Every Picture Tells a Story No.1

Everywhere you go in Flanders the landscape has a story to tell if you know how to read it, as this view, and the following brief post, so amply prove.

We are on the road from Wulvergem (off the bottom of the map), heading north towards Kemmel, our position denoted by the small magenta dot.

How many people, I wonder, travel this road without realising the significance of the land through which they are passing?  Up on the ridge, three quarters of a mile away to our east, the German trenches once crossed the picture, looking down, as ever, on the British front line only two hundred yards nearer us, just below the ridge’s crest.  This is the view you might have had from one of the British communication trenches for the first three years of the war, if you had dared to poke your head above the parapet.

Close-up of the map.  The German trenches are marked in red, the British front line in blue, and the light blue circle marks the site of the huge mine crater at Spanbroekmolen, the Pool of Peace, as it is now known, one of the nineteen mines that exploded virtually simultaneously on the morning of 7th June 1917, heralding the start of the Battle of Messines.

Today the trees on the horizon surround the crater,…

…now water-filled, and a pool of peace indeed,…

…and to the right of the trees, in front of the farm buildings, on the far right, is Lone Tree Cemetery.  I have three ‘favourite’ cemeteries, if it’s acceptable to have favourite cemeteries, two of which are in Belgium, the other just over the border in France.  Two have become special to me over time, but the third, Lone Tree, because I knew the story behind its existence beforehand and had always wanted to pay my respects there long before I first visited, has been so the longest.

Looking down into the valley from Lone Tree, the Kemmelberg rising on the horizon.

The cemetery is on the approximate position of the British front line, the trees which now surround the crater just a couple of hundred yards away.  Sixty six of the seventy nine identified burials here, fifty six of them men of the Royal Irish Rifles, 36th (Ulster) Division, died on 7th June 1917.  Many of these men, adrenalin pumping, made the simple but deadly mistake of leaving their trenches a fraction too early on that fateful summer morning, and were killed between here and the trees by blast and flying debris when the Spanbroekmolen mine erupted in their faces.

Looking down into the valley from Lone Tree Cemetery as the Flanders sun sinks in the west – and if this photograph rings any kind of bells, take a look at the banner photograph at the top of every page of this website.  The link will take you to a more detailed look at the cemetery and crater, part of the Tour of Messines that we embarked upon a few years back.

With which we finish where we started.  Every picture tells a story.

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26 Responses to Every Picture Tells a Story No.1

  1. Nigel Shuttleworth says:

    My wife and I know this part of the Western front well, having visited several times over the past few years. You have written a most poignant and evocative post, so well illustrated especially the photo of the winter sun on Spanbroekmolen. Thanks Magicfingers.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you kindly Nigel. The photos from the Wulvergem road were taken two weeks ago just as we started the trek to Pond Farm Cemetery which you will also know. Of course on getting home I had a couple of long range shots of the ridge with nowhere to go! Thus the above story came into being, and I appreciate the fact that you like it. Thanks again.

  2. John in Canada says:

    Greetings my friend !

    Is there not another set of farm buildings nearby, that is rumoured to be built directly over top of an unexploded mine ?

    • Chris says:

      Correct, there’s a farm built on top of an un-exploded mine.
      In fact, there were 3 mines that didn’t explode; 1 was discovered by the Germans (even before the explosives were in place), 1 exploded in 1955 due to a lightning streak and then there’s the one under the farmhouse, which they do not dare to disarm.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Hello John! Good to hear from you my friend. Without wishing to in any way upstage Chris (Cheers Chris!), there are actually two farms built on unexploded mines, or very close – one at Meadelstede Farm, about 700 yards north east of the Pool of Peace, and the one you are thinking of, I suspect, at Petit Douve Farm a bit further south, which is slap bang beneath the farm buildings. Down at Ploegsteert, none of the four mines that would have been the farthest south of all were detonated as the Germans had already withdrawn slightly, and exploding the mines would have given them good defensive positions and helped the British not one jot. And what a brave decision, bearing in mind the time and effort, from the officer who gave the command. And it was one of these four that explded in 1955 after a lightning strike, but the other three are still there, as is all detailed here:
      So, basically, twenty five mines laid, nineteen exploded, one more in 1955, five still there.

  3. Morag Sutherland says:

    My husband George used to go to check in the pool of peace when we were wardens I. Talbot House Poperinge as of course the pool comes under the care of TH…..as for the cemetery it is a wee one but so significant….thanks as always …

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks Morag. How interesting. What else does a warden do?

      • Morag Sutherland says:

        Are you serious about warden duty? I could write a book…..the welcoming modern face of Tubby Claydon…that was.me!
        Many folk volunteer all with different talents
        It was a privilege for 10 years but exhausting too on duty 24/7 for 2 weeks….

        • Magicfingers says:

          Yes, I am serious. I have never been to Talbot House nor Poperinghe, and perhaps because I have never been I have never really looked into the whole Tubby Clayton business. Write the book!

        • Sally and I had the privilege of staying four nights at TocH this August when we went to visit the site to the NW of Mt.Kemmel where my Great Uncle died 100 years ago. I can confirm that Mandy the Warden together with all the Belgian staff worked extremely hard to make our stay so enjoyable and comfortable. Also, an absolutely fascinating little Museum in the old hop store which gives a totally different side to life in Pop during the War.

          • Morag Sutherland says:

            Once upon a time Mandy was my house guest! I was delighted when I heard she had decided to do warden duty . Glad she looked after you so well. Only Raf the manager and Juan the gardener remain from the original staff we worked with….

