belgian casualties up to mid-October amounted to about 2000 killed and 10,000 wounded or sick, and by the time of the Armistice Belgian casualties during the battles of liberation would amount to nearly 15,000 dead, about a third of their total losses during the whole war.
And finally we find ourselves back near the cemetery entrance.
Just before we leave, this view looks over the cemetery boundary fence into the wood itself. Houthulst Forest is still used by the Belgian Army Unit whose job is to deal with the hundreds of shells that are still uncovered each year, whether through farming, building renovation and construction, roadworks, and even nature, as the roots of trees push buried munitions to the surface, and much, although not all, of the forest is out of bounds to the public. They are brave men; since the unit was formed in 1919 more than twenty of their ranks have been killed in the course of their duty, four of them in one massive explosion in 1986 as the German mortar they were transporting to be dealt with in the fields near Poelkappele blew up. They say that the unit will still be doing the same job another hundred years from now.
The Belgian flag flies above the cemetery as evening draws in.