From Dickebusch Lake to St. Eloi Part One – Ridge Wood Military Cemetery

Here we are once again, back in Flanders Fields, our old friend Mont Kemmel on the horizon, still overseeing all.  This view looks past the boundary wall of Ridge Wood Military Cemetery towards the Kemmelberg, two and a half miles away to the south west.

Last tour we spent quite some time visiting the battlefields around Mont Kemmel, our journey beginning at the Vierstraat crossroads beneath the orange circle on the 1917 map below, and ending, after various lengthy excursions way off the bottom of this particular map, at the Demarcation Stone marked by the red dot.

This tour we begin a short distance north of the orange circle, from where we shall be exploring the area highlighted in mauve, taking in the cemeteries between Dikkebus (once Dickebusch) Lake, the large body of water in the centre of the map, and St.Eloi, as we head towards the front lines on the right*.  Up in the top right corner, the southern tip of Ieper (Ypres) and the Lille Gate just creep onto the map, and the village of Wytschaete can be seen, at the northern end of the Messines Ridge, down in the bottom right hand corner.

*note that, for security reasons, this British map shows only the front and support lines of the British trenches, the blue lines, whereas the German trenches, in red, are shown in much greater detail.

Cemetery entrance,…

…and our first view once inside.

Let’s take a closer look at the area we shall be exploring this tour.  Six cemeteries and a churchyard are marked here, along with the only non-cemetery on this trip, the dark blue dot, and if you’re any good at map reading, you’ll probably gather what it is.  However, that is for much later, because we begin at the green rectangle towards the left nearest the lake, which marks the site of Ridge Wood Military Cemetery, where over six hundred soldiers, mainly British, Canadian & Australian, are buried.

And what we have here is a cemetery which, although it might not initially appear so, is divided into just three plots, lengthways, down to the Cross of Sacrifice in the distance; the nine headstones in the foreground are Plot II Row A, and if you look on either side you can see grass corridors separating the centre plot from Plot I on the left and Plot III along the wall on the right.  You might as well check this all out on the cemetery plan, with thanks to the CWGC, before we go on.

And while we are looking at Plot II Row A, note the German grave on the far left, one of just two (I think) Germans buried here.

Ridge Wood was thus named because it consisted – still does – of a bunch of trees on a ridge alongside the road south to the village of Kemmel, just two miles away.  Lying in a slight hollow to the west of the ridge some two miles behind the front lines around St. Eloi as they were for much of the war, the cemetery, still marked in green, was opened in the spring of 1915,…

…the first burials, six men of the 2nd Bn. Royal Irish Rifles, two of whom are pictured above, being made here on 2nd May 1915 in what is now Plot I Row A,…

…the battalion then burying another seven men in the row behind during the following month.

The cemetery was used fairly regularly by units occupying the sector for the next year and a half until December 1916, following which only a further forty seven identified burials – thirty three in 1917, and just fourteen in 1918 – would be made here.

The grave of Private Duncan Balfour Coward, York & Lancaster Regiment,…

…who died on 7th September 1915, just a few days after his eighteenth birthday (and thus was no older than seventeen when he joined up), in Plot I Row E.  He was killed, most likely by German shellfire, when, after the best part of three days of dreadful weather had left the trenches ‘flooded by rain and parapet dangerously damaged’ and ‘many dugouts caved in owing to rain’, the weather cleared; ‘Rain stopped. Every available man was turned on to drainage and repairs to trenches’.  And one would soon add his name to the growing list of unavailable men.  The permanently unavailable, that is.

Duncan Coward’s battalion had only arrived in France on 14th July 1915, arriving in this sector on 25th July, and suffering their first casualties on 27th of the month when Private A. Searstone, now buried in Row F (above right), was killed, and three others wounded, whilst working near the front line.

Canadian infantry burials from December 1915 in Row K,…

…and the same row from the other end, four Northumberland Fusiliers killed on 6th September 1915 nearest the camera.

More Canadians in Row O.  Almost half the burials in the cemetery are Canadians killed in 1915 or 1916, one hundred and two of them to be found in Plot I.

Despite being behind the lines for much of the war, the German Spring Offensive in 1918 saw the front lines pushed as far west as the very ridge behind which this cemetery is situated.  Fierce fighting took place in the wood in May 1918, the 1st Bn. Cameronians and 2nd Bn. Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders suffering very heavy casualties, but the Germans clung on to the south eastern edge of the wood until towards the end of July, as this map, dated 11th July 1918, the cemetery once again marked in green, the British lines now in red and German in blue, shows.  There are a few burials from the spring of 1918 in the cemetery,…

…including one of two special memorials bookending Row W (below) of men ‘Known to be buried in this cemetery’; note that the GRRF (above) that accompanies the memorial headstone at this end of the row is dated 1931.  The special memorial at the far end of the row is of a man given a date of death of 13th July 1918,…

…and there is another man in the row ostensibly killed in July 1918,…

…although you wouldn’t know it looking at the GRRF for the row, as Private Parkin of the West Yorkshire Regiment is here given a date of death of 24th April 1918, even though other documents say 14th July (below).

