The Bayernwald Trenches

In the fields just over three miles south, and a little west, of the Lille Gate in Ypres (Ieper), there’s a little cemetery called Croonaert Chapel Cemetery, named after a shrine that once stood on the road between Wytschaete and Voormezeele.

We have never visited it, and we ain’t gonna do so today either, I’m sorry to say.  We are here for different reasons, but before I explain, bearing in mind that we are currently standing in No Man’s Land as it was before the Battle of Messines, looking towards the British lines, you might like to know that the farm buildings on the horizon on the far left are those of Hollandscheschuur Farm, where three mine craters still exist from the opening day of the battle.  One day I shall see if I can get permission to photograph them.

The panorama is German and shows the view away to the west and north west during 1915.  Zoom in,…

…and the British front line trench is quite clear, crossing the field in front of us at the bottom of the panorama,…

…some way this side of where the cemetery now stands.

Panning to our right,…

…a sign points us up this side road…

… towards the wood on the far right of these shots,…

…passing another German panorama on the way,…

…this one showing the view looking north.  Zoom in and you can not only see Ypres through the mist in the centre, but also the piece of shrapnel someone has kindly left on top of the panorama – and no, I left it there for somebody else.

The French, who originally held the trenches (the crenellated line in the top left) in the fields facing this wood, called it the Bois Quarante, the British, once they took over, Croonaert Wood, although trench maps would continue to use the French name throughout the war.  I would assume that (among) the first German occupants were men from Bavaria, hence the name by which the Germans knew the wood, and the name it is still referred to, that of Bayernwald – Bavarian Wood.  This nice, clear, extract from a 1917 map shows the Bois Quarante as it was during the war, and the German trenches that ran through it, with our current position marked by the orange dot.  The wood today, marked in green, is nothing like the size it was before war came, and within it is the renovated trench system that we have come to see, marked in magenta.

Before we continue, let’s take a look at exactly where we are.  St. Eloi, top right, is a little over two miles south of the Lille Gate, the southern entrance to Ypres.  Wytschaete, a mile and three quarters further south at the bottom of the map, sits at the northern tip of the Messines Ridge, with the Bois Quarante roughly mid-way between them, the blue dotted line marking the position of the British front line, the German trenches marked in red.

We need to follow the tree line about a hundred and fifty yards to find the way in to the wood,…

…the current side road marked as just a path beneath the words ‘Bois Quarante’, the wood extending further into the field in front of us in 1916 than it does today.

What you don’t want to do, should you ever visit, is just rock up and expect an interesting hour or so in the trenches.  You need to get a ticket in advance, because you can’t get through this entrance without one (at the time of writing tickets are available for individuals at the tourist offices in Kemmel, Ieper & Zonnebeke).

Once inside,…

…memorial tablets, this one a new addition for the Great War centenary.

Seriously fascinating talk on gas masks by Major Tim Saunders, our tour guide – I cannot tell you how many examples we were treated to, but at least half a dozen are visible in this photo, and we had only got to 1916 at this point!

There are various information boards around the site – of course there are.

So here we are looking at the restored Bayernwald trenches, the wickerwork quite clearly showing them to be German.

The trench system that exists today covers some 325 yards in total,…

…and includes two mine shafts,…

…both 130 feet deep, the tunnels they lead to over 300 yards in length.

Time to head down below ground.

These trenches are quite clearly restored, and it is difficult to establish their exact post-war history.

What we do know is that the original trenches here formed part of the German front line from October 1914 right through to the opening day of the Battle of Messines in June 1917.

Our next map dates from December 1916, although not published until February 1917,…

…the British lines in the top left marked in blue and in a little more detail than previously.

For many years after the war there was a museum here, run by the landowner André Becquart, and the trenches were open to the public who could, should they choose, take a trip down one of the mine shafts in a bucket seat!  If only!  Sod health & safety.

Following his death in the 1980s, the wood and trenches fell into serious disrepair, but no longer, hence our visit.

The trenches were meticulously restored, based on a German trench map from 1915, I believe, some time in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and re-opened to the public in 2004.

A larger section of the same December 1916 map shows the Bayernwald (highlighted, top left) in relation to St. Eloi to its north east, Wytschaete, at the northern end of the Messines Ridge, and Messines itself, at the southern tip of the ridge,…

…and this map shows how little had changed by April 1917.

Close-up of the trenches within the wood from the previous April 1917 map,…

…and, just to show how much the quality of printing could differ from one print run to another, this is a different copy of the same map with more ink!  Note that we are in the ‘O’ zone here (forgive me) with regard to trench names.

Anyway, continuing our trench walk,…

…we reach the far, north western, end of the restored system,…

…where we find more new information boards (close-ups below).  This picture also gives a good idea of the German view over the British lines beyond the wood.

Just over to our left there’s another mine shaft, and this one we shall go down and take a closer look at,…

…although to be fair I could have just zoomed in closer from above, couldn’t I?  Not much chance of a bucket seat today. This particular shaft was known as Berta 4.

Old signage (above), and new signage (below).

Who said anything about dumbing down?

Following the trench away from the mine shaft,…

…the top of a bunker comes into sight,…

…at the end of the trench.  It has two entrances,…

…and not much room inside,…

…nor much head height, either.

