From Dickebusch Lake to St. Eloi Part Seven – The St. Eloi Craters

Look for the green gate, someone said.  That’ll be it, then. 

What is really handy is this large sign that even Baldrick & yours truly were unlikely to miss, in particular as we were looking out for the aforementioned gate.

Before we continue, here’s a reminder of where we are and where we have come from on this tour, these combined maps, both from April 1917, showing the German lines in red to the east and south of Ypres, at the top of the map, some two and a half miles north of our current position.  Ridge Wood, where we visited the eponymous cemetery at the start of the tour, is on the left in green, Voormezele is circled in orange, Bus House farm is marked in pink, and the St. Eloi area is circled in blue.

The roadside sign may indeed be handy, but what is less so is the fact that the gate is locked.  And has a keypad.  For which you require a number, and unfortunately any old number doesn’t work.

So we returned the following day – no we didn’t, of course we didn’t, we had the right number all the time, but I imagine many people don’t have, so be aware should you visit.  On the other side of the gate there’s the first of a fair few information boards* – click to enlarge – and the first thing to note on this board is the date, 7th June 1917, a date we have encountered on a fairly regular basis over the last decade or so.

*most are not shown in this post, but they are useful, should you visit.

Because it was on the previous day that General Herbert Plumer, commanding Second Army, or maybe it was his Chief of Staff, General Sir Charles Harington, said to a group of assembled pressmen, ‘Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.’

And the nineteen mines that exploded at 3.10 a.m. on 7th June, including this one, certainly did change the geography, and probably changed history too.

Photo looking south west towards Mont Kemmel, four miles away on the horizon.  The 1917 mine explosion, however, was far from the first time the ground at St. Eloi was disturbed by the mole men working deep beneath the surface,…

…and so, as we circumnavigate the crater – there’s an interesting feature to look at on the far side when we get there – I’ll tell you a bit more about this sector of the Flanders front,…

…and the devastation caused here by two and a half years of underground – and overground, come to that – warfare.  We begin with three aerial shots (above & following) that show the St. Eloi area at different times prior to June 1917,…

…as constant bombardment and mining turned what can, in the shots above, still be seen clearly as two parallel front lines (British at the top) with No Man’s Land and craters in between,…

…into this, the craters seen in the previous shot dwarfed by these giants.  Don’t worry if you can’t spot the older craters (but to help, the crater shaded in mauve in the previous photo is likewise shaded here, close to the centre), because what probably looks like one hell of a mess* will, believe it or not, become clearer as we go along.  Although it will still remain Hell.

*and it would get worse, because these craters, or some of them, would in turn be obliterated by the much larger mine that created the crater we are visiting today.

This is an original St. Eloi trench map from April 1917 that I was once, many moons ago, privileged to digitize.

It shows the German trenches on either side of the Ypres – Comines canal (note the yellow & blue crayon lines added in the top right),…

…our area of interest beneath St. Eloi itself on the left where ‘Oaten Trench’ & ‘Oaten Support’ are marked.  The folds in the map and the dirty square, despite the just-mentioned crayon lines, show where the officer to whom this map belonged concentrated his map reading efforts, a little to the east of our current location.  If we zoom in even closer,…

…here we see St. Eloi and, at the bottom of this extract, the two ‘Oaten’ trenches in red, with the British front line & support line above in blue, and the various sets of craters marked and now coloured, as they will be throughout much of this post, which might assist you to make sense of it all.

St. Eloi, like Hill 60, stood on high ground, or at least ground higher than the surrounding countryside, and like Hill 60, is one of those places in the Ypres Salient that will always be associated with mining operations and underground warfare.  As we know, this peaceful lake was once a huge crater that appeared on the morning of 7th June 1917 as the largest of the nineteen mines that devastated the German front lines that morning exploded, but this would also be the final action of over two years of mining along a front of not much more than five hundred yards.  So we need to go back in time a bit, to the early months of 1915, to begin our tale.

Once upon a time, south east of St. Eloi, there was a spoil heap known, imaginatively, as ‘The Mound’, which, as you can see above, gave excellent powers of observation to whomsoever controlled it.

In fact, this early map extract – British positions in blue, German front line in red – from February/March 1915 shows the Mound, at this time in British hands, as the only feature worth mentioning south of St. Eloi.

