This post is designed to be read as part of the ‘Tour of Ploegsteert Wood’, so if you are reading it as a stand-alone post I suggest you disregard all references to the ‘Tour’, as they will make no sense. Alternatively, just read the whole ‘Tour’ anyway. Which does make sense. Anyway, before we visit the Ploegsteert Memorial I suggest a short detour. We are standing at what was once known as Hyde Park Corner, with the road from Mesen (Messines), down which we have just come, in the background, and the Memorial itself a few hundred yards behind us. This CWGC sign points us down a side road that briefly wends its way through the Bois de la Hutte, as the the wood to the west of the Mesen-Ploegsteert road is called, before emerging on the far side where we will find Underhill Farm Cemetery, once a burial ground for dressing stations that occupied two buildings situated nearby.
Map from December 1917 showing part of Ploegsteert Wood in the bottom right, with the signposts at Hyde Park Corner marked in blue, Red Lodge (later) in red, and Underhill Farm Cemetery in green.
First view of Underhill Farm,…
…and the cemetery entrance.
The cemetery was begun in the days leading up to the start of the Battle of Messines in June 1917,…
…and, unsurprisingly, we will encounter more men here whose headstones are inscribed with a date we have seen too many times before on this tour; 7th June 1917.
The cemetery continued in use until January 1918, before being occupied, although not used, by the Germans during the spring and summer. It was then used again by the British during September and October. Underhill Farm is essentially made up of just four long rows of headstones, punctuated by gaps; this view, with Row A nearest the camera, looks north east from near the Cross of Sacrifice. The building in the background is on the site of the original Underhill Farm where one of the dressing stations mentioned previously was situated. The cemetery plan, courtesy of those kind people at the CWGC, can be viewed here: Underhill Farm Cemetery Plan.
Visible in the background of the previous photograph, these special memorial headstones are to two Yorkshiremen killed in mid-October 1918 and who are, “Believed to be buried in this cemetery”, and three Australian casualties from January 1918, all three “Known to be buried in this cemetery”.
Another January 1918 Australian casualty.
Of the 190 casualties buried or commemorated here, 39 are New Zealanders, and you will notice a number of Maori names inscribed on some of the headstones pictured. After the Battle of Messines, the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, to whom the Maoris belonged, were involved in constructing communication trenches from the newly captured Messines Ridge to the front line, during which time they suffered more than 150 casualties, with 17 men killed. Interestingly, by August 1917 sufficient Maori replacements had arrived for the battalion to be re-named the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion. On a pedantic note, the Maori headstones should really be inscribed with ‘New Zealand Pioneer Battalion’ or ‘New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion’, but who’s counting? “E nga rau e rima”.
More New Zealanders, all killed at the very beginning of the battle. The New Zealand Division had taken over this sector, as far north as Wulvergem, prior to the battle, and had set up Advanced Dressing Stations both here and a mile away at Kandahar Farm; you can find our visit to the cemetery they left behind there by clicking here.
And yet more New Zealanders, flanking a British artillery serjeant, with, on the right, the only Canadian buried here.
Looking west from near the Cross of Sacrifice.
Above & below: Two decorated soldiers in Row A.
Corporal Francis Vercoe won a D.C.M. for gallantry near Ypres in January 1915, and just a couple of months later received a Dated Bar for rescuing a seriously injured officer despite being wounded himself, an action later depicted in the publication “Deeds That Thrill the Empire” (inset below). Less than five hundred Bars were awarded to the D.C.M. in the Great War, and apparently, only eighty of them were ‘Dated Bars’. Francis Vercoe was killed by a shell on 4th June 1917 whilst sitting reading outside his dugout. He was 28.
Headstones at the start of Row D in the western corner of the cemetery. You may have noticed by now that, like the cemeteries we visited earlier within Ploegsteert Wood itself, Underhill Farm is another cemetery enclosed by a simple wire mesh fence (yes, I know, and a hedge too). Personally, I’m unsure about the almost temporary feel that the fence gives this particular cemetery, and it strikes me that it would feel somewhat different were it surrounded by the usual brick wall. Discuss.
Continuing along Row D. The seventh headstone from the left…
…is that of Private Frank Brotherton, East Yorkshire Regiment, who died on 29th September 1918, aged 29. The little note left at the base of his headstone begins “Great Uncle Frank. We found you after 90 years” (see also the comments section at the end of the post).
Looking roughly east down the length of the cemetery.,…
…south east towards the Cross of Sacrifice and cemetery entrance,…
…and a final, north easterly view, looking towards the Bois de la Hutte in the background. The modern farm building, as mentioned,…
…is located on the site of the original Underhill Farm.
Just along the road from the cemetery, a CWGC information board is worth perusing (click to enlarge, of course) as not only is the information about Underhill Farm of interest, but we shall also be visiting the Rosenberg Chateau Plots at Berks Cemetery Extension in the next part of this tour. And unless you’ve read the text on the board you now have no idea what I’m talking about. Although, of course, being an erudite lot, many of you will probably know all about them anyway.
A few hundred yards up the road we come to Red Lodge, the site of the second dressing station mentioned earlier. Baldrick’s car is parked in approximately the same position as the wagons in the top left photo on the CWGC information board which, at my excellent suggestion, you have just been perusing.
Abandoned once again at the time of my visit, you’ll find an update in the comments at the end of the post – I believe you can now stay in the Red Lodge B&B.
Continuing our journey back towards Hyde Park Corner to rejoin the main road, there’s one more brief stop we need to make. Something of interest lurks within the trees. If we can find it, that is. Not being in the habit of giving up easily, after a bit of wandering up and down the road and subsequent crashing about in the undergrowth, eventually we do:
This concrete structure gives little away as to its function, although I have seen it referred to as the entrance to what were known as the Catacombs. Much of the Bois de la Hutte stands on a hill (Hill 63 on trench maps) beneath which were constructed, initially by Australian tunnellers beginning in August 1916, vast tunnels large enough to accommodate two battalions in relative comfort. There were separate cubicles for officers, room for stores, and double tiers of bunks throughout; I have read reports stating that, during the winter of 1917-1918, this was the only place in the area where ‘there was a chance to feel warm in bed’. Well, this structure is certainly not the main entrance to the Catacombs, which was much nearer Hyde Park Corner,…
…and once inside, it is clearly not the entrance to anything.
So what was it for? It took a while to discover the real reason for its existence,…
…which was actually to house the electricity generator for the Hill 63 dugouts and the Catacombs, hence these steel beams to give added strength to the roof,…
…and the massively protected western end, the end facing the German guns – in fact you can see in the foreground above & background below how much thicker the concrete is…
…compared to here at the entrance. This end was left open, initially because it would have been impossible to install the equipment otherwise, and subsequently to allow operation and maintenance to take place in conditions that would have been impossible in a totally enclosed space.
A quick fag in the bushes. We can see you Balders, we can see you.
Just before we leave, it’s worth noting that not only were tunnellers working beneath ground, but engineers were building dugouts to house officers and men above ground as well.
These were constructed using semi-cylindrical sheets of corrugated iron known as ‘Large English Elephant’ (but often referred to these days as Elephant Iron), covered with spoil from the excavations below ground for extra protection.
And if you look carefully, evidence can still be found among the trees and bushes that once again cover this now-peaceful hillside (above & below).
Winter sunset at Red Lodge.
Hauntingly eerie at night,…
…there are ghosts here.
All of which brings us to the end of our detour.
A short drive will take us back to Hyde Park Corner, the Ploegsteert Memorial, and its adjacent cemeteries, as our tour continues with: A Tour of Ploegsteert Wood Part Seven.