Mont Kemmel Part Three – Vierstraat: Kemmel No. 1 French Cemetery

Up these steps we shall find Kemmel No. 1 French Cemetery.

Although it doesn’t look very much like a French cemetery, does it?

Nor, as we climb the steps,…

…do those look like French headstones.

Which is because it isn’t, and they aren’t.

There are actually no French graves here at all, although there were, once upon a time.  Today, the cemetery contains 296 British dead and, at the far end, a number of German graves.

Cross of Sacrifice, with Plot I behind.  Time for a reminder of where we are,…

…so here’s our map from July 1918 once more, and you already know about the red & green dots; we are now a few hundred yards north west, our current whereabouts marked in orange.

So, as we follow the headstones of Plot I Row A,…

…with the occasional stop to look around,…

…to the eastern corner of the cemetery where, it would seem reasonable to assume, the space directly in front of us was once filled with French graves,…

…and if we begin to examine the headstones, these at one end of Row B,…

…and these at the other end, it appears, at first sight, that all of them are unidentified, despite the regimental emblems that appear on many of them.  Look at the headstones in Row C, the second row in this shot,…

…and these in Row D (above & below),…

…and spot the identified men.  You can’t.

The same applies in Row F, in the foreground here, and those behind.  Here’s the cemetery plan, thanks as ever to those fine folk at the CWGC.

In fact, there are a few identified British soldiers in the plot, twenty three in total, but that still leaves another 150 men in Plot I who are unnamed, which is a huge percentage, even by Great War standards.  We shall see about Plot II – the cemetery is divided into just two British plots – later.

Meanwhile, at the top of the cemetery, two rows of German graves with, according to the CWGC, ninety four Germans buried beneath the twenty six headstones.  In actual fact, half are buried at this end, because two of the first three headstones in the back row, Row B, mark mass graves of unknown soldiers,…

…the first and third marking twenty three and twenty graves respectively, with the second headstone marking the graves of three identified men.  It’s impossible, without checking each of the German headstones, which I didn’t do, to establish whether the number of men buried here really is ninety four, but logic suggests that these three headstones are designated as B1 on the attached cemetery plan extract, so I have added the relevant numbers in red, and if you add the whole lot up you do indeed get a total of ninety four.  But I still wouldn’t bet the house on it.  The headstone at the start of Row A, on the right nearest the camera,…

…and on the left here, and the next two, mark the graves of individual unknown soldiers,…

…and many of the remaining headstones mark the graves of small numbers of unknown Germans,…

…except this one in Row A, where two identified men killed in May 1918 are buried, the Kemmelberg looming large in the background.

Three unidentified men in Row A (close-up below),…

…three more unknown soldiers beneath a single headstone further along the row,…

…and three graves of individual unidentified men at the end of Row B.

If you look at the end of Row A on the left here, quite why the final two headstones…

…have this alternative design is a bit of a mystery, but, in this cemetery, if not elsewhere, these are the only two German headstones made of Portland Stone – all the German headstones with flat tops are clearly made of another material, which possibly suggests that they are all replacements for original Portland Stone ones that probably looked like the one above?  Maybe?

Looking south west over the cemetery wall at the Kemmelberg, and to its right, between the two telegraph poles, the Zwarteberg and the Scherpenberg,…

…and now looking the other way, to the east, from the western corner of the cemetery, the two rows of German graves nearest the camera,…

…before we begin our return journey…

…through Plot II.

Of the 118 burials in Plot II,…

…just a dozen men are identified.

In total, 88% of the British (to be strictly accurate, three are Australian, one Canadian, and there is also a single New Zealander) soldiers buried in this cemetery are unidentified, a staggering number, I am sure you will agree.

Looking south from the northern corner,…

…before we return along Row A…

…back towards the graves nearest the cemetery entrance.

So why are so many of these men’s identities unknown?  According to the CWGC, the early days of this cemetery are shrouded in mystery, the French Graves Services apparently ‘finding’ it after the war.  Some French graves were then removed, to the French Ossuary on Mont Kemmel (where we shall be paying a visit later in the tour), or to St. Charles de Potyze Cemetery near Potijze (where we visited many moons ago – coincidentally, the same post explains all you need to know about Demarcation Stones, a number of which we shall come across on this tour), leaving just British and German graves.  More British graves were added from isolated battlefield graves and a number of smaller burial grounds, and the Belgian Graves Services also buried some German bodies here.

Alternatively, according to the IWGC’s ‘Silent Cities’ publication in 1929,…

…and here’s the relevant page, it was ‘Created after Armistice by concentration of isolated graves from the surrounding battlefields.’  Which is hardly the same thing.  Interesting that the photo of the cemetery entrance is only a mock-up, whereas all the other cemeteries in the book had by then been properly laid out and the wooden crosses replaced by Portland Stone headstones, as the top entry above for Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery (later in the tour) shows, suggesting that cemetery designer Sir Edwin Lutyens’ ideas for this particular cemetery had yet to be implemented.  So which account is true, I wonder?