And it was in March 1915 that the Germans fired two mines beneath the Mound, following which they attacked and captured both the Mound and St. Eloi itself.  The photograph above is taken from one of the information boards positioned around the crater (below) and purports* to show the crater left after the Mound mines had exploded.  The trench on the left is the British front line.

*to my eyes the landscape is far too pockmarked with shell holes for early 1915 – I think this photograph was taken a year later, in 1916, but what do I know?  See what you reckon by the end of the post.

Early the next morning, a British counterattack would retake the village but not the Mound – now considerably less of a mound than the previous day – which was destined to remain in German hands, right on their front line, for the next two years and more.

After another German mine was detonated on 14th April, Royal Engineer tunnelling companies began a campaign of counter-mining, and from then on mining and counter-mining would be a constant feature along this sector of the front.

In time, superior techniques allowed the British (and later, from March 1916, the Canadians) to sink shafts through the layers of wet clay and sand to the infinitely more stable blue clay beneath, thus enabling them to drive galleries towards the German lines far deeper than their counterparts on the other side,…

…as shown here (not actually St. Eloi, but you get the idea).

Identical aerial photographs – click to enlarge, as with all those that follow – showing the crater field at St. Eloi on 12th March 1916, the colours on the right the same as on the earlier map – I will remind you no more.  Two weeks after this photo was taken,…

…on 27th March 1916, the British simultaneously exploded six mines beneath the German positions at St. Eloi, creating six huge craters, marked in red above, that the attacking infantry was eager to capture and consolidate,…

…but which proved easier said than done, despite the antics seen here as Northumberland Fusiliers celebrate in front of the camera with their first-day trophies.  For the next three weeks, until mid-April, in frequently awful weather, the craters and the land surrounding them were fought over, often in bitter hand-to-hand fighting, as the British attempted to hold the land they had captured, and German counterattacks attempted to dislodge them.

Inverted map – north is towards the bottom – showing the galleries the British excavated leading to the mines, from a British viewpoint.  What is clear is that the galleries leading to the two outermost mines never got anywhere near the German front line – German counter-mining and camouflets (charges designed to destroy enemy tunnels) saw to that – although the British made the decision to fire them both anyway.

A week later, during the night of 3rd April, the exhausted British were replaced by fresh Canadian troops, who were horrified by the state of the battlefield.  A Canadian private remembered, ‘When day broke, the sights that met our gaze were so horrible and ghastly that they beggar description. Heads, arms and legs were protruding from the mud at every yard and dear knows how many bodies the earth swallowed. Thirty corpses were at least showing in the crater and beneath its clayey waters other victims must be lying killed and drowned. A young, tall, slim English lieutenant lay stretched in death with a pleasant, peaceful look on his boyish face. Some mother’s son, gone to glory.’

By now there was no front line as such, just a series of unconnected posts and individual or groups of soldiers in shell holes.  It was impossible to know where you were amongst the craters and thousands of shell holes, and impossible to know where the enemy was for most of the time – until he appeared right on top of you.  The land was covered in the filth of battle, ‘corruption’, as the old books used to say, everywhere nothing but a slough of mud, mire and bodies with, all the while, the constant din of artillery shells screaming above your head, and the fizz of bullets whistling past your ears, as the rain fell and the water in the shell holes and craters, in which men would lie, often waist deep in liquid, and fight, and piss, and sometimes sleep, if they could, rose.  The situation, as best as could be ascertained, on 4th April, is seen in the upper map below, the Canadians attempting to consolidate some sort of new front line south of the craters, now in their hands.

But not for long.  Early on the morning of 6th April, two German battalions, advancing on either side of the main St. Eloi – Warneton road, attacked the crater field, as the map immediately above shows.  The Canadians, still consolidating their positions and frequently unable to communicate with each other across the wasteland of craters, were unable to hold on, and as the sun, for once, rose, the Germans were once again in possession of the land they had been evicted from a week earlier.

Exhausted Canadians at St. Eloi.  Attacks from both sides would continue for a further ten days, small patches of land sometimes changing hands, often more than once, but more often grinding to a halt in the mud and the slime as the rain continued to fall.  As the month wore on, and with all impetus from the mines long lost, the British called a halt to offensive activities, and the front settled down to trench warfare once more.

And the Germans were back where they were before the mines were fired, but with the added bonus of the craters, forming an even stronger defensive position (above – German troops in control of one of the now-waterlogged craters).

