We arrive at Passchendaele New British Cemetery beneath a glooming sky.
The rain is still holding off, just, and anyway, it would feel inappropriate, really, to end our tour in glorious sunshine.
Albertina marker, the furthest east of the twenty four, I think, to be erected in 1984 to commemorate the death of King Albert fifty years earlier, each with its own inscription, in this case, ‘Eind-offensief Passendale – 28 September 1918’, the date (approximately) when the village was recaptured by Belgian troops for the final time as the war neared its end.
Baldrick gleefully contemplates yet another cemetery. The road, were you to follow it for a couple of miles, actually leads to the New Zealand Memorial at s’Graventafel, where we recently paid a visit. And before I forget, you will now find a tour map, showing all of the cemeteries and memorials we have visited on our way to Passchendaele, in the Tour Maps section (one of the links on the banner at the top of the page).
The huge, prison-like facade to the cemetery, topped by blockhouse-like structures at either end.,…
…and the view on entering. Trust me, this cemetery is considerably larger than it first looks.
Cross of Sacrifice. Even the pillars beneath the ‘blockhouse’ are, well, blockhouse-like! And I am pretty sure that architect Charles Holden had exactly that in mind when designing this cemetery, bearing in mind the proliferation of blockhouses across the battlefield, many of which would still have been in evidence (some still are, of course) when he visited the area to view the land on which the cemetery was to be constructed.
Because this is a post-war cemetery, made after the Armistice when men were brought in from graves on the battlefields of Passchendaele and Langemarck. On our immediate left the single row of Plot I, with Plot III on the right.
Of the twenty five graves in Plot I, only six, all Canadians, are identified, their headstones bearing dates between 30th October & 12th November 1917.
Cross of Sacrifice, and behind,…
…the single row of Plot II, with Plot IV on the left. Again, six men in Plot II, all Canadians, are identified, and apart from one man killed two weeks earlier, all died between the same range of dates as we saw in Plot I.
The cemetery plan, thanks to the CWGC, can be viewed here, and quite frankly, without it you will have no idea where you are a bit later as we make our way to the far end of the cemetery (which you cannot yet see in these shots), so I’d have a look at it if I were you.
The Stone of Remembrance (above & below) is sited just beyond Plots III (left) & IV (right)…
…Plot V to the left of the Stone in this shot,…
…and Plot VI to the right of the Stone in this one.
Looking roughly east, back towards the cemetery entrance across the headstones of Plot IV, Passchendaele church on the horizon. Now unfortunately, as you may have spotted, there was so much moisture in the air that a number of the following photos are afflicted by the photographer’s curse, condensation on the lens – and of course I had no idea this had occurred until I checked the pictures much later. And no, my photoshopping patience does not stretch that far!
So, with apologies, on we go – and by chance, as you will see, the problem resolves itself later. To the north east of the Stone, this is Plot VI, one of two plots, as we saw a couple of photos back, with headstones at 90º to the rest of the cemetery. Only eleven of the ninety burials in the plot are identified. Panning to the left of Plot VI…
… this is Plot VIII…
…now on the right in this shot, with Plot VII on the left (and below),…
…and finishing our 180º pan, we are now looking south west at Plot V, the other plot whose headstones are at 90º to the rest of the cemetery.
Views from behind Plot V looking north west…
Plot V Row E, fifteen unidentified men. Of the ninety men buried in Plot V, just ten are identified.
And from here on, as I suggested earlier, the cemetery plan becomes essential. Plot VII, Row B in the foreground. Again we see the use of the Broad cross on identified New Zealand burials, and the Latin cross on unidentified. Note the three unknown sailors in the second row.
Canadian burials in Plot VII Row E,…
…and panning right from the same position…
…Plot VII Row D now on the left, Row C on the right.
Plot IX Row E in the foreground, Plot XI behind.
Canadian & Australian burials, known and unknown, at the other end of Plot IX Row E (also front row below).
Plot XI and, beyond, Plot XIII,…
…these steps leading down to a second terrace, Plot XII on the right.
Plot XII and beyond, Plot XIV, with Plot X Row E in the foreground,…
…the first three graves in the row, two of whom are unidentified, being men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. It seems curious to see headstones bearing the inscription ‘A Seaman of the Great War’ in a cemetery so far from the sea, but these men were fighting as soldiers. Able Seaman J. H. Bowden, the man buried in the first grave, was a member of the Anson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division (as were the three unknown sailors we saw in an earlier picture), so one presumes the others may very well have been too.
The second terrace, with Plot XII in the foreground.
There is an unusual grave in Plot XII Row D, an unidentified man of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry. Whether there are any others in the cemetery I cannot tell you, but there are no identified men of the R.G.L.I. buried here, that’s a fact. It made me wonder why he is here, but sure enough, I discovered that between 9th & 14th October 1917 the R.G.L.I. were involved in the Battle of Poelcappelle (their only action of Third Ypres as they were then sent for training for the upcoming Battle of Cambrai in November), and this unknown soldier must have been killed at that time.
