An important part of our trip to the Western Front was visiting some of the many cemeteries and memorials to those that died during World War I. It would have been impossible for us to visit them all during our time there, as sadly there are just so many cemeteries. Some of these cemeteries have thousands of graves, while others are tucked away quietly in farmer’s fields or in the woods with only a handful of graves. All of them are important.
Today, on this Remembrance Day, the day that marks the end of the hostilities on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, I wanted to share a few of the cemeteries and memorials we were able to visit on the Western Front.
These are the places where so many soldiers now rest peacefully, and so many more are commemorated on memorials because their graves are unknown.
St. Symphorien Military Cemetery
Although currently managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the cemetery was initially established by the German Army. They approached the landowner, Jean Houzeau de Lehaie, to purchase it but he refused payment. Instead he agreed to part with it under the condition that it be donated instead, and that in the cemetery the dead of both sides be treated with equal respect. Today the cemetery is the resting place of 284 German and 229 Commonwealth soldiers, most of which were killed during the Battle of the Mons.
George Lawrence Price was born in Nova Scotia, Canada and was only 25 years old when he was killed by a German sniper just 2 minutes before the armistice ceasefire came into effect at 11:00 am on November 11th. On the 50th anniversary of his death, the surviving members of his company traveled to Ville-sur-Haine and erected a memorial plaque in his honour near the location where he was killed. In 2016, Price’s medal set and a memorial plaque were donated to the Canadian War Museum.
Berks Cemetery Extension and Ploegsteert Memorial
Burials: 873 Commemorated on Memorial: More than 11,000
Located just across the street from Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berks) Cemetery, the extension cemetery was set up by the Commonwealth troops in 1916. It was still quite small at the time of the armistice but was enlarged considerably when the land for two nearby cemeteries could not be acquired in perpetuity so the graves were relocated here.
At the start of the war the Ploegsteert Wood area experienced fierce fighting but then became a quiet sector where no major action took place, and instead units were sent here to recuperate and retrain between operations. The memorial now named for this area commemorates more than 11,000 British and Empire servicemen who died in World War I and have no known grave.
Messines Ridge British Cemetery and New Zealand Memorial
Burials: 577 Commemorated on Memorial: More than 800
The Messines area was considered a strategic position, not only due to its height above the plains, but also because of an extensive system of cellars under the convent known as the “Institution Royale”. The village was taken by the Germans in 1914, the French army tried to regain it, but were unsuccessful, in 1917. It was later retaken by the New Zealand Division in 1917. The New Zealand Memorial within the cemetery commemorates so many of their soldiers who died in or near Messines and have no known grave.
After the armistice, graves were brought in from the battlefields and nine smaller cemeteries in the area to form the Messines Ridge British Cemetery.
St. Julien Canadian Memorial
Rising almost 11 metres from a stone-flagged court, the memorial can be seen from several miles above the tree tops. Atop the granite shaft sits the ‘Brooding Soldier’ with his head bowed and folded hands resting on his arms (see also photo at top of post). The expression on his face is “resolute yet sympathetic, as though its owner meditates on the battle in which his comrades displayed such great valour”. Those soldiers it commemorates were the Canadians who died during the first gas attacks of WWI and the inscription on the memorial reads:
This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks the 22nd-24th of April 1915. 2,000 fell and are buried here.
Many of these 2,000 soldiers were never recovered and remain as missing in action in the fields, or as unidentified in graves in the nearby cemeteries. The names of the missing Canadians in this area (and all of Flanders, Belgium) are recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.
Polygon Wood Cemetery, Buttes New British Cemetery and New Zealand Memorial
Burials: 107 (Polygon Wood) / 2108 (Buttes New British)
Commemorated on Memorial: 378
Polygon Wood is a large wooded area that was completely devastated in the First World War. It was taken, lost, and regained several times over the war by the British, Australian, and finally the Scottish troops and those battles certainly took their toll.
The Buttes New British Cemetery is made up of graves that were brought in from the battlefields of Zonnebeke, and the smaller Polygon Wood just across the road was a front-line cemetery used in 1917-18. In the Buttes New British Cemetery there also stands the Battle Memorial of the 5th Australia Division and the New Zealand Memorial that commemorates the men who died in the Polygon Wood sector with no known grave.
Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing
The Menin Gate is one of four memorials to the missing in the area known as the Ypres Salient. It bears the names of more than 54,000 soldiers from Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom who died in the Salient and whose graves are unknown. Sadly, upon completion, it was realized that it was going to be too small to contain all the names of missing soldiers so the almost 35,000 UK soldiers missing after August 15, 1917 are inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial.
The Menin Gate Memorial was unveiled on July 24, 1927. After the opening the citizens of Ypres wanted to show their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom and the ‘Last Post‘ ceremony was started. Every evening at 8:00 pm buglers from the local fire brigade close the road which passes under the memorial and sound the Last Post. This ceremony has taken place every evening uninterrupted since July 2, 1928 except during the German occupation in WWII. During that time the ceremony was moved to Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, England with it moving back to Menin Gate on the evening the Polish forces liberated Ypres during WWII.
I urge you, if you are ever in the Ypres area, please take an hour one evening to attend this moving ceremony and simply, remember.
To learn about other cemeteries and memorials on our trip to the Western Front, please visit the following:
- Wimereux Communal Cemetery: Resting place of Lt.-Col. John McCrae who wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette: Largest French military cemetery in the world and site of the Remembrance Ring that commemorates 579,606 soldiers.
- Canadian National Vimy Memorial and the Commonwealth Canadian Cemetery No.2
- Zivy Crater: A Mine Crater used by the Canadian Corps to bury soldiers from the Vimy battlefied.
- Beaumont Hamel: Memorial to the Dominion of Newfoundland Soldiers killed during WWI.
- Thiepval Memorial: Memorial to the Missing of the Somme which bears the names of over 72,000 soldiers of the United Kingdom and South Africa.
- Lochnagar Crater and Delville Wood: A ‘Garden of Remembrance’ and memorial to South Africans who served in the war.