A Tour of Langemark Part Six- The Wilhelm Stellung & the 34th Division Memorial

The 34th Division memorial can be found about 500 yards north west of Langemark German War Cemetery.

It stands next to a German bunker,…

…part of the Wilhelm Stellung, the third German defensive line facing the British attack, as were the bunkers we saw last post in Langemark German War Cemetery.  The Wilhelm Stellung was not constructed of trenches as such, at least not trenches dug beneath ground.  The trenches here were made above ground, using woven wickerwork branches to line them to a height of about seven feet, with maybe eight feet of sandbags, enough to prevent a bullet or shrapnel from piercing, laid to the same height on either side.  The bunker on the left of the inset gives a very good idea of how the bunkers we saw last post at Langemark German War Cemetery would have been incorporated into the trench system.

The road follows the course of the Broenbeek on its way to join the Steenbeek a mile further on, and eventually the Yser Canal at Drie-Grachten, three miles north of Lizerne, the bunker sited for maxim effectiveness on the edge of a small copse which once stood on this bend in the stream,…

…which, although looking almost benign in the main photo above would, like the Steenbeek, be far from easy to cross in the conditions prevalent in 1917, as the inset photo shows.

Originally one of the objectives of the first day of Third Ypres had things gone as planned, the British had crossed the Steenbeek a mile and a half to the south east near St. Julien, but by day’s end at Langemark, they had been brought up short.

And there they would remain, as August & September passed and the main thrust of the British attack continued further east, towards Passchendaele.

The 34th Division was raised in November 1914 as part of K4, Kitchener’s fourth Army Group, and would land in France in January 1916.  The division was originally made up of Pals battalions, including men from Lincoln, Grimsby & Northumberland, as well as the Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish, who would suffer so cruelly at La Boisselle on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the division’s first day of serious action.  The memorial, featuring the division’s chequerboard symbol which can be found on all their memorials,…

…is not actually to the whole division – the 34th Division Flanders Memorial is at Mont Noir in France – but more specifically to the men of the division’s artillery and engineers,…

…the units named on each side.  1917 would see the division in action at Arras and Third Ypres, 1918 on the Scarpe and Lys after which, having suffered heavy casualties, it was withdrawn from the line to refit and reorganise, returning to participate in the battles on the Marne and the final advance in Flanders.

In the months after the war the division would be part of the Army of Occupation, based in Cologne.  I tell you this mainly as it gives me an opportunity to show you this fabulous aerial photograph, taken on 2nd January 1919, showing an aerodrome near Hangelar, in the Cologne Bridgehead.

On 16th August 1917, phase two of Third Ypres began with attacks all along the line from just south of the Menin Road east of Hooge to Langemark in the north, a front of some six miles.  At the very north of the British attack, with French support to their left, 29th Division were tasked with crossing the Steenbeek and attacking the Wilhelm Stellung and the defences across the Broenbeek.

Recent appalling weather had turned a small stream into a sizeable river, whose banks were no longer distinguishable from the morass around it (I refer you once more to the earlier inset aerial photo), and the bunkers* on the north bank proved their worth, preventing attacks from crossing the stream on both 16th & 27th August, as the rain fell and the swamp beneath the machine guns in the bunkers widened.

*there were a series of bunkers along the north bank of the Broenbeek, as we will see later.

On 9th September men of the Guards Division did manage to cross the mire and, surprising the defenders of the bunkers, succeeded in capturing them but the bunkers could only be held as outposts, and German counterattacks eventually forced the British back to the south side of the Broenbeek.

It would be 9th October, and the Battle of Poelcapelle, before the British would finally capture, and hold, these bunkers.

Strangely, it was not until 12th October, after the capture of the bunkers, that 34th Division first entered the fray, relieving 4th Division, but some distance east from here, to the north of Poelcapelle, so why this site was chosen for their memorial, who knows?

Total casualties for the division in the Great War amounted to 41,183 men killed, wounded or missing.

Turning our attention to the bunker, the small aperture immediately gives away its purpose.

This is no troop shelter, like the bunkers in Langemark German War Cemetery.  This bunker was designed to protect the machine gunners inside who were covering the section of the Wilhelm Stellung across the other side of the Broenbeek.

