French Flanders: Armentières, Nieppe & Steenwerck Part Six – Trois Arbres Cemetery

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Leaving the Armentières-Bailleul road, and taking the southern turn-off from Pont-d’Achelles, after a short distance we reach Trois Arbres Cemetery, where over 1,700 British soldiers are now buried or commemorated.

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Although a large place, the cemetery is divided into just three plots…

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…which, quite frankly, is not exactly helpful when first exploring, even with the cemetery plan, which you can see if you click the link: Trois Arbres Cemetery Plan.

         

In May 1916 No. 1 Australian Casualty Clearing Station was opened at Estaires, not so far from here, and somewhere Baldrick and I visited for the first time just the other weekend (a year later No. 1 C.C.S. would relocate to Bailleul, where we heard about some of its exploits last post).  But that is for another time.  Hot on the heels of the 1st C.C.S., Trois Arbres was chosen as the site for the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station, work beginning at the new site on 17th June 1916.  Remarkably, less than a day after it officially opened in mid-July, it had to deal with the dreadful fallout from the Fromelles debacle, successfully evacuating some four thousand men from the railhead here in the first forty eight hours of its existence.  A baptism of fire indeed.

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I should say now that quite a few sources state that the date of the C.C.S.’s opening was 29th July 1916, in which case all of the above is a fiction.  Perhaps they are mistaking the date with that of the first date of burial in this cemetery, as we shall see shortly, but as both the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services 1914–1918, and Charles Bean’s The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 are on my side, I’m sticking to my story.  But I would like an explanation as to why no Fromelles casualties are to be found buried in Trois Arbres Cemetery if so many passed through; if any were buried nearby, they were not moved here after the war.  There must have been some.  So where are they now?  Anyway, on entering…

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…the huge Plot I is immediately to our left,…

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…some 800 men buried in twenty five rows in the plot.

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Although there are more than a hundred men buried here who died between October 1914 and December 1915, all are post-war re-interments; indeed more than 700 graves were brought here from the nearby battlefields after the war, the vast majority from the battles of 1918.  The original wartime burials are all to be found in Plot I and the first rows of Plot II.

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The first burial in the cemetery, New Zealander Private Albert Morton Laing, who died of wounds on 31st July 1917, is on the far left of Plot I Row A in the foreground above,…

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…and the cemetery began to be used on a more regular basis from 3rd August,…

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…a total of 74 men who died during the remaining months of 1916 now being buried here.  There are more than 800 men here who died in 1917, and the cemetery continued to be used in the early months of 1918, until Trois Arbres fell to the Germans on 11th April.

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We shall visit the line of headstones along the boundary wall to the right later.  Much later.

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The graves of four men who were executed during the war can be found in this cemetery, the first that we encounter being Private Peter Black, Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), buried in Plot I Row B, who was executed for desertion on 18th September 1916.  Already under a suspended sentence of death for desertion, Black went missing once again just before going into action.  Absent for a month, he was apprehended, court martialed, and shot.

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Australian Pioneer in Plot I Row D.

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Rows of Australian dead in Plot I, infantrymen (above), pioneers, engineers and machine gunners (below).

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Looking west at Plot I Rows H & J (there is no Row I).

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Photographs at the base of the headstone of Driver John Shaw, N.Z.A.S.C., in Plot I Row N.

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More Australian & New Zealanders in Plot I Row Q ( foreground, above & below)…

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…and one of the few unidentified soldiers in Plot I.  There are, however, 435 unidentified burials in total in the cemetery, the majority, unsurprisingly, among the post-war re-interments.

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Plot I Row P.  There are 470 identified Australians buried or commemorated here,…

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…and 212 New Zealanders.

Australian casualties in Plot I Row T, all killed within four days of each other in mid-July 1917 – every one from a different battalion.  From left: Trench Mortar Battery; 13th Bn.; 52nd Bn.; 16th Bn.; 40th Bn.; 46th Bn.; 34th Bn.; 38th Bn.

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And more in Plot I Row U, all killed on 8th & 9th July 1917, and including men from 41st, 43rd & 44th Bns.

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New Zealand casualties from August 1917 in Plot I Row W.

