Coxyde Military Cemetery, some four miles to the west of Nieuwpoort, is the last resting place of more than 1500 British soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Great War, as well as 155 from the Second World War.
Start of a long day, much of which you have already seen if you followed our recent Belgian Sector tour.
For what it’s worth, and I wouldn’t bother including it if not for Baldrick’s previous photo, this is the shot.
Between here and the coast, just over a mile away to the north, a vast mass of sand dunes stretches four or five miles in either direction, west and east, along the coastline. During the latter years of the 20th Century, industrial and residential development spread across these dunes – take a look on Google Maps, or whatever your preferred vehicle is, at the land along the coast to the west of Nieuwpoort and you’ll see exactly what I mean – but the cemetery, set back from the road and surrounded as it is by trees, retains a solitude and tranquility all of its own.
From the cemetery gates…
…a grass pathway…
…leads towards the somewhat unusual cemetery entrance (above & below).
Inside the entrance, on either side of the Stone of Remembrance, brick buildings house the tablets granting this piece of land in perpetuity as a final resting place for those who lie here (see below).
In mid-June 1917 British forces relieved French troops in the trenches from Nieuwpoort south to Ramskapelle, initially in preparation for potential raids on German positions along the Belgian coast. As it turned out, the Germans attacked first (click here if you want details), and the British remained holding the line in this sector for the next six months.
The French had started a cemetery on this site earlier in the war as, being some distance behind the front lines, and even further from German artillery, this place was relatively safe from all but the heavier guns. The British, sensibly, followed suit, using the cemetery throughout their time here.
The French continued to use the cemetery to bury their dead on their return to the sector in December 1917, although all 129 French burials were removed after the war.
Okay, let’s have a look around.
As you can see from the Coxyde Military Cemetery Plan (thanks as always to the CWGC for the use of their cemetery plans), the first plot encountered on entering is Plot III (Row L in the foreground, above & below), with the headstones of the largest plot, Plot I, beyond.
There are eight identified Royal Flying Corps burials in this cemetery, and at least one unidentified. In the front row, 29 year old Lieutenant Arthur James Lewis O’Beirne was shot down and died of wounds on 28th July 1917. In the row behind, second from the left, Second Lieutenant Sydney Davidson was an early Royal Air Force casualty, the R.F.C. having morphed into the R.A.F. on 1st April 1918 *. Further along you will notice an unknown merchant seaman, and just visible on the far right 23 year old Flight Sub-Lieutenant Colin Graham MacDonald of the Royal Naval Air Service, shot down and killed over the German lines on 11th March 1918.
* Seven other Great War R.A.F. casualties are buried here, all killed in September or October 1918.
Plot II to the left, Plot III to the right. In the background, beneath the Cross of Sacrifice, Plot I.
Another R.F.C. man buried in Plot III Row K. After the war approximately fifty burials were moved here from isolated graves, or from two other nearby cemeteries, Furnes Road British Cemetery and Oosthoek Military Cemetery, Adinkerke.
The grave of Private William Wycherley of the Manchester Regiment, Plot III G 6.
The Graves Registration Report Form clearly states that Wycherley was Jewish, in which case why does a cross feature on his headstone? Having said that, my research reveals no evidence whatsoever that he actually was Jewish, and he does not appear on the Jewish Roll of Honour.
Private William Wycherley was executed for desertion at Coxyde on 12th September 1917.
Private James Milne, Highland Light Infantry, Plot III Row F.
Still in Plot III (this is Row D), on the right are three of only fourteen Canadian First World War graves in the cemetery, all of whom were men of the Canadian Railway Troops; I would imagine that all were victims of enemy shellfire.
Looking south from the middle of the cemetery, back across the headstones of Plot III towards the cemetery entrance…
…and looking north at Plot I, Row L in the foreground. Although there are a couple visible a few rows back in this shot, you might have already noticed that very few of the First World War burials here are unidentified.
Jewish Royal Field Artilleryman in Plot I Row L.
Border Regiment burials in Plot I Row K, all killed in the first days of the German offensive in July 1917, not so long after the British arrived in the sector.
More July 1917 burials in Plot I Row J.