Here’s one of the few identified men in the cemetery, Corporal Edward Appleton, Essex Yeomanry, killed on 14th May 1915, and buried in the front row of Plot II.  His documents are revealing,…

…because in 1925, the date of the above form, Corporal Appleton was one of the tens of thousand names intended to be listed on panels on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing.  And presumably, when the Menin Gate was inaugurated in July 1927, his name was indeed there,…

…because it was not until some time later, this Concentration of Graves dated February 1930, that his body was discovered along with a number of other men – he alone was identified by his identity disc – and all were reburied at Kemmel No. 1 French Cemetery,…

…as you can see on this GRRF dated March 1930.  Now that may not be conclusive proof that this cemetery is in actual fact a concentration cemetery where a lot of the graves were added some time after the men’s deaths, in Corporal Appleton’s case, fifteen years,…

…but this GRRF, which has a 26th October 1920 date stamp, and dates of 1920 & 1922 in the bottom right corner, also has two significant sentences added near the top,…

…which should end the argument.  ‘Certified that this cemetery is a wholly concentrated cemetery’ seems unequivocal, and ‘Exhumed by French Place Unknown’ explains the rest (‘Place Unknown’ referring to the original sites of the men the French exhumed and reburied here).  It seems to me that this cemetery wasn’t ‘found’ by the French, because there was no cemetery to find!  It was begun by the French, soon after the war, and they buried French, British & German casualties here.  Which also explains why it is called Kemmel No. 1 French Cemetery, surely?  And ten years later, the French graves by now removed and the cemetery presumably having then transferred from French to British administration, more burials that had only recently been found, and thus had been buried for fifteen years, which probably explains why so many were impossible to identify, were reburied here.  And apparently it was not until that task was completed that the cemetery was closed and properly laid out, which is why we have nothing but a mock-up of the cemetery entrance in the Silent Cities publication of 1929.

And if you can come up with something better, good on you.  Of the identified British soldiers, seven died in 1914, six in 1915, just one in 1916, eight in 1917, and fourteen in 1918.  Of the ninety four Germans, only five are identified, and all five died in 1918, two on 29th April, two in May, and one in August.

As we leave, the brown ‘trench’ line in the field opposite marks the furthest extension west of the German trench system in this area, just as a reminder that the site of this cemetery really was very much on the front line for several months in the summer of 1918.  Anyway, if we turn left at the bottom of the steps,…

…our next stop is nothing more than a stone’s throw away.

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7 Responses to Mont Kemmel Part Three – Vierstraat: Kemmel No. 1 French Cemetery

  1. Alan Bond says:

    A very interesting read like all your post I am learning a lot. thank you Alan

  2. Alistair John Bulloch says:

    Hi.
    Thanks for another excellent post – I always enjoy reading about, and following, your travels. In particular, my profound best wishes for this post on Kemmel, No. 1 French cemetery explaining the likely origins of the cemetery itself and its unusual name. I visited it with my wife in June 2017 (when it looked wonderful with a magnificent show of flowers, especially red roses) and we did wonder about the name.
    We visited to find a specific grave, one of the few identified men there – as you pointed out in your piece. He was Howard Corfield (202303) of the Cameronians, Scottish Rifles. Howard was actually a Birmingham lad (son of Luke Corfield, Professor of Music and Elizabeth Carman) who found his way to Glasgow where he worked as a professional musician (he played the clarinet) and settled down (marrying Christina Smith in 1910). He appears to have joined up in 1914, serving until his death on 8 May 1918 at the age of 39.
    My interest in him comes from his roots in Birmingham where I now live, having left Scotland many years ago. I taught at King Edward VI Camp Hill School where, many years before I ever saw the light of day, Howard was a pupil (1891/5). Given I taught History and was always particularly interested in WW1, it was no great trial to research into the many ex-pupils who died in the war, probably numbering about 130. So, I was very grateful to see your post and the accompanying map which helped explain something about the events of May 1918.
    Apologies for the long piece but I look forward to more from you.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Long pieces always accepted – particularly when on-topic and interesting! Many thanks Alistair. I look forward to more from you too.

  3. nicholas Kilner says:

    Excellent! great research on this one. If there was any doubt at all about when this cemetery was formed, I think the proximity of the German frontline trench puts it beyond question. Out of interest, did you check the map reference for the original burial location of Corporal Appleton and the other men on that GRRF? (28.I.5.b.35.70). Unless I’m going mad (which is quite possible), I make that the approximate location of Aeroplane cemetery, so I’m not sure you’re at the bottom of this mystery yet lol
    Very nicely done MF and another very interesting addition.

    • Nick Kilner says:

      Just as a further note, there are 8 special memorials to men who’s graves were lost, in Aeroplane cemetery. Is it possible that actually they were found, along with Cpl Appleton, some time after Aeroplane cemetery had been completed and moved here rather than reopen and redesign? Not out of the question I’d say.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks Nick. We shall have to see what the Aeroplane Cemetery connection might uncover.

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