French Flanders: From Laventie to Neuve Chapelle Part One – Laventie Military Cemetery

Our last trip to French Flanders, four years ago now, took us along the River Lys from Erquinghem to La Gorgue, ending with a visit to the Great War burials within the town’s communal cemetery

All of which you can see here, plotted in totally meaningless different coloured dots, Erquinghem top right, La Gorgue bottom leftish.  And as I promised, earlier in the year, it is now time to return, once again, to these flatlands, our location as we begin this new tour marked as a small pink square to the south of the dots, with the village of Laventie just below.

Larger, self-explanatory, map of the front lines south of Armentières as they were, give or take, for much of the war, with the area shown in the previous map shaded in orange, the village, as it was then, of Laventie marked as a red dot, and Neuve Chapelle, because that is where we shall end up, as a green one.  The tour will take us from the town, as it is now, of Laventie, wending our way first east, and then south, and a bit west at times, as we follow a somewhat circuitous route towards Neuve Chapelle.

It’s about four miles between Laventie, near the top, and the Neuve Chapelle Memorial, near the bottom of this map, and we have nine CWGC cemeteries (the red dots), and half a dozen other ‘sites of interest’, as they say (the green & mauve dots), to visit on our way.  Thus a break in the middle, where I have added the pink dotted line, will divide the whole tour into two smaller ones of nine & six posts each.  It should all work fine.

And one last map – for the moment – this one showing the German advance in April 1918, the arrow near the centre rather handily bisecting Laventie & Neuve Chapelle, from which you will gather that the region we are visiting this tour, and much more (shaded in pink), was taken by the Germans in just a single day, 9th April 1918.  For the British and Portuguese defenders, this whole area would have been a scene of retreat, chaos and death on that day, and within a week the Germans had penetrated a dozen miles or so, but as we have seen on our Kemmel tour, they failed to take the line of Flanders Hills, and, further south, they failed to take the Nieppe Forest (Forêt de Nieppe) either (both shaded in green).  However, for much of the previous three and a half years, the trenches here in French Flanders had hardly moved at all, the daily boredom only punctuated by the occasional artillery duel, or the sheer terror – whether attacker or defender – of a late night trench raid, the cemeteries quietly growing, just behind the lines, as the months and years of trench warfare took their toll.

And let’s be clear about what we mean by trenches, certainly in this sector of the front line.  Dismiss from your mind for this entire tour the whole concept of Somme-like trenches, dug deep into the chalk.  There is no chalk here, and the water level, just feet below the surface, necessitated the building of trenches that were primarily above ground, as seen in these official British panorama photographs (above & below).

So, the scene is set, the sun is setting, shall we get on with it?

This is Laventie Military Cemetery, the cemetery name, along with the ‘In Perpetuity’ tablets, inlaid into the wall, and the headstones of Plot I immediately beyond.  Begun in June 1916, the cemetery was used by British forces until the following summer, and then again in the spring & autumn of 1918, the number of casualties buried here later increased to around 550 with the addition, in the 1920s, of a number of men originally buried elsewhere.

The burials in Plots II & III, in the far background in this shot, are all original, the remaining three plots a mix of both original and concentration burials, and you can have a look at the cemetery plan, thanks to the CWGC, here.  In the meantime, we shall begin with Plot I, which comprises the headstones closest to us and those in the middle distance beyond the tree, and if we wander to the gap between the plots two-thirds of the way along the front row,…

…this view looks back at most of Plot I, the ninety three burials within a mixture of original and concentration burials, as shown on the cemetery plan extract below, the original burials coloured in blue, with the concentrations in orange.

