Mont Kemmel, or the Kemmelberg, photographed after the war from the road between Kemmel and La Clytte.
The small blue dot on this composite map is the approximate point from which the photograph was taken, the summit of the Kemmelberg itself marked in yellow. The coloured circles show the areas around Vierstraat (red), Kemmel village (blue), Loker (mauve) & Dranouter (green), all of which we shall be exploring this tour. This map shows the German lines as they were in the summer of 1917, between the Battles of Messines and Passchendaele, in red on the far right, and also serves to show where we are in relationship to Ypres (Ieper), Poperinge, and the Ypres-Poperinge road, all at the top, around which many of last years Flanders’ posts were concentrated. However, as it is the fighting in 1918 that features prominently, although not exclusively, in this tour,…
…here are the same five areas marked on a map from May 1918, with the approximate front line on the thirteenth of the month clearly marked by the blue line that winds its way across the map. This first part of the tour will take in the cemeteries in the area marked by the red circle, wherein the only named landmark is Vierstraat, which is exactly as it says on the tin, only in foreign; translated, it literally means ‘four streets’, and it is nothing more today than a few large industrial buildings clustered around a crossroads on the N331, about three and a half miles south west of the Lille Gate, the southern entrance to Ypres. From there we shall follow the blue arrow south towards the blue circle and Kemmel village and its environs, before visiting the Kemmelberg itself.
Aspects of the Battle of the Lys are covered in some detail in the French Flanders category (and elsewhere) on this website, but here’s a brief resumé. Just days after Ludendorff had brought the first of his 1918 offensives, Operation Michael, to a close (despite capturing 1,200 square miles of territory, the Germans failed to achieve any of their strategic objectives on the Somme, and both Arras and Amiens remained in Allied hands), he launched Operation Georgette in Flanders, with the aim of finally taking Ypres and the Channel ports beyond. The battle would last for three weeks, and the above map shows German progress over that time. The German advance swept all before them during the first few days (up to the dotted yellow line), their progress only slowed as the Allies shortened their lines in the Ypres Salient, giving up the hard-won gains of Third Ypres the previous year in order to move men south to reinforce the troops fighting the battle, fresh reinforcements arriving too, British, French and, to the south of the attack, the 1st Australian Division, who took up positions in the Forest of Nieppe (see map again), where they effectively halted the German advance towards the key Allied railway junction of Hazebrouck. It was at this point that the Germans turned their attention to the north of the offensive, attacking towards Mont Kemmel, and it is the actions of those final days of April that mainly concern us during this tour.
Here’s a view looking towards the humpback of the Scherpenberg, just under three miles away, to the right of the lone tree, and Mont Noir (the Zwarteberg) beyond to its left,…
…and here’s the earlier map again, now with a few additions. Our current position is marked by the dark blue dot within the red circle, looking across at the Scherpenberg (small & orange) and the Zwarteberg (smaller & light green). Along with the Kemmelberg (still in yellow) and the Mont des Cats, further to the west across the French border, capturing these hills represented the Germans’ final chance of some sort of victory; if they could be taken and held, then the British would surely be forced to abandon Ypres and retreat towards the Channel coast, in so doing losing contact with the French Army to the south, and perhaps even forcing the Allies to sue for peace.
And as the maps show, they would indeed take the Kemmelberg, over the two days of 25th & 26th April 1918. and even capture the Scherpenberg, if only for a few hours, on 29th April, attacking roughly from left to right across this landscape, although they would advance no further west, and indeed would retreat some three-quarters of a mile by day’s end, their advance in Flanders finally over. The Cross of Sacrifice in this shot rises from Suffolk Cemetery, the subject of our second post, but if we were to turn to our left, just a few yards from this junction,…
…stands the first of four Demarcation Stones we shall encounter on this tour.
As you know by now, nineteen of these Demarcation Stones survive in Belgium, considerably more in France, and they mark, ostensibly, and depending on your viewpoint, either the extent of the German 1918 offensive which, elsewhere, would continue for another three months until late July,…
…or the point of departure from which the Allies launched their final, successful, onslaught against the Germans in August. Take yer pick. The Germans attacked, officially, for 121 days in 1918, and the fact that we now know that they achieved nothing of any consequence in all that time – despite territorial gains that included all of the territory lost in 1916 & 1917, their new won gains included little of strategic value and simply extended both front and communication lines to little eventual purpose – perhaps makes us somewhat blasé in hindsight. But these continuous German attacks, using the new stormtrooper tactics, must have made it, for a while, a very worrying time, not only for the army, but just as much for those hearing the news back at home. And here’s a reminder of how serious – the word used is ‘critical’ – the situation actually was,…
…in the form of Douglas Haig’s Special Order of the Day from 11th April 1918. No punches pulled here.
Back to the stone. Referred to as Kemmel Demarcation Stone No.2,…
…meaning we shall find another Kemmel stone later in our tour,…
…and with Kemmel inscribed on the French helmet, although you might have to take my word for it,…
…this stone also has an inscription on the base that ends with the words ‘Ypres League’. The Ypres League was a British veterans society, formed in 1920 and open to those who had fought in the Salient during the war. Its aims were to remember those who died and provide help for those wishing to visit the Flanders’ battlefields and cemeteries, and in time, it would be responsible for the construction of St. George’s Memorial Church in Ypres, as well as funding six (or was it seven) of the nineteen Demarcation Stones that would be erected in Belgium. And this, quite clearly, is one of them, and also shows that the Ypres League did not just pay for stones featuring British helmets.
Actually, this particular stone has a somewhat chequered recent history.
Fifteen years ago, drunk and homeless, it was residing in a roadside ditch.
