A wet and windy day finds us back on the western outskirts of Messines at Messines Ridge British Cemetery, less than a quarter of a mile across the fields to the north of the Island of Ireland Peace Park.
Inside the entrance, the Cross of Sacrifice sits atop the Messines (New Zealand) Memorial, the base of which is inscribed with the names of 828 New Zealanders who died in this area in 1917 & 1918 and have no known grave.
The opening day of the Battle of Messines, 7th June 1917, saw the New Zealanders attack up the western slopes of the ridge at this point, successfully overpowering the German defences (two German pillboxes still exist within the New Zealand park we briefly visited last post) and, in not much more than two and a half hours, sweeping the the Germans out of the ruins of Messines.
New Zealand names inscribed around the rotunda.
Past the memorial, and up these steps, Messines Ridge British Cemetery comes in to view.
The cemetery is a post-war cemetery, made after the Armistice from isolated burials brought in from the surrounding area, as well as a number of small burial grounds nearby. It is also the largest cemetery we shall visit on this tour.
Inscription granting this land in perpetuity as the last resting place of those buried here.
Stone of Remembrance.
There are burials here dating from October 1914 to October 1918, but the majority are men killed during the battles of 1917. 41-year old Private Francis MacDonald of the 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers (centre headstone above) was one of many cavalrymen who were killed in the rudimentary trenches in this area during the last days of October 1914, in their unsuccessful attempt to prevent the attacking Germans from taking the ridge.
“It’s cold and it’s wet and I don’t want to be here.”
Above & below: 957 of the 1534 burials or commemorations here are unidentified.
View from the south eastern corner looking north across the whole of the cemetery, Mont Kemmel visible on the horizon towards the left; special memorial headstones line the eastern boundary to the right…
…all of men known or believed to be buried here, or buried elsewhere but whose graves were later lost.
A duhallow block commemorates 13 British soldiers who were originally buried in Bousbecque East German Cemetery (just to the south of the village); Bristol Castle Cemetery (on the road west to Wulverghem); and Lumm Farm Cemetery, Wytschaete (east of the Messines road), but whose graves were destroyed in later battles.
Headstones along the wall remember each man by name.
View from Plot I (foreground) looking east, the houses of Messines visible in the background.
Three New Zealanders buried in Plot I who lost their lives on the opening day of the battle. Note the Dolores Cross Project poppies placed in front of these headstones; according to their website the aim of the project is to ‘personally pay tribute to approximately 30,000 New Zealand military personnel buried on foreign soil with a hand-made tribute’.
Three more unidentified British soldiers. Known unto God.
Before the war this was the site of a mill called the Moulin d’Hospice which the Germans, utilising the numerous cellars beneath the mill buildings, converted into a strongpoint and observation post, but the New Zealanders took little time in capturing the position. Today, the Cross of Sacrifice and the New Zealand Memorial occupy the site of the windmill itself.
More New Zealand names…
…inscribed beneath the Cross of Sacrifice.
As we leave, a final view looking down the western slope of the Messines Ridge. The road pictured is the same one traversing the April 1917 trench map (below), and you can see the Hospice marked near the centre of the map. The German front lines, as you can also see, were just a couple of hundred yards down the road from where we are standing.
A final view of the cemetery before we leave.
But wait a minute. What’s this? Blue skies? Sunshine?
On a cold but glorious winter’s day Baldrick and I returned to Messines Ridge British Cemetery for a further look around.
Above & below: Views across the cemetery from the western boundary looking east, with the rooftops of Messines in the background..
Looking along the western boundary towards the southern corner in the distance.
View from the southern corner looking north, Plot III nearest the camera.
From the same position as the previous picture, now looking west and south west across the fields over which the New Zealand Battalions attacked, and again emphasizing the excellent views over the advancing troops afforded the German defenders up here on the ridge. Yet, and it still seems remarkable to me bearing in mind that the Germans had been dug in here for more than two years, the ridge, and the village, were still taken in a couple of hours.
The view looking north west, Mont Kemmel on the horizon. The craters at Kruisstraat and Spanbroekmolen and the little cemeteries nearby that we have already visited are about a mile and a half away across the fields.
Above & below: Here’s something you didn’t know. The architect who designed this cemetery, Charles Holden, served on the fire watch at St. Paul’s Cathedral between 1915 & 1917, keeping a watchful eye out for marauding Zeppelins.
The New Zealand Memorial dedication.
The rebuilt Messines Church. The German machine gun position in the ruins of the original church was one of the last strongpoints in the village to be captured by the New Zealanders.
Our route now continues north, with a brief visit to the London Scottish Memorial on the road to Wytschaete, before taking us east of the ridge to where three British cemeteries tell of the fighting in the days that followed.