French Flanders: Armentières, Nieppe & Steenwerck Part One – Pont-de-Nieppe Communal Cemetery

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The road from Armentières north west to Bailleul passes through a number of small communities each of which, it won’t surprise you to hear, host their own CWGC cemetery.

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Pont-de-Nieppe is just a stone’s throw from Armentières, across the bridge over the River Lys from which it gets its name, and the communal cemetery contains not only a Commonwealth Plot, but a German cemetery as well (which we shall visit next post).

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But first…

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…it looks like we need to head thataway*.

*perfectly acceptable word.  First used in 1839.

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On entering the cemetery we encounter this French memorial…

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…remembering the village’s civilian and military deaths as a consequence of war.

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As we saw, the British burials are at the far south eastern end of the cemetery…

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…with two rows of French military headstones, which we shall take a look at later, at the north western end of the plot, nearest the camera.

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The bridge at Pont-de-Nieppe over the River Lys (below, before the war) was taken by the British in October 1914 before the Germans could get across, as the Race to the Sea reached its end and as, a little further north, the First Battle of Ypres was beginning.

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After which the bridge, and the village, remained a few miles behind the front lines until the spring of 1918.

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The first burials in the communal cemetery date from October 1914, when three men (two from the 1st Bn. Hampshire Regiment, who were responsible for the capture of the bridge a few days later, although if they suffered any casualties in so doing, they are not to be found here) were buried here, but only two further (identified) burials had been made before July 1915, when, for a while, the cemetery began to be used more regularly.

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Eighteen men were buried between July & September 1915, and then the cemetery remained unused for almost exactly a year before a handful more burials were made in the latter months of 1916, and a further 35 between January & July 1917.  And then, once again, the cemetery was left unused for nearly nine months until March & April 1918, when five men were buried alongside their comrades already here.

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The Germans used the cemetery to bury quite a number of their dead (now moved to the German cemetery) during the summer of 1918, but, for me, it is the sixty six men who died between 23rd October & 13th November 1918 and now lie here (and I mean no disrespect to the others) that capture my attention.  Three men who died on 11th November 1918, and the man who died two days later, are buried in Plot II Row I (above).  There are in total 124 identified British First World War burials in the cemetery.

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Did you know that on 11th November 1918, the final day of the Great War, more soldiers died on all sides along the Western Front than on D-Day twenty six years later?  You did?  You’re a clever lot (that’s what I tell people, anyway).  According to official statistics, British casualties in October 1918 amounted to just over 121,000, of which more than 20,000 were killed; even in the eleven days of November before the Armistice took effect, some 20,000 British soldiers became casualties, and nearly 3,000 of them died.  Staggering statistics.

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Before the cemetery was re-opened for the umpteenth time on 23rd October 1918, two burials had been made during September, and quite possibly the unknown Second Lieutenant who lies next to them here in Plot II Row E as well.  Note one of two Second World War graves from May 1940 in the row behind.

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The Cross of Sacrifice overlooks Plot II, where the majority of the men here are buried; the cemetery plan, courtesy of the CWGC, will show you where the other British burials are to be found.  In the foreground, burials from the spring and summer of 1917, Australians and Artillerymen, in Plot II Row D, and two from the left in Row E behind…

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…it’s not that common to see a totally unknown soldier with a verified date of death.  I like to think that he was originally buried in this exact position, and the 1917 graves gradually extended to surround him, rather than being moved from one place in the cemetery to another at some point, which is also possible.  In total eleven of the burials here are unidentified.

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January 1917 burials in Plot II Row B (foreground) and February 1917 burials in Row C behind; it would appear that in the 1920s, when the original wooden crosses were replaced by headstones, the family of Captain Eric Sutherland Phillips of the Border Regiment, in the centre of Row C, must have requested that no religious symbol should adorn his headstone.

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The three headstones of Plot II Row A, with, on the right, the final two burials made in 1915, and on the left, one of only five burials made here in 1916.

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Plot II, looking roughly north.  The cemetery extends as far as the trees you can see in the left background.

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Plot I comprises this single row of graves (Row A, above & below) along the south eastern cemetery boundary, and two other burials we shall visit in a minute.

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Apart from the Private Eldridge (nearest camera), who was one of the three men buried here in October 1914, and one other man who died in 1916 further along the row, all these men were killed between May & September 1915, the majority in July & August.

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And tucked away in the southern corner…

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…are the other two men buried here in October 1914, in what is now Plot I Row B.