The photo below is dated 16th April 1916, the ‘official’ end of the St. Eloi actions.  Look carefully and you can see the British front line marked (upside down) at the very top; look even more carefully and you still might not spot the German front line,…

…but you will here, in red, the various craters all marked of course, and if nothing else, this photo shows how utterly the British & Canadians, despite herculean efforts in appalling conditions, had failed in their endeavours over the three weeks of fighting.

I’ve seen casualty figures of 2,200 for the British & Canadians, and 1,600 for the Germans, between 27th March & 16th April 1916, but how accurate they are, I really am not sure.  The British lost 117 men killed on the day the mines exploded, along with 607 wounded & 126 missing, although they did capture over two hundred dazed German prisoners.  Canadian casualties between 4th & 16th April amounted to around 1,300 killed, wounded & missing.  By comparison, the Germans probably lost about five hundred men during the same period.

Looking south west from the Bluff, the rims of the St. Eloi craters visible a mile away on the horizon.  All the time & effort that had gone into sinking the mine shafts, excavating the galleries and laying the charges, all the destruction caused by combined explosions loud enough, they say, to be heard on the south coast of England, had amounted to nothing less than a disaster for the British & Canadians, with no ground gained, and far more casualties taken than caused.

And yet, a little over a year later, these vast explosions would be utterly dwarfed by the detonation of the nineteen mines that would herald the start of the Battle of Messines on 7th June 1917; indeed they are almost forgotten actions compared to those of 1917.

Today, although on private land and therefore out of bounds to us, three of the 1916 craters still exist, the two largest in the background of the above shots, all three marked with an ‘X’ below.

It’s worth checking out Google maps or whatever, because only then will you see the difference between these 1916 craters and the single 1917 crater.  And I am not talking width, I am talking depth; it is quite clear to see how much deeper the later crater, marked in blue on this map, is compared to the earlier ones.  The 1917 mine would almost completely obliterate the two closest 1916 craters on the map,…

…the only sign today being an almost imperceptible hollow somewhere in the region of the willow tree top left in this shot.

I have read that the mine gallery was begun at Bus House farm (marked in mauve), which I make as almost 2,000 feet – around six hundred yards – away, and which might explain some of the subsidence currently occurring at the farm that was mentioned when we visited Bus House Cemetery last post.  However, I have also read that the mine shaft was 1,339 feet long, which would only be as far as the green dot.  You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.  Incidentally, it is worth noting that all the craters apart from the small one on the left of the crater field in the middle of No Man’s Land – and pity the Canadian soldiers whose job it was to man the little trench just south of it – are marked in red, i.e. under German control.

96,500 lbs of explosives, over a tenth of the total amount used in the nineteen mines that were fired on 7th June, were packed deep below the earth here, the largest mine of them all.  However, as there is a complete tour of the Messines Ridge and its mine craters elsewhere on this site, I will direct you here, where you will find a map of the tour, and a link to the first post – actually, a prologue – should you wish to delve deeper into the action.

Meanwhile, a few yards from the crater stands this British bunker,…

…its single aperture pointing south east towards the front lines,…

…most likely for observation purposes, I would think.

Peering through the aperture, we can clearly get inside, there being a door, or not a door, at the other end.

Shell damage on the corner of the bunker, apparently cosmetic.  Note the thickness of the concrete at the entrance.

There’s not a lot to see inside, and the construction is, er, functional, at best.

But as these sheets of iron or steel were only required as a frame for their subsequent concrete overcoats, anything other than functionality never came into it.

How to construct a Large Elephant Steel Shelter, wherein all is not as it seems.  Because this is not a large shelter.  It is a shelter made of Large English Elephants, the term used at the time for the corrugated iron sheets used in its construction (the term ‘Elephant Iron’, that you may hear, is almost certainly post-war).

And apart from the fact that we have only a single join here, and not the two shown on the diagram, and thus have a smaller bunker,…

…this bunker is pretty similar to that in the diagram.

I would assume that this is a 1917 model (as opposed to later),…

…obviously constructed after the mine explosion in early June, this being German territory beforehand,…

…but also, I would have thought, before the Passchendaele operation began at the end of July, because after that it would not really have been of much use, as the Germans were slowly pushed east away from here.

