The Cross of Sacrifice at R.E. Grave, Railway Wood, looking up from deep within one of the mine craters that can still be found in the trees near the memorial.
For many years now, Baldrick & I have driven up and down the Menin Road, often remarking, as we passed the little cross up on the hill with the wood behind it, “Look, R.E. Grave. We really must visit one day.” But not in weather like this.
Now this looks a lot better. As you can see from the previous picture, R.E. Grave is a little way from the Menin Road, but easy enough to get to,…
…and although parking once you get there can be tricky, particularly if you are not the only visitors,…
…it’s pretty clear which way to go. The site of Railway Wood is actually just behind us in this picture (you will spot it in the background of various photos later), the trees beyond the memorial being newer additions.
Follow the track…
…and soon you’re at the entrance.
So why is there a Cross of Sacrifice up here at the top of the slope?
R.E. Grave remembers just twelve men, eight Royal Engineers and four others, who died during tunnelling operations in this sector, and whose bodies could not be recovered.
As opposed to memorial headstones, the usual CWGC way of remembering men whose bodies have been lost, these men’s names are inscribed around the Cross. You can now see the eastern end of Railway Wood in the left background.
‘Beneath this spot lie the bodies of an officer, three N.C.O.’s and eight men of or attached to the 177th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers who were killed in action underground during the defence of Ypres between November 1915 and October 1917.’
Not entirely accurate, as we shall see.
|SAPPER M. CARTER||ROYAL ENGINEERS||34||13/06/1916|
|SAPPER G. A. CHATT||ROYAL ENGINEERS||41||14/12/1915|
|SAPPER J. H. COTTERILL||ROYAL ENGINEERS||37||22/07/1917|
The 177th Tunnelling Company was formed in June 1915 in Terdighem, just over the Belgian border in France (about four miles, as the crow flies, south west of Poperinghe), initially moving into the St. Eloi area near Wytschaete on the Messines Ridge. Mining had begun in the area in March 1915, when the Germans detonated a number of mines south east of St. Eloi, and underground operations would continue in the sector until the Battle of Messines in June 1917.
The 177th’s stay there was short, in the autumn of 1915 the company moving into the city of Ypres where, between September & November, they were engaged in building tunnelled dugouts in the ramparts near the Menin Gate, the first of their kind in the Salient.
|SAPPER S. FIRTH||ROYAL ENGINEERS||24||09/03/1917|
|SAPPER W. SPOONER||ROYAL ENGINEERS||46||28/04/1916|
|PRIVATE E. POULTON||KING'S LIVERPOOL REGIMENT||31||25/04/1917|
In November 1915 they then moved the short distance up the Menin Road to Hooge, initially building dugouts beneath the road at Birr Cross Roads*, and they would remain in this sector, in particular on the Bellewaerde Ridge and around Railway Wood, until August 1917.
* Some years after the war part of the road collapsed exposing these dugouts, a photo of which I showed you on the way back from our visit to Hill 62.
The regimental emblems of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers & the King’s Liverpool Regiment, from which the four non-Royal Engineers were seconded. I suspect they may well have been men with experience of mining, and one wonders whether they may have volunteered for the job, although there is no doubt that many men who found themselves working underground with the tunnellers, particularly those whose jobs were removing the spoil from the galleries, sincerely hoped that their role as miners was only temporary.
As mentioned earlier, much of the British tunnelling activity here involved creating a defensive underground system, which involved finding German tunnels and exploding camouflets to destroy them, although they were also building their own offensive galleries deeper beneath the earth.
|CORPORAL B. D. EVANS||ROYAL WELSH FUSILIERS||22||09/04/1917|
|PRIVATE T. E. DAVIES||ROYAL WELSH FUSILIERS||20||25/02/1917|
|PRIVATE R. ROBERTS||ROYAL WELSH FUSILIERS||39||09/04/1917|
The 177th was also responsible for the construction of the Cambridge Road dugout system, located to the rear of Railway Wood only 100 yards from the front line, whose galleries were named after London Streets, and which in time became one of the largest underground systems in the Salient, as well as the construction of new dugouts beneath the shattered stables of the already destroyed Hooge Chateau itself, and south of the Menin Road, parts of which now lie beneath what is now Hooge Crater Cemetery.
