French Flanders: The Cemeteries on the Lys Part Twelve – La Gorgue Communal Cemetery

Another communal cemetery, this time with a CWGC sign for all to see.

Even without the sign,…

…it’s clear that there are British war graves here, 151 in total if you include seven men killed during World War II.

Immediately on our right on entering we find the receptacle for the register and visitors book,…

…with the Cross of Sacrifice beyond.

Ruins in La Gorgue, 1918.  These headstones behind the Cross…

…and all those beyond, comprise Plot III (above & below).

The earliest burials here in the communal cemetery were made in late October & November 1914 after which, apart from a single burial in April 1915, no further were made until June 1915.

The British would then use the cemetery on a fairly regular basis between then and August 1917, at least a single burial taking place each month until the end of 1917, when the cemetery ceased to be used. Later, in the autumn of 1918, eight men were buried here and there are seven World War II burials, one of whom is unknown.

What becomes clear, as one investigates the burials here, is that although all were originally made within the cemetery – there are no graves here brought in from elsewhere – many have been moved post-war to create the three distinct plots that now exist. Plot III Row A (above) is, however, one of the original wartime rows, the dates of death on the headstones in the row running from late 1916 at this end, to August 1917 at the far end, although there is a single grave from December 1917 three quarters of the way down the row. Here’s the cemetery plan, and thanks once again to the CWGC for allowing me to use their cemetery plans for all these years. The insets above show British troops in and around La Gorgue early in the war.

La Gorgue, like the other towns and villages along the Lys, would be close behind the front lines until the spring of 1918. An Allied railhead for much of the war (as the map above shows), there was a field ambulance station based here between 1915 & 1917, and a British airfield operated just to the west of the village. Whether it was the best place to site an airfield is open to question; it had cinder covered runways, indicative of damp conditions, and drainage gullies, indicative of wet conditions, and, as one pilot from 46 Squadron, having survived his first twenty four hours at La Gorgue without managing to crash, was heard to say, ‘whoever picked this place as an aerodrome must have been completely off his rocker.’

Nonetheless, the airfield was in use for at least three years prior to April 1918. 16 Squadron was based at La Gorgue for three months as early as March 1915, and would return for the first eight months of 1916, after which 42 Squadron would take over for two months, and 1917 would see at least five squadrons rotated in and out of La Gorgue airfield. On 2nd April 1918, the day after the formation of the Royal Air Force by the combination of the R.F.C. & the R.N.A.S., 208 Squadron arrived in La Gorgue. No. 8 (Naval) Squadron until the previous day – the naval squadrons all had ‘200’ added to their designation on the amalgamation, hence No. 8 Squadron became 208 Squadron – they were greeted by a front ‘denuded of troops, to provide reinforcements to contain the ominous bulge in the line further south. On our immediate front, a few miles ahead, were the Portuguese 2nd Division.’ 208 Squadron’s tenure of La Gorgue would be short-lived. Within days they would be packing up once more and leaving for pastures new as the German attack overwhelmed the Portuguese front line positions, sweeping all before them as they advanced. Unfortunately, dense fog* prevented the squadron from taking their planes with them, their C.O. ordering his men to set fire to sixteen Sopwith Camels before both pilots and mechanics beat a hasty retreat on foot. The inset shows repairs at La Gorgue airfield after an earlier German bombing raid.

*once again, the Germans were blessed with fog on the morning of 9th April, adding to the confusion already caused by their saturation of the British and Portuguese positions with thousands of gas shells prior to and during the attack. Defending against vastly superior numbers under any circumstances must be frightening; defending against vastly superior numbers, visibility limited within your gas mask amidst the claustrophobia of fog, smoke, gas and the cacophony of battle, must be utterly terrifying, and undoubtedly added to the speed of the German advance, and the speed of the Portuguese retreat.

Three pilots are buried next to each other in Plot III Row B, all from 46 Squadron, who arrived at La Gorgue airfield in May 1917. Second Lieutenant Cedric Leopold Gunnery, aged 19, and whose grave is out of shot to the left of those pictured, was the first squadron fatality after their conversion from two-seaters to the single-seat Sopwith Pup, colliding with an RE8 at 16,000 feet above Dickebusch Lake on 22nd May 1917, one of his wings folding on impact. His funeral, according to a fellow pilot, ‘was a depressing affair. I’ve done pallbearer at so many funerals of chaps killed while learning to fly, especially at Filton, about once a week, that I thought I’d got hardened to it. But they were in coffins. For what reason I don’t know Gunnery was just sewn up in canvas, placed on a wide plank, and covered with the Union Jack. We could feel the corpse, cold and rigid, when we took him to the graveside from the trailer. It gave me quite a turn, and the others too……’. Second Lieutenant James Pedroza Stephen (pictured left), also 19, was the first 46 Squadron pilot killed in action since they began flying the Pup, shot down in an encounter with three Albatross scouts (another Pup was badly shot up in the encounter) on 23rd May 1917, the day after Gunnery’s death, and dying on his way to hospital. ‘The same sort of thing took place at Stephen’s funeral as at Gunnery’s. No coffin. But at least nobody fainted. Not a very bracing start for a newcomer to be welcomed with two funerals in two days, and especially having to handle the poor chaps’ corpses’. One wonders whether Stephen too had been a pallbearer at Gunnery’s funeral the day before his own death? He would presumably have attended. The grave on the right is that of Australian Second Lieutenant George Pollard Kay (pictured right), aged 21, who died during or following a take-off accident after visiting friends at Wagonlieu airfield near Arras on 27th June 1917, and who was brought back to La Gorgue for burial with his colleagues.