Having said that, let’s not forget that St. Eloi sits on slightly higher ground, and maybe the views east across a virtually lunar landscape were better than one can imagine; the man on the right and the vehicle beyond the crater give a sense of scale.

Anyway, time to go, and as we do,…

…this might be as good an opportunity as any, it seems to me, to show you a few more original maps that were lent to me some years ago by a gentleman, sadly now deceased, whose father, a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, was their owner, and who fought at St. Eloi during the Great War.  These are very much the real thing.  Well, all the maps I use are the real thing, but these ones I personally handled, knowing exactly who used them and where they had been during the war.

41st Division map dated 23rd May 1917.  The Messines mines went up on 7th June, not so long after, and this map shows 41st Division positions some time – probably soon – after that.  If we take a closer look at the area south of St. Eloi, now behind the lines by some distance,…

…the four main 1916 craters are the only ones now printed on the map.  What is also interesting about this map is the various ‘state-of-the-terrain’ annotations printed along the old British front line.  From the bottom left they read ‘Fair’, ‘Bad’, ‘Impassable’, ‘Almost Impassable’ & ‘Fair’.

A second 41st Division map, dated 30th April 1917, showing routes to and from the front lines south of St. Eloi.  Interesting pencil additions include a number of H2O points, clean water being essential for the front line troops, not that there was a front line, nor was it always possible to get water* to troops hunkered down in their muddy shell holes.

*or food, or ammunition.

Two copies of essentially the same map, both annotated by our officer.

Written in pencil at the top of this map – click to enlarge – is the following, ‘This shows our job. Putting strong points in where the red blobs are.’

Looking south from behind the British front lines, five of the 1916 craters highlighted, the 1917 mine ready and waiting beneath the ground.  Whether we are a British or German aeroplane, I don’t know, but just under the larger craters there’s a black puff of shrapnel smoke that suggests that our presence here is not appreciated.  And doubtless at the very moment that shell exploded and this photo was taken, tunnellers from both sides were engaged in their underground activities deep below the earth beneath us.

Next, we’re heading south west, about a mile, following the old German front line to the site of a small British cemetery in No Man’s Land that although we had seen before, we had yet to visit.  Well, we have now (click the link).

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8 Responses to From Dickebusch Lake to St. Eloi Part Seven – The St. Eloi Craters

  1. Baldrick says:

    Oh I remember this one. Still remember us standing there kind of confused for a bit as for how to get in. Well worth the visit.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Indeed Balders. Do you know, apart from half-a-dozen cemeteries west of Poperinghe, there are just nineteen cemeteries in Belgian Flanders that we have not visited? We shall be changing that figure in Feb!!

  2. Jon T says:

    Darn it MF that’s another area around Ypres I clearly don’t know enough about and will now have to go visit at some point !

    What a truly hellish landscape that was – how anyone could endure in that beggers belief quite frankly.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Flanders Tourist Board could do worse than employ me, I reckon!! Lol! Easy to get to from Ieper, and well worth the visit – you can take Baldrick’s word on that. And having seen what the land looked like in this post, hopefully that adds a bit to the experience of visiting. Cheers Jon!

  3. Steve Monk says:

    Hello M, long time no contact.
    Thank you for this article, my grans brother Pte Robert Bliss was injured as far as I can tell in crater 3. He was in the 18th Battalion CEF. I have visited this site twice in the past and stood in that shelter and walked around the crater. I got the gate code from the museum or tourist board if I remember correctly.
    I do have his details in amongst my research notes, but will read this article word for word when I get home (currently away and catching up) as I am sure you will have uncovered something I have missed.
    By the way I’m still here and alive and kicking, apologies for not being in touch since before the Covid days. Keep up the good work!.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Hi Steve. Is it that long? How’s life further south than me? Good to hear from you. Plenty to catch up on, I reckon. And anyway, to borrow from some old yacht-rock band or other, you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave. Apparently.

  4. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts on this website. You offer a great deal of information and I am very grateful to you (both) for all your efforts. Your website is one of my ‘go-to-sites’. Thank you.
    Dr Barry Matthews

    • Magicfingers says:

      Good morning Dr. Matthews. What a kind thing to say. Much appreciated. I shall do my best to keep you entertained for a while longer yet. That’s the plan, anyway. Plenty of older stuff to look through too, I would suggest!

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