French Flanders: The Cemeteries on the Lys Part One: Erquinghem-Lys Churchyard Extension

Okay, I’ve been intimating for some time now that we will be off on a new tour soon, so let’s bite the bullet and get started.  We begin with another visit to the cemetery at Erquinghem-Lys, just a mile south west of the outskirts of Armentières, and today well on the way to becoming an outskirt itself.

Our previous tours in French Flanders have taken in the front line cemeteries of the Nursery, as well as those associated with the Battle of Fromelles in mid-July 1916, and those to the north west of Armentières as far as Steenwerck, on the way to Bailleul, all of which you can see on this Google map.  Our new tour begins once again just south of Armentières, but this time we shall be heading upstream, following the meanders of the River Lys south west, through Erquinghem and Sailly (both marked – we have visited them before, but there’s a lot more still to see), Estaires and La Gorgue, taking in the cemeteries and memorials along the way.

The source of the Lys, which flows close to the northern cemetery boundary, no more than a hundred yards away, can be found some fifty miles to the west near Lisbourg in the Pas de Calais, from where the river flows north, north east and then roughly east until reaching Estaires; from there it flows north east to Armentières after which it forms the French-Belgian border for a considerable distance (and where we have followed part of its course, between Comines & Menen, the posts to be found in the Along the River Lys Category), eventually reaching the River Scheldt in Ghent, some 126 miles from its source.

The cemeteries we shall visit were all on land that remained in British hands for most of the war, the majority around three miles behind the front lines for much of that time, until the Germans unleashed Operation Georgette – the Battle of the Lys – between 7th & 29th April 1918, at which point all the land on which we shall travel this tour was captured in the first few days of the offensive, and held until late summer and the final Allied advance to victory.

We have visited Erquinghem (actually slightly closer to the old front lines, at about two miles, than most of the cemeteries we shall visit this tour) twice before, and if you remember it has an unusual grave layout, eighteen rows of regimented British headstones…

…followed by five rows of primarily German burials at the north eastern end, beneath the Cross,…

…and a single row of British soldiers along the boundary wall behind the Cross, quite a few of whom were originally buried in the nearby churchyard (now the church car park, actually, although still marked as a chuchyard on the cemetery plan), and moved here in the 1920s.

All but three of the 130 German graves are identified, and all but two died between 12th & 23rd April 1918, as the tide of battle swept across the land and the British retreated to the north west.  It is quite unusual to find this amount of German graves still in a British military cemetery, certainly in one this size, with so many graves in a relatively small area, and this is not the only CWGC cemetery along the Lys still containing a considerable number of German graves.  And yet at least two other cemeteries we shall visit, both of which once held a substantial plot of German graves, are now devoid of any, all of them moved post-war.  I can see no policy at work here; more research required, methinks.

The Germans had briefly occupied Erquinghem once before, entering the village on 6th October 1914, and departing within the week with the Somerset Light Infantry hot on their heels.  This time they would hold the village throughout the summer of 1918.  The two identified British casualties on the right were both killed in April 1918.  You would assume that these men, and a couple of others, lying among the rows of Germans, were most likely also buried by them.

Just days after Ludendorf had brought the first of his 1918 offensives, Operation Michael, to a close (despite capturing 1,200 square miles of territory, the Germans had failed to achieve any of their strategic objectives, and both Arras and Amiens remained in Allied hands), he launched Operation Georgette in Flanders, with the aim of finally taking the City of Ypres (Ieper) and the Channel Ports beyond.  The battle would last for three weeks, and the above map shows German progress over that time (I have marked in red the area we shall be visiting on this tour).  What is clear is how fast and how much land the Germans captured in the first few days of the battle (up to the dotted yellow line – in places twenty miles in a couple of days), and how much slower their progress was for the remaining two and a half weeks, as the Allies shortened their lines in the Ypres Salient, giving up the hard-won gains of Third Ypres the previous year in order to move men south to reinforce the troops fighting the battle, fresh reinforcements arriving too, British, French and to the south of the attack the 1st Australian Division, who took up positions in the Forest of Nieppe (see map again) and effectively halted the German advance towards the key Allied railway junction of Hazebrouck.  The Germans turned their attention to the north of the attack around Mont Kemmel, and they would take the Kemmelberg from the French on 25th April, and even the Scherpenberg, a hill to the north-west of the Kemmelberg, on 29th April, but by then the German advance had stalled across the rest of the front, and Ludendorf ended the battle on the evening of 29th April.

