South of Ploegsteert Part One – London Rifle Brigade Cemetery

On this tour we shall visit six CWGC cemeteries that lie between Ploegsteert village and the town of Armentières, just across the French border a couple of miles to the south.  Six small cemeteries, somewhat off the beaten track and seldom visited, the final resting places of 1291 soldiers from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.  No major battles were fought here, and until the Gemans overran the area in April 1918, the trenches on both sides remained more-or-less static throughout the War.  The men buried here were killed during the day-to-day fighting that took place all along the front line, many the result of shellfire, some from snipers’ bullets, and some as a result of the ubiquitous trench raids which both sides carried out on a regular basis.  You will find a map showing the locations of all the cemeteries on this tour, as well as those visited in the ‘Tour of Ploegsteert Wood’, if you click the Tour Maps link near the top of the page.

First stop, just half a mile south of Ploegsteert village, is London Rifle Brigade Cemetery, begun in December 1914 and used on a regular basis by the regiments holding this section of the line until August 1917, although the occasional burial was made after that date.  The road north past the cemetery leads to Ploegsteert Village, past Ploegsteert Wood and Hyde Park Corner and, eventually, to Ypres (Ieper) itself.

London Rifle Brigade Cemetery is laid out in a north easterly to south westerly direction, and is the largest of the six cemeteries we shall visit, the burial place of 353 British, Australian & New Zealand soldiers.

Cemetery entrance.

In the northern corner of the cemetery, a plaque commemorates the dedication of the cemetery by Lord Bishop of London, Chaplain to the London Rifle Brigade, on Easter Day, 4th April 1915.  The Cemetery Plan, courtesy of the CWGC, can be seen here: London Rifle Brigade Cemetery Plan.

The cemetery was little used after the end of 1917, although a few Australian burials were made here in February and March 1918, and two final burials, from early October 1918, lie just inside the cemetery entrance.  Left to right:


View looking south west down the length of the cemetery with Plot I nearest the camera and the Cross of Sacrifice in the distance.  The two headstones to the right of the yellow flowers in Row B (to the left) are those of two Rifle Brigade men, buried here on 20th December 1914, the earliest burials in the cemetery (also visible in the third row in the photograph below).

Men from the East Surreys (front row), all three killed on 30th June 1916; the row behind contains the graves of men of the Royal Warwickshires and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died a year earlier, in the spring of 1915.

More East Surrey men (front row) in Plot I, also killed on 30th june 1916.  The 12th Battalion had a rough time that day, as their war diary confirms: ‘Bn. In Trenches. During the morning our divisional (41st) Artillery bombarded enemy’s trenches & wire at selected points, cutting the latter. Enemy retaliated damaging our trenches. At 9.15p.m. Div. Art. Commenced intense bombardment along Divn. Front. Gas emitted by Divn. At 10 p.m. Raiding parties sent out to enemy’s trenches. Our party under Capt. Jessop & Lt. Fox, consisting of 34 N.C.O’s & men entered trenches & returned safely, 4 casualties only – Gas again emitted 12.20 p.m. Total Casualties 14 killed 25 wounded.’

Now, I make no apologies for the plethora of Surrey headstones you are about to encounter.  Although, as you will find out later, perhaps I should.  Anyway, between early June and mid-August 1916 both the East Surreys and the Queen’s used the cemetery to bury their dead, and as they are both my local regiments, I have shamelessly photographed quite a number of their headstones.  However the action that took place on the 30th June is worth recounting, so perhaps that will retain your interest…


The map above shows the East Surrey’s sector, south of Ploegsteert Wood, in the summer of 1916.  Battalion headquarters was sited at Soyer Farm (well within range of German artillery).  London Rifle Brigade Cemetery is situated slightly to the east of the farm, where the Armentières road crosses the river.


Plot II.  More East Surrey men, all casualties of the fighting on 30th June 1916.  The raid that took place that night had been planned for weeks.  1st July would see the great British attack on the Somme, and in order to divert the German’s attention elsewhere (at least that was the idea, although the week-long bombardment on the Somme probably gave the game away somewhat), raids were to be carried out on other parts of the front.  South of Ploegsteert Wood three raiding parties, one each from the West Kents, the Hants and the East Surreys, were scheduled to attack strongpoints in the German front line.  In the week preceding the raid, 1000 gas cylinders were installed in emplacements in the parapets along the Surrey’s front, and early in the morning of the 30th, British artillery started a final bombardment, aimed mainly at cutting the enemy wire to allow the raiders to reach their objectives.  The Germans retaliated fiercely and accurately, as the East Surrey headstones in these photographs bear witness.


