The Menin Road – Sanctuary Wood Cemetery Part One

Sanctuary Wood Cemetery is about a mile from the Menin Road, reached by turning off down the Canadalaan, which curves round the southern end of the wood on its way to Hill 62, a short distance further on.  I can’t tell you how many times Baldrick & I have driven past, but it’s quite a few, on our way to the Hill 62 Museum, or Hill 62 itself, or even in an  attempt to find non-existent routes to the south.

This was one of the first cemeteries I ever saw on my very first trip to Flanders, although there was no opportunity to go inside then, as we were heading for the preserved trenches at the nearby museum, photos of which I showed you a few years back (note to self – must revisit museum soon).  Since then Baldrick and I have twice visited the cemetery, but I have never found the time to show you lot around the place.  So, two posts coming up, both from winter trips, and both featuring wildly different weather conditions, as you will see.

First, a cold, crisp, frosty January afternoon,…

…the shadows already lengthening,…

…last night’s heavy frost still covering the ground.  And footsteps.  We are not the first to visit today.  Which is good to see.

The usual explanation given as to why Sanctuary Wood, and later the cemetery, were given the name is that, early in the war, a number of soldiers, separated from their units, took refuge in the wood, hence ‘sanctuary’.

I doubt it, personally.  I much prefer an explanation I found in a book published less than twenty years after the war ended.  This is Plot I, by the way, the irregularity of the headstones in the plot betraying its war-time origin.

According to the account I have only recently discovered, in October 1914, during the First Battle of Ypres, a group of men were assembled in the wood by Brigadier General Edward Stanislaus Bulfin and told that they were ‘in sanctuary’, i.e. they were under his express instructions and were not to be used by anyone else without his permission.  These men became part of ‘Bulfin’s Force’, a conglomerate of six battalions whose sterling work helped stem the German advance, earning him praise from his Corps commander, General Douglas Haig, as well as from Sir John French himself.  It seems perfectly reasonable to me that the wood where these men first came together should be named in some way after them (Bulfin’s Wood, perhaps, but I cannot think of any others named after individuals in Flanders).  Bulfin later fought at Second Ypres and at the Battle of Loos, and commanded 60th Division on the Somme in 1916, before, in December 1916, being transferred to Salonika for six months, and then on to Palestine, where Bulfin ended the war as a Lieutenant General commanding 21st Corps in the victory at Meggido in September 1918, the final Allied offensive in the campaign in Sinai & Palestine.

Still in Plot I, with rows of special memorials in the background along the western boundary wall.  During the latter part of 1915 three cemeteries were begun in different parts of Sanctuary Wood, two of which were later totally destroyed by shellfire during the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916.  At the end of the war, however, remains of the third cemetery were still evident, and it is these war graves that make up Plot I in the present cemetery, all the other burials here being post-war.

I think the cemetery plan might come in useful now.  Looking at it, you will see that we first walked up the centre of the cemetery (more or less) to the Cross of Sacrifice, before following the western cemetery boundary across the wide open spaces of Plot I until we arrive at Plot II (above & below), which, this time by its very regularity, is clearly a post-war plot.  The two single headstones in the foreground are designated as Plot I Row A and, curiously, and I have no explanation, this is the only Row A in the cemetery, the four post-war plots all beginning with Row B.  The houses in the far distance line the Menin Road as it passes through Hooge.

Plot II Row N, with the last of 38 special memorials in total that line the western boundary wall in the left background.

Other than Plot I, the rest of the cemetery is all highly regular, but beautifully laid out, as you can see in this view from the northern corner, Plot II nearest the camera.  There are nearly 2,000 burials here now,…

…of which less than 650 are identified.  Unusually, the first of the post-war burials were not made here until 1927, after which, for another five years, men were brought in not only from the Ypres battlefields and from numerous small cemeteries (so many that there’ll be a list next post), but from as far afield as Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast.

Plot III, the cemetery entrance beyond.  One day I must try to get my ahead around the process of post-war reburial.  Why would men from Nieuwpoort be brought this far to rebury?  Why, for example, were ten unidentified men buried originally in Reutel German Cemetery at Becelaere moved here, whereas well over one hundred other British soldiers also originally buried at Reutel were moved to Perth Cemetery (China Wall)?  Or why, of just four British burials in Deerlyck German Cemetery, two were moved here, and two to Dadizeele New British Cemetery?  I mean, exactly how does that make any sense whatsoever?

Plot I, the two headstones of Row B in the foreground.

The grave of Lieutenant Gilbert Walter Lyttleton Talbot in Plot I Row G,…

…and if you are unaware who he is, wait until next post and I will tell you about him, or at least his legacy.  There’s an almost identical view as this on our next visit.  Just mentioning it.

Plot I, with the final rows of Plot IV in the left foreground,…

…and panning left, Plot IV in the foreground, and the final rows of Plot V now visible in front of more special memorials lining the southern boundary wall (above & below).