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Frank Hillier Needs was an Australian who joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force under the assumed name of John King, serving at Gallipoli before arriving in France in July 1916.  Arriving on the Somme in October 1916, it seems he spent three days absent (and drunk) for which he served 28 days Field Punishment No. 2.  Two further similar transgressions, and two further similar punishments, would follow before, at the end of May 1917, he went missing one final time.  On this occasion, however, he was absent for nearly two months before being arrested; he hadn’t gone far, spending his time, it seems, with the Australian troops billeted at nearby Steenwerck.  Private John King was executed by firing squad on 19th August 1917, his grave now to be found in Plot I Row Z.

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And thank you to whoever left the information.

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And so to Plot II,…

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…to the left of the Cross of Sacrifice, and, for the first time, really, you can see Plot III on the right, and how far beyond the Cross the cemetery actually extends.

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Cross of Sacrifice, Plot III behind, the Stone of Remembrance in the background.

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The ranks of Australian burials continue.  This is Plot II Row C, where…

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… a beautifully crafted wooden cross,…

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…tells a story…

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…that we can all work out, more or less.

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Flight Sub-Lieutenant Ronald Burr was flying a Sopwith F1 Camel scout (despite of its fearsome reputation, it was not an easy plane to fly) when he crashed behind the British lines on 18th February 1918, dying of his wounds later in the day.  He now lies in Plot II Row D.

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The only South African burial in the cemetery, nineteen year old Sapper Harold Thomas Wright is buried in Plot II Row E.

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Corporal George Latham bears the unfortunate distinction of being the first British N.C.O. to be executed during the Great War.  A regular pre-war soldier, he had gone missing at the battle of Le Cateau during the retreat from Mons on 29th August 1914, but as luck would have it, when he did eventually turn up he was treated as one of the many stragglers who had become separated from the main British Army (if you think about it, how exactly does anyone actually know about this, unless, after his arrest, Latham told the authorities he had deserted in 1914 and was not a straggler – which would seem a rather dumb move?  Then again, with respect, his subsequent actions hardly suggest the brightest pebble on the beach.).  Not long afterwards, however, Latham once more went missing; when the Redcaps* discovered and arrested him they found that, despite having a wife back at home, he was living with a French woman in Nieppe.  Tried for desertion, he was executed on 22nd January 1915, his body now lying in Plot II Row F.  Corporal George Latham was the seventh soldier to be shot (five for desertion and one for cowardice) by the British Army in the Great War, and the earliest whose grave is known, the other six all being remembered on memorials.

*Royal Military Police.

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Now bearing in mind the layout of the cemetery so far, you might have thought that this looks a little like a gap between plots, but no, this is Plot II Row G (Plot III in the background),…

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…where four unknown soldiers of the Guernsey Light Infantry, possibly the first I have come across on all my travels, are buried at the western end of the row.

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Further along the row, Corporal Berry’s date of death tells us that we are now among the post-war burials, although I think that he was actually buried here at the time of his death; the men buried on either side of him also died in 1919, and the two other soldiers in the row late in the war.  To quote the CWGC website, “A few further burials were made in the cemetery after the German withdrawal at the end of 1918”, and I suspect these men are they, the gap beyond this row separating the wartime cemetery from the post-war additions.

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We shall return to the post-war re-interments in Plot II later.  First, this is Plot III,…

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…where we find the only Indian burial in the cemetery.  Sepoy Mir Dad was originally buried in Linen Factory Cemetery, Bac-St. Maur, alongside twenty other British soldiers, all of whom were moved here after the war.

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Sadly, even men whose bodies were brought here post-war have since been lost, these Northumberland Fusiliers’ headstones (above & below) inscribed with the words ‘Buried Near This Spot’.

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Unidentified soldiers in Plot III Row C.

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As was mentioned earlier, about one hundred of the post-war re-interments in the cemetery are burials from the first year and a half of the war, the latest date of these being 26th December 1915.  Despite the many burials made here after the war, the headstone of Canadian Private Fortunat Auger is the only one with a date of death between December 1915 and the first ‘at-the-time’ burial on 31st July 1916.  Auger, a French-Canadian, enlisted in Québec in September 1914 and was among the first Canadians to arrive in France in February 1915.  On three occasions during 1915 he was found to have been absent without leave (one absence resulting in a suspended prison sentence), and in the early weeks of 1916 he was twice more absent, the second occasion resulting in a court martial on 15th March which sentenced him to death.  Private Fortunat Auger was executed on 26th March 1916, the first (of 23 in total) Canadian to be shot at dawn in the Great War.  His grave can now be found in Plot III Row H, although where he was brought from I have no idea.

