A Walk to Wervicq-Sud German Military Cemetery Part One

Wervik is a city of two halves, although both halves have different names and are in different countries.  That’s just plain weird.  And this is a post in two halves, because it’s so bloody long that I reckon if I published it in one go, well, maybe none of you would read the whole thing – not that you are under any obligation to do so anyway, but perhaps one day someone will!  And if you choose to continue, you will find yourself embarking on what surely must be the most comprehensive tour of a German Great War military cemetery there has ever been – correct me if I am wrong – with a twist at the end.  This is not for the faint-hearted.

Long-time followers will know that, unlike just about everybody who visits the area, I base my Flanders trips in Wervik; fifteen minutes drive from the centre of Ieper, twenty on the train to Poperinge, as I have recently taken advantage of, from here the whole Ieper battlefield is spread out to the west within easy reach, particularly if you have a Baldrick.

Wervik (Wervicq in French), a mere eight miles south east, as the crow flies, of the centre of Ieper (Ypres), was occupied by the Germans in August 1914 and would remain in their hands until October 1918, serving as an important supply base and army headquarters throughout that time.

The annotations in red on this April 1917 trench map extract would have been gained from aerial reconnaissance missions by the pilots of the R.F.C., returning with photographs like the one we have just looked at.  What appears to be a major German encampment up in the top left corner is clearly visible on both the photograph, taken in June 1917, a few months after the map was published, and the map.  Note also plenty of ‘wire entanglements or other obstacles’, to quote from the key to the map, in the area to which we are heading, our route south marked in orange,…

…so I suggest we get on with it.  What splits Wervik, in Belgium, from Wervicq-Sud, in France, is our old friend the River Lys, and the new bridge that spans it.  Or at least it’s the River Lys if you’re on the right, French, bank, which is where we are heading, and the River Leie if you are on the left, Belgian, bank, from where we have just come.

And reaching the right bank we are immediately in France, our destination a mile and a half walk from here, our route following the car on the right,…

…past Wervicq-Sud church and the war memorial that we visited many moons back now, marked as a pink dot on the map.

I took the opportunity to photograph it once again on the return journey, but in far more detail than before, and all will be revealed in a future post.  Or re-revealed.

Continuing south,…

…you might consider that we should go thataway, there being a sign pointing to the very Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof we are looking for.

But I say no!  Unless you want to double the length of our walk, we need to carry on and turn off here, where there are no signs at all,…

…and follow this street out of town,…

…into the countryside,…

…ahead of us the woods of the thirty-acre Parc Dalle Dumont, which will play an important role in Part Two of this post.

But for the present,…

…we shall follow the western border of the park to its end (I could hear shrieking kids in the woods, and found out much later why),…

…where, eventually, beyond the next line of trees,…

…we arrive.  Wervicq-Sud German Military Cemetery.  I have been intending to visit for many years now.

Cemetery information board, in French only, but I promise we shall cover all its contents in the course of our visit.  The most important point it makes, however, is that this is a concentration cemetery, the bodies, for the most part, removed from their original resting place, some 500 yards north of here, in 1921, although some 250 German prisoners-of-war who had died in Allied captivity in the Normandy area, a hundred miles and more away to the south west, and been buried in numerous communal cemeteries, were moved here in the late 1950s.  Exactly why the majority of the bodies were moved in the first place will be revealed next post.

Cemetery entrance,…

…featuring the ubiquitous five crosses of the VdK.

On entering, a narrow central grass pathway runs ahead of us the length of the cemetery, separating the plots on the left from those on the right, the first crosses of Plot I here on the left, those of Plot 2 on the right.  I was in no hurry this day, and was able to spend a good couple of hours in this cemetery, during which time weather conditions changed from bright,…

…to dull, and at times the wind howled around the crosses; I watched little leaf whirlwinds dancing beneath the trees.  Which explains the juxtaposition of bright and dull shots as we tour the cemetery – all are intermingled as we try to make some sense of the place.  I have Gold Stars lined up for all of you who stay with me until the end.

The tablet…

…informs us that the graves of 2,498 German soldiers are to be found here, and I can tell you that 1,918 of them lie in individual graves, the rest in small mass graves, and that all but thirty eight are identified.

