Mont Kemmel Part Eighteen – Loker Churchyard

We’ve seen Loker church before, but only from a distance. 

This post we find ourselves in its shadow.

Loker, or Locre as it was at the time, was behind the Allied lines for much of the war and was a fairly safe place to bury men who had been killed further to the east, or who died of their wounds in dressing stations hereabouts.  This early war shot shows damage to the church spire in 1914,…

…and here snow covers the fields and village in January 1915, Mont Kemmel in the background.

There are two plots of British graves in the churchyard, Plot II, above, to the south of the church, and Plot I (below) to its north.

The majority (137) of the 215 British burials here were made in 1915, although the churchyard was first used in December 1914 and the final burials were not made until June 1917.

Aerial view of the churchyard after the war, the two British plots clear to see either side of the rubble that was once a church.

When they talked about post-war clearance, they certainly weren’t fibbin’.  The churchyard has been literally cleared to a depth of, what, fifteen to twenty feet (check out the men and horses to the top left), just about only the remaining graves being the military ones.  Where the church spire once was, near the top of the picture, you can see two pieces of timber sticking out of the rubble in a kind of ‘V’ shape; keep them in mind when we look at some more photos of the church towards the end of the post.  The only structure visible, incidentally, to the right of the photo, is the temporary church, as the cemetery plan shows.

As we were looking at Plot II, and as the earliest British burials are to be found in the plot, this is where we shall start.

The plot consists of six rows of graves, most of the burials made between January & May 1915.

The shortest row, the sixteen graves of Row A,…

…contains burials from between January & March 1915,…

…with a couple of later 1915 burials at this end.  The Leicestershire Regiment lance corporal buried on the left here, who died on 15th August 1915, is actually the final burial in the plot.

Behind, in Row B (above), the burials are mainly from between March & May 1915,…

…again with a few later 1915 burials added at the end,…

…those in the next two rows mainly from slightly earlier in the year.

Rows C to F, and in the centre of Row D,…

…there’s a grave, the centre headstone of the five pictured here, of a man who was one of the many sportsmen who fought and died in the trenches of the Great War.  I wasn’t aware of this when I noticed the name, but it just shows, once again, that there’s a story behind every headstone we visit, lest we forget.

Kenneth Powell, a private in the Honourable Artillery Company, was not only a double-Olympian, finishing fifth in whatever the equivalent of the 110-metre hurdles was in 1912, but also reaching the Wimbledon doubles final in 1910, and competing in the singles championship too (centre photo).  It so happens that one of my Grandfathers was chosen for the British Olympic team in the twenties, but illness prevented his participation.

The earliest British burials in the plot, and indeed the cemetery, are to be found in Row E, seven men at the far end of the row all casualties from December 1914,…

…and seen here, although unfortunately from behind.  The remaining burials in the row are all from January 1915,…

…while the final row in the plot, Row F, includes burials from late January to early June 1915, as well as one of only two unidentified soldiers buried here (second from left), one in each of the two plots.

Being some distance behind the lines, field ambulances stationed at the nearby Convent of St. Antoine – more about the convent and its hospice in the next two posts – began using the churchyard early in the war to bury those who didn’t make it.

Locre church in early 1915, the first British burials already in what would later become Plot II.

On to Plot I, to the north of the church,…

…where we are met with this somewhat curious arrangement, the man on the right of the three headstones the other unidentified burial in the churchyard, and probably the only concentration burial too, the CWGC database mentioning a single grave brought here after the Armistice from Locre French Cemetery No. 4.  The various small French cemeteries in the area were cleared after the war, the men reburied elsewhere, and my guess is that this lone unknown British soldier was moved here at that time.

Buried alongside him are two men of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, both of whom died in February 1915.

For some time Private Joseph Byers was believed to be the youngest soldier executed by the British military authorities during the Great War.  Although he had given his age as nineteen, it was believed he could have been as young as sixteen……until that particular Joseph Byers was discovered plying whatever trade he plied sometime in the 1920s!  A case of a research error nearly changing history.  Nonetheless, our Joseph Byers was still a teenager (not a term that he would have recognised back in 1915) when, unnoticed, he went missing from a ration party on 8th January 1915.  Picked up by a Belgian (maybe French) gendarme on the Ypres-Poperinge road ten days later, Byers maintained that he had been hospitalised and was attempting to rejoin his battalion, but was arrested and, at his subsequent Court Martial, plead guilty to deserting,  Sentenced to death, his case was hardly helped by Second Army C.O. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, whose comments on the case surely sealed his fate, ‘Discipline in the 1st Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers has been very bad for some time past and I think a severe example is very much wanted.’  Joseph Byers was executed on 6th February 1915, still just nineteen years old.

The court had a busy sitting that day.  Another man of the 1st Bn. Royal Scots Fusiliers, Private Andrew Evans, was also facing a Court Martial for desertion, having disappeared on the eve of the battalion’s return to the trenches in the last days of December 1914.  Arrested a fortnight later by a French corporal, Evans maintained that he had got drunk on Christmas Day and gone to Bailleul.  Which hardly explained his lengthy absence, the court subsequently sentencing him to death.  He was executed, alongside Byers, on 6th February 1915.  He was 41, and had been a reservist when called up in 1914.