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Plot III Row H.  One of the last British Empire regiments to be raised by a private individual, Lord Strathcona’s Horse was formed by Scottish-born Canadian businessman Donald Alexander Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, for service in South Africa during the Boer War.  In 1915, when Serjeant Charles Macfarline was killed, they were serving as infantry in the trenches, although they would later be reconstituted as a mounted force.  Two V.C.s were awarded to men of the regiment during the Great War (after one in South Africa), and the regiment exists to this day; in September 2000 they became the first overseas regiment ever to mount the Queen’s Life Guard at the Horse Guards in London.  There are only 21 Canadians buried here, fifteen of whom (along with four British soldiers) were originally buried in a small cemetery at the Custom House on the road from Neuve-Eglise to Nieppe in 1915 & 1916, before being moved here.

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Well over half of the 180 or so burials in Plot III are unidentified.

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Looking west from Plot III across Plot II,…

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…where, near the end of Row P, an old battered wreath rests against the headstone of a single identified soldier of the Gloucestershire Regiment between unidentified men of the East Yorkshire Regiment and the Lancashire Fusiliers.

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Stone of Remembrance (above & below).

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Back to Plot II now, with Row G (and Corporal Berry) on the left,…

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…and then panning to our right across Row I (this time there is no Row H in Plot II!),…

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…and further right, Plot III now in shot.  Looking back over the last few shots, one wonders whether there was once a Row H in the gap between G & I, perhaps containing German graves that have long-since been moved elsewhere?

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Unsurprisingly, this post-war section of Plot II…

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…also contains a large number of unidentified men.

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Two names on one headstone, both killed in 1914, Plot II Row R.

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Plot II Row T; although their names are lost, the regiments of many of the unidentified men buried here have been identified.

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Looking east across Trois Arbres from the western corner of the cemetery.

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Sneaking out of this gap,…

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…a nearby ditch allowed me a soldiers’ eye view of the surrounding terrain.

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And could that be our old friend the Kemmelberg on the horizon away to the north?

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Indeed it could.  The highest point for miles around, the Kemmelberg was the scene of serious fighting in April 1918 as the Germans launched a successful attack on the French defenders; the Germans would hold the Kemmelberg until forced off the hill in late September.

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Back in the cemetery…

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…we begin our journey down Plot II back towards the cemetery entrance, and as we do, it’s time to look in a little more detail at the work of the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station that was sited here, in particular with regard to the fighting in the second half of 1917.

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Once the site had been chosen, the work of laying out and building the station, on extremely rough ground, was to prove tough and relentless.  The construction of a solid plank road in and out of the site, the building of bridges and the sinking of wells, the erection of two long rows of double marquees for patients (later replaced by large huts),  and of a large Nissen hut equipped to serve as an operating theatre and X-Ray department, all needed to be in place before the station could begin operating, in both senses of the word.  Two large tanks, raised on platforms to allow gravity to take water down pipes to wherever it was required, were installed, walkways of duckboards snaked throughout the site, and all the while numerous other huts were being constructed all over the site to serve as a mortuary, quartermaster’s stores, a dental hut, staff quarters, and so on. The engineers even constructed a light railway on which medical orderlies could transport men on wheeled two-tiered stretcher holders to and from the adjacent broad-gauge rail head; inside the camp itself, small turntables at crossroads allowed the stretcher holders to change direction.  On the far right of the above shot…

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…Plot II Row H contains three artillerymen and three Royal Engineers.  Second Lieutenant Rupert Colerick Leybourne Pilliner, R.F.A., nearest the camera, was an early casualty in November 1914, while the other men in the row were all killed in the last months of the war.

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Corporal Berry again, this time with a cross at the base of his headstone.  My good friend Duncan M (he of the Somme trip last year, and other appearances on this site from time to time) asked me to place this cross at a headstone of my choice at some time on this particular trip, and my choice was Corporal Berry.