|SECOND LIEUTENANT C. G. BOOTHBY||ROYAL ENGINEERS||21||28/04/1916|
|CORPORAL R. BRINDLEY||ROYAL ENGINEERS||u/k||28/04/1916|
|CORPORAL G. A. WOOLLEY||ROYAL ENGINEERS||42||22/07/1917|
The only officer of the twelve, Second Lieutenant Charles Geoffrey Boothby (pictured inset above), was just 21 when he died somewhere beneath our feet, blown to pieces by a German mine. He had applied for a commission in the South Staffordshire Regiment in December 1914, and had been seconded to the Royal Engineers in late 1915. While at the front Boothby exchanged frequent letters with his eighteen year old girlfriend, Edith Ainscow, and after her death in 1990 the letters were discovered, and in 2005 published under the title ‘Thirty-odd Feet Under Belgium’.
On 28th April 1916, when Second Lieutenant Boothby was killed by a German camouflet charge, two other men of the 177th were also killed in the explosion. I can only presume that, unlike Boothby, their bodies were recovered and they now lie in one of the nearby cemeteries, because their names are not inscribed on the Cross of Sacrifice here.
And this, I think, possibly also explains the dates on the Cross. You will by now have noticed that the dates of the men whose names are inscribed on the Cross range from December 1915 to July 1917, whereas the inscription on the Cross says between November 1915 and October 1917. Perhaps the discrepancy can be explained by the fact that the bodies of the other men from the 177th, who died between these dates, were recovered, and received a proper burial elsewhere. Away to the west in this shot, the spires of Ieper are visible on the horizon. As ever, the importance of these ridges to the east of the city to both sides cannot be underestimated.
Continuing along the track past R.E. Grave,…
…as the trench map on this very useful information board shows,…
…the memorial is sited right on the British front line; note the eight large mine craters, most the result of German mines beneath, or adjacent to, the British trenches. The lack of craters beneath the German front line suggests that British mining operations here at the time the photograph was taken were more defensive than offensive in nature.
Yet another information board (above & below).
And in the lee of the wood,…
…we find the Liverpool Scottish Memorial.
The memorial was erected in 2000,…
…the carved stone headpiece, showing the emblem of the 10th (Scottish) Battalion, The King’s (Liverpool Regiment), once the keystone above the entrance to the regiment’s Fraser Street Barracks in Liverpool.
The inscription reads, “The Liverpool Scottish, 16.06.1915. From a line 250 metres west of this point, 23 officers and 519 other ranks of 1/10th (Scottish) Battalion, The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, TF, advanced east up the slope towards German trenches on Bellewaarde Ridge. 4 officers and 75 other ranks were killed, 11 officers and 201 other ranks were wounded and 6 officers and 103 other ranks were missing. Of the missing all the officers and – with a very few exceptions – all the men were subsequently reported killed. This stone shows a regimental badge and was originally sited above the main entrance to the regimental headquarters in Liverpool. It was donated to and placed here by the City of Ypres in July 2000, The Regiment’s centenary year, as a memorial to all those who have served in the Liverpool Scottish and have died in the service of their country. 1900-2000”.
On a tree nearby,…
…Private John William Ogley, 2nd Bn. York and Lancaster Regiment, is remembered, along with thirty five of his colleagues who apparently disappeared one night in April 1916 while on patrol, and were never seen again. At least that’s what we’re told.
The mine craters once to be found in the fields around here are long gone now, but those in the trees still remain, such as the one above; most of Railway Wood can now be seen in the background beyond R.E. Grave.
Another, this time water-filled (or at least ice-filled) mine crater (above & below)…
And a third crater (above & below). It is now illegal in Belgium, I believe, to fill in craters from the Great War, so these ones will hopefully remain here for many years now.
The land beneath the trees still shows signs of the fighting that rarely, if ever, ceased in this area for two long years.
Before taking our leave,…
…I wandered a few yards up the edge of the trees to take a few shots looking roughly north back towards R.E. Grave and Railway Wood.
Panoramic shot, R.E. Grave on the right, Railway Wood in the centre, and Ieper on the horizon away to the west, beyond the buildings on the left (see close-up below).
One last look back up the track as we return to the car.
It’s a peaceful place now, up here on the hill, and I urge you to visit if you ever get the chance.