So here we are in the fields on the eastern side of the Yser Canal, looking west towards the spire of Boesinghe church, some three quarters of a mile away on the other side of the water.
And this roadside calvary is our first stop.
What? No, of course it isn’t my bike! I’ve told you before we don’t do bikes. The plaque in the right foreground,…
…although becoming virtually illegible now, remembers the men of the 45th (Algerian) Division who died on 22nd April 1915 enveloped in clouds of German gas.
You’ve doubtless seen photos like this of dead Zouaves following the first gas attacks*, and personally I cannot believe that the only memorial to the Algerians in Belgian Flanders is a nearly unreadable little plaque, and I think they deserve something far better. Now perhaps, since our visit, a new plaque has been unveiled, but these photos were taken after the centenary of the gas attacks, so I am not that hopeful.
*this postcard from the collection also shows another fine example of trench-building in Flanders, the high water table preventing digging for more than three or four feet, as is evident from the sandbags used to raise the height of this trench. There’s another similar photo later in the post which again emphasises the liberal use of sandbags to create trenches in the low-lying countryside of Flanders. And why do we refer to them as sandbags anyway (rhetorical question, but I’m sure you take the point)?
Known as the Carrefour des Roses, literally the Crossroads of the Roses, the calvary itself remembers the men of the French 87th Territorial Division, who also suffered terribly on 22nd April.
The territorials came mainly from Brittany and were made up of reservists, earning them the affectionate title of Les Pépères, or the Grandads.
Deployed to Boesinghe as reinforcements for the Belgian troops in the line, they unfortunately found themselves in the wrong place at very much the wrong time, and many died in the asphyxiating fumes.
The relief map has also seen better times,…
…although if you enlarge it, you can see the various regiments who faced the first gas attack, and the sectors they defended, marked around the position of the Carrefour.
The calvary itself is 16th Century, and was brought here from Brittany, as were the stones placed on either side. I didn’t believe that the dolmen was original, but it seems it is, brought here from near St. Malo, also in Brittany.
Before we move on, as we have seen this picture of British troops in early gas masks on these centenary boards more than once on this tour, and as we have spent much of our time so far touring the French & Belgian areas where the first German gas attacks took place, I wonder what you make of this:
This is what remains of a French leather gas mask eyepiece, the leather now so hard that initially I thought it was metal. It was found (not by me, before you ask) in a German bunker near Bucquoy, three miles east of Gommecourt on the Somme, near to a German artillery position during the later months of the battle.
This eyepiece belonged to a French M2 gas mask, first used in April 1916 and made in huge numbers for the rest of the war. The eyepiece was fitted into a chemically treated multi-layered muslin cloth that looked a bit like a horse’s nosebag; covering just the face it was much more comfortable than the British PH Helmet that was in use at the time, which covered the whole head, and there was no troublesome mouthpiece or nose clip either, the wearer simply breathing through the cloth.
The first model featured a single rectangular cellophane eyepiece, the second introduced the round eye pieces, the lenses made of a special celluloid material that kept them bright but was fragile and inflammable*, each lens held in place by a metal ring (above), with twelve crimps, four of which are clearly visible in the focused part of the photo below, to keep them in place.
*necessitating a spare set as an essential part of a Poilu’s equipment.
The M2 had a number of downsides despite its widespread use (some British, and later, American, troops were also issued with it). It wasn’t that easy to put on quickly and could be affected by water, and it was only designed to be used for up to five hours, necessitating French military doctrine to speedily adapt, troops exposed to poison gas needing to be relieved by fresh troops within that time period. It’s main drawback was, however, that as stronger chemical agents were devised by the Germans, the mask became less effective, and it offered no protection whatsoever against mustard gas. The inset above shows the inside of the mask, with eyepiece in place.
The M2 in use and, centre bottom, another French victim of the 1915 gas attacks (note the sandbags once again),…
…and who knows how close to where we are standing right now he met his terrible fate. The Great War sites of interest around Langemark, two and a half miles further east will, incidentally, feature in their own small tour later in the year; in the background, Artillery Wood Cemetery will be the subject of the next post and trust me, there’s a lot to talk about there. But now we have come to the point where much of the attention of the rest of our tour, which has so far concentrated mainly on the Second Battle of Ypres in April & May 1915, turns to Third Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele, if you like, which opened on 31st July 1917. And for very obvious reasons. Until the Allies were able to push the Germans off the Pilckem Ridge it was too dangerous to risk lives burying men behind the front lines on the eastern side of the canal, so, as we have seen, the cemeteries used were all sited over on the western side, hidden from view of the Germans by the canal bank. Once the Germans had been pushed off the ridge and no longer had line of sight over the Allied troops here in the very north of the Salient, cemeteries were soon made on the eastern side, and it is these that will form the focus of the remainder of our tour.
A few yards north of the Carrefour, we are now standing on the old railway line about 750 yards east of the railway bridge at Boesinghe that we visited earlier in this tour,…
… where a memorial marks the spot where the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge was killed on 31st July 1917.
Francis Edward Ledwidge was born in County Meath in 1887, and despite his nationalist sympathies, he enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in October 1914, stating that he could not sit back and watch others fight in his place. Having survived the fighting in the Dardanelles in 1915, where he apparently suffered from severe rheumatism, by the end of the year he was in the Serbian mountains, where he suffered a back injury. After a period in Ireland in which he lost and regained his corporal stripes, he found himself on the Western Front early in 1917. Throughout much of his time at war Ledwidge wrote the poetry that would later make him famous, although I believe that some was lost in the appalling conditions he encountered in Serbia.
On 31st July 1917, whilst road constructing not far behind the front lines, Ledwidge and five of his colleagues were killed when a German shell landed right alongside them as they stopped for a tea break. A chaplain who arrived shortly afterwards noted, ‘Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.’ Ledwidge’s poetry became a standard part of the Irish school curriculum for a while before another war, and the passage of time, saw the poet and his work fade into obscurity. In the latter decades of the 20th Century, however, renewed interest in the Great War brought his poetry to a new audience.
“To-morrow will be loud with war. How will I be accounted for?”
Francis Ledwidge is buried in Artillery Wood Cemetery, in the distance, just two hundred yards from his memorial, and of course that is where we are going next.