The burials in Row A, all originals, are from 1917 & 1918, the original burials in Row B are from early July 1917 or the spring of 1918, and those in Row D are all from September & October 1918.  The concentration burials in the plot are all men originally buried in churchyards and communal cemeteries around Lille & Roubaix, some distance to the east, before being moved here.  The single original grave at the start of Row C,…

…is that of Captain George Edward Henry McElroy, Royal Air Force (pictured), aged twenty five when he was killed.  His headstone says, ‘DFC & one bar, MC & two bars’ – strange that he never received a DSO, actually – although both DFCs were posthumous.  He was credited with forty seven victories before he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire near Laventie on 31st July 1918.  Only eight airmen of the British & Empire forces were credited with more kills than McElroy, and of them, only two, Majors Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock & James McCudden, with 61 & 57 victories respectively, were British (and even Mannock was Irish).  And both of them were awarded the Victoria Cross.

As you’ve seen on the cemetery plan, the plot contains three German burials, two visible in this shot, the man in the foreground, and the two British burials on either side, casualties from May 1917, the German casualty in Row B behind from July 1917.

Further along Row A, two headstones inscribed with four names, all four West Yorkshire Regiment, two killed on 11th June 1917, and two the following day.

The West Yorkshires had arrived in French Flanders at the beginning of March 1917, occupying trenches at various points along the line in this sector over the next four and a half months until mid-July, when they would head off as far north as you could go, to Bray Dunes near Dunkirk on the Channel coast (where we found ourselves on a Second World War trip not so long ago).

A total of nineteen men in Row A are West Yorkshires, as are four in Row B behind (one a concentration burial from April 1918).  This view looks south, towards Laventie church, half a mile away, from the eastern corner of the cemetery.  The headstones behind Row A…

…are the final headstones of Row C, this Lincolnshire Regiment private at the end of the row, an October 1915 casualty, sporting a nice new Botticino marble headstone.

Row D contains nine British graves, all original burials from September or October 1918, with the third of the German graves, this man unidentified, at the end of the row.  His date of death, 17th November 1917, means he must have been buried here long before the British soldiers in the row.  The large gap you see between these headstones and the Cross of Sacrifice…

…will be explained later,…

…because right now we are heading over to the far end of the cemetery and Plot II,…

…these the headstones of Row A, where, among those on the left, is the grave of Serjeant Herbert Sidney Flook of the Gloucestershire Regiment, killed in action on 5th July 1916 aged 26,…

…this picture showing his original wooden cross.  The form to which the photo is attached is, I think, the form you would have received as a relative had you enquired about your deceased loved one’s whereabouts (and, presumably, requested a photograph of the grave site), hence the space for the ‘Nearest Railway Station’, just in case your pockets were deep enough for a visit.

The first burials were made here, in the northern corner of the cemetery…

…these men killed in late June 1916, as were the first nine burials behind in Row B.  There are thirteen rows of headstones between us and the rear of the cemetery, seven rows in Plot II and six in Plot III behind, and maybe a bit of an explanation is required as to the nature of these burials, so do bear with me.

The first two rows are all burials from June and early July 1916, with those in Row C all men who died on the 16th, 17th or 18th of July.  There are eleven July 1916 burials at the start of Row D, nine of whom are men killed on the 19th, after which the rest of the burials in the row are from August, and almost all the burials in Row E are men killed on the 17th, 18th or 19th of July – nine of the final eleven men buried at the far end of the row died on the 19th.  I did say bear with me.  Buried to the immediate right of the nearest tree in the centre of the picture…

…is this unidentified soldier, one of fifty unknown men buried here, whose headstone also bears the date of 19th July 1916.  And if I’m in French Flanders and I see 19th July 1916 on more than a couple of headstones, and most certainly when I see this many, my mind turns to the Battle of Fromelles, which took place about four miles to the south east of here on that very date.  Because it is rarely coincidence.

Anyway, continuing, the burials in Row F are all slightly later, from either August or September 1916 – these three men, a man from the Royal Warwickshires on the right, and two Royal Berkshires, are all early September casualties – and then you’ll notice that the headstones in Row G behind, the final row in the plot, and all apparently men of the Gloucestershire Regiment, and are placed much closer to each other than the rest of the rows, and a distance beyond Row F in the foreground.  Experience suggests that burials with this many headstones placed so close together have probably been made, not in individual graves, but in a long communal trench.