  4. Morag Sutherland says:

    Once i am home I will write you a detailed response
    On your way home from Ieper you should call by…it really is the most special place
    You can stay as residents and that is something essential….to.be continued….

  5. Nigel Shuttleworth says:

    Magicfingers you need this book for Christmas ‘A Touch of Paradise in Hell: Talbot House, Poperinge – Every-Man’s Sanctuary from the Trenches’ by Jan Louagie (Author). Today TocH is a worldwide charity working through projects with disadvantaged children and adults. . . . . Morag, as you may know Mandy is a film maker and in a couple of short minutes she BRILLIANTLY explains what being a Warden at TH is all about! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ0Llgrma48

    • Morag Sutherland says:

      Good morning Nigel
      I didn’t know about Mandy’s film making so thanks for the update

      • Nigel Shuttleworth says:

        Hello Morag – Mandy Carpenter is a professional film maker/Director. She made an extremely good documentary about TH which is on show in the Museum. I enjoyed several fascinating conversations with her during our stay as I am a retired Lecturer and Examiner in film, photog, creative studies. We were amazed by the hours she worked from as Warden from thing in the morning until very late in the evening. Lovely lady and made us feel very welcome.

        • Morag Sutherland says:

          Being pleasant and smiling for 2 weeks is a lot more stressful than folk realise. The house guests are away all day and they return as museum closes so……not much private time at all. But I can say in the time we were involved we met the most wonderful of people and made friends for life and also met family we did not know about…. they featured on BBC documentary recently about post war cemeteries. The section about Lijssenthoek
          God himself sent me to Talbot House

    • Magicfingers says:

      On the list!

  6. Nick kilner says:

    Another very nice piece Magicfingers.
    I was given a tour of Spanbroekmolen, as well as some of the other craters along the Messines ridge, by Barry (whom I will hopefully introduce you to next year, if things go to plan). It’s a great spot and gives a really good idea of the force involved in creating so many ‘surprised angels’, as the Tommies called them.
    Just for general interest, tunnelling for the Spanbroekmolen mine was begun in January 1916 by 3rd Canadian tunnelling company. They were relieved by the men of 171 T.C in the April, who had completed the necessary works by the end of June 1916. 171 Tunnelling company had previously been deployed beneath hill 60, and so were well accustomed to dealing with the ‘bastard clay’ and extremely wet and difficult tunnelling conditions of the area. Whilst tunnelling continued in the area, the detonation of the mine was put on hold as the battle of the Somme dragged on.
    The mine and it’s galleries were badly damaged by German countermining in the February and March 1917 and had to be ‘remade’, with work being completed literally hours before the attack on Messines ridge was due to be launched. It’s possible that this work lead to a reported 15 second delay in firing the Spanbroekmolen mine. If correct, it was this delay that proved deadly to the advancing troops of the Royal Irish Rifles. It seems prior to the attack they had been informed that, due to continued works the mine may not be fired. Tragically, as a result of being given this information they would not have held back waiting for the blow.
    Whether the Rifles went early or the mine was detonated late is difficult to say. Either way those few seconds cost the lives of many men.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks Nick. We stumbed across a large shell in the trees round the crater one time – and the Pool of Peace cat, who insisted on jumping up on said shell on too many ocasions for my liking. Check out the link in the post. And managed to get into the St Eloi crater – you need a code, as you may know, to get near the crater – two weeks ago for the first time too.

      • Nick kilner says:

        I did follow the link to the previous and excellent article on the crater. It seems the local kitty has more than a few of it nine lives left, not a good game to play with visitors! Hahaha.
        Yes, we visited the st Eloi crater as well, another very peaceful spot. I do wonder if it’s really necessary to go to such lengths as a gated entrance, but they must have had their reasons. Interesting artillery piece in the village too. We also did a little field walking between the st Eloi crater and the two on the opposite side of the road. It seems few are aware of the third crater hidden deep in the woods on private land a hundred yards or so further on from the second. Even on google earth it is all but hidden from view, with a slight crescent in the trees the only real indication of its presence. It is just visible if you peer over the gates, and is surrounded by a beautiful garden.
        Hard to envisage the chaos that took place in such a serene spot. It must have been quite something to watch the earth heave as mine after mine was fired all along the ridge.

        • Magicfingers says:

          I wish I’d taken a pic of kitty on shell, but you aren’t thinking about that at the time! My St. Eloi visit was actually not planned, but after we lost all my pre-trip notes we had to make some on-the-spot decisions, and as we were fairly close and I had never been there (and didn’t need any notes for the main crater) it seemed like a good move. I know of all three remaining craters but only because of the vast number of trench maps have looked at, and of course through books too, but not enough to search them out on this occasion. Maybe next year. Having said that, neither the Bayernwald, nor Croonaert Chapel, nor St. Eloi were on my hit list for this year, and I have now visited all three, the first two thoroughly, so plans can always change.
          There was a film or documentary that I thought did the mine explosions rather well, but for the life of me I cannot remember exactly what programme it was.

  7. Margaret Draycott says:

    Well i am only three years late to this post and cat believe i missed it first time around. I agree about Talbot House a very serene, peaceful, beautiful place. Thought the pool of peace was exactly that, hard to believe it came out of something so devastating.
    The interesting information from the rest of you has been brilliant and i thank you all.
    Yes Morag i could imagine a very rewarding and tiring role, something you must look back on with pride.
    How tragic for those men of the 36thUlster division a couple of more minutes would have made such a difference

    • Magicfingers says:

      Better late than never, M! Anyway, these posts are all ‘live’, so there may be late, but there’s no such thing as being too late! Glad you enjoyed.

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