Work that one out.  I can’t.  The single subaltern in the row, Second Lieutenant Robert William Dixon M.M., was killed in September, although as the GRRF extract shows, there appears to have been some question over the actual year of his death.  First 1915, then maybe 1916, so they finally settled on 1918.

This R.A.F. photographic mosaic, dated May/June 1918, shows the land to the north east of Ridge Wood (cemetery still marked in green, bottom left) to which has been added a rough approximation of the front lines at that time.  Voormezele itself is near the bottom of the mosaic, and we’ll take a closer look in a later post.

View from the south west corner of the cemetery looking north east, Plot I nearest the camera with Row O on the left, and the Cross of Sacrifice (below) beyond.

I think we’ll head back up the centre of the cemetery taking in Plot II as we go, and then return to this end via Plot III, but just before we do, if we were to travel five hundred yards beyond the cemetery, just past those trees on the right, we’d get wet, because we’d be floundering around in Dikkebus (Dickebusch, as was) Lake (see maps).

There are 232 burials in the twenty rows of Plot II – this is the final row, Row T – and, like Plot I, most are men who died in 1915 or 1916.

Once again there are many Canadians buried in the plot, those nearest the camera pictured above in Row P killed in April 1916,…

…and these men in Row M killed in November 1915…

…with more Canadians in Row K and behind in Row L, all burials from the latter months of 1915.

In fact, behind these four Canadians killed on 2nd March 1915 in Row J, there appears to be nothing but Canadian graves as far as the eye can see.

These two brothers, or were they father & son (their service numbers are 54340 & 54356), were killed on the same day, 13th October 1915, and buried together in Row I.

By now you’d be forgiven for thinking that this plot is almost exclusively Canadian, but you’d be wrong, that’s just the way the photos have turned out; the plot is almost split fifty-fifty between Canadian and British burials, such as this row of Lancashire Fusiliers in Row E, all killed on 5th September 1915.

Private Thomas Hirst, Northumberland Fusiliers, killed on 8th July 1915,…

…a tiny photo attached to this little wooden cross beneath his headstone in Plot II Row A.

Which leaves us with Plot III, although just before we head back down the cemetery once more,…

…here’s a shot of the Stone of Remembrance at the far eastern end of the cemetery, and although it’s probably been fairly obvious so far that the cemetery is on a gentle slope, this picture shows best the slope leading to the crest of the ridge itself, and if I refer you back to the previous map showing the German front line in July 1918, you will see that the British trench that once crossed what is now a small clearing ahead of us beyond the cemetery boundary (but was wooded in 1918) was the front line trench at that time, the German trenches crossing the horizon, and running towards us down the hill off to the right of this photograph.

Back to Plot III,…

…and once more we have Canadian burials, these in Row A from September & October 1916.

One of only three New Zealanders buried in the cemetery, nearest the camera in Row E, all of whom died in September 1917.  Behind, an unknown German lies at the end of Row F.

The rows in Plot III are shorter, as you can see, than in the other two plots, but there are more of them, twenty six in total.  This is Row H in the foreground, and the Canadian graves continue in the rows behind.  Row I, the second row, contains only three identified burials, the other five men buried here all unknown,…

…as are these three men buried in Row J; in total there are twenty three unidentified men, including the German we saw a couple of shots ago, buried in the cemetery.

Most, although not all, of the British burials in Plot III are to be found further down the plot.  These two men, casualties from December 1916 (left) & October 1917 (right), are buried at the end of Row O.

Canadians in Row X, both men killed in August 1916.  Behind, in Row Y, you can see an Australian burial, and there are forty four Aussies buried here, forty of them in Plot III, and all but a handful killed in September & October 1916.

View looking south east, with Plot III nearest the camera, taken from the cemetery’s north west corner.  The French also buried some casualties here during April & May 1918, the graves subsequently removed, and my guess, from a safety aspect if nothing else, is that they used this end of the cemetery for their burials.

Ever seen the film ‘Children of the Corn’?

Anyway, we must move on.  Next, up on the crest of the ridge, Elzenwalle Brasserie Cemetery.

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5 Responses to From Dickebusch Lake to St. Eloi Part One – Ridge Wood Military Cemetery

  1. Nick Kilner says:

    Another very interesting post MF. William and Thomas Nelson were indeed brothers. William was born in 1890 and Thomas in 1896. The Canadian library and archives is an excellent source for such info, should the need ever arise.
    As for private Parkin, my instinct says the earlier date is most likely the correct one. I’ll take a look at the war diary when I get chance and see if there’s any mention on either date.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Ah, they are brothers. And I agree with you about Parkin – the earlier date seems most likely. Not the easiest cemetery to tour, this one, and I am not sure it sees that many visitors, either. Cheers Nick!

      • nicholas Kilner says:

        Well i’ve just taken a look at the war diary and its not much help. there was one OR killed on the 24th April whilst working on Kruisstraat trench, which could well have been him. However, the battalion also launched a full scale attack on the German position at Ridge wood on the 14th July, suffering 18 OR’s killed and another 14 reported missing, so he could also have been one of them. If I had to guess, I’d say he was probably the man killed on April 24th and mistakenly added to the casualties from the July, but I suspect we’ll never know.

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