Row G contains forty six burials in total, all identified, and all, barring one, men killed on 19th July 1916 at Fromelles.  Of these, nineteen are men of the Gloucesters, twenty are Royal Berkshires, and three are men of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (out of a total of nineteen, twenty nine & twenty three men of each regiment respectively buried in Plots II & III who were killed on 19th July),…

…as seen on these GRRFs.  Proof of our earlier supposition that these men were buried in a single long trench can be found near the bottom of the left-hand GRRF, where the words ‘Trench Burial’ are to be found, although why later crossed out, I know not.  Sixty two of the identified burials in Plot II are men who died on 19th July 1916, as are twenty three in Plot III behind.  We have delved deeply into the events of that day elsewhere on this website, and should you wish to know more, then I direct you here, but suffice to say it was a day of disaster for the men involved, and is generally remembered for the 5,513 casualties suffered by the Australians in just twenty four hours.  Less well-known is the fate of the British troops involved that day.  The 61st (2nd South Midland) Division was composed of territorial battalions from Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire & Worcestershire, and they suffered 1,547 casualties – 519 dead, 977 wounded & 61 captured or missing – during their part of the attack.  And some of them, as we have now seen, are buried here.

At the end of Plot III Row A, separated by a gap, are, on the right, two Royal West Kents who died on 23rd October 1916 – the majority of men in the row are October 1916 burials – and two headstones marking the graves of five unknown men on the left.  Behind, four of the final five headstones in Row B are visible, all men who died in November 1916,…

…the same headstones seen once again here in the background in front of the Cross of Sacrifice, the row continuing, once again after a gap, towards us.  The rest of the burials in the row are all late October casualties,…

…and these are three of them.  All three are men of the London Scottish who were killed by shellfire on 28th October 1916.  Taylor & Sinclair’s headstones are the third and fourth from the camera in the previous shot; Waller is buried further along the row.

Behind, however, Row C, the longest row in the plot with forty burials, all identified, once again contains men killed in July & August, and indeed those pictured here from the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry are all 19th July casualties, as are over half of the men in the row.  It’s pretty clear that Plot III Row C was made at the same time as the 19th July burials in Plot II, with Plot III Rows A & B added later in the year.

The remaining three rows in the plot are all burials from the end of 1916 or early 1917, such as these Queen Victoria’s Rifles casualties from January 1917 in Row E,…

…and more West Yorkshire Regiment casualties in Row F, these men killed in April 1917.  The relatively new, replacement headstone on the far right is that of an unknown British airman.  Behind, a Duhallow Block and nine memorial headstones…

…remember four British officers with the 1/39th Bn. Garhwal Rifles who were killed in March 1915 at Neuve Chapelle,…

…their names listed here,…

…and five British soldiers killed in April 1918 whose graves have long been lost, but whom we know were once buried, presumably by the Germans, in Laventie Communal Cemetery (our next stop), and were indeed once remembered there, according to this GRRF.

The four officers’ memorials are on either side of the Block, with the Northumberland Fusiliers’ memorials at this end, and the single Durham Light Infantryman’s memorial at the far end.

Looking south east along Plot II Row F, the Duhallow Block & associated headstones just out of shot to our right.  However, before we finish with this plot, let’s return to the new headstone of the unknown British airman we saw earlier, now eleven headstones from the camera,…

…and here on the right.  On 26th July 1918, one of the most famous British Great War fliers of all, thirty one year old Major Edward Corringham ‘Mick’ Mannock, VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC & Bar* (pictured, and, of course, mentioned earlier in this post), met his death at the hands of German machine gunners and riflemen as he flew low over the German trenches near Merville, some six miles to our west.  A German LVG reconnaissance plane, shot down earlier on in the flight on which he died, had been his sixty first victory, which would make him the highest-scoring British ace by war’s end, and fifth on the list across all the combatant nations (that Von Richthofen bloke, with eighty victories, tops them all.  But he cheated.**).  Buried by the Germans, Mannock’s grave was later lost, but research in the late 1990s strongly suggests that this unknown airman may well be none other than Major Mick Mannock.