Whether the Germans used this cemetery during the summer of 1918 I cannot find out for certain, but it seems quite likely, as from 10th April to mid-September 1918 the cemetery was in German hands. They used other communal cemeteries, particularly where the British had already buried their dead, as we have seen in previous posts, and there are three Germans to be found here, two in scattered graves, and one in Plot III Row B above, although Unteroffizier Georg Fink presumably died in British captivity, his date of death given as 2nd May 1917. If they did use the cemetery, the other German graves have long since been removed.

Four of the seven Second World War casualties buried here are also to be found in Plot III Row B, these graves added in May 1940 during the retreat to Dunkirk.

Baldrick does his duty with the visitor’s book (he has three duties; drive, sign, and find everything I’m after wherever we go. Simples). In the left foreground, you will notice a French headstone to Marie Leroux,…

…and it would seem that these twenty one, I think, French graves are most likely war casualties, although whether all are civilian I am unsure, as I failed to check at the time.

To the south of the cemetery entrance, Plot II contains sixty four burials, all identified, the earliest, at this end, from late July and early August 1915,…

…the plot gradually enlarging,…

…as the months passed,…

…until the last burials, from October & November 1916, were made at this end (above & below). The cemetery plan suggests that these are all original, wartime, burials,…

…as does the fact that the dates on the headstones across all three rows can be roughly traced chronologically from left to right, showing that the plot was not made row by row, as it would almost certainly have been if the burials had been moved here post-war.

So although I have previously used the word ‘suggests’,…

…I think we can safely say that all these burials were made here during the war.

You may have spotted the Tower of London Poppy, left at the grave of Lance Serjeant G. R. James of the Gloucestershire Regiment, a few shots back.

Opposite Plot II, the third plot of British headstones,…

…this time Plot I.

Forty four burials in six rows,…

…with some curious spacing between the headstones, if you look carefully,…

…and all very curiously numbered too, if you take a another look at the cemetery plan. A close look shows a distinct difference between the typeface used to denote the three rows of Plot II & Plot III Row A and the rest of the rows, including the whole of Plot I, also suggesting (that word again) that they are the original graves and that the rest of the British burials have been added to the plan at a later date.

The rather odd spacing between the headstones continues throughout Plot I, the gap between the sixth and seventh headstones in Rows C & D,…

…and Rows E & F, being particularly noticeable. So what’s it all about? A breakdown of the burials in the plot shows three distinct sections,…

…as this extract from the cemetery plan, with added colours, shows. If you did look carefully at the photos you will have noticed that there is, in effect, a gap, after the first four headstones, in the centre of all six rows – the white ‘column’ or gap down the centre of the rows in the above plan. All of the 1915 graves to the right of this gap are wartime burials, as are the two single 1915 burials on the left of the gap in Rows A & B,…

…and here they all are, numbered as you would expect, on this Grave Registration Report Form. Back to the cemetery plan extract, and it is the 1914 & 1918 graves on the left of the central gap, and the two 1915 graves in Row C, also on the left, that are those moved from elsewhere in the cemetery after the war.

Interestingly, as these examples of GRRFs show (above & below), the word ‘regroupments’ has been added in red ink.

Regroupments, note, not concentrations, because these men were regrouped within the same cemetery, and you will see now how the unusual numbering came about, once these bodies had been reburied to the left of the graves already here; all the reinterments were given grave references of the row in which they had been reburied, followed by 1, and then either A, B, C or D.

Thus, as an example, here in Row D the first four headstones nearest the camera are all post-war ‘regroupments’, and are numbered Row D1A, D1B, D1C & D1D (even the only unidentified Great War British soldier in the cemetery, second from the left, has a designated number of D1B). And the three graves at the far end after the central gap are D1, D2 & D3, and were here first. Make sense? Why the large gap before the final headstone? I’ve still got no idea.

