Wytschaete War Memorial, the London Scottish Memorial & the First Battle of Messines (1914)

Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery, Wytschaete church and the Messines Ridge. 

I hadn’t been in Wytschaete for ten years or thereabouts, so it was good to return in 2023.

It’s usually a nice day when I find myself up here on the Messines Ridge.  The last time I showed you this memorial was back in 2013 and I began that post with the words ‘In June 1917 this scene would have been one of utter devastation’.

And indeed it was.  Wytschaete’s fame, in Great War terms, comes with the British attack of 7th June 1917, the day of the nineteen great mines, the day that the British pushed the Germans off the Messines Ridge and kicked them out of the villages of Messines & Wytschaete, arguably their first notable success on the Western Front in three years of warfare.

But the first fighting to take place around Wytschaete was some two and a half years earlier at the end of October 1914 during the Race for the Sea, as each side attempted to turn the northern flank of the other.

Although, back then, it was the Germans doing most of the kicking.

The Race to the Sea tends to be perceived as a series of skirmishes as the opposing sides moved north, leaving behind men who were simply consolidating the newly formed trench lines.  Not so.  What the troops pushing north left behind were a series of huge battles the conclusions of which were still far from certain.  And ahead of them refugees, thousands of them, those pictured above making the short journey from Oostaverne, a mile to the east, to Wytschaete, where sanctuary would be fleeting.

This map shows how the trench system formed as the armies forced each other north between 15th September, at the bottom of the map, and 7th October, up near the top (Wytschaete marked as a red dot).  7th October 1914 was a significant day that could have changed the course of the whole war, because it was on that day that around 8,000 German cavalrymen arrived in an undefended Ypres, where they requisitioned bread for the men and hay for the horses (paid for in German coinage or coupons), relieved the city of its financial reserves, and promptly moved on the following day.  Had they stayed, who knows what the consequences might have been.  The Battle of the Yser, which would begin a week or so later on 16th October, and which would culminate in the inundations (marked in blue) north of Dixmude at the end of the month, would allow no further opportunity for either side to turn the others’ flank, leaving the battles still taking place further south as the only chance of ending the war by Christmas.  The Battle of La Bassée (green dot on the map), which followed the German capture of Lille, had been in full swing for over a fortnight, as had the Battle of Armentières (yellow dot),…

…and the initial German attacks of the First Battle of Ypres would begin on 19th October and would continue long after the other battles were concluded at the start of November.

The first German attacks towards the Messines Ridge had occurred on 12th October, the official start of the First Battle of Messines, and had been repulsed without too much difficulty, but by the end of the month the Germans were ready for their next assault.  This map shows the situation on the ridge during the night of 31st October/1st November 1914 as the Germans attacked.  At Messines itself, 6,000 German infantry took five hours to push 900 unhorsed British cavalry out of the town, allowing British reinforcements to arrive in time to cover their retreat.  The two miles between Messines & Wytschaete were defended by six hundred Dragoon Guards along with some men of the London Scottish, more of whom were arriving, who faced more than ten times their own number of Germans and would find themselves slowly pushed off the ridge as the day progressed,…

…and Wytschaete itself (the war memorial marked as the red dot on both maps) was defended by four hundred men of the Household Cavalry who were unable to prevent the Germans from taking the village early in the morning, although a counterattack by the 12th Lancers would recapture it a few hours later.  Even though Messines had fallen, as long as Wytschaete to the north and Warneton, two and a half miles south, remained in British hands, then a German breakthrough could still be prevented.  The British holding Wytschaete were swiftly reinforced by French troops who also attempted to retake Messines, but failed, and after numerous attacks on Wytschaete (the London Scottish faced no less than four separate bayonet attacks), the Germans, despite heavy casualties, succeeded in once again capturing the village.  But by then both sides needed a pause, the British because their numbers had been decimated and their remaining troops were exhausted as they retreated west, the Germans because they needed reinforcements to replace the huge losses they had suffered, and because, a few miles north, they were already engaged in the biggest battle of all, one that, had they remained just ten days earlier when they entered the city unopposed, they might well have had no need to fight; the First Battle of Ypres.

