Artillery Wood Cemetery is the furthest north of the eight cemeteries (and one churchyard) included in this tour, and one of the furthest north of all the British Great War cemeteries on mainland Europe, if you discount those on the Channel coast.
The third of three cemeteries on this tour with over 1000 burials (there are just over 1300 graves here),…
…the cemetery was begun when the Guards Division captured the wood after which the cemetery was named during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, between 31st July & 2nd August 1917.
The CWGC blurb says, ‘it continued as a front line cemetery until March 1918’, but that simply isn’t true, as I’ll explain later. Be warned. Later in this post there is a lot of detailed form-interpreting, and if that sort of thing ain’t your bag, I apologise in advance.
At 3.50 on the morning of 31st July 1917, 2,000 British & French guns opened fire on the German lines, from Lizerne to the north, to Ploegsteert Wood, some eight miles south of Ypres, in the south. Following a two hour bombardment, fourteen British and two French divisions attacked along a fifteen mile front, Hooge & Sanctuary Wood, Frezenburg & the Bellewaarde Ridge, and St. Julien all falling, but it was on the Pilckem Ridge, to the north of the attack, that the most extensive advance was made that first day.
And then the rains came.
By 2nd August the British had suffered some 30,000 casualties killed, wounded, and missing over three days and the Germans a similar amount, the bodies of many men already sinking beneath the sodden ground forever; very nearly 4,500 British soldiers killed on 31st July are remembered on the Menin Gate. They had captured the ridge from Pilckem down to Bellewaarde, taken 6,000 prisoners and twenty five guns, and advanced about 3,000 yards from their start point in some places, but by now the battlefield was a quagmire, movement nigh on impossible, and the British advance ground to a soggy halt, some way short of its objectives, although Haig claimed the attack a success, his reasoning appearing to be the fact that casualties were far less than on the first day on the Somme the previous summer.
The vast majority of the graves at Artillery Wood were brought here after the war,…
…in fact the CWGC website tells us that only 141 graves were here at the Armistice, and that all the other graves were brought in from battlefield burials and smaller cemeteries around Boesinghe after the Armistice.
By a remarkable coincidence, if you were to go to the CWGC website and find all the entries for identified men killed on the first day of the battle, 31st July, who are buried in Artillery Wood Cemetery, you would find a total of 141. That’s quite a coincidence, don’t you think? Or maybe not. Later.
Again, according to the CWGC, one of the small burial grounds from where bodies were exhumed after the war was Boesinghe Château Grounds Cemetery, which, if you remember from a few posts back, contained the bodies of nineteen men who died at the A.D.S. at the château. The CWGC website tells us that these men were reburied here at Artillery Wood, but we know that at least one was reburied in Duhallow A.D.S. Cemetery.
Anyway, as we walk the breadth of the cemetery…
…towards the Stone of Remembrance in the northern corner,…
…what is clear is that this is a very regimented cemetery,…
…a typical sign of a post-war concentration cemetery, as you can see, courtesy of the CWGC, from the cemetery plan.
Above & below: Stone of Remembrance.
The nearest plot to the Stone of Remembrance, this is Plot X (of twelve in all), and as with the majority of the burials these are all post-war re-interments; from now on, unless I specify otherwise, all the burials we visit here are. The example of a Concentration of Graves (Exhumations and Reburials) Burial Return Form (below) shows Guardsman Percy Holden (nearest camera above) at the top of the list (although his rank is given as private), his means of identification on exhumation, as with several others on the list, the wooden cross originally placed over his grave. One other man was identified by his identity disck (sic).
Following the north western boundary past Plot X,…
…and Plot XII (row nearest camera above, and the three rows below).
You will notice a number of Canadian graves in the back row, but many of their names are unknown; there are only ten identified Canadians to be found throughout the cemetery. It would be nice to be able to tell you how many unidentified men who are known to be Canadians are buried in this cemetery, but there are simply no figures available – it would be a matter of counting the headstones on another visit, and even I don’t have the patience, or time, for that.
Panning across the cemetery from the western corner (above & below)…
…before we begin to follow the south western cemetery boundary, Plot XII on our left and Plot V now on our right.
Twelve special memorials lining the boundary wall,…
…remember ten men whose remains are ‘known to be buried in this cemetery’,…
…and two who are ‘believed to be buried in this cemetery’, somewhere among the just over 500 men buried here whose identity is unknown.
Looking roughly north from the cemetery’s southern corner, the special memorials we have just visited beyond the stone seat on the left, and Plot IX now nearest the camera,…
…and turning to our right, looking along the eastern boundary, the slope down which we entered the cemetery in the right background.
Time to visit Plot I, in the centre of the cemetery, and this is where things begin to get a tad tricky.
This Graves Registration Report Form is the most important piece of evidence when trying to figure out the exact number of men buried in this cemetery during the war. The red writing at the top right states unequivocally ‘Certified that Plots hereafter are entirely concentrated bodies’ and is signed by the major in charge of this particular sub-district. Beneath the column headings is typed ‘This Plot (No.2) and ensuing Plots are entirely concentrations’, and note also the faint pencil ‘Exhumations’ written across the column headings; I think we can safely say that all the wartime burials were made in Plot I and only in Plot I.