This particular form also tells us that the eight 1918 burials now in Plot I Rows A, B & C, were all once buried in a designated Plot IV, somewhere else in the cemetery. It also tells us the site of the third German burial, and explains why I did not find him. The two men once buried in ‘isolated graves right of centre path’ are now to be found in Plot III, where the grave of Sapper Meakin explains the December 1917 burial in Plot III Row A that was mentioned earlier.

Looking north east across Plot I, with Plot II in the background. 90° to our left, another of the three German graves, although out of shot in the main picture, can just be seen beyond the main group of headstones in the inset. Hans Jackel has a grave reference of Plot I I2, as can be seen on the GRRF below (and the cemetery plan), which also indicates the original plot references for all the men killed in 1914 before reburial in the first three rows of Plot I.

It would seem that, unlike the 1918 burials at the time buried in Plot IV, now gone, fourteen British graves from 1914 and two from 1915 were scattered in ones, twos & threes for some distance behind the six rows (shorter rows at the time, of course) of Plot I, and these were all moved to Rows A to C of Plot I post-war, leaving the one German buried in this part of the cemetery all alone.

The Battle of the Lys would continue for the remainder of April 1918 as the Germans pushed on north and west, past these communities that we have visited along the river, but as we have seen, they would fail to achieve their main objectives before their momentum was finally halted. Ypres, Hazebrouk, indeed all the major British centres to the rear that dictated the flow of the British war effort in Flanders were still in Allied hands.

A final map, showing the location of the stops, marked in different colours for purely aesthetic reasons, we have made on our journey. All of which brings us to the end of this tour. Or at least the first part of it, although the title will change as we visit the cemeteries around Laventie later in the year.

This entry was posted in Armentières to La Gorgue, French Flanders. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to French Flanders: The Cemeteries on the Lys Part Twelve – La Gorgue Communal Cemetery

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    Trying to keep away from again saying “Another great post” (even though it is) I really enjoyed your Air Force inclusion – what a loss this must have been: ” … their C.O. ordering his men to set fire to sixteen Sopwith Camels” …. followed soon after by this graphic description: “…. defending against vastly superior numbers, visibility limited within your gas mask amidst the claustrophobia of fog, smoke, gas and the cacophony of battle, must be utterly terrifying….. ”

    We just do not realise just how lucky we are

    • Magicfingers says:

      Cheers Sid! Please don’t ever refrain from saying nice stuff, if nice stuff is deserved. I don’t think I’d still be doing this if there had been no encouragement along the way.
      The sentence you quote is, funnily enough, the final sentence I wrote in the whole post and had changed maybe a dozen times before the final version. I’m glad it had the desired effect. We will never truly realise how lucky we are.

      • Sid from Down Under says:

        A simple question I hope has a simple answer (because I’m a simple person) and something other readers might like to know.

        How does one add a photo of oneself (like beside your name) to replace the auto-anonymous image?

  2. Margaret Draycott says:

    Great post M, with reference to the pilots, I researched one of the crosses we found, you know for the project, from the First World War he was a pilot and was killed in a flying accident. Astonishingly more airmen were killed in flying accidents than actually in battle in ww1, a fact that really surprised me.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks M. I wonder of anyone has actual figures for accidental deaths as opposed to in action? Any of your project chums?

      • Nick Kilner says:

        Just found this in a related article
        “Recent analyses from academic British sources demonstrate that of 153 British military fliers who died while flying between August 1914 and December 1915, 89 (58%) were killed in action or died of their wounds soon after being shot down, and 64 (42%) perished from injuries suffered in training or operational mishaps.“ As with all of these things, statistics vary.
        At one point during a period known as ‘the Fokker scourge’ the life expectancy of allied pilots was 17.5 hours flying time. How they found the courage to keep going up, I’ve absolutely no idea

  3. Nick Kilner says:

    Another really interesting post! That gap is very curious. There has to be a reason for it, but I’m struggling to come up with a good one. Does it perhaps fall in line with a gap between the French graves nearby?
    I’m sure you found it, but in case you didn’t the aerodrome is marked on the Vieille Chapelle trench map dated 18th June 1918. The site now buried under an industrial estate, which I suppose may well have sprung up there as a result of the airfield. Pity, if it had still be open fields it would have been well worth a visit.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Yes, this place became more interesting the more I looked into it. This cemetery will definitely be added to my ‘How to read a CWGC cemetery’ talk that I am writing – guess what, C du B will be in it too!
      I could only find an extract with the airfield marked, which I decided not to use; the industrial estate that has now obliterated the airfield looks bigger than La Gorgue itself!! Having looked at the Vieille Chapelle map you mention, that ain’t the same one (and someone cannot spell aerodrome either), as the extract I found on some website or other actually had the runways marked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.