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The far, north eastern end of Plot I Row A (above & below); the two headstones in the previous photo can be seen in the far distance.

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Plot II, this time looking west.  On 11th April 1918, the day following 34th Division’s withdrawal across the River Lys that we looked at in detail last post, the Germans took Pont-de-Nieppe, and nearby Nieppe, as the British retreated north of the Armentières-Bailleul railway line.  Both villages would be recaptured by the 29th Division on 3rd September 1918.

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This is Plot III Row A, among the civilian graves to the north of the Commonwealth Plot.  Six men lie here, three identified,…

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…and three not.  As the Grave Reference Numbers of all six are the same, I presume the individual bodies were impossible to individually identify.  The three identified casualties have a date of death of 18th April 1918, which could, perhaps, be seen to create a similar problem to the one we saw last post, in that the Germans captured this area on 11th April, so why are three British soldiers buried here who died a week later?  Interestingly, I discovered that a single German soldier was once buried alongside them, so perhaps they were captured some time around 18th April further to the north, and were later hit by a shell whilst prisoners, perhaps along with one of their German captors, and then buried here by the Germans, who, as already mentioned, used the cemetery to bury their dead during their occupancy of this area in 1918.  Whatever the real story, there are possible explanations for these three men being here that you simply cannot use at Suffolk Cemetery.

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Plot II Row H.  All the men buried in the row died in the final days of October or the first few days of November 1918.

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The grave of a young Imperial War Graves Commission worker (above & below), who was killed, presumably doing his job, in October 1949, aged just twenty.

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Back at Plot II Row I, where Baldrick signs the Visitor’s Book on behalf of both of us; all the identified burials in the row (and, sadly, probably the three unknown soldiers at the far end you may have spotted much earlier) died during the last week of the war.

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Time for a look at the French headstones, and while we do, I shall tell you a bit more about Pont-de-Nieppe during the war.

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The village provided billets for troops returning from the front lines, or training nearby before moving into the trenches, and there were dressing stations in the vicinity although, of course, the Germans were well aware of the activities taking place in the village, which was well within the range of the German artillery, and during the middle years of the war night-time visits by enemy bombers were far from infrequent.  Despite this, many of the civilian population of the village remained in their houses until August 1916, when they were finally ordered to leave owing to the steady increase in German shellfire.

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But Pont-de-Nieppe was well-known to British soldiers throughout the area – indeed throughout the whole British Army on the Western Front –  for an entirely different reason.  For it was here that, for much of the war, the famous Divisional Baths were situated.  On coming out of the line, particularly after a difficult or prolonged tour, it was the thought of the baths at Pont-de-Nieppe as much as anything that kept tired men on their feet those extra few hours.

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The Pont-de-Nieppe baths were set up in a disused bleach works on the banks of the River Lys by 6th Division, who were billeted in Armentières during the winter of 1914-1915.

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The British paid a rental for the use of the building* (really!), turning the huge vats, used before the war for bleaching linen yarn, into baths, hot water provided by large boilers that once supplied water for the bleaching process.  Hydro-extractors, rotary driers, the hydraulic presses and the extensive drying rooms, all used in the linen industry, were well suited to the purposes of a laundry (a number of similar buildings at other points along the Lys also operated as laundries in 1915), and part of the building was also put to use as a disinfestation plant.  It’s interesting that a number of sources refer to the building as a brewery, and at times the soldiers did refer to it as the Brewery Baths, but the most detailed account clearly suggests that it had been a bleach works, and had only been closed once the front lines had settled down just a few miles away (hence the fact that all the equipment within was in good working condition), and the management felt it was too dangerous to continue working.

*I can’t prove it, but I think it’s quite likely, from what I have read, that the large building next to the bridge in the old pre-war photograph I showed you earlier may well be the very building.  German trench maps, which I don’t have, might help.

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Large numbers of men and women were employed at the baths; in the summer of 1916, for example, the New Zealand Medical Corps supplied one Officer, two Sergeants, and 65 other ranks to operate the baths, alongside 185 women in the laundry, washing, ironing and mending uniforms under the supervision of a forewoman.  Twelve hundred men a day could bathe in the huge bleach vats while their clothes were being disinfested and washed by the legions of local women workers.

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Filing past long partitions of sacking, the men first removed their hats and stored their valuables before coats and trousers, and then shirts and underwear, were removed, after which more than a hundred men a time, clothed only in identity discs, would leap into the steam-heated water in a dozen of the huge bleach vats, each one fifteen foot across and six foot deep, three quarters filled with hot water – and never underestimate the morale boost of a ‘proper’ bath for men fresh out of the line, even with a hundred of your mates!