The graves are marked by crosses or stone tablets within six plots,…

…as you can see from this bespoke cemetery plan I knocked up for you; only Plots 1 & 2 contain stone tablets, visible in this aerial shot, the remaining plots containing just metal crosses.  The crosses mark the individual graves, frequently four graves marked by one cross*, and apart from a few that have just one name on them, the tablets, sixty in total, mark the small mass graves.

*something that has led to many misconceptions with regard to German treatment of their own dead.  When the wooden crosses in German military cemeteries were replaced in the 1970s, and with only West Germany partaking in the cemetery redevelopments, financial and logistical restrictions meant that the decision was made, in general, to mark four individual graves with one new metal cross.  This is why old photographs of German military cemeteries appear far more crowded than their modern counterparts – as you will see in a minute.

An old, undated, cemetery plan, marked as ‘définitif’, but with little in common with the cemetery as we see it today.  Clearly this wasn’t at all ‘définitif’,…

…because this plan, dated 1929, is certainly closer to today’s cemetery.  The bushes delineating the central pathway on the map…

…can be seen further up the slope in this, the only photograph showing a cemetery recognisable with today’s burial ground that I could find, grabbed from the earlier information board, and tweaked.  See what I mean about the number of crosses compared with today?  The density of graves in some areas was another reason it was not possible to put crosses on the graves, even with four names on them; originally wooden stakes with a brass plate naming two burials were used but these proved unsuitable, particularly as the grass between the graves grew, visitors being unable to find the locations of their loved ones.  The solution, stone tablets, were introduced in the 1970s, newer, more legible, ones replacing these in the 1990s.

The stone tablets are only to be found at the western end of Plot 1 on our left (above),…

…and a little way back in Plot 2 on our right, and we shall see them all as we look around.  Otherwise, it’s crosses all the way.

Plot 1 begins with this row of tablets in front of the first row of crosses, the numbering actually beginning at the far end,…

…as shall we.

The tablets are generally, with a few exceptions, either single, double, as this one, or treble, with, in the case of known soldiers, between one and four names inscribed on each.

The first three tablets, all doubles,…

…list twenty three identified men,…

…and one unknown soldier, all killed in November 1914, right at the end of the First Battle of Ypres.

After which we find three unidentified men, alongside one man killed in July 1918,…

…followed by another July 1918 casualty, the remaining tablets in the row all marking the graves of men killed in October 1917,…

…until we reach the end of the row, the final man, on the right, killed in November 1917.  Apart from day-to-day warfare, there are men buried in this cemetery who died in all the major battles around Ypres; five hundred who fell during the First Battle of Ypres in October & November 1914 and the Allied counterattacks south of the city the following month; more than 1,500 killed during the Menin Road battles of 1915 & 1916; hundreds from Passchendaele in 1917 and the German attack on Mont Kemmel in April 1918.  Many others killed in these battles lie in the vast Menen German Military Cemetery, where almost 48,000 casualties are buried, only six miles to the north east of here, back in Belgium.

There are seven rows of tablets in Plot 1, all interspersed with unnumbered, equally spaced, blank metal crosses.  To continue following the tablets in sequence, however,…

…we now need to return to the northern boundary, where the tablet nearest the camera above,…

..the men buried beneath all casualties from 1915,…

…begins Row 2.

After which,…

…apart from a single man killed in December on the left tablet above,…

…all the names on these tablets…

…are casualties from November 1914.

Except for the final tablet, this man killed in July 1918.

The third and fourth row of tablets have no crosses between them, the numbering on this occasion continuing from this side of the plot with the tablet front left,…

…seen here in close-up.  Once more, the tablet marks the grave of a soldier killed late in the war, along with eight unknown men.  Do you know what an Armierungs-Soldat is?  Literally an armouring soldier, these were men unfit, or no longer fit, for front line duty, and were used to construct, maintain and operate defensive fortifications in the German rear area.

Meanwhile, the names on the next tablet take us back once more to November 1914 and First Ypres,…

…those following a mix of November & December 1914 casualties until we arrive at the final tablet.  In a while.

