On the northern outskirts of Langemark, this is one of only four German Great War cemeteries to be found today in Belgian Flanders.
The Germans held the village of Langemarck (now Langemark) from 22nd April 1915, when the first gas clouds were released on either side of the village towards the French lines, until mid-August 1917, when it was recaptured, what was left of it, during the first weeks of Third Ypres. In 1918 the village would change hands twice more, and by the end of the war this particular cemetery was one of some fifteen German burial grounds in the Langemark area alone.
The path leading to the cemetery entrance is actually beyond the trees on the far left, where you can just see a group of people arriving, but we hadn’t spotted that.
So Baldrick and I headed in the other direction as we searched for a way in. And while we search, perhaps a little background information on the early days of battlefield clearance from a German perspective might be apposite.
The First Battle of Ypres in November 1914 saw the eventual formation of the Ypres Salient amid casualties of some quarter of a million men on both sides. With the battle over and the trench lines now formed on either side, many of the dead had to be left where they fell on the battlefield, in what was now No Man’s Land.
Behind the lines, often using local civilians under supervision, the search for bodies could now begin and, once found, the German Sanitätskompanien would then take over their disposal. Initially, the dead that could be buried were generally interred in mass graves until in late 1914 the German military began to receive demands from relatives for the repatriation of bodies, at which time they decreed that all German dead would be buried in individual graves so that no other graves would be disturbed in the event of repatriation, and thus the thousands of German dead found on the battlefield were buried, most often in individual graves where they fell, as instructed, although a number of small mass graves were also made at this time.
After the first gas attacks of Second Ypres in April 1915, and the German advance that followed, the battlefields behind the advancing army could be cleared of the dead, which included many still lying on the 1914 battlefields, and new concentration cemeteries began to be built. The many individual graves from the previous years’ fighting, and those from early 1915, began to be moved into these cemeteries as the only means to look after them properly. This work would continue until the spring of 1917, by which time the majority of individual graves had been moved into one of the concentration cemeteries.
Anyway, there wasn’t another way in, so we had to improvise! This view looks south east, the cemetery entrance actually in the centre distance.
During a refurbishment in the 1950s, a number of these groups of three basalt-lava crosses were placed in certain places across the cemetery.
Basic research suggests that their location is architectural, but as the main section of the cemetery consists of a number of mass graves, it would be nice to think that they may have some further significance.
Looking north east, the three bunkers in the background the ones you may have noticed as we searched for the entrance. The graves in this slightly raised section at the northern end of the cemetery are closer to each other than elsewhere, suggesting that the bodies beneath could well be the names on the stone blocks. We shall begin our tour by following the pathway beyond the tree on the left of the photograph.
Throughout the cemetery stone blocks record the names and ranks of identified men interred here, along with their dates of death. Apart from 25,000 men buried in a large mass grave immediatley inside the cemetery entrance, well over 19,000 men are buried beneath these stone blocks, as the inscribed numbers at both top and bottom of each block relate. Although this burial ground is considerably smaller, there are far more burials here than at Tyne Cot Cemetery.
Many of the men buried in this part of the cemetery are casualties from early in the war,…
…most killed during the First Battle of Ypres. The Germans made desperate attempts to take the village of Langemark during the battle of the same name between 21st & 24th October 1914, but at a terrible cost, British & French machine gunners and riflemen spending much of their time cutting them down in waves.
‘The enemy seemed to rise out of the ground and sweep towards us like a great tidal wave, but our machine guns poured steel into them at the rate of six hundred shots per minute, and they’d go down like grass before the scythe……the Germans were climbing over heaps of their own dead, only to meet the same fate themselves.’
Many of the German divisions attacking at Langemark were made up of reservists and inexperienced, untrained students – there had simply been no time to train them in anything other than the rudiments of soldiering – and thus the myth of the Massacre of the Innocents – der Kindermord – was born, the university and college students (who were actually exempted from army service, but chose to join up, en masse, with their teachers) going to their deaths singing patriotic songs. I say myth, because the Nazis raised the students’ sacrifice to near mythical proportions in their propaganda, and recently historians have suggested that there were many more older reservists involved, perhaps only 15% of the attacking troops being students. But then historians do like to rewrite history.
The graves of these insanely patriotic young men, some 3,000 of them, can be spotted in this cemetery wherever you find the word ‘Kriegsfreiwilliger’ – war volunteers – as in the photo above.
These large blocks (above & below) placed near the northern end of the cemetery are inscribed with the divisions whose men lie beneath the earth here.
The first burials were made in 1915 when a small group of soldiers were buried beside the nearby road, and in 1916 the German authorities designated this as an official burial place for their dead.
During World War II Adolf Hitler spent two days visiting the Ypres battlefields where he himself had fought,…
…including a tour of German Military Cemetery No. 123, as this cemetery had been renamed in 1930.
