A fine spring day in May 2022. We are in Strazeele. Where is Strazeele, I hear you cry?
Well, here’s Strazeele. In France, and marked in pink. Six miles south west of the border with Belgium, and a further four from Poperinge. And only four miles from the Allied rail centre at Hazebrouk (green circle), one of the main German objectives of the Battle of the Lys in the spring of 1918.
War had touched Strazeele briefly in 1914, and came perilously close once again in 1918. The original caption to this photograph reads, ‘Citizens leaving their homes just north of Strazeele, carrying such things [as] they could in their hands, April 17, 1918′.
But the Germans never succeeded in taking Strazeele, as you can see on this close-up from the previous trench map dated June 1918, which shows the extent of the German advance. The site of the modern church is marked as a tiny pink dot, bottom left, the British trenches in blue, German in red.
Not being taken does not equate to ‘got away with it’. These images show a battered Strazeele in 1918.
There’s a war memorial outside the church,…
…that remembers thirty ‘children of Strazeele’ who died during the Great War,…
…and two casualties from the Second World War.
As we take a spin around the memorial,…
…we find the two Second World War names once again on this face,…
…as well as five civilian victims.
To the right of the entrance to St. Martin’s church…
…there’s a small pedestal,…
…topped by what looks like a plaque,…
…and my instincts tell me I need to take a look.
I was right. This plaque remembers another civilian victim,…
…Father Héliodore Bogaert, parish priest of nearby Pradelles since 1911, shot by the Germans on 9th October 1914. The shooting of village mayors & local priests by the Germans seems to have been a deliberate strategy, designed to instill terror in those civilians who had not joined the exodus to the west. And probably for other unpleasant reasons that I, nice chap that I am, cannot even dream of. What’s more, they can only have been here for a day or two in 1914, the front lines stabilising soon after, a good eight miles to the south east of the village. It was just murder, and there are no excuses.
Panoramic view taken from Strazeele of the countryside from Merris to Strazeele station. The Battle of Hazebrouck, fought between the 12th & 15th April, would see the Australians halt the German advance here.
The station (above left) was 100 yards west of an Australian front line outpost, established earlier in the year. On the right, Australians occupying support trenches at Mologhein Farm, near the station, in mid-April 1918.
Photo taken on 17th June 1918 showing a German field gun (near the centre of the picture) captured on Mont-de-Merris (near Strazeele) a few days earlier in an Australian raid, the men crawling through the crops* to take this German strongpoint. The gun appears to be positioned to fire over open sights, presumably as an anti-tank weapon. By the looks of things, the photographer had no intention of exposing much of himself, suggesting that the position was still dangerous at the time he took the picture.
*the very fact that crops had been planted here at all in 1918 shows how far behind the front lines Strazeele had been prior to the Battle of the Lys.
‘Remember the Dead’
A weak spot in my studies perhaps, but I can’t remember reading of any number of German Officers at any level being charged with individual or corporate murders of civilians in Belgium or France. If anyone knows of a good work on the subject, I’d be thankful.
It’s a very good point. Strangely, I read something just a few hours after reading your comment here which, although it doesn’t answer your question, was a curious, if that’s the right word, follow-up. I shall post it for you as soon as I can.
Some great photos! doesn’t look like much was left standing by the end, but I suppose that could be said for a good many town and villages. still it must have come as quite a shock to the local inhabitants who, as you rightly pointed out, were still busily farming the surrounding fields
I have read many an account of farmers tilling their fields with shells bursting in the next field along, particularly in the early months of the war, and I suppose the same thing happened in 1918 too.
Have come across in my mother’s jewellery box, a small silver shield, inscribed OAS Strazeele rest camp December 1915 any further information welcomed.
Just a start maybe, but this might help you get the lay of the land re: rest camps.
You’re welcome. The “OAS” prefix isn’t coming up anywhere. Perhaps our host, or other adherents might have an answer for that. It looks to me like the WW1 usage refers to a lot of long term camps set up for temporary billet camps for troops on route to, or out of the battle areas of the Ypre region. The individual camps appear be specific to the national origin of the troops. The shield seems unlikely to me to have been something just given out to the large numbers of troops passing through? Maybe it was a long term staff pin? Or something a soldier could buy at a canteen as a souvenir? The only other mention I’ve found connected to Strazeele is … if the link works ?
I think I over elaborated, I think it is most likely a watch fob in a shield shape, thank you again
Interesting. OAS is surely On Active Service.
Good morning. I’ve not seen that trench map before – as an Australian i am interested in the actions around Merris in April 1918, just to the South of the detailed excerpt you provided. Can you advise where i can view/obtain a copy of the trench map you extracted?
Hello Andrew. Try this link: https://maps.nls.uk/view/101724065