Walking round the bunker, these exposed steel girders show either the results of the British bombardment during Third Ypres, or possibly an attempt post-war to blow it up and remove it,…

…although from this view it does appear that there was some kind of structure attached to this side of the bunker which has now gone, exposing the girders.  Whatever, the bunker survived.  You get an idea of its field of fire from here, covering the farm buildings and fields to the south across the Broenbeek, the Wilhelm Stellung crossing the fields beyond the farm buildings, a good 250 yards from where we are standing, which also shows the strength in-depth of these German defensive lines.

Once captured, the bunker was used as an Advanced Dressing Station for the remainder of Third Ypres, under the command of Captain Robert Lawrence, R.A.M.C., Lawrence of Arabia’s brother, no less,…

…and at some point a command post as well.

Both the bunker’s apertures are visible in this shot, the second aperture, on the right, pointing east, providing enfilading fire straight down the road we came up.

Trench map showing the first three lines of German defense, the front line and Albrecht Stellung on the far left and, crossing the map, the third line, the Wilhelm Stellung.  The site of the bunker is marked in orange, covering the main line of German trenches to the south.  Langemarck village is in the bottom right hand corner.  Time for some map reading.

Here we are in May 1917, taking a closer look at the section of the Wilhelm Stellung line immediately north of Langemark, and although the British appear to have a good idea of the current state of the fortifications, and defences are marked along the north bank of the Broenbeek where I have once more marked the bunker in orange, there is no sign of any substantial construction at this point.

Early July 1917, a month before the start of Third Ypres, and I don’t see an awful lot of changes, do you?

And this is October 1917, the site of the bunker now behind British lines.

An even closer look reveals much more.  Back to May.  You know by now where the bunker is, and you can see a communication trench leading down the hill towards the small copse beneath the number ’16’, with barbed wire defenses marked along the northern edge of the road and the Broenbeek.  In the top left square a German cemetery is marked, the men once buried there almost certainly now buried in Langemark German War Cemetery, and note that a number of huts are marked, and anotated as such, in the small wood just below.  The Wilhelm Stellung crosses the bottom of the map.

July, and this map actually shows less information than the previous one.

Now October, and what you will notice, and it does not appear on any of the previous maps before the British captured this land, is a little letter ‘C’ where the bunker is situated.  You will also see a cluster of three ‘Cs’ in Ney Wood to the top left, right where ‘huts’ were marked back in May.  And Gruyterszale Farm, top right, has been heavily fortified, a series of five ‘Cs’, and a sixth a little further south, now marked on the map.  As mentioned earlier, the bunkers once sited here caused no end of problems for the Guards Division who tried and failed on a number of occasions to cross the Broenbeek in August.

The ‘C’, as this caption shows, refer to ‘Works reinforced by concrete’, and suggests that the British may very well have been unaware of these bunkers, certainly at the start of the attack, and perhaps right up until men began falling to the machine guns placed in them.  Traces of the bunkers in Ney Wood still exist, although the wood is long gone.

There are numerous aerial photgraphs to be found of Langemark during the Great War, and not one of them covers Square 16, unfortunately.  But to give you an idea of the difficulties involved in interpreting aerial photographs, this one shows the state of the battlefield around Langemark in December 1917, and luckily for us it has a map reference – 20U 22d 28b – which should enable us to pinpoint it on a trench map.

All the trench map extracts in this post are from versions of Map 20 (above), the majority of which is made up of square U – the 20U on the photograph – which is itself divided into 30 numbered squares.  The photograph says 22d and 28b,…

…and here we have squares 22 & 28, themselves divided into four subsquares each, 22d & 28b highlighted.  Now compare these two highlighted squares with the photograph,…

…tilted so that north is straight up, and the rest is up to you.  Have fun.

With which we leave both memorial and bunker.

Langemarck church from the Zonnebeke road.  The next stop on this tour can be found here.

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2 Responses to A Tour of Langemark Part Six- The Wilhelm Stellung & the 34th Division Memorial

  1. Morag Sutherland says:

    Brilliant post. I wish I had known all of that when i was taking school bairns to the battlefields

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