A short distance south of Rue-du-Bois Military Cemetery, and now just two miles from Fromelles and only half a mile from the front lines, our next stop is the beautiful Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery.
The cemetery was begun in mid-October 1914 next to a regimental aid post that was situated just across the road, close to the point where the communication trenches leading to the front lines began, and was only used until July 1915 at which time it was closed down.
Which begs the question, “What exactly has this cemetery got to do with a battle that took place one whole year after it had ceased to be used?” And a very reasonable question it is too. All will be revealed in due course.
In the meantime, on entering the cemetery, this view looks straight ahead towards the Cross of Sacrifice at the far end…
…and these are the two headstones in the centre of the previous photograph near the Cross that make up Row I, two officers of the East Lancashire Regiment killed on 9th May 1915, one of two dates (three if you include 19th/20th July 1916) that will recur throughout this post.
The cemetery contains about 350 burials, 149 of which are identified, and very unusually is not partitioned into plots,…
…despite being divided into two distinct halves on either side of the Cross. In this shot of the northern half of the cemetery Row P is nearest the camera to the right, with, in order, Rows Q, R, O & K to its left, and the two headstones we have already visited in Row I just beyond. The majority of the graves in the cemetery were brought in after the war when the cemetery was reopened, and it is these burials that link Le Trou Aid Post with the action at Fromelles in July 1916, many of the post-war burials being men from the Fromelles battlefield.
An unidentified French soldier in the eastern corner of the cemetery, one of two French graves here.
Six unknown burials nearest the camera in Row N, with four identified men of the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own), all killed towards the end of May 1915, at the far end.
This is where it gets a bit confusing, and I suggest you have a look at the cemetery plan at this point. As we wander counter-clockwise round the cemetery, this shot shows part of Row P on the left of the photo (Row N is now out of shot to the left) and another part of Row P on the right of the photo…
…next to which are these nine headstones of Row M. These men were all killed on 9th May 1915; I mentioned this date earlier, and of the 149 identified burials here, no less than 56 are known to have died on 9th May, and six the day after.
9th May 1915 was the day of the disastrous British attack on the Aubers Ridge when everything that could go wrong did go wrong; the British suffered over 11,000 casualties, many of whom got no further than their own frontline trenches. No ground whatsoever was won, no advantages of any sort were gained, and the failure ultimately precipitated the political scandal that became known as the ‘Shell Crisis’ of 1915.
Five of the identified burials in Row J are Canadians killed in March 1915; the other three, two men of the Middlesex Regiment and one Argyll & Sutherland Highlander, died on 21st October 1914, the second date that will recur during this post.
Cross of Sacrifice, with the cemetery entrance on the left, and Row F nearest the camera on the right. The Battle of Armentières (or the Battle of Lille if you prefer) was fought between 13th October & 2nd November 1914 as the Race for the Sea ended and the Germans began to hurl thousands and thousands of men at the still-flimsy French and British lines. Further north, the Battle of the Yser and the First Battle of Ypres were about to begin as south of the River Yser the Germans attempted to take Armentières. Despite pushing the British and French back on more than one occasion, their efforts would fail, and by the end of October resources would be switched to the battles further north. On 21st October, however, the Germans had unleashed a devastating bombardment on the British defenders of the village of Le Maisnil, a little way north east of the larger village of Fromelles. The 2nd Bn. Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who had been ordered into Le Maisnil the previous day, suffered heavily, as did the 1st Bn Middlesex Regiment, who were sent forward to support them. The village had to be abandoned, some 300 men, including most of the wounded, being taken prisoner, the survivors making their way back two thirds of a mile to their reserve positions at Bas Mesnil. Middlesex casualties amounted to more than 100, more than half of whom were missing. Seventeen identified men, eleven Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and six from the Middlesex Regiment, who were killed at Le Maisnil, are buried in this cemetery.
Row F (nearest camera on the left, with Rows E, D & C behind) presents all sorts of problems when you first begin looking into the development of this cemetery, for reasons that I shall now try to explain.
The CWGC website* says that there were ‘just 123 burials, all of which are now in Row F’ in Le Trou Aid Post at the end of the war, but this simply cannot be the case. This is Row F, numbers 17 to 31…
*and therefore every other website you care to visit or book you care to read. Generally quite rightly.
…and this is Row F, numbers 16 (nearest camera) to 8, and then numbers 6 to 1 at the far end (there is a distinct gap in the row, where the pink roses grow, and you will notice that the cemetery plan marks number 7 as ‘vacant’). So bear with me here. Quite clearly there are not 123 burials in this row. There are actually 30 (number seven being vacant, remember). Adding up the number of headstones in the rows behind by means of some cunning mathematical manoeuvre helps not a jot (you can make 123, but not in any way that makes sense). So what’s going on? Well, how about the curse of the ancient typo? Row F is numbered 1 to 31, we know number seven was left vacant, so we have thirty graves in the row. Seven of these are unidentified (it was not at all unusual for a man to die at an aid post and be hurriedly buried without his identity being discovered). Which leaves 23 identified men in the row. Not 123, but 23. 23 identified men. Somebody, at some point, added a 1 to the 23 to make 123.