Behind the three headstones in Row A, the single headstone on the left (see four photos back) is a third man who was executed for desertion.  In late November 1914 Private George Collins, 1st Bn. Lincolnshire Regiment, apparently decided to get drunk rather than return to the trenches with the rest of the battalion.  He was arrested some time later in Le Mans, south west of Paris, and although he maintained that he had been ordered there, he could provide no proof at his Court Martial, which, twinned with his admission of finding himself in Paris with no idea how he got there, sealed his fate.  He was executed on 15th February 1915, aged 20.  How ironic that the following day the Adjutant General wrote, ‘The Commander-in-Chief wishes to be assured that a good fighting man is not shot for absence arising out of (for example) a drunken spree.’

The other single headstone is that of a private of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry who died in June 1915, beyond which…

…we find the four rows of the main section of the plot,…

…the burials in the front row, Row C,…

…all from 1917,…

…with, at the end of the row, the final Great War burials in both plot and cemetery, these four men killed on 4th June 1917.

Behind Row C the burials are roughly chronological,…

…those in Rows D & E (foreground) mainly from 1916,…

…and those in the final row, Row F, mainly from 1915.

Our time here is up and we must move on,…

…back to the graves at the start of the plot,…

…the inset, despite its black & whiteness, actually showing a modern view of the corner of a Flemish field where Privates Byers & Evans were executed (© Moira Jeffrey). A final thought on these executions; in the year between 1st October 1914 & 30th September 1915, 380 British soldiers in the field would face a Field General Court Martial for desertion, of whom forty would be executed.  Strikes me that in the case of the three men we have visited here, luck, as much as anything, was against them.  ‘Pour encourager les autres’.

Late war and post-war views of the rubble of the church, the two pieces of timber sticking out of the debris that I mentioned way back near the start of the post clear to see.  At which point I am reminded that, in the final days of April 1918, a certain Corporal Jean Parnin, having somehow survived the German assault on Mont Kemmel, would find himself in Loker, and perhaps, next post, we should catch up with our intrepid Poilu and his mates as they await the next German attack……

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7 Responses to Mont Kemmel Part Eighteen – Loker Churchyard

  1. Jon T says:

    Fascinating post MF and always astonishing (and important I think) to realise that in contrast to the neat and beautifully green cemeteries we see today, the utter devastation that all the men who either survived, died during the fighting, or tragically met their end at the hands of a firing squad had to endure really is beyond comprehension.

    I await news of Corporal Parnin’s fate amongst that very devastation…..

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Jon. Well said too. I suspect you might find out about Jean’s fate by the end of the week – an extra Christmas present, so to speak.

  2. nicholas Kilner says:

    great post! some superb photographs once again, amazing to see the ground clearance.
    Interesting info on Pte Kenneth Powell, and indeed your Grandfather. Did you perchance take a look at his documents on the CWGC site? it seems he ‘moved house’ several times, along with the rest of plot 2. Initially he was grave 13, then 10 and finally 7. I did wonder if all that ground clearance had caused any issues in that respect. As the surrounding area appears to be roughly the same level as the cemetery now, does that mean these burials are all 20 odd feet down now instead of the usual 6? It might explain the difficulty in getting headstones in the correct position, and certainly begs the question, are they? also interesting to note the change from Locre to Loker on the documents, that must have happened much earlier then I thought.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Sir. Pretty much the questions I asked myself when writing this. I think the burials must be 20 feet down. And if so, is that the case with most other military churchyard burials in Belgium? Or France? In the areas where serious fighting occurred, of course. Anyway, have a cool Yule – yer comments are always appreciated.

      • Nick Kilner says:

        I think it’s certainly a possibility. Another one of those intriguing questions to which we shall probably never get an answer.
        Have a splendid Christmas my friend, and thank you for all the amazing work you have put into this site in the last year!

  3. Nick Kilner says:

    Well here’s another one of those little coincidences, which coincidentally seem to happen with some regularity lol. I was rereading your latest post (Elzenwald brasserie cemetery), and out of pure curiosity decided to investigate the earliest burial in that cemetery. The man in question being Pte R Hodgson of the 1st Royal Scots, I decided to download their war diary from TNA. A couple of things struck me as interesting. The first being that all casualties at that time, regardless of rank, were named in this particular war diary, which is both unusual and extremely helpful from a research point of view. The second was that their was no reference to the death of Pte R Hodgson on the date given, from which I can only assume he died of wounds received at an earlier date. The third thing I found (ok, so perhaps more than a couple) was an entry regarding the executions of Pte Byers and Pte Evans, which took place just two days before the death of Pte Hodgson, and that drew me back to this post. A number of sources, including the CWGC actually gives Pte Byers age as seventeen, which if correct, puts him below enlistment age and makes his story all the more tragic.

    • Magicfingers says:

      We are going through a batch of coincidences in this household currently, as a matter of fact. Anyway, interesting as always. Whatever his actual age, Byers was certainly very young, that’s for certain.

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