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“With the aid of liberal supplies of hot water and soap, it was possible to get rid of the fifth and vermin of the trenches, followed by an issue of clean underclothing, all of which produced a feeling of such delightful invigoration and freshness as to make the miseries and hardships of the preceding few weeks seem almost worthwhile.”

Really?

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In the meantime, behind more, strategically placed, sacking, French women who weren’t working in the laundry were busy disinfesting the soldiers’ clothes, ironing outer clothing with hot irons and brushing with steel brushes, destroying the lice ova that lay hidden, often in the seams of the men’s trousers.  Underclothing was boiled in disinfectant, washed, dried and repaired; socks that could no longer claim the name were unravelled and used by skilled darners to mend those that were still serviceable.  And don’t think for a moment that women were only employed at the laundry in Pont-de-Nieppe – one account mentions, for example, a disused factory near the bridge, where local women were employed making sandbags.  On the other side of the road a shed had been converted into lavatories with, in typical French style, doors that reached no higher than the shoulders and no lower than the calves, leaving the occupant’s head and feet exposed, and creating much amusement; “Inevitably, every time we passed there would be one or two of the cubicles occupied by a girl.  We would cheer as we passed and wave.”  And some, I suspect.

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By the summer of 1917, however, German artillery, and in particular the almost nightly gas bombardments that the British rear area was having to endure, and of which Pont-de-Nieppe suffered its fair share, sustaining a number of casualties, was making life unpleasant for everyone working at the baths, and indeed along the whole sector.

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By August 1917 it was deemed necessary to close the baths, and I have no idea whether they ever re-opened – bearing in mind the final year or so of the war, I somehow doubt it.

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Separated from the rest of the Commonwealth Plot, this is Plot III Row C (Row B, which no longer exists, once contained 26 German soldiers), where four unknown soldiers, presumably British, lie together in a single grave (above & below).

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All of which brings us to the end of the post, and I bet you didn’t envisage finding yourselves immersed (forgive the pun) in a tale of the British Army’s hygiene arrangements this evening, or whenever you’re reading this, when you received the notification, eh?  But it’s a seriously important aspect of the war (it certainly was for the soldiers), and where else are you going to find out about stuff like this?  Anyway, as I said, that’s the end of this post, but not to the end of our visit to Pont-de-Nieppe Communal Cemetery.  Back past the large French Cross we saw as we first entered, at the far north western end of the cemetery, 790 Germans, nearly all casualties from the spring and summer of 1918, lie beneath the willow trees, and we shall pay our respects to them next.

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4 Responses to French Flanders: Armentières, Nieppe & Steenwerck Part One – Pont-de-Nieppe Communal Cemetery

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    As I have become accustomed, I am at a loss for words. Your research and information is absolutely first class. I constantly learn from your posts as I’m sure do others. You must definitely transcribe your posts into a book, if not for your own satisfaction then for posterity.

    You ask: Did you know that on 11th November 1918, the final day of the Great War, more soldiers died on all sides along the Western Front than on D-Day twenty six years later?

    Answer: No I did not and I’m astounded – what a waste of good human life.

    One thing that comes across in this post is how each side respected the others dead – well generally. And the never ending well-kept war cemeteries.

    Thank you for your wonderful description of the Division Baths – these would certainly have formed a significant part in the hygiene of both body and clothes and mind. Something I’ve long wondered how it was accommodated in trench warfare.

    Do you have a picture or three of these baths and associated behind the scenes services you describe so eloquently? They sound fascinating places. And “heh heh”: I’m sure more than the occasional cubical was occupied by “just a girl alone”.

    I look forward to more of your fascinating discoveries – and I shall carefully monitor forthcoming “new camera” photographs.

    Please keep ’em coming

    • Magicfingers says:

      Hey Sid. Told ya so! Glad you found it of interest. Trust me, I find out loads of stuff I had no idea about when I’m researching. I knew about the baths, but managing to find more than one account of what went on there was brilliant. As I said, where else are you going to find this sort of stuff?! Getting ready for the trip – find Laventie on the attached link – I have a plan to do a circle of the cemeteries around Estaires & Laventie on Saturday after I have visited Erquinghem. Fingers crossed for the weather!

      http://www.greatwar.co.uk/places/french-flanders-cemeteries.htm

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