The bombardment, on both sides, lasted throughout the day and into the evening.  At 10.00 pm, gas was emitted from the cylinders placed along the British front line, and precisely twenty eight minutes later the raids began.  36 men of the 12th Surreys, faces blackened and carrying knob-kerries and bombs, left the trenches and crossed no-man’s land, and although heavy German machine gun fire wounded two of them before they had even left the parapet, the remainder succeeded in reaching the German front line.  Their objective, a strongpoint called ‘The Fort’, had been sensibly evacuated by the Germans but the Surreys destroyed it and searched nearby trenches before returning to their own lines, at a cost of four men dead.  Unfortunately, neither the West Kents nor the Hants had managed to find a way through the German wire.

The Surrey’s raid became famous throughout the Division as the raid of the “Black Hand Gang”, referring to a board with a black hand painted on it that they had left in the German trenches.  Evidentally a number of the raiders were well acquainted with the Bermondsey police before they joined up!  The black hand board would be seen again, most notably a year later on the Messines Ridge.

The 11th Queen’s, meanwhile, had moved up to this section of the line on 5th June and would remain here, alternating with the West Kents, until the end of August 1916, when they would head south for the battlefields of the Somme.


The grave of Private Arthur Greenway, just 17, and most likely, as it appears that his age was added to his headstone at a later date, one of the many boys who lied about their age in order to join up and fight for their country.


Corporal Garrard and Private Russell, killed on a working party, were the first fatalities the 12th East Surreys had suffered due to enemy action since their arrival in this sector in early May.  Left to right:


Lance Corporal Sandford (right), however, had been accidentally killed a few days earlier, although whether he was the unfortunate man who left a dugout to relieve himself and was bayonetted by a frightened young sentry, I have yet to ascertain.  Left to right:


Queen’s men killed in late July 1916.

Left to right:


Left to right:


30 men of the 11th Queen’s were buried here between 7th June and 12th August 1916.

Plot IV Row B (centre) and Row A (left).  There were three Australians buried here in March 1918, after which the cemetery was unused until October, as we have already seen.  Corporal Harry Chandler, nearest the camera was the first of these three.  Note the lone German grave to the far left.

View looking north east from Plot IV along the length of the cemetery.  The headstones to the far right are German graves (see below), and the two headstones in Row C (centre) nearest the camera are the two other Australian burials from March 1918.  Rows A & B (previous photograph) are on the left.

There are in fact eighteen German graves, dating from April and May 1918 after the cemetery had fallen into German hands, the majority located in this row in Plot IV.

The grave of three unknown German soldiers.  The New Zealand and Australian headstones behind all date from 1917.

Plot IV and the Cross of Sacrifice.  The row of German headstones are those furthest left.  By this time you are probably wondering why this cemetery is called London Rifle Brigade when we haven’t seen any London Rifle Brigade headstones?  And a good point you have.  Well, the London Rifle Brigade did indeed bury 22 of their dead here between January and March 1915.  They are all in Plot III.  Plot III is only a little plot, just this side of the Cross. Had I turned slightly to my right after taking the photograph above, I could have shown you Plot III, but I didn’t, so I’m afraid I can’t.  Too much time spent photographing the Surrey headstones, I guess.  And even more galling, I know for a fact that one of the London Rifle Brigade burials, Rifleman Cuthbert Young, went to my school!  Note to self: must do better next time.

Back at the cemetery entrance, Baldrick peruses the cemetery register (if you ever visit, don’t forget to sign) before we head south towards the second stop on our tour…

…which is handily signposted outside yer local Aldi just down the road.  On the way, you might like to take a look at a couple of interesting documents pertaining to the East Surreys’ raid, including the relevant page from their war diary.

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14 Responses to South of Ploegsteert Part One – London Rifle Brigade Cemetery

  1. Sean Casey says:

    Thank you for an informative piece. I was here around four years ago and wondered why so many Surreys lie at this place.

  2. Magicfingers says:

    Sean, appreciate your comments; it’s nice to know you found the above of interest. Btw, I like the look of your site and will have a proper look around as soon as I get the chance.

  3. Wendy Macpherson says:

    Many thanks for the fantastic information and photos of the London rifle Brigade Cemetery. My great uncle is buried at the rear of the cemetery with the New Zealand boys. Pte L.H. Sowry was with the NZEF, 3rd Canterbury Battalion, 12th Nelson Coy and was KIA at Pont Rouge on the 11th August 1917. I really appreciate such a comprehensive look at the cemetery as chances are I will not ever visit there, tho many of my family have and enjoyed it. Thanks again.

  4. Magicfingers says:

    You are more than welcome Wendy. I’m really pleased you found my little tour of the cemetery of interest. I am actually off to Flanders tomorrow for a few days, and I will doubtless come across many more New Zealanders who died so far from home all those years ago..