Looking from east to west across Plot I, Plot IV in the far background. Plot I is the earliest plot, and the irregular gaps between many of the headstones give the impression of a battlefield cemetery, rather than the more regular spacing usually found in cemeteries sited behind the lines, and indeed found elsewhere in this very cemetery. Perhaps, at least in its early days, this place was not quite as safe, and burials not quite so easy to carry out, as we are led to believe.
View from the north east corner of the cemetery.
Cross of Sacrifice.
Three men of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, buried in Plot I Row A. Able Seaman J. Broomhead, buried on the left, was a holder of the Croix de Guerre, and the man in the centre, Sub Lieutenant Edgar Donovan, was the recipient of the Croix de Guerre with Palms. All three were worked with siege guns at Dunkerque, and all lost their lives on 26th April 1917. It is documented that Able Seaman Broomhead died of wounds (as opposed to in an accident), and one wonders whether a German bomber found its mark that day.
Looking south from the cemetery’s northern boundary. The French graves were originally directly beneath where the Cross now stands, and the gaps where they once stood in the first few rows are evident in the centre of this photo. There are some burials in Plot I Row A, to the right of the Cross, where Second World War graves have replaced the First World War French ones. The three headstones in the previous photo, once surrounded by French graves, can be seen immediately to the left of the Cross of Sacrifice.
Above & below: Among the twenty Second World War burials now residing in Plot I Row A are the graves of ten men of the South Saskatchewan Regiment, R.C.I.C. who died near here between 15th & 17th September 1944. There’s man out there in cyberspace who, if he reads this, can tell us far more than I could about these men. His father, I guess through good fortune as much as anything, does not lie among them.
About a hundred of the Second World War burials here are from the dark days of retreat in late May 1940; the rest are post-invasion casualties.
Baldrick wanders among the headstones of Plot IV. We shall join him.
Three of only nineteen First World War New Zealand burials here, all but one of whom are artillerymen.
At about 9.30 on the evening of 13th July 1917 two shots rang out at the British Army camp at Brie in northern France. Company Sergeant Major T. McCain lay dead outside one of the huts, and two Royal Engineers were holding a man down on the floor of the hut, beside whom lay a smoking rifle. Sapper Arthur Oyns, 50th Searchlight Company, Royal Engineers, was tried for the murder of C.S.M. McCain on 8th October 1917, found guilty, and sentenced to death with no recommendation for mercy.
Rifleman F. W. Cheeseman of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps faced a Field General courts-martial charged with desertion and, like Oyns, was found guilty and sentenced to death. Both men were shot in a double execution on the morning of 20th October 1917 at Coxyde.
In 2006, Private William Wycherley and Rifleman Frank Cheeseman each received a pardon as recognition, as the pardon to each states, ‘that he was one of many victims of the First World War and that execution was not a fate that he deserved’.
Arthur Oyns did not.
Plot IV Row G. One of only two South Africans buried in the cemetery. One wonders how they came to be here.
Looking north towards the Cross of Sacrifice across Plot I, Row H in the foreground.
There are twenty two unidentified Second World War burials in the cemetery, quite a number buried in Plot V Row B (foreground) and Row A (behind). Plot IV beyond.
On the left, in front of Plot V, four headstones mark the graves of ten German casualties of the Great War.
In the second row lies Leutnant Alfred Herzberg, a veteran pilot of the Gotha raids against England in the summer of 1917, whose bomber brought down near Dunkerque on 26th September 1917. Perhaps the R.N.V.R. men we visited earlier were avenged that day? Note the Second World War R.A.F. burials in the rows behind, all men shot down ten days after D-Day.
Headstones undergoing renovation in Plot II.
Private William McIntosh (Plot II Row B) is one of 117 men killed on 10th July 1917, the first day of Operation Strandfest, the German attack on the British positions in their bridgehead across the Yser Canal near Nieuwpoort, who are buried in this cemetery.
Plot II Row E. There are 202 identified men of the Royal Field Artillery buried here.
The eastern half of the cemetery, with Plot II nearest the camera, and Plots III & VI to the far right.