French cyclists (left) & 5th Lancers (right) photographed near Wytschaete, October 1914.

Postcard of pre-war Wytschaete, posted by a German soldier in 1916,…

…and 2nd Cavalry Division motor cars in the square at Messines, October 1914.

Royal Horse Artillery field guns in action at Wytschaete on 31st October 1914.

Officers and men of 57th Wilde’s Rifles (Frontier Force) in speedily dug trenches on the outskirts of Wytschaete in late October 1914; note the architectural similarities between the houses in these photographs and those beyond the memorial in the previous shot.

Among the troops rushed to the defence of the ridge, the regiment had only arrived in France on 25th September, reaching Wytschaete, after three weeks’ intensive training, on 22nd October.

Post-battle report on 57th Wilde’s Rifles part in the action (above & below); ‘Owing to the fact that 6 out of the 7 British officers employed with my companies were killed or wounded, it is not possible to submit a detailed report, or make special mention of individuals until I have had the opportunity to discuss the matter fully with my Indian officers’.

57th Wilde’s Rifles casualty count after the action; by 5th November, having suffered almost 50% casualties, they had been reduced to just two composite companies.

129th Baluchis (left) & an Indian cavalryman (right), both photos taken in October 1914 near Wytschaete.  The Baluchis would find themselves in action a little further to the north east at the same time as the German attacks on Wytschaete.

Officers of J Battery, Royal Horse Artillery (left), and the battery in action on the Messines Ridge (right), late October 1914.

Second World War panels on the war memorial (above & below).

While we’re here, let’s visit a small area of the battlefield that is little written about, even after the events of June 1917, and which is just a short distance down the street in the background of this picture.

The street takes us west, as we immediately begin to descend the Messines Ridge,…

…passing Wytschaete Military Cemetery and the Bois de Wytschaete (Wytschaete Wood),…

…our destination a little further down the road at the end of the trees.  You might notice a small area of pavé (traditional Belgian cobbles) still in place on the road beyond the cemetery,…

…perhaps the same pavé as seen here, these cars parked on the same road leading west out of Wytschaete in October 1914, with the church just visible in the background.

On arrival at the end of the wood, there’s actually nothing much to see today, apart from fields and a little copse ahead of us known as the Petit Bois, so it’s map time, folks,…

…beginning with this modern aerial view of Wytschaete, the road we are travelling at the bottom, with the war memorial marked as the red dot, the military cemetery marked in orange, Wytschaete Wood behind, and the Petit Bois to its west.  However, there is a trench map sneakily overlaid on the top of the picture, showing the German trenches in red across most of the area, and the British front line marked as a dotted blue line on the left beyond the Petit Bois, and although from 1916 (the earliest overlay of this area I could find), little would have changed since late 1914.

The earliest map I could find marked with any kind of original annotation is this 1914 map of Wytschaete, which appears to show the British positions during their withdrawal to the east of the Messines Ridge earlier in October 1914 (Wytschaete highlighted in orange, Messines in mauve), as marked by the thick blue crayon lines.  A closer look, however,…

…reveals the first traces of a British front line to the west of Wytschaete, shown as a broken blue line on the far left.

This next map is from September 1915 and and is overprinted with the German lines around Wytschaete as they had been since the fighting in 1914 had ceased, and indeed as they would remain until June 1917.  The British front line, or small sections of it, have been added in blue crayon on the left.  The British referred to their front line along this section as H3 Trench,…

…and these photos show you what H3 Trench looked like – spot the British soldier.  And not only is this H3 Trench, but at some point, almost certainly in 1915, a British photographer found his way into the remains of some battered buildings along this trench from where he photographed a series of sixteen panoramic photos of the German front line.