Plot XII. There are 205 Canadians among the identified men buried here, more than any other nation, and God knows how many unidentified.
Unsurprising, of course, as it was the Canadians who took the village of Passchendaele on 6th November 1917. Private Leonard Oliver Millership, the only identified man among these six in Plot XII Row E, was killed on that day, as most likely, were the men who now lie on either side of him.
Men of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, some identified and some not, in Plot XII.
Plot XII, and beyond, Plot XIV.
Plot XIII Row F in the foreground, with Plot XV behind,…
…and panning right, a second set of steps leading down to the third and final terrace, special memorials along the wall in the background, and Plot XVI on the right (and background below),…
…Plot XIV Row F now in the foreground.
The seven special memorials are all to men who are believed to be buried among the unidentified burials here.
In a cemetery with so many unknown burials perhaps one might have expected, indeed hoped for, more than just seven.
Stoic, as ever.
There are 2,101 burials and commemorations in the cemetery, of which 1,600 are unidentified. Of the identified men, all but twenty died in the three months between 20th September & 26th December 1917.
As we near the end of our tour, during which we have visited ten cemeteries and three memorials, I should mention that there are other cemeteries that contain burials from the Third Battle of Ypres, such as Birr Cross Roads and Hooge Crater Cemetery, to name but two, but, as these cemeteries also contain many men from other actions as well, they have, or will, find their way onto this site in their own right.
And I know of at least one Passchendaele memorial that I have yet to visit; maybe there are more. If so, hopefully I will get the chance to visit them and by extension show them to you, at some future date.
In the meantime, we shall make our way back up the cemetery.
The two rows nearest the camera are in Plot XIV, the headstones beyond in Plot XII.
..and similarly on our right, the first two rows are in Plot XIII, the rows behind in Plot XI.
Nearing the Stone of Remembrance, Plot VIII on the left, Plot VII on the right.
As we near the cemetery entrance, past Plot IV on the left and Plot III on the right (and below),…
…it would be remiss of us to finish this tour without a look at the losses incurred during the three months of the battle. Casualty figures for Third Ypres have become disputed over the years. In fact the only undisputed fact appears to be the British figure of 24,065 prisoners taken. The twenty-eight volume History of the Great War, the Official History, put British casualties for Third Ypres at 244,897, and estimated that German losses, equivalent details of which were not available, at some 400,000.
Over the years British casualty figures have been put at anything between 240,000 & 300,000, German figures as low as just under 200,000 and as high as 400,000. When in doubt I find A.J.P. Taylor as good as any to fall back on. He was dismissive of the official figures, talking of ‘conjuring tricks’ with ‘farcical calculations’. He suggested 300,000 British killed and wounded, and some 200,000 Germans.
The first random Passchendaele book, a 1996 publication, that came to hand from the post-flood library quotes figures of 275,000 British casualties, of which 70,000 were killed, with German casualties at just under 200,000. Leon Wolff’s ‘In Flanders Fields’, admittedly published nearly sixty years ago now, spends several pages discussing casualty figures before deciding that the 1922 figures published by the War Office as ‘Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War’ are likely correct. These give total losses for the B.E.F. in the second half of 1917 as 448,614, of which 75,000 were casualties of the Battle of Cambrai, leaving 373,000 other casualties. Weekly ‘wastage’ along the whole Britsh front, prior to Third Ypres, was running at some 7,000 men a week, so over the course of the battle this in itself would account for not far off 100,000 casualties, leaving British losses at approximately 273,000 for the battle; the same report gave German casualties as 270,710.
The wonderful Lyn MacDonald, referring to the British casualties, contents herself with the line, ‘It has never been possible to calculate the precise number of men who were killed during the Third Battle of Ypres’, and continues ‘After the war the official estimates ranged from as few as 36,000 to as many as 150,000. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two.’
Whatever figures you choose, a lot of men died in the mud and the mire to capture, or defend, this bloody ridge.
On 10th December 1917 a German attempt to retake Passchendaele village ended in chaos and failure.
A German history stated, ‘Passchendaele remains in the hands of the Canadians. The battle is finished. Not long after the first snow falls from the grey heavens into the water filled craters. At first it mixes with the mud and blends with the mushy mass. However one morning it remains and covers the place of horror with its white blanket… This strip of land gradually falls asleep.’
Which makes it sound a decent enough place to spend the winter.
It wasn’t. Despite the official end of the battle on 10th November, the shelling never stopped throughout the winter months, battering the frozen troops on both sides, and although there were no more major attacks, you can bet that zealous commanders would be ordering trench raids left, right & centre, your occasional periods of sleep would be rudely interrupted as you found yourself volunteered for a wiring party, or the hated trench mortar crews (your own, not the Germans!) would turn up in your sector, launch a few missiles at the opposite trenches, and then scurry off again, leaving you to take the inevitable consequences.
The land may have fallen asleep,…
…but the men couldn’t afford to.