Men of the Manchester Regiment in Plot II Row J. Between their arrival in late June 1917 and mid-August 1917, when these men were killed, the British had already buried nearly a thousand of their men in this cemetery. Eighteen Australian First World War casualties are buried here (one visible in this photo), all either artillerymen or men of the Australian Tunnelling Corps. Notwithstanding the sandy nature of the terrain, Niuewpoort itself was the scene of widespread tunnelling, so much so that the modern town is beginning to suffer the consequences, as I have related elsewhere on this site.
Plot VI, on the eastern side of the cemetery, is entirely made up of Second World War burials. The identified burials in Rows K (nearest camera) and J are all men of the South Notts Hussars or Royal Air Force, all but two casualties from 1944.
Most of the other graves in Plot VI are earlier casualties from May 1940.
And so we leave.
Thanks to Baldrick for his photographic contributions to this post.
And, thank you for the discrete introduction 🙂 If one was to peruse pages eleven to fourteen of the South Sask. Regt. War Diary linked above you would have an introduction to a small battle surrounding Bray Dunes Plage part of the dunes system in Sept. 1944 you mention that spans the coast at the French Belgian border area about ten kilometers west of Coxyde Military Cemetery. And at the junction of pages 13, and 14 a description of the regimental funerals at Coxside (sic) of the ten S.S.R. men killed in action at the battle, and the names of the two battalion chaplain/padres Major MacIsaacs (RC) and Major Taylor (Presumably Anglican) who officiated. How rare are details like those in our research and remembrances ?
Where one sees S.S.R. “arty” there goes my now late dad, then a Lieutenant, later Captain in the Anti-tank Artillery Coy. The mortar references would include the now late Lt. Cecil Law, also later Captain of the Mortar Coy, later Professor, and author of a book on the liberation of Transit Concentration Camp Westerbork in Holland. I was honoured to have some discussions with around 2005, and will expand upon briefly at a later post here.
Hopefully I have done the cemetery justice, my friend. Sorry you’ve had to wait a while for this post, but at least now you have a pretty good idea of the nature of this place. Take good care.
My father George Eugene Lapeyre is buried in that row. I have little information about the battle in witch he was killed. He was taken to a military hospital and died of an abdominal penetration wound three days later. I will correspond shortly with more information about him if this message gets to you. Thank you for the information above which is very helpful.
Gina, thank you for your comment; if John does not respond in the near future I shall mail him on your behalf, if you like. He won’t mind.
My father’s grave is in this group of SSR soldiers. He was attached to SSR when most of his previous battalion was lost. I have lots of information about him but nothing about the battle. Therefore the information above is greatly appreciated. His name is George Lapeyre and I can provide more information if this goes through..
Hello Gina, my late dad came on with the S.S.R. as a Lieutenant during the post Normandy liberation of Dieppe. As did his colleague Professor Law mentioned above. All I know about the battle at Bray Dunes Plage, only a few days later, is gleaned from the Regimental War Diary that I linked above. War Diaries vary widely in the depth of information provided about actions. This section on the Bray Dunes is very detailed.
As is very common among combat veterans, my father did not talk about his experiences. So, I’m afraid I can’t provide you with much more than that on that particular battle. I hope to get a chance in retirement to visit the National Archives in Ottawa. There occasionally were Divisional photographers that followed units for a time, and I’ve seen more than one surprise find in those.
Geachte, In uw publicatie vind ik dat sapper Arthur Oyns, 50th Seaerchlight Company, Royal Engineers, ter dood werd veroordeeld voor de moord op csm T. McCain en bij Julian Putkowski & Julian Sykes (“Shot at Dawn”) uitgave 2017 is vermeld dat Oyns (samen met Cheeseman Frank) als deserteur werd terechtgesteld. Graag zou ik de juiste toedracht/oorzaak kennen. Dank U
Hello Theo. Oyns was a murderer. Putkowski & Sykes is a very useful book, no doubt, but they got it wrong about Oyns. Full details in a book called Murderous Tommies by Mark Dunning which includes a plan used at the trial of the camp where the murder took place. Hope that helps.
Magicfingers, kindly be advised that Mark Dunning and I co-authored “Murderous Tommies” (Pen & Sword Books) and we shared the research and publication of an updated, full and accurate account of Oyns’ offence, trial and execution. – Julian Putkowski
Well, there’s the stamp of authority. Thank you for taking the time, Julian. Much appreciated.