Esquelmes War Cemetery

We are now heading through France towards the Channel coast and Dunkirk, but on our way, our schedule includes a stop to pay our respects to some of the men whose bravery held up the Germans in May 1940, and in so doing, allowed many others, British, French & Belgian, to reach the coast and evacuation, though they themselves were not destined to make it. 

Just 220 yards west of the River Scheldt, the poplar trees in the background growing on its bank,…

…we are only a couple of miles north west of the city of Tournai, about four miles from the Belgian border to the west, and around fifty, as the crow flies, south east of Dunkirk.

All the burials in this cemetery are casualties of the Second World War,…

…201 identified & 32 unidentified,…

…and most, although by no means all, were brought here after the war from other gravesites for reburial by the Belgian authorities.

Which is not what you find on the CWGC website, as we shall shortly see.

But first,…

…a brief ceremony…

…led by the colonel,…

…followed by the laying of a wreath,…

…before a short time was spent exploring the cemetery,…

…although please don’t expect a proper tour, partly because this is a Second World War cemetery, and partly because our stop wasn’t really long enough anyway.

Suffice to say that the men buried here all died in May or June 1940.

Thirty three identified Grenadier Guardsmen are buried here, more than any other regiment, bar one.  Thirty two of them died on 21st May 1940, all in the fields hereabouts;   the cemetery was, in fact, once known as Esquelmes Guards Cemetery, and I am fairly certain that all the guardsmen buried here are original burials, not reburials.

Today, a total of fifteen regiments are represented here.

I’ll give you the blurb from the CWGC website, and then we’ll tear it to bits.

No, I don’t mean that, but I am not so sure I agree with some of it: ‘The British Expeditionary Force was involved in the later stages of the defence of Belgium following the German invasion in May 1940, and suffered many casualties in covering the withdrawal to Dunkirk. Those buried in Esquelmes War Cemetery died in defending the line of the River Scheldt; the Germans attempted to cross the river near Esquelmes during the morning of 21 May, but were repulsed after heavy fighting. They eventually crossed on 23 May, when the British Expeditionary Force withdrew to the Gort Line. Casualties buried in various places in the neighbourhood were brought to Esquelmes by the Belgian authorities in September 1940.’

In fact, the Belgians exhumed the men who were to be reburied here in the summer of 1947, after the war, and the proof can be found on the accompanying Graves Concentration Report Forms, an example of which is shown above*.  The form also tells us where these particular men were exhumed from.  Petegem is fourteen miles away to the north east, although admittedly still on the Scheldt, but Houthem is eighteen miles away to the north west, only five miles south east of Ypres, and nowhere whatsoever near the Scheldt.

*note that the cemetery was, at this time, called Esquelmes British Cemetery.

Which understandably makes me doubt the statement that ‘Casualties buried in various places in the neighbourhood were brought to Esquelmes…’.  Unless ‘the neighbourhood’ refers to the surrounding hundred square miles.  In which case the statement is entirely accurate.

A soldier’s contemplation.

Nearly all of my travelling companions are ex-military, if I had failed to mention the fact earlier in this series of posts.

The grave of Lieutenant Henry George Alan, 9th Duke of Northumberland, Grenadier Guards, killed on 21st May 1940 aged 27,…

…and buried here close to where he fell, this form showing that he and the men buried alongside him (below) are among those originally buried here, not reburied.  This form shows the cemetery name as Esquelmes War Cemetery, with (Guards) crossed out.  Presumably this means the cemetery was originally named Esquelmes British Cemetery (as on all the GRRFs in this post), followed by Esquelmes Guards Cemetery, and later, I would guess after the post-World War II interments, Esquelmes War Cemetery, the name it still retains.  The reason it was changed for the final time will become clear later.

How many others in the cemetery are original burials I know not, and am not about to check,…

…but the form also tells us that at least a few of the 122 burials in Plot V, the two rows on the left here, are also original burials.

Some of the headstones in Plot V have a range of possible dates of death (above & below).

Private Jarvis, just seventeen, and one of twenty five Royal Warwickshire Regiment burials here, was another originally buried at the Temporary Burial Ground at Houthem (see form below).

You will also notice the mention of another temporary burial ground at Hollebeek at the bottom of the form.  Neighbourhood?  Hollebeek is only ten miles from Antwerp, and fifty miles from here!

A special memorial, and an unidentified soldier.  The special memorial headstone is that of a Queen’s man killed on 20th May 1940, and is one of thirty eight men of The Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey) buried here, most of whom died between 20th & 22nd May.  Which means that there are more Queen’s casualties than Grenadier Guards now in the cemetery, and presumably explains the final change of name from Esquelmes Guards Cemetery to Esquelmes War Cemetery.

The Queen’s men all seem to have been originally buried in Elseghem Temporary Burial Ground, as seen in the above GRRF example – Elsegem, where we were just last post, is thirteen miles, as the crow flies, away to the north east – and reburied here in June 1947.  And they are the reason we came here, and the reason for the wreath-laying earlier on.  And Private Dell is also the only one of them that I photographed.  And even he isn’t actually buried beneath his headstone, which tells us he is ‘Buried near this spot’.  Marvellous.  Well done me.

Cross with wreath.  Time we visited the seaside.

STOP PRESS: Just in case you happen, at around 7.30 tomorrow (Thursday 30th) night, to be passing Aldershot Military Museum on your evening constitutional, do pop in, ‘cos I’m giving a talk there about German & Austro-Hungarian Great War grenades – and it’s free!!

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2 Responses to Esquelmes War Cemetery

  1. Morag Lindsay Sutherland says:

    your research is as always amazing – I will give hand grenades a miss though

    • Magicfingers says:

      Most kind. Other than that, BOO HISS. It’s not that far to Aldershot!!! Lol!! You’d be home by elevenses on Friday! Lol!! Actually, it went rather well, if I say so myself.

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