By now you will have noticed a considerable variation in the ranks of the men buried here, and unless you’re an expert, or have recently read up on the subject, some of the terms might be somewhat unfamiliar.  How many of you knew what an Armierungs-Soldat was?  Even terms that seem obvious may need further explanation; what, using the above tablet as our example, might be the difference between a soldat – soldier – and an infanterist – infantryman?

Musketier sounds obvious enough, but what is a Jäger?

So, as we reach the end of Row 3,…

…and tablets 28…

…& 29, the two names on the final tablet the only 1915 casualties in the row,…

…and begin Row 4,…

…you might like some answers to the questions.

I dare say we shall encounter all, or most, of the ranks we’ve already missed on the first three rows of tablets later on*, so we begin with Plot 1 Tablet 31.  What makes comparisons with the British Army of the time tricky is that there was no real equivalent in the German Army to the rank of Private.  The closest generic term would be Gemeiner, but each branch of the German Army had its own rank for the lowest of the low, and in the case of the infantry, a considerable number, of which Soldat & Musketier are but two.  So as an infantryman, depending on your regiment, you might be a Grenadier, or a Fusilier, or a Schutze, or an Infanterist, or a Musketier or a Soldat or any of around sixteen different names for ranks which were all basically the same.  Outside the infantry, a Pionier was the equivalent rank in the engineers,…

*This proves to be true apart from one rank, that of Obergefreiter, to be found on Tablet 10-11, a Senior Lance Corporal, but only in the artillery.

…and a Husar, again an equivalent rank, a cavalryman in the Hussars.  If you wish to be more specific, seeing that this tablet also marks the graves of a Musketier and a Soldat, a Musketier was a member of either a Prussian or Wurttemburg infantry regiment other than a Guards regiment, and a Soldat was a member of a Saxon regiment, again other than a Guards regiment.  And then there’s a Wehrmann, which on first research appears to be an Austrian, as opposed to German, rank during the Great War.  However, on 2nd August 1914, the German Landwehr, originally created in 1813 to assist the Reserve forces when required, were mobilised, creating 16 Landwehr divisions by September, and it may be that Wehrmann refers to a soldier of one of these divisions.  Then again, there are eight known Austro-Hungarian Army burials in the cemetery, so who knows?

A Gefreiter was a rank slightly above the others we have so far seen, although beneath a lance-corporal in the British Army, and the rank was used across the whole German Army.  Nonetheless, and particularly as the war progressed, and with the German emphasis on soldiers who could think and act for themselves when necessary, a lowly Gefreiter was in charge of a small sub-section of men in the field.  Ersatz Reservist, a curious term, refers to a soldier of the Ersatz (literally, replacement) Corps which was formed on 18th August 1914 from replacement units of active regiments.  Following the Race to the Sea and the onset of trench warfare, the Ersatz Corps ceased to exist, becoming part of the Armee-Abteilung on the Alsace-Lorraine front.  We will come across a number of Ersatz Reservists killed in 1914 as we continue, but why a man of the Ersatz Reserve killed in August 1915 should be buried here I cannot say.

January 1915 casualties,…

…and more men killed in December 1914.  An Unteroffizier was a Junior NCO, a corporal if you like, Vizefeldwebel equates to sergeant, and a Kanonier referred to, basically, an artilleryman.

More November 1914 casualties (above & below),…

…where, alongside two more Ersatz Reservists, there are a number of plain Reservists – no explanation needed.

The final tablet (and the tablet second closest to the camera in the shot below) is the grave of an Oberleutnant, equivalent to a lieutenant in the British Army,…

…at which point tablet 39  (above & below left) begins Row 5.

Following the tablets of Row 5, centre left, to the far end, and returning along Row 6, centre right,…

…the names on the first tablet are casualties from the summer of 1915,…

…those on the next November 1914,…

…these May & June 1915,…

…and these November 1914.  Any idea what a Kriegsfreiwilliger is?  We have come across them before.