  5. Marilyn Redmond says:

    Thank you for the pictures of the London Rifle Brigade Cemetery. My husband and I just returned from a tour visiting the Canadian War Memorials in France and around Ypres. The tour director and bus driver kindly tried to find this cemetery for me but traffic detours got us lost. My great-great-uncle, William Fraser of the Seaforth Highlanders, is buried here. I would have liked to have a photo of his grave. I have my grandmother’s memorabilia for him.

    • Magicfingers says:

      I trust you had a fascinating trip, Marilyn. A shame you were unable to get to the cemetery but at least you now know exactly what it looks like. I have found myself in the Armentieres area just a few miles away from London Rifle Brigade twice this year, but have not had time to revisit. As you know from the post, there are reasons I must return there one day, and when I do, I shall take the photo of your great great uncle that you would have taken and add it to this post, if that is ok. But when this might occur, I am afraid I cannot say. Btw, I could waffle on for hours about WWI memorabilia; suffice to say simply look after it, and I have no doubt you’re doing just that!

  6. Yvonne Phythian says:

    Thank you for all your information and pictures on Lomdon Rifle Brigade . My husband’s uncle William Dugald Cummins (Australian) is buried there Plot IV Row B Grave 12. Would grave 12 be where the 3 Australian would be? Thanks again as it is great to find something like this as it is if you had visited the cemetery.

    • Magicfingers says:

      First of all, Yvonne, thank you very much indeed for your kind comments. I am very glad you have enjoyed this post. Lance Corporal William Cummins is buried in the same row as Corporal Harry Chandler, whom I mentioned in the post, but quite a long way further up the row away from the camera (the twelfth headstones away, to be precise). If that helps!

      I just realized that, in the photo three from the end of the post (with the Cross of Sacrifice), William’s headstone is actually the one nearest the Cross, third row from left. How about that, then? Especially as the two headstones that end the row are obscured by the Cross. Enough of my waffling. Have a look around the rest of the site.

  7. I find this www site to be one of the most informative (& accurate !) on the Internet and I am interested in your support for the East Surreys, especially the 12th. Bermondsey Battn. My Great Uncle 2nd. Lt. Geoffrey Frischling served from April 1918 when he joined the Regt. at Vlamertinghe until he was Killed in Action out on night patrol on 14th. August 1918, in front of Clydesdale Camp on the Kemmel Rd. just to the SE of La Clytte (De Klijt nowadays). He is buried at Lijssenthoek near Popperinghe, the second largest CWGC after Tyne Cott. I have booked my hol for 2018 to be in the exact spot he died on the 100th. anniversary and I shall be planting a board with a Black Hand painted on it as a tribute to my Great Uncle who was carrying out a trench raid when he died, as I’m sure he would have had his Black Hand with him to leave in the German trench!

    • Magicfingers says:

      Hey Nigel! Firstly, you are too kind. And I particularly appreciate the ‘accurate’ bit – as you surely knew I would. I try to do as much research as I can, because I have learnt that the true stories behind the creation of many of these cemeteries is often somewhat different to the blurb on the CWGC website when one delves a bit deeper, and as you are well aware, I am sure, most sites simply copy their blurb.
      When I first read about the Black Hand Gang it fascinated me – the very idea of in effect setting South London street gangs loose on the Germans (being a Croydon boy myself)! I know pretty much where you will be when you pay your tribute – I love the idea of your Black Hand board – I suspect the local Ieper papers might too. Oh, and my East Surrey & Queen’s interest is not just geographical – we hold the regimental archives where I work.
      Thanks again for commenting Nigel – much appreciated.

      • Hi Magicfingers, I first came across a mention of the Black Hand in the Bermondsey’s War Diaries; if you have more info on the Gang it would be great to read about the background to this fantastic story – real Boy’s Own stuff! . Another thing which might be of interest is that my Great Uncle served in the British Army and kept his German surname – at a time when Dachshunds were being kicked off the pavements of London (never Rottweilers or Dobermans one should note!) – his Grandfather originally from Düsseldorf, had immigrated to England in 1848. I have some photos of the Demarcation stone on the Kemmel Rd and Lijssenthoek CWGC here

  8. Magicfingers says:

    Hi Nigel. Oh, I’ve already checked out all your Great War photos (and a few bike ones too). Very nice. And I noticed your Great Uncle’s name too, and I believe I may have come across him before – thanks for the explanation, by the way – I will give it some thought, but the name rings a bell. I seem to remember first encountering the Black Hand in the Regimental History. I shall check that too.

  9. Richard Bridges says:

    Dear Mr Magicfingers,
    with respect to the text fragment “the row behind contains the graves of men of the Royal Warwickshires … .” alludes to my Great Grandfather Private J Phillips of Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1st Bn. who died on 03 April 1915 only a few day after landing in Havre on 22.03.1915

    • Magicfingers says:

      Well thank you kindly Richard – always good to hear some extra details – must have been his first action? And how many other men did that apply to throughout the war, I wonder? Your comment is much appreciated.

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