November 1915, and we now have the British front line overprinted as the dotted blue line, as well as the German positions in red.  The approximate field of view of the unknown photographer from the buildings (light blue dot) is shown by the yellow line (officially, ‘Section panorama. Taken from: Sheet 28 N. 24a. 75. 05 West of Wytschaete. Direction: N. N. W. to E. by S. Wytschaete Wood’), and the section highlighted in mauve…

…is shown in these first five photos (listen very carefully, I shall say this only once: click anything & everything to enlarge the images).

Looking in detail at the top right of the fourth of our photographer’s images, you can see the ruined buildings of the hospice (actually, and not a lot of people know this, a horticultural college before its destruction) on the hillside beyond,…

…and annotated on this detail from an entirely different panoramic view.  At some point before the war – I know not when – another photographer took a series of panoramic photos from Mont Kemmel, around three miles to the west of Wytschaete.  This section of the panorama shows the Petit Bois marked in the centre with the dark mass of the Bois de Wytschaete stretching across the right half of the picture,…

…as is also the case here, this panorama taken from the same position by a Royal Engineer photographer in March 1917.  C’est la guerre.

At which point we return to our original photographer huddled in H3 Trench as we continue his series of panoramic photographs,…

…past the Petit Bois, still in the foreground,…

…with the Bois de Wytschaete beyond.

Another close-up of part of the penultimate photograph shows the ruins of houses on the outskirts of Wytschaete at the top of the slope beyond the trees.  Note the barbed wire & silent pickets – examples of the latter still to be found holding the wire enclosing many a Flemish farmer’s field even today – directly in front of us.

21st Century Petit Bois.  You might even spot the very top of the spire of Wytschaete church peeking above the trees of Wytschaete Wood on the far right.

More views taken from H3 Trench, (above & below), presumably somewhere to the left (north) of our photographer’s position, all three showing shells landing on German positions.

Snapshot showing shells exploding in the distance, with the Petit Bois to the right of the picture (left), and a similar view today (right).

If we now return to our previous map of the Messines Ridge from October 1914, I have added a second dot, this one in orange,…

…which marks the site of the memorial to the men of the London Scottish Regiment that now stands atop the ridge.

Men of the London Scottish pose for the photographer somewhere in Blighty, probably before the Messines action of 1914.

Map of the Messines Ridge action from the London Scottish war diary.  North is to the left, as is Wytschaete, the position of the London Scottish memorial is where the ‘xo’ is marked just east of the road, with Messines in the top right.  It took me a while to realise, but the ‘xo’ marks the site of a windmill that stood here prior to the battle.  Of course it does!

The regiment, founded on the formation of the Volunteer Force in 1859, became 14th (County of London) Battalion, London Regiment (London Scottish) on the creation of the Territorial Force in 1908.  Departing for France on 15th September 1914, their encounter with the Germans here on the Messines Ridge at the end of October was the first time a territorial unit found itself in action during the Great War, and explains the siting of this memorial.  The Germans would have attacked straight across these fields towards us; conversely, when the British retook the ridge in June 1917, this would have been a view that they had not seen for more than two and a half years.

London Scottish war diary for the last days of October 1914 (above & below).


London Scottish war diary for early November 1914 (above & below).

As you will have spotted, the memorial lists all the regiment’s major actions during the Great War, but it’s the inscription at the base…

…that does indeed confirm the reason for its placement here; ‘Near this spot on Halloween 1914 the London Scottish came into action, being the first territorial battalion to engage the enemy’.

I rarely show paintings on this website because, well, a painting is a painting, and who knows the accuracy of the scene depicted, but I’ll make an exception here.  Richard Caton-Woodville’s final masterpiece, entitled ‘Hallowe’en  1914 – The Stand of the London Scottish at Messines’, was first exhibited in 1927, the year of the artist’s death.  Described as ‘the foremost British battle painter’, and his work as the ‘artist’s victory over many a British defeat’, he also produced numerous works for the Illustrated London News,…

…including this depiction of men the London Scottish on the Messines Ridge (note the windmill in both paintings).  Caton-Woodville (inset below) was a great one for detail, and was able to interview survivors of the London Scottish after the battle; correspondence still exists between the artist and a London Scottish survivor about the sporrans depicted in ‘Hallowe’en  1914’ – the Scots removed cap badges, sporrans and anything reflective before battle, whereas Caton-Woodville wished to include something that would distinguish the regiment (he did, however, overpaint the cap badges).