This bunker was designed to protect the troops manning these front line trenches, not provide comfort for them.

One of the old information boards shows the method of constructing front line bunkers, using steel rods to create a frame,…

…onto which pre-fabricated concrete blocks, such as this one now lining the trench floor, could be slotted, using the ready-made holes already drilled through them.

Close by, a second bunker,…

…the foundations suggesting that it was once somewhat larger than it is today,…

…this end room lacking its roof, the doorway an interior one between two rooms within the bunker.

However, the more I look at this bunker, the stranger it looks.  The lack of mortar here,…

…and a roof that doesn’t fit properly?  I wonder?  In the meantime,…

…looking inside, there’s not much head room here, either,…

…and that’s a pretty big slab of concrete above my head, so, moving on,…

…back above ground once more, this is the first bunker again, the short trench we walked down to reach it joining one of the front line trenches in the background.

With British artillery blasting the front line trenches fifty yards away, the German troops defending this sector could hopefully huddle within these bunkers, far enough away to be safe from anything other than a direct hit, and close enough to the front line to be back in position by the time any attacking British troops could cross No Man’s Land.

I would guess that this particular trench was either once a communication trench that went further into the trees beyond before the site was restored – or maybe it was just a latrine.

By July 1917, in the aftermath of the Battle of Messines and prior to the beginning of Third Ypres at the end of the month, the eradication of the German salient had moved the front lines some three miles to the east.

Continuing along the trench,…

…we once again encounter the second bunker, and from above ground you can see why I think it doesn’t look right.

The bricks supporting the roof are haphazardly positioned, with no mortar, and as we have seen many times before, the Germans simply didn’t make rubbish bunkers like this.  I think that this is an amalgamation of two bunkers, the blocks of the bunker walls moved at some point from somewhere else on site and placed on the foundations of a bunker that was already here, with the remains of the original roof then placed on top.

Moving on,…

…the top of another bunker,…

…the steps leading down again made of pre-fabricated concrete blocks as we saw earlier.

Serious signs of external damage, possibly by scavengers, military or civilian.

Again, protection,…

…not comfort.

From above you can see that this bunker again has two entrances and is quite a bit bigger than the other two.

By the spring and early summer (maps between May & July are the same) of 1918, the German spring offensive has swept west, and this map, with the German dispositions marked now in blue, shows light railways and the general melee of the rear area.

September 1918, and the Allies’ final offensive, now marked in red, approaches the wood from the west (above & below).

A few trenches are still marked within the wood, and the road immediately to the west, where this post started, is no longer marked – well, it is marked, but now it meanders through the fields to the west of the wood right in the centre of the map, as opposed to following the straight westerly edge of the wood, as it has done on all the other trench maps we have looked at.

A final look across the trench system from which, through the trees, the Germans would have had a view something like this,…

…towards the British lines crossing the field.

Panoramic view from the edge of the trees looking back towards the main road, where…

…these two large information boards, with photographs of 4th Bn. The South Lancashire Regiment in the trenches opposite the wood in April 1915, are worth a look before we finish,…

…the locations of the photographs marked on the maps in the centre of each.

As ever, click to enlarge.

A final look at Croonaert Chapel Cemetery, where we shall return one day,…

…but in the meantime we shall leave it to its seventy five sleeping soldiers, and the local fauna.

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8 Responses to The Bayernwald Trenches

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    Herewith you know I was able to open this Post via Homepage, MJS

    A fascinating and informative Post thank you. I particularly enjoyed the enlargeable old panoramas. And again the mind boggles at Battlefield infrastructure and planning. Certainly no “comfort stations”!

    The mine shafts gave me the jitters. 130′ deep then a long tunnel ….. no thanks … you may arrange to take your camera down there “next time” so I can sit back watching the results on my screen

    • Magicfingers says:

      Indeed Sid. Just a RSS problem – caused by me, actually – on this occasion. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. Not too easy to write about photos of trenches, but it all seemed to come together in the end. So you wouldn’t fancy joining me in a fougou I know down in Cornwall. There’s one section near the very end of the tunnel where you have to get on your stomach and crawl through a rather small (about 18 inches by 24 inches at a guess) aperture – and all by torchlight, of course. No? Not for you?

  2. Morag L Sutherland says:

    I had to access by search too………….I will have a look for some old photos we took here before the improvement……….I walked the woods without having to pay! and before the code system……….but I don’t have a problem with that ………

    • Magicfingers says:

      Ooh. I have seen some earlier photos, but I’d like to see yours if you find them.

      • Morag L Sutherland says:

        I have not forgotten about this but stil golfing!
        earlier this evening I sent you an email about a man on the Menin gate- you might find scenario useful as I thought of the lady and artillery wood cemetery

  3. Nick Kilner says:

    Another great article Magicfingers, the mining being of particular interest to me. looks like the tunnels have got a bit ‘damp’ over the years.
    You were only a few miles from Barry’s at that point, my apologies for not having sent you his details sooner. I’ll drop you an email.
    kind regards
    Nick

    • Magicfingers says:

      I’m glad you liked this one Nick. I’d have been down those tunnels like a shot given the chance! No hurry on Kemmel, but thanks anyway!

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