*evidently making him one of the most decorated men in the British Armed Forces.  **He didn’t really, but he was pretty cautious, and never flew on his own, unlike certain British pilots of note.

A short distance along the boundary hedge, a single headstone…

…marks the grave of ‘A Man of the Chinese Labour Corps’, sadly unidentified.

Further along the southern boundary hedge, this is Plot IV Row G, all these headstones concentration burials.  On the far left lie two Army Service Corps NCOs killed in March 1915 (both headstones have the, actually incorrect, prefix ‘Royal’, not granted to the A.S.C. until 1918).  The other five graves are all British officers in the Indian Army,…

…four of whom, also March 1915 casualties, along with the two A.S.C. men, are listed on this Burial Return form,…

…all once buried a few miles to the west of here in Lestrem Communal Cemetery, as this GRRF shows, but moved here soon after the end of the war.  Interestingly, if you look at Lestrem Communal Cemetery today, there’s a small CWGC cemetery (Le Paradis War Cemetery) attached to it, so you might wonder why these men were moved.  Until you realize that Le Paradis War Cemetery contains only men killed during the retreat to Dunkirk in May or early June 1940.

The fifth British Indian Army officer in the row, an earlier casualty from October 1914, is listed here.

With Row G now in the right background along the hedge, these are the remaining three rows of Plot IV,…

…which begins with Row D, in the foreground; Rows A, B & C do not exist, or to be more accurate, no longer exist. The graves in Rows D, E & F are all original burials from September & October 1918, and include the final burials made here during the war.

Beginning in June 1917, this cemetery was also used by the Portuguese Corps to bury their dead, some one hundred and seventy Portuguese soldiers being buried here between then and April 1918.  These Portuguese graves were disinterred after the war and reburied a few miles away in the Portuguese National Cemetery at Richebourg L’Avoué (where we shall be paying a visit, much later, in the second part of this tour), which explains the large gap in the centre of the cemetery,…

…and the lack of Rows A to C in Plot IV, where the Cross of Sacrifice now stands,…

…the architectural design of this cemetery, including the positioning of the Cross, taking place long after the removal of the Portuguese graves.

Finally, this is Plot V, Row E nearest the camera, with Rows D to A behind.

The four men buried in Row E are all unidentified Indian casualties, and the plot is also referred to, on the cemetery plan, as ‘Plot V Indian’.

Since my visit, the number of dead in this row has increased by two after the burial (inset) of two men of the 39th Garhwal Rifles whose remains were discovered during excavation work in the village of Richebourg, about four miles to the south of here.  Sadly unidentified, although the top inset shows one of the actual badges that identified their regiment, both men most likely died during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915.

The burials in Rows D (foreground) to A, in the background, are all concentration burials, and of the fifty eight burials in the plot, the identity of the majority is unknown,…

… just four, for example, of the burials (or cremations, the first six headstones here being Hindus) in Row B (foreground) being identified.

Because the GRRFs for unknown soldiers are only occasionally available – there are no forms available online, for example, for these unidentified Indian soldiers now buried in Row B  because there are no named soldiers among or next to them* – it is impossible to find out, should we want to, exactly where all these men were moved from (in the case of these men, the whereabouts of the isolated graves the above GRRF refers to), but we can do so for the men whose identities are known.

*assuming, and who knows, the original GRRFs still exist.  Maybe unknown soldiers’ GRRFs were destroyed during the ‘Great Weed Out’ of nineteen-whenever-it-was.