After its recovery it was placed next to the American Memorial further south down the N331, which, if better than a ditch, was an entirely incorrect position in which to place it, and now it’s been moved here, which is much, much better. Note the water bottle and exploding grenades.
So, some might say a low-key start to a long series of posts. As mentioned earlier, and briefly seen at the start of this post, we shall be visiting the nearby Suffolk Cemetery next.
I tell you what, though. Before we move on, if we were brave, or foolish, enough to strap on our parachutes and get in our tethered balloon and take a trip a couple of thousand feet above the battlefield to take a few snapshots looking away to the east, before the German scouts – the term ‘fighter’ for a single-seater combat aircraft is a 1920s term and has no place in any Great War discourse – came a’visiting, past the Vierstraat crossroads in the background of this shot at the end of the road,…
…this is the view that would have awaited us. At least it would have been on 23rd April 1917 (a couple of months before the Battle of Messines, and almost a year before the final German assault on Mont Kemmel), when the photo was taken. We are looking down on the British front line, in the foreground, with the German front line beyond the dark strip of No Man’s Land. The map has been rotated to match the photograph, with the same part of the large wood known as the Grand Bois marked in dark green on both. The road leads from Vierstraat to Wytschaete, off both photo & map to the top right, and the map has been extended to show not only Vierstraat, but also our current position at the Demarcation Stone (red dot), and our next stop, Suffolk Cemetery (light green dot). Which is where we are going, by clicking the link, now.
Excellent post. Off to a flying start I’d say. fascinating document from Haig. I knew nothing of the Ypres League, so thank you for that, I’ve leaned something new already and we’ve barely begun!
Well, thank you kindly, my friend. I think Haig’s Order of the Day is one of the most important documents of the war and I bet you are not alone in not having seen it. And I wonder if the Ypres League archives are at Kew? That’d be an interesting read, I think. Anyway, between you and me, there will be a dozen posts – some I have actually written, which is promising – in this first part of the tour ending on the Kemmelberg itself, so we shall see how we go.
There are some interesting sounding documents on the league held by the Surrey History centre, including copies of the Ypres Times – the magazine of the Ypres League. Now I’m not sure if that’s what became known as the Wipers Times, or something entirely different, seems a bit coincidental. You wouldn’t happen to know anyone who works there, would you? 😉
TNA hold some documents relation to articles of association and the dissolution of the company in 1961, but don’t look to have anything terribly exciting I’m afraid.
Well that’s interesting – strangely, I do know someone who (still) works there………………..
We’re off to a flying start then, love the demarcation stones and the symbols upon, fancy being found lying in a ditch so glad it was rescued, never heard of the Ypres league didn’t know they built St. George’s Memorial Church must have had a fair bit of funding, do so love to visit that church when staying in Ypres.
The letter from Haig very stirring but there was still a long road ahead.
Daisy you made me chuckle chastising M like that but can imagine your disappointment
Thanks M! Glad there was some new stuff for you in this post.
Some blokes just need a good chastising on a regular basis, don’t you agree?
I will wait patiently for a post on La Clytte cemetery, one of the most interesting I have had the pleasure to visit…
Looking forward to this series of posts, a very beautiful area for a tour.
Hi Daisy, quite agree need to keep them in their place.
You’ve piqued my interest now in the La Clytte cemetery, hopefully one day I might get to visit when the world opens up again?
Love your work… great post especially the connection between the photos and maps.
Can’t imagine a Demarcation Stone being abandoned in a ditch. Really nice to see it now located next to a bus stop meaning many visitors to marvel over the carvings!
Interesting to see Haig’s famous ‘Backs to the Wall’ Special Order of the Day. I have seen elsewhere this document gave the men a stirring resilient impact with many officers reading the Special Order to congregated troops. With so much territory lost Haig’s words make total sense and shows his masterful appreciation of the situation.
Never heard of the Ypres League either.
Cheers Daisy! Glad the maps/pics works because once you get an idea of the area – particularly people who have not actually been there – the fighting and positioning of the cemeteries makes a lot more sense.
I have a pic of the Stone in its ditch!
Haig’s SOD is a really important document – I have more & more time for Haig the more I learn about him.
Thinking of Haig M have recently rewatched Peter Barton’s programme on the Somme done for the anniversary. Don’t recall seeing it before, have a lot of respect for Peter Barton, Haig didn’t come out of it to well though, the mistakes made and his doggedness cost a lot of lives ?
I once shouted ‘Hello Mr Barton’ at him across the street at Harry Patch’s funeral which I attended https://thebignote.com/2012/10/12/the-funeral-of-harry-patch-wells-cathedral-date-check-this/. He was very acknowledging and smiley. Haig got good press for a while (20s, 30s), and then no press at all (post-WWII), then bad press (50s, 60s), and once someone gets bad press it is very difficult to put the clock back. I believe Haig was very concerned about his soldiers, and I think the soldiers showed that many of them appreciated that. Look at the photos of the streets at his funeral!! From his retirement to his death, eight years, he travelled the world championing the welfare of ex-servicemen. Anyway, once thing is certain – a Haig discussion is one usually of great length accompanied by strong beer, or equivalent.
Wouldn’t it be cool if each of these Demarcation Stones had a plaque attached or a story board nearby explaining the reason for it’s placement at this particular location, just like the Australian Bastiaan Plaques commemmorating significant events at specific sites?
Google Bastiaan Plaques…
That’s a really good idea Daisy pit it wasn’t done. Googled the Baastian Plaques have spotted one or two of those around when visiting the battlefields. Very cleverly done can see where his dentistry skills come in
I have to say that would be a very good idea, although the aesthetics of a plaque might need considering, although I’d much rather see that than an info board next to every Stone.
I have seen some and there are certainly a few Bastiaan plaques on this site, but I did not know the story behind them. Cheers Daisy!