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Back to the work of the C.C.S.  The procedure for receiving the wounded at all the Casualty Clearing Stations was similar.  A large marquee, the size of a circus tent, erected near the entrance, would receive the wounded men where they would be initially assessed  by a Medical Orderly.  Tattered and bloodstained uniforms, often with large slits where doctors in the forward areas had already dressed their wounds and given them injections of Anti-Telamic Serum (anti-tetanus), were removed (note to all Great War modellers out there – remember this detail when building your Casualty Clearing Station diorama), and the men’s private belongings were collected in what was known, to the Aussies, as a Dorothy bag.  Dressed in Red Cross Pyjamas, they would then be carried on stretchers to the dressing room and placed on one of ten tables where they would have their wounds dressed and were once again examined by another M.O. who would decide where they should be sent next.  Perhaps to the operating theatre, where men with missing limbs, bloody tourniquets applied by an unknown man of the Army Medical Corps somewhere up near the front lines still, hopefully, in place, or men with haemorrhage or abdominal wounds, would have been already sent.  Different wards catered for different injuries; as well as a pre- and post-operative ward and resuscitation ward, others would cater for men with chest injuries, jaw and face wounds, abdominal injuries, or those with multiple wounds, and of course all hospitals had a moribund, or dying, ward.

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One operating theatre catered for men for whom there was no time to waste; still in khaki, some still wearing their boots, the men would be operated on in a room devoid of anything but stretchers and blankets, “as soon as a patient was operated on and put back on the stretcher it gradually sank in the mud.”, as one nurse recounted.

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With the front lines between four and five miles away, Trois Arbres C.C.S. was within German artillery range throughout the war, nurses telling exited tales of picking up pieces of shrapnel and shell which had landed in the camp, “Some bullets fell just beside one of my patients, who picked them up for souvenirs”.  In the summer of 1916, a 14 inch gun operated from somewhere nearabouts, presumably lobbing its shells somewhere in Lille, the gun crew and Engineers living on a nearby train and, whenever possible, entertaining the nurses, it would seem.  The headstones along the boundary wall are those that we saw on entering the cemetery (above & below).

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Sister Olive Haynes was stationed at Trois Arbres during the summer of 1917: “The outpatients often told us what would happen “when we take Messines Ridge”. We had heard of that ridge so often, and the time it was going to be taken, that we only laughed when they spoke of it, and decided the day had not yet dawned for “that ridge”. However, when the Ridge was really to he taken we heard very little about it. Carpenters arrived one morning and immediately commenced working in various places. Our dressing room where patients had their wounds attended to on admission was enlarged to accommodate ten tables where it had previously held two. Our operating theatre was also made capable of running six different operating tables. Tents sprang up on all available space, with duckboards leading to them. All necessary equipment was installed in them. Primus were issued, often an additional one in case of accident. Then splints, bandages, pyjamas, blankets and the hundred and one small things needed in a busy ward arrived, per motor transport, until we knew that ridge really was going to be taken. All patients able to travel were sent to the base, leaving us with practically an empty hospital with the exception of a few convalescents kept for light duty. Doctors, Orderlies, stretcher bearers arrived in large numbers and our staff of sisters was made up to 20, including 3 sisters attached to surgical teams. Of course we were used to bombardment, that the noise which preceded Messines Ridge Battle was little noticed. For the. bombardment had seemed perpetual for weeks and weeks. Shells had been bursting above us in the day time, and with the noise of bombs a short distance away, and anti air craft guns, we had little to learn of noise. I was sleeping in a tent at this time, and it was from here, I heard the noise of the mines blowing up, and felt the concussion of the earth which preceded the Messines Battle. We could not sleep after this wondering how the Australians and other troops were faring. Wondering if they had won the hill, or were being slaughtered, and knowing which ever way it happened, we were bound to have hundreds of wounded coming in shortly. About 7.00 a.m. we heard the Ridge had been taken with light casualties, and shortly after the first wounded started to arrive. I couldn’t see where the light casualties came in, as all those strong healthy men came in dead, dying, unconscious and moaning.”

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These special memorial headstones remember ten men who are known or believed to be buried among the unidentified burials in the cemetery.