During the months preceding the Third Battle of Ypres, the Germans had been constructing a series of defensive trench lines behind their front line. So, about a mile behind the front line, the second line was known as the Albrecht Stellung, the third, a mile further back, the Wilhelm Stellung (or Wilhelmstellung), and the fourth, fifth and sixth lines, between three and six miles behind the front line, were known as the Flandern I, II & III Stellung respectively, Flandern III Stellung, the sixth line, still being under construction at the time of the start of the battle.
The bunkers you can see within this cemetery were once part of the Wilhelm Stellung, the third German line, one of the failed objectives of 31st July, which the British eventually succeeded in taking in October. They look to me like troop shelters, and certainly some of the bunkers in the Wilhelm Stellung were used to shelter the reserves of the battalions in the front line. Not only that, but these bunkers were restored back in the 1930s, hence their untouched look; some say they were even moved here back then, and at first sight there may be some credence to this. We shall continue this discussion at the end of the post.
What can be said, just from viewing these bunkers, is that the restoration has been very thorough, removing all signs of damage, and the apertures show that a considerable portion of all three bunkers is underground.
In the years following end of the Great War the difficulties of looking after large numbers of small burial grounds on foreign soil became hugely problematic for the privately funded Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK), the German War Graves Association, although they did secure funds to carry out work at both this cemetery, known as Langemarck-Nord at the time, and another at Roeselaere.
Later, following the setting up of a German military cemetery register, further work was carried out, the oak trees you see today, the national tree of Germany, were planted, and the cemetery name changed to German Military Cemetery No. 123, before the official opening took place on 10th July 1932. Quite when the further name change to Langemark War Cemetery took place, I have no idea. The numbers on these stones in this corner of the cemetery, beneath a single basalt-lava cross, have now risen to 19,000 plus.
After World War II and the years of occupation the whole subject of German Great War burials on foreign soil would become far more, shall we say, complex, and in the early 1950s the decision was made to establish three collecting cemeteries, here at Langemark, at Menen, and at Vladslo, where it was felt that the graves could be better looked after. 9,500 bodies from some eighteen burial grounds, containing between fifty and 1,500 burials, from Staden in the north to Zillebeke in the south, were brought to Langemark to be reinterred.
Returning briefly to the pathway we first walked up,…
…and then crossing over to the eastern side of the cemetery,…
…we begin to walk south, where the gravestones are spaced, as they are for the rest of the cemetery, much further apart,…
…and where we begin to find the unidentified soldiers, three of whom are remembered here,…
…another five here, six in total,…
…three more on each stone here,…
…and three and four on these two stones,…
…another four here,…
…and four more in total on the right hand stone here.
And then, on occasions, much bigger numbers; forty unknown soldiers lie near this stone.
Twenty more unknown soldiers are marked on the stone in the foreground; beyond, large stone blocks form a guard of honour on either side of the Kameraden Grab,…
…bearing the names of men known to be among the 25,000 plus in the mass grave.
After the Second World War, with reconstruction work uncovering literally thousands of bodies, many of them unidentified Germans, the decision was made to create the Kameraden Grab, the Comrades Grave, a mass grave for the thousands of unidentified Germans being discovered, as space was available in this cemetery. The roof of the cemetery entrance building can be seen in the background here, with more lists of names on the walls within, men known to be buried in the cemetery, but not in identifiable graves.
The mass grave in front of us contains the remains of nearly 25,000 men, including the German air ace Werner Voss.
The four bronze figures at the far end of the mass grave were created by Munich sculptor Professor Emil Krieger,…
…inspired by the photograph of soldiers from Reserve-Infantry-Regiment 238 at the funeral of a fallen colleague (bottom inset). The photo became well known in the German press in 1918, perhaps because the soldier second from right was killed two days after it was taken. The top photo shows Hitler on arrival at the cemetery in 1940.
For many years the figures were sited on the western side of the cemetery, directly opposite the cemetery entrance, silhouetted against the sky across the cemetery when one entered through the gatehouse, but redevelopment in the last ten years, I believe, has seen them moved to back to here on the eastern side of the cemetery, which is where they were placed originally in the 1930s.
At the other end of the grave there are shields that represent the areas from which bodies were brought to be reburied here,…
…the first four, Namur, Limburg, Luttich & Luxemburg,…
…to the right of this flat stone with sculpted wreath, which records the number of soldiers buried in this cemetery,…
…and Hennegau, Brabant & Antwerp on the left side.
And after a small space, Flanders. And all surrounded by names,…
…thousands and thousands of names. One wonders whether the positioning of the Flanders shield, and the gap between it and the others, indicates that all the names on the left hand bank of memorial blocks are men killed in Flanders.
Years of research uncovered many of the names of the men buried in the mass grave, and now some 16,940 are inscribed in bronze on these blocks. The final block on this side has a plaque,…
…on which the names of two British soldiers, both men killed in the final two weeks of the war, who are also buried somewhere in this cemetery, are recorded.