Many of the attacking German divisions who were slaughtered at Langemark in October 1914 were made up of reservists and inexperienced, insanely patriotic young students – the Kriegsfreiwilliger, or War Volunteers.  Although actually exempt from army service, these university and college students chose to join up, en masse, along with their teachers, and, there being simply no time to train them in anything more than the rudiments of soldiering, went to their inevitable deaths singing loud patriotic songs, thus creating the myth of the Massacre of the Innocents – der Kindermord.

I say myth, because the Nazis raised the students’ sacrifice to near-mythical proportions in their propaganda, and recently historians have suggested that there were many more older reservists involved, perhaps only 15% of the attacking troops being students.  Whether that is the case or not, there are plenty of both Kriegsfreiwilliger and reservists who died during First Ypres buried here at Wervicq-Sud.

The remaining three tablets in the row mark the graves of casualties from January,…

…February (there’s a Grenadier on the right-hand tablet, the first we have come across in this cemetery),…

…and March 1915.

The sixth row of tablets starts here,…

…three unknown German soldiers buried beneath tablet 1/46,…

…the casualties on the two adjacent tablets all from August, September & October 1915.

Continuing along the row,…

…on the left here,…

…these men more casualties from First Ypres,…

…and three of these men Kriegsfreiwilliger casualties from Second Ypres, fought between 22nd April & 25th May 1915.

Tablet 1/50, another marking the graves of casualties of First Ypres,…

…and in close-up (above & below).  Jägers were light infantrymen and Offz. Stellv. is short for Offizierstellvertreter, somewhere between a sergeant and a second lieutenant in the  British Army, who commanded a platoon or a company.

The next tablet (front row right in the photo below) has the earliest dates we have yet seen.  These men, probably all Saxons, died in mid-September 1914, just a few weeks into the war.

The final two tablets in the row are casualties of the Second Battle of Ypres,…

…and the weeks prior to the battle.

Which brings us to the seventh, and final, row of tablets in Plot 1,…

…almost cordoned off from the rest of the plot (panning right – below) by this row of sixteen crosses,…

…all blank, on this side, at least.

Beneath the first panel lie the latest burials in the row, these two men killed on 14th December 1915,…

…before the next panel returns us to First Ypres once again,…

…and this shot, Panel 1/55 (previous shot) behind, actually shows that the cordon of sixteen crosses beyond this final row of tablets are blank on one side only; from here, all the crosses throughout the remainder of the plot, and indeed the rest of the cemetery, until we reach Plot 2 at the end of our tour, will have between one and four names inscribed upon them.  Note, if you enlarge the picture, the sparsity of information on the two men named on this particular cross.

Continuing along the row, these eleven men died between October 1914 & November 1915, and there are a couple of ranks to be seen here that we have not spoken about before.  A Dragonier was a mounted grenadier, again equivalent to a private in rank, and Landsturmrekrut was a man from the Landsturm (more commonly known as a Landsturmmann, and we will see more later), a paramilitary militia established a hundred years previously to support the army should Germany find itself threatened.  Mobilised on 2nd August 1914, some 330 Landsturm battalions were soon available, many being assigned to Reserve or Landwehr regiments and seeing action very early in the war.

A single, unknown German soldier.

And then six casualties from the early days of the Battle of the Lys in 1918, two of whom are Leutnants,…

…as is the only named man on the next tablet.  Leutnant, just to make life even trickier, was the equivalent of a British second lieutenant.

The next tablet returns us to 1915, December in the case of these three men,…

…before the final two tablets, 1/61 closest the camera both above & below,…

…on which we find the final name on the Plot 1 tablets, another Leutnant killed on 11th April 1918,…

…because the last tablet marks the grave of thirteen unknown German soldiers.

Plot 1 continues up the hill, the graves now marked only by crosses or by stone headstones such as this one,…

…which denotes the grave of a Jewish soldier.  This man was a Signalmeister, presumably commanding a company of signals troops (and before you ask, yes, the Germans had nine signals battalions on the outbreak of war, although, to muddy the waters, the term seems to have been used far more in the Kriegsmarine!).  Next to him, the single soldier named on this side of the cross was a Feldwebel, the equivalent of a sergeant-major in the British Army.