As I said, surely a long-forgotten typo. Want more? All the identified burials in the row died between 21st October 1914 and 8th July 1915, and as we know, the cemetery closed in July 1915 (of these eight died on 21st October 1914, and ten on 9th May 1915), so there is no reason to believe that these men were not buried at their time of death. Finally, the slightly irregular spacing of the headstones all along the row shows these are likely to be battlefield burials. I suggest that at the end of the war there was one long row of irregularly spaced graves here containing 23 identified and seven unidentified burials, and that all the other graves in the cemetery were brought in after the war. Unless you have a better explanation?
Back at the Cross of Sacrifice. Behind the Cross, special memorials remember five men killed in the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9th May 1915 who are ‘known’ or ‘believed to be buried in this cemetery’ (see below). If you look very carefully, on the far side of the field in the background, to the right of the Cross, you can see a long low red-tiled roof, beyond which the Cross of Sacrifice within Rue-du-Bois Military Cemetery can just be seen.
The grave on the far right is that of Second Lieutenant Reginald Percy Stoneham D.C.M.of the Sherwood Foresters, a Croydon boy (as am I, but he went to the wrong school) who was in India working for the Bank of Bombay when war broke out. He enlisted in the Indian Expeditionary Force and was soon a Corporal in the Bombay Volunteer Rifles, or possibly the Lahore Signal Company, depending on which reports you read (Lahore is a long way from Mumbai, but what do I know?), sailing for Europe on 21st August 1914. He disembarked at Marseille on 26th September, and by the end of the year had seen action at La Bassee, Messines and Armentières, winning the D.C.M. “for conspicuous gallantry near Laventie, on 2nd November 1914. On two occasions he conveyed despatches on foot under heavy howitzer fire”. Commissioned into the 1st Bn. Sherwood Foresters (Notts & Derby Regiment) on 22nd April 1915 as a Second Lieutenant, he was just 24 when he was killed during the ill-fated attack on the Aubers Ridge on 9th May 1915. As the battalion war diary relates, “…they started to shell with high explosives the breastworks where the battalion was, causing many casualties among officers and men, and doing considerable damage to the parapet. One shell alone, which landed in the trench where the C.O. and the Adjutant were, killed an R.A. observation officer (name unknown), 2nd Lieut. Stoneham of this battalion, and wounded seven others.”
View from the western corner,…
…from left, Rows E, D & C.
Row C, numbers 18 to 35 (nearest camera), all but one man unidentified. The two unknown Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and the single unidentified Middlesex man near this end of the row suggest these burials are all likely to be casualties from the fighting at Le Maisnil on 21st October 1914. Behind to the left, the two individual headstones (on the far right of the previous picture)…
…are both of men killed on 9th May 1915 (above & below).
View from the southern corner of the cemetery. The clearly newly replaced headstone (front right – see also below) has the letter A inscribed on the edge, which seems highly sensible as it’s the start of Row A. Notice anything fundamentally different on the inscriptions on the edges of the other headstones at the start and end of each row? You haven’t? Wait a couple of photos.
Panning right from the same position, Row A in the foreground…
…where we find the second French grave in this cemetery,…
…and Row A once more, this time from the other end. With Plot 1 Row A inscribed on the edge. As do all the headstones at the end of all the other rows. Except there aren’t any plots. Not even a Plot 1. Which suggests that either the architect intended to divide the cemetery into plots and then didn’t, or a stonemason the best part of 100 years ago made an error by inscribing the number 1 on all the end headstones. Or perhaps it’s a cemetery plan error, and whoever first drew the plan omitted to put in Plot I, which, as there is no Plot II, doesn’t seem unreasonable. What do you mean too geeky? Never.
Two headstones at the start of the now-infamous Row F, the Second-Lieutenant on the left another casualty of 9th May 1915.
And finally, an unknown Australian. There are only four identified Australians in the cemetery, two killed on 19th July, and two on 20th July 1916, all four Fromelles casualties, and all, of course, post-war interments.
Of the more than 200 unidentified burials in this cemetery, a little over 50 are known to be Australian (five are buried at the start of Row O, second from left above, and you may have spotted many more in the background of some of the previous pictures) who, along with many of the remaining 150 British unknowns, were almost certainly killed during the fighting at Fromelles on the 19th & 20th July 1916. These men were hastily buried where they fell, or lay on the battlefield for a further two and a half years or more before they were discovered and brought here.
Along with the casualties from Le Maisnil, Aubers Ridge and Fromelles, a few casualties from the Battle of Loos in the autumn of 1915 also found their way into this cemetery after the war.
You’ll find one of these information tablets, with a map of the Western Front and a brief outline of the major events in Belgium and France during the War, in many CWGC cemeteries.
Time to move on, but just before we do,…
…you do wonder whether whoever put up this information board ever read the text, glanced at the cemetery, and started to scratch his or her head. Actually, you don’t.
Next, just as the soldiers did a hundred years ago as they entered the communication trenches around here, we head for the front line.