The London Scottish had been issued with the Mk 1 SMLE (Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield) Rifle in September 1914, but had had no time to test it.  It was only in the heat of battle that it was discovered that the magazines they were using, designed for the Mk 4 SMLE, failed to feed the rounds properly into the breech of the Mk 1 SMLE, necessitating the troops to have to feed each round by hand, which is exactly what the central figure in the painting is doing.

And is exactly what this man is realising that he is going to have to do, the frustration clear on his face.  Detail, you see.  After the hostilities ended, a war-weary public had no desire to see more depictions of already-forgotten battles, commissions dropped, and a short time after ‘Hallowe’en 1914’ was first exhibited, recently bereaved and heavily in debt, Caton-Woodville’s life would cease at the business end of a revolver and a single bullet.

Appendix from the London Scottish war diary with further details of the events of 31st October/1st November 1914,…

…and a still from a very short film – seconds, rather than minutes – showing men of the London Scottish sometime in 1915; whether these men were involved in the fighting on the ridge, who knows?  Here’s looking at you, Jock.

More pages from the war diary, on the left, initial London Scottish casualty figures after the action and, on the right, dated four days later, amended figures, thankfully slightly fewer than previously reported.

Remnants: London Scottish survivors photographed soon after the action,…

…and at roll call, where, initially, only around one hundred and fifty men answered their names.

Detachment of the London Scottish marching through Kemmel after the action; note the man lighting a ‘gasper’.

Now, it would, perhaps, be remiss of me, whilst we visit this area, not to mention the actions that took place here in 1917, if only briefly (we have toured the area extensively in the past – link at the end).  This aerial photograph dates from 23rd April 1917, and looks from west to east, from close to the crossroads at Vierstraat, towards the outskirts of Wytschaete, up in the right-hand corner of the photo beneath the writing, and corresponds to the non-shaded section of the trench map extract.  The British & German front lines are annotated, with No Man’s Land the dark strip between, and the yellow dot on the far right of the shaded part of the map is our 1915 panoramic photographer’s position once more.

Fast forward a few weeks to 20th May 1917, less than two weeks before the explosion of the nineteen mines.  The British & German front lines are again annotated – note the mine craters already littering No Man’s Land in the centre of the picture – and on the far right, the yellow dot marks our panoramic photographer’s position, as far as I can work it out.  Wytschaete is in the top right marked in mauve, the Hospice centre top in blue, and the two orange ellipses on the edge of what was once the Petit Bois mark the site of two of the mines that would ‘change the geography’ on 7th June, already laid and awaiting detonation when this picture was taken, of course.

Comparison photographs showing Wytschaete in June 1915 (right), and five days after its recapture in June 1917 (left), the war memorial marked in red on both photos.

Should you ever visit Wytschaete, you are actually around a mile away from no less than eleven of the craters left by the mines fired by the British on 7th June 1917 (Wytschaete church once again on the horizon to the right),…

…all marked on this map from May 1918 (the previous shot shows one of the Kruistraat craters), and one mine that is still there, lurking beneath some farm buildings,…

…the very ones pictured here.  This is Peckham Farm, with its exploded mine crater (pink on the map) in the foreground, and the Messines Ridge and Wytschaete church (far right) beyond.  I wonder how many people who pass by each day are aware that, a mere 200 feet or so away, and around 240 feet beneath the surface, 20,000 lbs of explosive is still waiting, its reason d’être still unfulfilled.  And I wonder whether you’d pay more, or less, than the market price for a farm with an unexploded mine beneath it……?