So, this is Plot I, with Row A in the foreground, or at least part of it. The total number of burials in the plot is 139, of which thirteen are unidentified. Of the 126 identified burials, all but five appear to be original wartime burials (that is, these five are the only burials in Plot I with exhumation or concentration forms attached to their details). So far so good.
The five include one Labour Corps man (transferred from the Seaforth Highlanders), Private J. Clark, who was killed on 22nd March 1918 (see form above). He is the only casualty from 1918 in the plot, and I am absolutely certain that it is his burial in Plot I that is the reason the CWGC website says that Artillery Wood continued as a front line cemetery until March 1918. However, he does appear to be an original burial (because the concentration forms attached to his details do not actually refer to him at all, and at the end of the post I’ll show you what I mean). There are no other burials in Plot I at all from 1918, and, incidentally, only two from December 1917, both Royal Garrison Artillerymen killed on 10th December and buried together at the end of Row E. It seems pretty clear that Private Clark was indeed buried here, at the end of Row F, more than three months after the previous burials, most likely because it was a convenient and sensible place to bury him.
What about the other four men who are supposed to be post-war burials in the plot? Two of them, Gunners Lewis & Jenkins, appear on the above form which is clearly headed ‘Erected crosses found with no remains and removed to Artillery Wood Cemetery.’ I repeat – found with no remains. So there are two crosses, designated Plot I Row A 21 & 22, beneath which there are no bodies, and we have the proof. Not only that, but the other man named on this form, Lance Corporal C. Binding, Grenadier Guards, has no headstone at Artillery Wood, nor anywhere else; his name appears on the Menin Gate Memorial. All a bit odd, eh?
Plot I, Row B ahead of us; note the large number of artillerymen buried in the plot (forty in total).
And the other two men buried in Plot I who are purported to be post-war burials? Private Chadwick of the Grenadier Guards and Private Hall of the Labour Corps (transferred from the Queen’s), both appear on the Concentration of Graves Form above, so that seems fair enough. Except the grave details (far left) are given as Plot 10 Row F? What? But there are entirely different men buried in Plot X Row F. The actual grave references for the two men are Plot I Row C13 and D6 respectively, and the two headstones are highlighted on the photo below.
So I checked the rest of the men on the form, and precisely none of them are buried in Artillery Wood Cemetery. In fact none of them are buried anywhere, as far as I can see; the names of two are to be found on the Tyne Cot Memorial, one on the Menin Gate, one on the Loos Memorial, and one nowhere (if you can find Gunner Peter anywhere then please let me know). Which makes me wonder whether the bodies of Chadwick (highlighted in orange) & Hall (highlighted in blue) are actually beneath their headstones at all because, and I don’t know about you, it seems most odd that two post-war burials were brought here and, unlike more than a thousand others, were shoehorned into the burials already in Plot I. Doesn’t that strike you as curious?
As we pay our respects at some more of the original burials in Plot I, Row F in the foreground (and Plot VI beyond), including one with a tablet inscribed with ‘In loving memory of our dear boy’ (Second Lieutenant Grey was actually a South African serving with the Royal Artillery), let’s sum up. We know that the original wartime burials in the cemetery are all in Plot I, and that there are a total of 139 graves in the plot, of which thirteen are unidentified (logically, I think it reasonable to assume that they too are all wartime burials). 126 men are identified, and 122 of these are definitely wartime burials. Of the other four I have serious doubts whether there are bodies beneath any of the headstones, and if there are in the case of Privates Chadwick & Hall, then who knows to whom they belong. Of the 122 men definitely buried during the war, all but three died between 31st July & November 1917, and those are the dates that this cemetery was open and in regular use; just four months, half the time that the CWGC, and by extension every other site, will tell you. And that’s a fact.
Leaving Plot I behind, on our right we find Plot IV (above & below).
Plot V Rows A & B include two more headstones with personal tablets left at their bases, both visible in the above photo, the one in the foreground to the memory of Second Lieutenant David Charles Phillips, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, left by his parents and siblings,…
…and the other for Private John Bowman of the Gordon Highlanders, left by his wife. Both have clearly been here a long time.
Plot I on the left (Row B in the foreground; the final headstone five rows back is Private J. Clark, the Seaforth Highlander buried in March 1918), Plot IV on the right, the special memorials along the boundary in the background.
Back at the front of the cemetery, Plot VII in the foreground, the headstone nearest the camera currently removed for renovation. Beyond, Baldrick wanders through the headstones of Plot II, and it is in Plot II that the two most famous burials in this cemetery can be found.
One of two Great War poets buried in this cemetery, this is the grave of the Irishman Francis Ledwidge, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, whose memorial, two hundred yards down the road where he was killed, we saw last post.
Killed in action on 31st July 1917, Ledwidge, or what remained of him (again, see last post) was originally buried where he died, his remains positively identified by his pocket book, and subsequently moved here post-war.
