Poperinge Part Nine – Busseboom: The Chinese Memorial Site

A cold, clear, January afternoon on the outskirts of Poperinge.

Things have changed around here in recent years.  The two shots above were both taken from pretty much the same spot, the main photograph this year, the inset not so many years previously, before the land to the left of the road disappeared beneath a vast industrial estate.

It’s not really an improvement, so we shall concentrate our attention on the right of the road,…

…where the sign directs us down a side track,…

…past the drainage ditch,…

…our objective only a few yards further.

On the way, though, a chance to admire the view to the south east, the Kemmelberg (Mont Kemmel), on the left, and the Scherpenberg on the right.  A mile closer to us than the Kemmelberg, men of the German Alpine Corps would capture the Scherpenberg, after furious fighting, on 29th April 1918, although their tenure of the hill would last but a matter of hours before they were ejected by French counterattacks.  The brief capture of the Scherpenberg would prove the Germans’ final offensive action of the Battle of the Lys, and they would get no closer to our viewpoint, although Mont Kemmel itself would remain in their hands until the end of August 1918.

Two memorials have been erected here, the inauguration taking place in November 2017 (thanks to Morag for sending me the scans of the above invitation – Busseboom is the name of the nearest hamlet to the site, a thousand yards due south of here),…

…and their positioning is no coincidence…

…although it would appear that the relevance of the site has been given priority over the likely numbers of visitors.  It’s a bit of a trek to get here (I was on foot this day), and no one is going to simply pass by on the industrial estate ring road; I think three cars passed me as I walked it earlier.

On arrival, we find one of several information boards on the site, this one giving some basic information about Chinese labourers on the Western Front (we have covered the Chinese involvement previously, and if you wish to remind yourself, you’ll find it here) on one side,…

…and a map and some information on the memorials on the other side.  And it’s actually the map that proves of most interest, and you will see when we look at it in close up later on.

The first memorial,…

…encased in this wooden shelter,…

…features a figure of a Chinese labourer,…

…lugging a large artillery shell,…

…the figure looking out across the fields to the east where,…

…in July 1917,…

…just beyond the farm in the centre on the horizon,…

…a Chinese camp was constructed, the first Chinese labourers arriving in their hundreds within weeks.  In time, some 12,000 Chinese labourers would be housed in a number of camps around Poperinge.

They were needed as the town had become a huge logistical centre for the British Army,…

…its railhead disgorging vast quantities of ammunition and supplies for the fighting troops, its roads, tracks and light railways under constant need of repair, the surrounding camps and depots likewise.

And the Chinese stayed after the war, as the huge task of clearing the consequences of four years of death and destruction continued,…

…including, of course, the appalling task of body clearance.

The plaque inset into the inside wall of the shelter remembers thirteen Chinese workers who died one night at the nearby camp as a result of a German bombing raid.

It seems that on the night of 15th November 1917, a Chinese labourer lit an unguarded cigarette,…

…and in so doing, attracted the attention of the German Air Force.

The subsequent air raid on the camp killed thirteen Chinese labourers, their bodies buried near the Roobaertbeek, a small stream that cuts through the fields from north to south, its course marked by the small white posts at the bottom of the memorial field, as you can see in this and many of the other photos in this post.  Later, the bodies of all thirteen would be moved to Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension, eight or so miles away in France.

At which point, time for a map, the site of the memorials marked in red, and the site of the Chinese camp in green.  The industrial estate now covers the whole of the area shaded in pink, and the reason for shading Square 10 in mauve will be explained in due course.

And here’s a close-up of the map from the earlier information board, the industrial estate visible in the top left corner, and the various sites marked, including the former cemetery where the Busselboom Thirteen, as they became known, were originally buried.

A second information board…

…shows Chinese graves,…

…but don’t be fooled.  This is the Chinese plot in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, a few miles south west of Poperinge, where thirty five Chinese labourers are buried.

A third board,…

…features a small trench map, and this is where things, as ever, get more complicated than they should.

Here’s the relevant part of the same map in close-up, Square 10 shaded in mauve by yours truly, and with the Chinese cemetery (known at the time as Reninghelst Chinese Cemetery) marked in red,…

…and if you compare it to this close-up of the earlier trench map – and now you know why I shaded Square 10 in the first place – it’s clear that the Chinese cemetery is marked in the same field where the memorials – the red oval – now stand,…

…and not where it has been placed here on the map we saw on the first information board,…

…which actually places it beyond the building and trees, as opposed to directly in front of us on this side of the house.