At the same time as the creation of the Kameraden Grab the cemetery underwent further redevelopment, and the groups of basalt-lava crosses were placed in position.
By the time that the redevelopment work was completed, the Comrades Grave contained very nearly 25,000 bodies, of which nearly 8000 remained unidentified, and the total number of identified dead buried elsewhere in the cemetery had risen to over 19,300.
In 1984 a ceremony was held to mark the completion of the renovations.
Beneath this stone lie more men, including one ‘Kriegsfreiwilliger’, who died during the First Battle of Ypres.
View looking north east across the cemetery, the entrance in the centre background,…
…and panning left, now looking north up the western boundary.
A young Wehrmacht soldier perhaps considers his own mortality as he gazes thoughtfully at the graves of his fathers’ generation. Until the 1970s, the graves here were marked by simple iron crosses inscribed with just the plot number, at which time they were replaced with stones markers.
I always think that the men buried in the very corner of military cemeteries get fewer visitors than others. Maybe. The stone on the left is the first stone, numbered, at the top, A 1-4.
As we walk east along the southern boundary,…
…some stones contain far less information – there are no dates at all and little in the way of names on the one above – than on the later numbered ones. Fifteen men here are unidentified, and the other four are only barely identified,…
…and thirty unknown soldiers lie beneath these two stones, with equally scant information on seven of the eight identified men who lie alongside them.
Still walking east, the numbers suddenly rising, as is the nature of the cemetery’s layout,…
…we find more casualties of the First Battle of Ypres,…
…as well as men from later battles.
Final view from the south east corner of the cemetery.
Before we leave, a little more on the bunker question. The trench map dates from May 1917 and shows that at that date the cemetery was a structured burial ground, the inset photo, dated a month later, emphasising the point. What is also clear are the defences of the Wilhelm Stellung Line crossing both map and photo just north of the cemetery. Are there three bunkers visible in the photo? Well, and here we enter the realm of seeing things that are maybe not there, a common occurrence when deciphering aerial photographs, believe me, but I think there could be; certainly, the line of trees which now obscures the bunkers from aerial observation (check out Google maps) seems to follow the trench line pretty accurately.
Our tour now heads a few hundred yards north and west before we arrive at our next stop, with another bunker, another aerial photo to attempt to decipher, and a whole lot more on the Wilhelm Stellung Line. Bet you can’t wait.
Wow! Another really great article Magicfingers. A fascinating read. We Brits often overlook the German side of the battle beyond snooping around old concrete emplacements. It’s easy to forget, or perhaps dismiss, the suffering and casualties on the other side of the wire.
Couldn’t agree more, Nick. This seemed a good opportunity to try to put that right. There are a number of other German cemeteries that I have visited and photographed but have yet to write about which will appear in due course. A bit of detective work required next post, btw.
More than happy to help if I can
Most kind. Have solved this one now, I think. There’ll be others.
I always feel that wherever I am in thus cemetery the comrades at the back are watching me! Did I miss something on the oak pannelling at the entrance? Maybe covered earlier? I think there is a Seaforth Highlander in thus cemetery but I could be wrong
Indeed there is – one Seaforth Highlander and one North Lancs man – there’s a photo of the plaque with their names on in this post! And yes, we both missed the panels by the sound of it! Next time.
On this one “This stone contains a very strange date, that of 7th November 1919.”
It’s probably just the last two digits have been knocked away somehow, since the years on these graves are generally all four digits.
Doh! You see, this is why I rely on you guys! Thank you Andrew – the post will be updated shortly.
Agreed. If you look closely there’s the bottom half of a 1 after the 19
The numbers below it have also had a degree of damage
Have visited this cemetery a couple of times but now I understand how it came into being. I find it hard to reconcile that all this has to be done by voluntary subscription and that its not funded like our CWG. These men all fought for their country believing there cause was just. Sorry on my soapbox again
I like your soapbox.
Hallo, my name is Gerd, I’m German and come to Flanders for nearly 20 years every November with students from our area. The reason, why the shield with the inscription “Flanders” has an extra place a bit away from the others is quite simple. As you can see on the photo, it is placed on a pallet. Normally it’s in the row on the left hand side, but, as the entrance of the massgrave is right beneath, it has to be removed when there is a funeral. Hope that explains why it’s seperated.
Hello Gerd. I like to think that I am pretty good at spotting things, but not only did I miss the pallet when I visited, but I hadn’t noticed it since! What can I say? Thank you very much for pointing it out and for explaining. It all makes sense now.
Within the wreath the epitaph reads:
ICH HABE DICH BEI DEINEM NAMEN GERUFEN…
DU BIST MEIN….
( “I’ve called your name…..
You are mine”)
From the Bible: Jesaja 43.
Thank you Henk, and thanks for taking the trouble to comment on a few posts today.