Also in Plot II, but this time in the final row, Row F (the headstones behind are in Plot I), this is the grave of the Welsh poet Ellis Humphrey Evans, Royal Welch Fusiliers, who wrote under the name of Hedd Wyn. And here we open the proverbial can of worms. Ellis Evans was killed on 31st July 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele, so they say, so the plaques that remember him say, and so his headstone says, an eye-witness, Simon Jones, many years later in the 1970s, remembering, “We started over [the] Canal Bank at Ypres, and he was killed half way across Pilckem. I’ve heard many say that they were with Hedd Wyn and this and that, well I was with him… I saw him fall and I can say that it was a nosecap shell in his stomach that killed him. You could tell that… He was going in front of me, and I saw him fall on his knees and grab two fistfuls of dirt… He was dying, of course… There were stretcher bearers coming up behind us, you see. There was nothing – well, you’d be breaking the rules if you went to help someone who was injured when you were in an attack.” It seems that it was impossible to reach him for several hours, and when he was finally reached and taken to a first aid post, he supposedly asked the doctor “Do you think I will live?” though it was apparently clear that he had little chance of surviving.
All very well, and I don’t doubt Simon Jones’s account of what he saw, or thought he saw, but the details are pure supposition, and the above Graves Registration Report Form quite clearly gives Ellis’s date of death as 4th August 1917 – all the other typed details that have been changed with regard to Ellis have been changed correctly (trust me on that) so why would the date be wrong? And it has been deliberately changed from 31st July to 4th August. So the evidence says that Ellis was indeed fatally wounded, but did not die for a further four days. He was still in the rough area where he received his wound, suggesting that he was too injured to be moved from the A.D.S. and, whisper it, that the doctors knew he had no chance of surviving, and he was gently placed to one side along with other soldiers in similar terrible circumstances. He was probably given morphine and left to die, which he did, the facts say, in red and black pen, on 4th August. Also, did you notice that the soldier originally typed on the form was a Private T. E. Evans, not Ellis at all, but I can find no T. E. Evans on the CWGC database, and unfortunately, all the other forms on the database associated with Ellis actually refer to this other Evans, so no help there. So I am currently wondering what evidence actually exists to show that Ellis Evans/Hedd Wyn died on 31st July, because, frankly, at the moment, I cannot find any at all that stands up to scrutiny. We shall see what we shall see. Watch this space. I hope to be able to tell you the full tale one day. Unless they get me first…..
One other thing. Take one last look at the form. The man listed immediately beneath Ellis Evans, and buried next to him, Private R. E. Samuel, has also had his date of death changed from 31st July to 4th August in red pen. And guess what date of death is given to him on the CWGC database, and therefore on his headstone – yep, 4th August 1917. Case closed?
Because we used the tradesman’s entrance when we first arrived, and I therefore didn’t show you the proper entrance, here’s a few shots from outside the cemetery, as we return one last time to the story of Private J. Clark, Seaforth Highlanders, who died on 22nd March 1918 and was buried in Plot I at the end of Row F, the only 1918 burial made at the time of death in the cemetery.
If you were to look up Private Clark on the CWGC Casualty Details List you would find five forms that are relevant to our investigation, the first being the Graves Registration Report Form I showed you much earlier (the one with just two names on it including his, and about which I see no argument). The other forms associated with him are as follows:
A second Graves Registration Report Form,…
…a Concentration of Graves (Exhumations and Re-burials) Form,…
…and part of the Comprehensive Report of Headstone Inscriptions, but the Private J. Clark on these three forms is not our Private J. Clark. This Private J. Clark is a member of the Black Watch who died on 23rd October 1914, during the Battle of Langemarck, the same date and action that saw the death of Captain Edward Frederick Maltby Urquhart, also of the Black Watch, whose grave we visited in Boesinghe Churchyard a while back, and whose name also appears on two of the above forms – as does another Black Watch officer, Lieutenant Charles Lindsay Claude Bowes-Lyon, once buried in Boesinghe Churchyard, and now buried in New Irish Farm Cemetery (although the Concentration of Graves (Exhumations and Re-burials) Form suggests otherwise, and is, well, wrong, no other way to put it). These three forms have erroneously been attached to the wrong Private J. Clark, probably long before they were digitized.
Apart from the first Graves Registration Report Form, this Comprehensive Report of Headstone Inscriptions Form is the only one with the correct Private J. Clark, his details written in red pen, and attached to the correct soldier.
All of which, if nothing else, shows how awfully difficult, and frankly how much time it takes, to interpret these forms and the information they contain correctly. And I’m sorry, and maybe it doesn’t matter, and who cares anyway, but there is nowhere that I am aware of, certainly on the internet, probably elsewhere too, where anyone has ever bothered to look at the cemetery information that is universally taken for granted, with a questioning eye. And once more, I hasten to add that I am not trying to criticise the CWGC here – where would we all be without them – just correct some of the information about the cemeteries to which they are host. And I think the information should be correct, don’t you? Or do I go back to the start of this paragraph, and just assume no one cares (apart from me), and what does it matter anyway……
A final view looking west across the canal towards Boesinghe as we make our way back up the road. Of the remaining four cemeteries on our itinerary, three are to still be found in isolated sites in the fields as we head south, the other……well, all will be revealed in due course.