The special memorials along the western and southern boundary walls, eighty six in total, are all men killed up to June 1916, and whose graves were lost in the fighting later that year.

Forty eight of these special memorials line the southern boundary wall, along with the only German grave in the cemetery (nearest camera), that of Flieghauptmann Hans Roser, who was shot down to the east of Hill 62 on 25th July 1915 by Major Lanoe Hawker V.C. D.S.O., who would himself become one of Manfred von Richtofen’s victims in November 1916.

Plot V Row B, near the eastern corner of the cemetery.  And you can see that, as I mentioned earlier, there is no Row A.  You can also see, on the far left, a memorial just outside the cemetery boundary…

…which we shall have a look at while we are here.

This memorial remembers twenty five year old Second Lieutenant Thomas Keith Hedley Rae and his colleagues of the Rifle Brigade who were killed in the fighting at Hooge on 30th July 1915…

…although you will find the inscription on this side easier to read next post.

30th July was the day that the Germans first used ‘liquid fire’, flamethrowers, on the Western Front, and Keith Rae was last seen, burned and bleeding, on the parapet of the trench in defiance of the onrushing Germans.  His body was never found, and his name is inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial.

A myth has grown over the years that this memorial was originally placed outside Hooge Crater Cemetery, but there is no real evidence for this.  The inscription says Hooge Crater, not Hooge Crater Cemetery, and I see no reason to disbelieve it.  Quite why the memorial was moved at all I am uncertain.

Back inside the cemetery, Plot V nearest the camera (above & below).

Plot IV, where the headstones of at least six of the identified men among the many unidentified burials in this shot are inscribed with ‘Buried near this spot’.

And so we head back to the cemetery entrance…

…where we find,…

… the cemetery register, visitor’s book, and the English version of the ‘In Perpetuity’ inscription at one end…

…and the French & Flemish inscriptions at the other.

Au revoir to Sanctuary Wood.  But not for long.  As I said at the beginning of the post, we shall be returning next post, when the cemetery had taken on a decidedly different, but equally beautiful, atmosphere.

As we drive back to the Menin Road, which runs along the horizon in this picture, across the fields you can see Hooge Crater Cemetery (above & below), another cemetery that I have yet to show you properly round (this doesn’t count), and actually the very first British military cemetery in Flanders (or anywhere, come to that) that I ever visited.  But I will show you soon.  If you’ve ever read about the fighting in Zouave Wood, by the way, it used to be at this end of Hooge Cemetery, but was utterly destroyed during the war, and never replanted.

So, let’s head back to the Menin Road, leap in our handily positioned time capsule, do a quick U-turn, and take a look at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery on a decidedly different day.  It’s all a bit like London buses.  You wait, what, six years for one?  And then two come along one after the other.

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9 Responses to The Menin Road – Sanctuary Wood Cemetery Part One

  1. Steven Oliver says:

    Lovely photographs Martin. I very much enjoyed them. I don’t like rushing through them as I have. Each is has its own poignant theme in its own way.

  2. Magicfingers says:

    Too kind, my friend. These are actually very new photos – January this year, in fact. And they are not going anywhere (well I hope not!) so plenty of time – you have a lot of catching up to do.

  3. Sid from Down Under says:

    I was please Steven commented on the photos because as I scrolled through, and without being aware of Steven’s comment, I decided I must ask – is it the new camera at work in the hands of its Master?

  4. Alan Seah says:

    Thank you for the beautiful photographs. Your site is a great reference for anyone visiting the area. I was at Ypres in 2014 and the Somme last year and the thing that has stayed in my mind was how peaceful it is today. For someone who does not have any direct family connection with the Great War, it would have been hard to believe what took place there 100 years ago if not for the cemeteries. Looking forward to visiting again some time.

    Just a small correction to this post, if I may. If I am not mistaken, “Kitchener’s Wood”, assuming you are referring to the one fought over during 2nd Ypres, was not named after Lord Kitchener. It should correctly be spelled Kitcheners’ Wood (note the plural possessive), which was where the French had located their field kitchens.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you for your kind comments, Alan. Much appreciated. Do take a look at the snowy photos of Sanctuary Wood (Part Two – link near top of page). And thank you for the correction. I shall amend the post shortly. It actually never occurred to me that there was another reason for the name of the wood, but as you say, the plural possessive should have nudged me in the right direction. I visited and photographed the site of the wood earlier this year, so I really should have known better!

    • Magicfingers says:

      Kitchener, in any form, having become redundant in this post, any reference has now been deleted. Details, details. You’ll think I don’t check them, but I promise you I do! Just occasionally something slips through, and kind people like yourself notice and put me right. Thank you once more, Alan, for pointing out my error.

  5. Alan Seah says:

    It was a pleasure to be of some help.
    Your photos of the cemetery in the snow were great. I actually paid a short visit to Sanctuary Wood during my trip to Ypres. It was on a surprisingly mild November day in the late afternoon, ‘at the going down of the sun …’
    As I said, hope to visit again some time.

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