A row further back, and we encounter the first burials from 1916 (above & following).

Many, the majority, I believe, of the men buried here came from Bavarian regiments,…

…others coming from homeland garrisons based in Württemberg, Hesse, Thuringia, Saxony, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, East Prussia and Silesia, and from the cities of Bremen, Hamburg & Lübeck.

Two officers, both First Ypres casualties,…

…and here, a Trainfahrer and a Fahrer, train driver & driver* respectively, one killed in 1916, the other in 1918.

*a driver of horses, not vehicles.

Casualties from May 1916,…

…and more Battle of the Lys casualties from April 1918 (above and, looking to our right, below),…

…before, at last, we reach the final row of the plot, these crosses numbered 1/327-328 & 1/329-330.  On the right-hand cross, a Schütze, mentioned earlier, although I think this is the first one we have come across, was the lowest rank for a machine gunner, I think in his first six months of service (some elite troops also used the term, but I don’t think that applies here).  Plot 3 continues up the hill beyond Plot 1, the first two crosses,…

…here in close-up, both marking the graves of casualties from 1916,…

…which, as far as I can ascertain, appears to be the case for the entire plot.

I mentioned earlier we would come across a Landsturmmann, and two are buried here on the left, along with a Fusilier – self-explanatory – on the right.

Thirteen Jewish graves can be found in the cemetery, the majority either here in Plot 3 or in Plot 2.

The same crosses and headstone as in the previous shot, and in the row behind,…

…two more Jewish graves,…

…this the one on the right, face…

…and reverse,…

…and this the second.  Yet another could be seen in the background of the previous shot,…

…which on inspection (above & below) has clearly been broken at some point, something one comes across all too frequently.  The cross has just a single name on this side,…

…but two on the reverse.  At the far end of the row…

…a slightly sad knitted poppy.

First view of Plot 5, on the left of the elevated section,…

…and Plot 6 in the distance,…

…the Cross positioned in the centre,…

…and some handy steps…

…to get us up there.

And as the elevated section is split into two plots on either side of the Cross, it seems logical to look at Plot 5,…

…to the left of the Cross, first.  As far as I know, this was a wooden cross until the 1970s when this forged steel one replaced it.

Arriving in the cemetery’s north eastern corner, let’s take a look over the cemetery boundary, this view looking north west towards the industrial outskirts of Wervicq-Sud, the trees of the Parc Dalle Dumont beyond the cows on the right.

A closer look actually shows a view rarely seen, because for once the line of hills to the south and south east of Ypres can be clearly seen on the horizon, along with the reason that the Germans wanted, and in general maintained, control of these hills for much of the war, and why they were so fiercely fought over.

And fought over they were – some 1,600 of the soldiers buried in this cemetery died in the fighting for those hills in 1915 & 1916, three-quarters of them between mid-March and early September 1916.  Incidentally, were you to magically enter this photograph right in the centre, and walk in a dead straight line to the horizon, you might well recognise Hill 60 as you emerged on the other side.

Another view from the same spot, this time looking down the length of the cemetery.  The elevated section consists of five rows of crosses, as you can see here, all burials from between April & July 1916, as far as I can tell.  These graves in the corner of Plot 5 are men killed in March 1916,…

…as are, as we pan to our left, nearly all the graves in this final row; we shall find ourselves at the far end later.

The burials in the front row are casualties from July 1916 (above & following),…

…before we arrive at the southern end of Plot 6,…

…where we find burials from April 1916.  All the crosses in the first three rows of both Plot 5 & Plot 6 seem to have two names on either side, four in total, apart from the very last one (above right) which, if we look at it and its neighbour from behind,…

…has a single name on either side,…

…as does the first headstone in the second row.

The crosses in the third row all bear two names on either side,…

…apart from, once again, the lone cross at the end of the row (the second row in this shot) which also has only one name on either side.  In the foreground, the crosses in Row 4 are all blank on the reverse.

Panning right,…

…where the final cross in the final row, another with a little knitted poppy attached, has just a single name upon it.  The men in this row all died in late March 1916, as mentioned earlier,…

…apart from one Jewish Musketier, who died on 1st April 1916.