But back to the start of the offensive.  The German attack on 9th April 1918, preceded by an intense artillery bombardment that began on the evening of the 7th, took place along a twenty five mile front, held by only twelve divisions, from Ypres in the north to La Bassee in the south.  At Neuve Chapelle, which the Germans had specifically targeted, the Portuguese defenders gave way, German troops pouring through the gap in the line and consolidating in the countryside behind, the British desperately attempting to breach the gap.  At Erquinghem the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment crossed the River Lys from the north and set up position in the fields to the south of the village along the railway line, but enfilade fire from a German machine gun positioned at the railway crossing (marked in dark green on the above map, the cemetery marked in pink) on the Rue du Moulin caused heavy casualties, as did a German field gun that, I suspect, was firing over open sights.  The Duke of Wellington’s were decimated; out of five officers and 139 men only one officer and nine men would survive.

Forward elements of the German army would enter Erquinghem itself later on 9th April, the main body of troops arriving the next day.  And it was on 10th April that a 24 year old Duke of Wellington’s private, Arthur Poulter, at the time of the fighting acting as a stretcher bearer, would be seen to make no less than ten trips to bring wounded men back to safety, all the while under extremely heavy fire, two of the men being hit again whilst he carried them.  Even after the order was given to withdraw to the north side of the river he returned once more, in full view of the enemy, to retrieve another man who had been left behind.  He then continued his work, still under constant shellfire, bandaging some forty men who were then evacuated by ambulance.  Seriously wounded in the head a few weeks late near Kemmel whilst attempting to rescue another soldier, Poulter was helped to the ambulance by a lieutenant, one of the men he had saved on 10th April returning the favour.  Whilst in hospital back in Blighty, Poulter was informed that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross.  His war was over, and he would die in 1956 at the age of 62.  The inset photographs show him before and, I presume, after he was wounded.  In 2009 & 2010 charters were signed, twinning the towns of Erquinghem and Skipton in Yorkshire, Arthur Poulter’s home town.

Over fifty different regiments are represented among the 551 identified British, Australian, New Zealand & Canadian burials here,…

…of which more than one hundred are men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, South Wales Borderers and the Welch Regiment (burials from March 1918 in Plot II Row H above).

More Royal Welsh Fusiliers in Row F, these men all killed on 19th September 1917.  The layout of these six headstones, although none are actually touching, suggests men killed in a shell explosion, the centre four buried together, the two on either side slightly further apart, for sanitation purposes, probably.  You work it out.  Note the single unidentified Russian, whom we have visited before, to the far right of the second row.

Yet more Royal Welch Fusiliers at the end of Plot II Row E, these men killed in November 1917.

Seventy two men of the King’s Liverpool Regiment, whose headquarters was here at Erquinghem between March & September 1917, are buried in the cemetery, these men in Plot II Row B,…

…as are these casualties from April 1917.

Thirty two Australians were buried here between April and early July 1916, all in Plot I Rows K (above),…

…Row J (above & following two photos),…

… and a couple in Row H, visible in the second row above.

The three headstones in the centre here in Plot I Row G are inscribed with the names of five Royal Engineers, a Lieutenant, Corporal and three sappers, all killed, you would imagine together, bearing in mind the closeness of their headstones, on the last day of 1915.  A few rows behind, and visible in the right background, are two German graves that we have visited before,…

…those of Leutnant Oscar Teichmann & Flieger Josef Suwelack in Row E on the left,…

…about whom you will find out more in the previous Erquinghem posts, which you really should take a look at, as they contain further information on the cemetery, the men buried here, and a series of photographs taken in 1914 of the Erquinghem area.  I’ll give you a link in a minute.

Another young subaltern.  Twenty two years old.  And yet ‘My Great Uncle’.

As the Germans retreated and the war neared its end, the cemetery was once again used by the British, who made a few more burials here in September & October 1918.  There are nine British burials from the autumn of 1918 in the cemetery, four of which, having been discovered in the fields about a mile to the south west of the town, were reburied here after the war.

This building, a few yards from the cemetery, houses the museum of my friend Jack Thorpe (more here and here).  Do pop in if you are in the area.  And I promised you a link to the previous Erquinghem posts, so click here for the first, at the end of which another link will take you to the second.

Next we shall travel around 1,500 yards south, where Erquinghem’s second, much smaller, cemetery awaits us, but first I urge you to acquaint, or for many of you reacquaint, yourselves with the story behind our first visit by clicking here (so plenty to keep you busy until Part Two), because we have indeed visited Suffolk Cemetery (La Rolanderie Farm) once before, and things, I am pleased to say, have changed somewhat since then.