This map shows Laventie towards the top, with Laventie Military Cemetery marked in pink close by, and further south, Neuve Chapelle marked in green.  The mauve numbers in the bottom half of the map show where the identified Indians now in Plot V were originally buried or found before their bodies were transferred here.  And it may just be that we shall encounter this map later in the tour, so store it away somewhere in the back of your mind, just in case.

Fourteen of the fifteen casualties in Row A along the cemetery boundary, however, are identified,…

…and because the single unidentified soldier in the row shares this Concentration of Graves form with an identified man buried next to him, we know where both were exhumed from, so he is also included in the numbers on the map.

Ten men in the row, three pictured above, are 8th Gurkha Rifles, all killed on 30th October 1914.

Information board with some further details about the 61st Division attack at Fromelles (click to enlarge).

Well, we are on our way.  Our next stop takes us to Laventie Communal Cemetery, just a few hundred yards away,…

…beyond the huge greenhouses that have served as a background to many of the shots in this post.  And what’re the chances it’ll be a nice, sunny, day by the time we get there, I wonder?

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11 Responses to French Flanders: From Laventie to Neuve Chapelle Part One – Laventie Military Cemetery

  1. Steven Hearnden says:

    A bit off topic, but just on way back from visiting the forts and battlefields of Verdun. Fantastic trip.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Off topic’s fine, particularly for such good reason, even if my missus tells me I’m suddenly looking a little peaky – green was the word she used. Heh heh. ‘Cos I have never been to Verdun myself, though I am well-read about the place. Maybe next year. Glad a good time was had. Good to hear.

  2. Michael Sumsion says:

    Another comprehensive report. So much information, I always admire your obvious hardwork.
    I’m looking forward to ‘part-two’ which may include your visit to the Portuguese Military Cemetery in Richebourg.
    I am returning to the cemetery next month (July 5), accompanied by my nephew (his first time visiting the Western Front), part of a five-night tour, Ypres to Somme.
    However, my first visit to Cimetière Portugais was with my wife in 2016. We were, at that time, saddened to see its poor condition.
    Here’s hoping, when you post your report, it shows the tender, loving care that all military cemeteries deserve.
    Thanks again. Mike.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Michael. This whole French Flanders tour is far from the work of a month or two, I can tell you that. I probably starting writing it, basic text, order of cemeteries etc etc, some time in 2019, if truth were told. I don’t think the Portuguese cemetery is in any better condition than when you saw it, although they have added little metal name tags to the top of many headstones – though this may have been done when you visited anyway. But you will indeed get to see the cemetery in Part Two. And the Portuguese will crop up throughout this tour. Please lmk what the place looks like when you visit. Thanks again for your kind comments.

  3. Jon T says:

    That settles it MF, I am definitely going to have to visit French Flanders next time I am able to manage a visit. Really interesting as always and look forward to further posts on the tour.

    All too easy to forget what happened day in and day out in these so called “quiet” sectors of the front and away from the famous/infamous locations most people (including myself) know about to some degree or other.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Well, I agree Jon – the essence, if that’s the right word, of the war is the day-to-day stuff, not so much the battles we read so much about. And I like the bleakness, the flatness, of French Flanders, and the fact that you know you are visiting men who are probably seldom visited. You could do an excellent tour of the area from Armentieres, heading west along the Lys to Estaires/La Gorgue, then south to Neuve Chapelle & Aubers, then east to Fromelles, and back north along the front-line cemeteries to Houplines & Armentieres again. And all either already, or soon to be, on this here website.

  4. Morag L Sutherland says:

    So David Eyeval was a coachman for Sutherland estates. His son John is buried in this cemetery but as Ival. Latterly family spell us Ivel. I have photos of John which I can send if you wish and his brother William won a MM. Be survived war and his late son who lived in Yorkshire shared information with me. Let me know if you would like thus.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Well his headstone, if not inscription – correct me if I am wrong – sneaks into one of the photos, so yes, I would indeed – and I will add it to the photo if I may. Originally buried in Roubaix Communal Cemetery, I see.

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