Time to make our way back to the steps…

…and time to take a break, too, because this is already a seriously long post, I know, and probably as detailed as any tour of a German cemetery you are likely to find (are there any others?), as I said at the start.  So I’m going to sit down and look at the view for a while, have a fag, maybe a nap, and you’re going to do whatever you do, and we’ll meet back here shortly, when Part Two, which you will find here, will have a surprise ending.  Deal?

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14 Responses to A Walk to Wervicq-Sud German Military Cemetery Part One

  1. Morag Sutherland says:

    My goodness….I am exhausted reading this. Don’t know how you found the energy to put it altogether. Only time I have been close was train from Poperinge to Brussels although I suspect we may have driven through at some point. I hadn’t realised its proximity to Hill 60 but I should have because of all the issues with the rail track. Looking forward to part 2

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you so much, as always. It was quite exhausting writing it (6680 odd words in total between the two posts). To be fair I have been working on it, on and off, because I have numerous balls in the air at any one time, since I visited in October last year – but I was back in the area a fortnight ago for reasons that will become clear on Part Two. I love the photos of the line of Ypres hills – and as you say the railway come directly towards us in those photos before heading off east. Part Two very soon – wouldn’t want anyone forgetting stuff in the meantime.

  2. Nick Kilner says:

    Deal.
    A really excellent post, and whilst it is a biggy its also packed with interesting information. The translation of all the different ranks was a real education, so thank you for that in itself.
    Without wishing any offence to anyone, I always think its good to see that the Jewish burials have survived in German cemeteries. I sometimes ponder on just how remarkable that is given what followed in WW2. Without touching on it too deeply, I understand that there was something of a standing order (on the Axis side at least) that as far as was reasonably possible cemeteries of the first war were to be respected, and fighting in them discouraged. It may simply be hearsay, but the fact that these graves are still marked would suggest otherwise.

  3. Magicfingers says:

    Heh heh. Thank you kindly. Can’t believe two of you have actually read it – already! As far as I know, there were serious punishments for German soldiers who desecrated Great War graves in France. I think the broken headstones are more likely the work of more modern – post WWII – anti-semites. Or teenage would-bes.

  4. Sid from Down Under says:

    Phew, I made it …. and what a stunningly presented post … I felt as though I was there with you. It was appalling to learn about the Kriegsfreiwilliger and although “the enemy”, how criminal that they were barely trained, so early in the War, before being sent to slaughter.

    An enjoyment was reading the numerous names for low ranking orders.

    Danke mein freund und ich freue mich auf teil zwei

    • Magicfingers says:

      Gosh, you’re fluid in German!! Thank you – I was a bit worried you’d all be bored senseless. I mean, you are all discerning erudite folk and all that, but this was a bit of a risk nonetheless.

  5. Joseph Orgar says:

    Thanks very much for your Hard work.

    Regards

    Joe

  6. Daisy says:

    Love your work…

    Daisy

  7. Daisy in Indonesia says:

    Not many visitors to this cemetery I bet… definitely not for some hours like you anyway.
    Easy to read post and very informative… bring on Part Two.

    • Magicfingers says:

      I cannot imagine there are many visitors, but there’s no visitor’s book when you are actually there, unfortunately. Makes me wonder, prior to my visit, when someone last spent a couple of hours there. Part Two coming very soon……

  8. Margaret Draycott says:

    Great post M gosh you’ve worked hard on that one your depth of knowledge amazes me, glad I made it to the end. The interpretations of the different ranks was interesting have wondered when visiting a German cemetery what they all stood for. So glad you’ve done a German cemetery sadly they don’t get the care that ours do. Those boys/men fought for there country and all be it misguided beliefs. That one looks nice and peaceful with the sunshine and the shadows.
    Thankyou for taking the time.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks ever so M. I think this is the sixth German cemetery (see German Cemetery Category) I have so far visited and written about, although none in this kind of detail, you are quite correct. And there are a couple of others I have visited but have yet to write up, one only a mile or so away from Wervicq-Sud that I visited before heading for home a couple of weeks ago, which we shall look at in an entirely different way. Thanks again.

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