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Here they are in close-up (above & below), and as you can see, most are inscribed with ‘Believed to be buried in this cemetery’…

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…apart from the three Duke of Wellington’s Regiment men killed on 11th April 1918 on the far right (and nearest the camera in the shot below), whose remains are known to be among the unidentified men buried here.

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The C.C.S. at Trois Arbres was also vulnerable to attack from the air, on occasion suffering casualties.  Two patients and two orderlies were killed, and at least fifteen wounded men received new injuries when, on 22nd July 1917, a single German aeroplane dropped its bombs over the station from low-level, one bomb blowing a six foot by fifteen foot hole in the ground, destroying the station’s pneumonia marquee and wrecking the mortuary, another landing outside the C.C.S. grounds.  Not knowing whether this presaged further bombs, four nurses received the Military Medal for their bravery in the aftermath.

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One of them, Sister Alice Ross King, told of her experience that day, “We had a hard hit from a bomb last week. Fritz gave us three – one fell just outside a pneumonia tent, blowing the whole show to pieces. It was ghastly. There were 18 casualties. Had it arrived two minutes later it would have got me, too. It is strange how some places seem fated to be hit. This tent had been perforated in several places during the afternoon from a bursting shell. One piece of shell, weighing 10lb., fell within six inches of a patient’s head. This boy was killed later by the bomb.”  Sister King had been on her way to attend to a patient in the pneumonia ward when the bomb landed just in front of her, throwing her to the ground.  Getting up, she promptly fell headlong into the bomb crater that she had failed to see in the dark.  She wrote in her diary, “I shall never forget the awful climb on hands and feet out of that hole about five feet deep, greasy clay and blood, though I did not then know that it was blood.”

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Reaching the shattered pneumonia ward, she made her way inside, looking for men who required her help.  Finding one patient in distress, she tried to lift him back into his bed, putting one arm around his shoulders and the other under his leg to lift him.  To her horror, as she tried to lift the man, the leg, with boot and puttee still on, remained where it was.  It was actually the leg of one of the medical orderlies, a man called Wilson, who had been blown to pieces as the bomb exploded.  She remembered little else about that night, except that she had, “apparently carried on with the job”.  The German pilot may well have been attempting to hit the nearby R.F.C. Kite Balloon Section, but from this time on there was a night-time blackout across the station.

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The work that had increased during the Messines attack showed no signs of abating through July & August 1917, three operating tables in use all day, the camp also at this time receiving many mustard gas cases, men suffering from burns, blisters and inflammation of the eyes.  Bombing raids in the area had become more frequent, as had enemy artillery fire.  In September another large piece of shell pierced the roof of one operating theatre, bending an operating table, although as luck would have it, no one was operating at the time.  Bomb proof shelters were erected for off-duty nurses to sleep in on moonlit nights when the bombers might be prowling, but night work was now an integral part of the work of the camp, two or three surgical teams often operating from dusk to dawn.

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The work of the Trois Arbres C.C.S. would continue until early March 1918 when, with German shellfire coming closer than usual, the decision was made to move the whole C.C.S. elsewhere (initially to Hazebrouk, where a New Zealand Stationary Hospital had been operating for some time), the patients were all evacuated, the medical and nursing staff left in motor ambulances, and the site here was closed.

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Ah well, the road leads ever on, as someone once said.  In our case to a German cemetery just a couple of hundred yards down the road.

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2 Responses to French Flanders: Armentières, Nieppe & Steenwerck Part Six – Trois Arbres Cemetery

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    Thank you MJS for yet again a most insightful post. Especially your Casualty Clearing Station descriptions. Places so very important but rarely described. I must drag out my records to see which CCS my father passed through.

    How the nurses and doctors “came through” this horrific era is beyond understanding. The gruesome scenes must have affected them for life yet at the time they professionally carried on with duties.

    Those tasked with carrying out executions must also have been affected for life. I’m sure we don’t fully understand or appreciate the close quarters horrors of WW1

    I’m forwarding this post to a friend whom I’m sure will thoroughly appreciate your grand work.

    I see Duncan M got a mention, please pass my warm regards to him

    • Magicfingers says:

      Absolutely Sid. Very important places, and as you say, rarely described. Glad you found it of interest. I do hope your friend appreciates the site too. And I have passed on your regards to Duncan M, who reciprocates.

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