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11 Responses to French Flanders: The Cemeteries on the Lys Part One: Erquinghem-Lys Churchyard Extension

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    Another great post thanks MJS – your “Battles of Lys 1918” map is exceptionally clear and easy to understand … now a question, also pondered for other posts:

    The ground in front of some headstones is bare – do you know whether the various types of vegetation grown in front of most headstones has any special significance?

    • Magicfingers says:

      Yes I do. Lutyens great mate Gertrude Jekyll was involved from the start with the planting of the cemeteries. From the CWGC website:

      “Working closely with the architectural teams, the horticultural department has, since the beginning, played a major part in the look and feel of our cemeteries. Variety in texture, height and timing of floral display are important considerations. Each headstone border is planted with a mixture of floribunda roses and herbaceous perennials. Low-growing plants are chosen for areas immediately in front of headstones, ensuring that inscriptions are not obscured and preventing soil from splashing back during rain. The horticulturalists go to great lengths to ensure that the right plants for the right cemetery are carefully managed and nurtured. This might mean bringing seeds from Nepal to use in the Gurkha cemeteries or maples from Canada to commemorate Canadians buried at our cemeteries in Dieppe, France.
      Horticulture is about much more than such sensitivities. The feeling of the cemeteries, described by Sir Frederic Kenyon in 1918 as having to have the general appearance of a British cemetery with flowers, borders and paths, is still important today. Our cemeteries are living places and our gardeners are proud of their work, which they maintain to the highest standards.
      Efficiency and innovation has always been key to the Commission’s way of thinking. Much of what we use in our gardens today was developed between manufacturers and the Commission’s horticultural teams to speed up such work as mowing, edging, composting, tree and hedge-trimming and irrigation.”
      After the end of the First World War Gertrude and Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was knighted in 1918, worked together on some of the cemeteries and memorials on the Western Front. According to Anne Powell, Gertrude planned “…to plant rose bushes so every grave would fall under the shadow sometime during the day. She extended the plan of an English country garden to the boundary planting, to reflect the hedgerows of home.”
      The CWGC have a leaflet about border planting available here:
      https://issuu.com/wargravescommission/docs/border_planting_and_design

      • Sid from Down Under says:

        A huge thank you … all is revealed. I vaguely recall reading some of this somewhere but most important – I have again learned something most enlightening and useful … and hope other readers have done likewise – you are an amazing fellow MJS

        • Magicfingers says:

          I’ve been called a narcistic (!) arse, if you remember, and an amazing fellow now in recent times. I wonder where the truth lies? I’ll just ask the missus…….

          • Sid from Down Under says:

            That would be interesting – being light-hearted in a serious world, the answer might well be 007 as in the suave one who always succeeds (I seem to remember you bought a sports car – pseudo DB5) …. followed by how people passed time before the advent of TV. There you are, I’ve opened another opportunity for you, my friend

  2. Daisy says:

    Hello Magicfingers,

    I visited Suffolk cemetery in October last year for my great uncle was at la Rolanderie Farm in 1916 training for 2 weeks before the 14th Battalion Trench Raid at Bois Grenier. The woman in charge at the farm wasn’t happy with me taking photos! Foto non!
    It was a hot day and the track was dry so of course I drove the rental car across the field. The headstones were generally badly weathered and some very hard to read. Keen to see the changes you mention.

    Daisy.

    • Magicfingers says:

      That’s unfortunate, because the farmer was quite the opposite, once he knew who we were and why we were there – very friendly – told us there had been more visitors there in recent times than ever before. His dog took a liking to Baldrick which was not reciprocated. I must have been there within a few weeks, even days, of you if you were there in October ’18. We shall discuss the headstones once the post is published, I suggest……

      • Daisy says:

        No sign of the farmer, just the farmer’s wife I assumed. She became friendly once I told her I was Australian! I showed her the information in Peter Pedersen’s ‘Anzacs on the Western Front’ and she warmed to me more… I was there on 17 October. It was a beautiful sunny day but extremely quiet, nobody around. The season for no activity I thought…a fascinating part of the world.

  3. Nick Kilner says:

    Excellent! Been looking forward to this series. Erquinghem really is a deceptively interesting place, one of those towns you could pass through in a matter of minutes without ever realising the level of fighting that went on here. I had no idea that the Duke of Wellingtons (West riding) regiment had taken such catastrophic losses on that first day. Quite extraordinary.

    • Magicfingers says:

      So true. It’s been interesting finding out about it – you could probably find out something similar (different regiments, same fighting) in many of the villages along the Lys on 9th & 10th April ’18, I reckon. A Tuesday & Wednesday, if yer interested.

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