The inset even shows a building right next to the cemetery but just in the next field, exactly where this house is today.  And it is this inset from the information board map that reveals the second problem.  This particular map is a body count map, and as such it tells us, marked in blue, how many bodies were found in each quarter of each square post-war.  No bodies were found in the two upper quarters of Square 10, but twenty were found in the two lower quarters, seven in the lower left, and thirteen in the lower right.  Surely the thirteen in the lower right must be the Busselboom Thirteen, which in turn begs the question of the validity of the location of the cemetery on this map, particularly bearing in mind that the Robaartsbeek cuts right through Square 10, separating the purported site of the cemetery from the site of the camp and therefore from where the men actually died.  It could be that the  ‘7’ & ’13’ were simply marked in the wrong boxes, and should be transposed, but then we still have the problem of the stream, across which the bodies would have to be carried. Probably not too difficult, but why would you bother – there was no cemetery there already.  Or was there?  Because seven bodies were found in the memorial field, as the map shows us.  Anyway, I don’t know all the answers, but there’s something not right here.

One final thing.  In their blurb about Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, which is where the name Reninghelst Chinese Cemetery appears, the CWGC places the cemetery, and I quote, ‘in a field a little south of the Poperinghe-Brandhoek road*, where 30 men of the Chinese Labour Corps were buried in November 1917-March 1918.’  Which is undoubtedly our memorial field, and our Chinese cemetery, but it’s occupants have now increased in number to thirty!

*for Poperinghe-Brandhoek read Poperinge-Ieper.  It’s all the same road.

The second memorial, thirty yards from the first,…

…also remembers the Busselboom Thirteen, and there’s a tablet in English on the other side,…

…which I will transcribe verbatim; ‘During WWI, 240,000 Chinese labourers were recruited to serve as the Chinese Labour Corps to ease urgent logistic need of Allied Forces. At the night of 15 November 1917, 13 Chinese labourers died in their military camp in Busseboom of Poperinge during a bombing by the German army. On the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of this tragic event, we establish the monument at the venue. Let’s comfort thousands of Chinese labourers sacrificed in WWI and remember today’s uneasy peace.’

So, what with my waffle, and, respectfully, that waffle, I’ll leave you in peace for a while to look at the figures in more detail:

Commissioned by the Chinese government (the figure in the shelter was commissioned by Poperinge town council), today, as one of the information boards tells us, ‘…the Busseboom Thirteen represent all Chinese victims in and around Poperinge’.

Of the eighty five, I believe, Chinese burials in CWGC cemeteries in Flanders, sixty are to be found in the burial grounds around Poperinge, mainly those close to the sites of military hospitals during the war.  Many were laid low by the Spanish flu, but some were killed in accidents, one or two were murdered, and one, as we saw recently, was shot at dawn.  Across the British sector as a whole, eight Chinese Labour Corps men would be executed in total, all for murder, the final three as late as February 1920.

By which time the sun was nearly gone, and I had a train to catch.

So with a final look across the fields towards the Kemmelberg, Scherpeneberg and, behind the trees to the far right, the smaller hills of Mont Rouge, Mont Vidaigne & Mont Noir,…

…it’s time to leave, this view looking from west (right) to north west, towards the Poperinge-Ieper road on the horizon,…

…these wind turbines part of the same wind farm that we have seen in a number of recent posts,…

…and will doubtless see again in future ones.

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8 Responses to Poperinge Part Nine – Busseboom: The Chinese Memorial Site

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    An amazing story and thank you for telling it to us – the contribution by Chinese labourers is mostly overlooked (not only during The Great War but elsewhere). Pity about the pollution at the end. I’m not a fan (oh, the pun) of those monstrosities.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Oh, how we laughed! Cheers mate. Hopefully the two posts about the CLC that I have published go a tiny way to addressing their overlookeddom. It’s late. And whether you like wind turbines or not, on the mainly flat land around Poperinge they are a Godsend for the likes of me – I always know where I am – roughly! Lol!

  2. As ever, thank you, from a non-traveller.
    Kath.

  3. Loren Rhoads says:

    I had no idea about the Chinese laborers in World War I. Thanks for sending me the link to your site.

    • Magicfingers says:

      And thanks for commenting, Loren. The Chinese Labour Corps are finally getting a little of the recognition they deserve – if you clicked the link in the post, there’s more. Anyway, thoroughly enjoy your site – and talking of cemeteries in general, check out the Ireland category and the Dublin cemeteries and the Back in Blighty category – all sorts of unusual stuff therein. Thanks again.

  4. Morag Sutherland says:

    good morning
    thanks as always . the sculptures are amazing……..and so was the work done on the text and maps . Have a good day

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