The British recapture of the Messines Ridge in June 1917 allowed the battlefield of 1914 to be cleared.  You’ll find evidence of this in the cemeteries around the ridge; this sad headstone in Irish House Cemetery, half a mile west of the Petit Bois, marks the grave of thirty men of the 1st Bn. Gordon Highlanders killed during an abortive attempt to recapture Wytschaete on 14th December 1914.  Whether originally buried by the Germans, or left on the battlefield, they were buried here by men of the 16th Irish Division once the tide of battle had moved on.  The Gordon’s war diary for 14th December 1914 covers the best part of twelve pages,…

…and ends with details of the horrific casualties they suffered during the failed attack; ‘It is feared that all those reported “wounded & missing” or “missing”……were killed’.  I include this because I knew nothing about any of it until researching this post, which only emphasises, once again, how many minor actions, with casualties in the low hundreds (that’s irony, by the way), took place that never received the attention they probably deserved because of the far greater battles that mark the course of the war in France & Flanders.  These truly are the forgotten engagements of the Western Front.

Sunset over Wytschaete.  By the end of the day on 7th June 1917, the British could look over their communal shoulder at this view, the first time they had seen the village from this side of the Messines Ridge since October 1914*.  And then it was time to turn to the east once more, as the ridges and marshes leading up to a little village called Passchendaele lay ahead.

*poetic licence – there was nothing to see.

If any of this has piqued, or refreshed, your interest regarding the cemeteries & memorials on either side of the ridge, and the craters to its west, then here’s a map with all the places of interest that we have visited around Messines marked.  Click on any of the symbols for a picture of whatever it may be you have clicked on, and a link to the relevant post.  I thank you.

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11 Responses to Wytschaete War Memorial, the London Scottish Memorial & the First Battle of Messines (1914)

  1. Morag L Sutherland says:

    A wondrous post. I do love maps and you have included so many of interest.
    I will re-read this on laptop especially war diaries. .bless you. We passed through last year. Brora lost a London Scottish soldier so we reflect at the memorial to them

  2. Daisy in Melbourne Australia says:

    Well Mr Magicfingers,
    Absolutely brilliant post, enjoyed every second of the story…
    The maps are easy to follow, the war diaries rivetting, but those panoramic photos are wonderful. Liked the art too…
    Great job mate. Thank you.

  3. John Atkinson says:

    Magnificent post and of great interest to myself. I have family interest in the action night of 31st October 1st November 1914. 1st Lincolnshire’s were moved forward from Kemmel to an area just west of the Peti Bois. Then ordered by a Brigadier to take up a position on the south side of the Kemmel Rd. There to advance on Wytschaete. Missing from you map is a railway line running across their advance. The Germans had just taken the railway and pretended to be Indian troops. The Lincolnshire’s already much depleted in man power having been fighting since Mons, were cut down and despite several attempts at retaking the railway line were forced to withdraw to the ridge at their rear (the ridge aligned with the Spanbroekmolen).
    The Lincolnshire ‘s were to spend most of the winter in the area facing the Peti Bois and dug the trenches in and around H3.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Most kind John. I have done some checking on the Lincolns since your comment, so appreciate you pointing me in that direction. Although surely the railway cutting IS on the maps just south of Wytschaete? Thanks again for your lovely comments.

  4. Jon T says:

    What a fantastic post MF ! Its such a shame that these 1914 battle are really so little known as the bravery and sacrifice of all those men was truly astonishing. The photos from 1914 are very evocative too with the terrain and towns virtually intact.

    We are back in Ypres in early July and always take a bit of time to head down to the Messines/Plugstreet area so will do so again newly piqued by this and your other posts. One of my Great Uncles was there with the RFA in June 1917 supporting the 16th Irish but have never really tracked their path on that day. Must try and do that this time.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Jon. I agree enirely, as you can imagine. I have my eyes on a Poperinge trip for later this year. I need to head west, even if I am a young man no longer. Lol!

  5. nicholas Kilner says:

    Another excellent and very enjoyable read. great info and photos.
    One small correction, if I may, is SMLE stands for Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, rather than ‘short muzzle’. Short refers to the barrel length and Magazine because it has a magazine (as apposed to being a single shot rifle), not as some assume because it has a short magazine. Hope that makes sense lol

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