Spring Battlefields 2019 Day Two: The Battle of Messines - Kathryn's history blog

Friday, 29 March 2019

Spring Battlefields 2019 Day Two: The Battle of Messines


I couldn't have asked for better weather this morning for a day of cycling on the battlefields. An early fog burnt off to reveal beautiful sunshine at just the right temperature: it was perfectly warm enough to ride in short sleeves, but I never once felt hot.

My first destination of the day was south of Poperinge at the Kemmelberg. This is the largest of the hills that make up Heuvelland [literally translated as hill country] and certainly the most fearsome: the climbs from either side reach 25% gradient and are cobbled. I decided to give it a try at riding up from the south side and I was already suffering up the 17% gradient when the cobbles began. At that point, I forgot about how steep the road was and was focused on just trying to find a smooth-ish route over the square cobblestones, trying all the time to keep enough pressure over the handlebars as not to veer off course.

I made it about halfway up before I had to unclip my foot and stop. There's a fine balance in cycling between trying as hard as you can to get up the hill and retaining enough effort to be able to pull your foot out and stop without falling. On the cobbles, I was very much concerned with the latter and didn't want to risk collapsing sideways onto the stone. Although I would have liked to have made it to the top, I'm not too disappointed as I did have my pannier on the back weighing me down, with the bike lock clanking around (or at least, that's the excuse I'm going with).

At the top there was a man setting up the barriers in preparation for the Gent-Wevelgem race on Sunday. I stopped at the top to look at the memorials and there were several other cyclists passing through all the time. One chap called out a very friendly, and very Yorkshire, "Good mornin'!" as he passed, and I met another, a cycling journalist from Cambridge, on the descent.

While the Kemmelberg today is very much a landmark of cycling, it also has an interesting war history, marked most noticably by the statue of Nike at the crest, remembering the French soldiers who fought here in 1914 and 1918. During the war, the trees that today give the area a haunting ambience, had yet to be planted, making the hill a crucial vantage point of the surrounding battlefields. Barclay Baron, the YMCA's regional secretary, noted that Kemmel 'was always thought of as an impregnable keep guarding the Salient ... we were all conscious that a hostile Kemmel, like 'Big Brother' was watching us'. 
The loss of the Kemmelberg in the 1918 German Spring Offensive was a devastating loss for the British. The YMCA which had been stationed on the hillside had tried to remain in place until the final moments when its staff was evacuated alongside the soldiers.

Back down in Kemmel town square I stopped in at the tourist information to buy my ticket for Bayernwald trenches and then followed the signs round to the Lettenberg bunkers. This is somewhere I hadn't been aware of before, but was an interesting place that was definitely worth a quick visit. Built into the side of the hill just opposite the Kemmelberg, these were four concrete bunkers that had been built to take advantage of the shelter given by the hill. They have been recently restored to demonstrate the infrastructure built into the area during the war. One of the bunkers has the lasting mark of the Red Cross on its side.

While I was here, I met a British group who were also visiting the bunkers. One of them immediately recognised my Dursley Road Club cycling jersey and it turned out they were from nearby Minchinhampton! I'm always amazed how many people I meet who know Dursley when I'm on the battlefields in a local jersey.

Leaving Kemmel, I got confused (as ever) getting out of town and went the wrong way. It didn't matter too much though as I managed to loop up and followed the 1918 British front past a French memorial to Vierstraat where I stopped at a few small cemeteries. The first was Godezonne Farm Cemetery, a very small roadside plot which contains graves from 1915 and 1916, when the front line was just off to the right.

Slightly further up the road was Suffolk Cemetery, set back into the field. This was smaller again, with fewer than 50 graves. As its name suggests, this was started by the Suffolk Regiment in the Spring of 1915. However, it was also used for burials from the Spring Offensive in 1918, a sad reminder of the war's stalemate.

From here, I turned right up to Vierstraat and began to follow the route of the 19th (Western) Division at the Battle of Messines on 7th June 1917. In particular I was following the 58th Brigade who advanced up on the north side of Vierstraat into the village of Wytschaete. With the brilliant help of the Linesman maps, I was able to precisely place where I was in relation to the attack. The above photo shows the view from the British front line, with the German positions in line with the farm.

Just in front of the farm are the Hollandscheshur Farm craters, three of the nineteen mines that were blown at 3:10am on the morning of the attack. From this position, the challenge that faced the British soldiers is clearly evident, with the Germans fortified uphill. However, due to the success of the mines, the 58th Brigade were able to easily advance with little resistance. The biggest complaint in the war diary of the 9th Royal Welsh Fusiliers  was that the zero hour was still too dark to see much in front. The Germans, however, did not stop them reaching their initial goal of the Green Line by 7am.

Part of the ground they advanced over was that of the trenches now known as Bayernwald. This preserved trench system is now a visitors' site and shows the network of trenches and fortifications used by the defenders. Looking at Linesman here showed how accurate the system was, with the GPS tracker showing I was right in Object Trench.

I sat on a bench here to eat my lunch, and at the same time was having a look at the maps from the Battle of Messines. I must have been pretty quiet as a hare came hopping out in front of me, and then hopped over the trench itself! I didn't manage to get a good photo of it, but it was impressive to see.


Just in front of Bayernwald, down the hill slightly is the small Croonaert Chapel Cemetery. The majority of the burials here all date from 7th June when this ground was taken, including that of Private James Berry of the 6th Wiltshire Regiment. A 21 year old from Sherston, he had fallen in that early attack. His battalion's war diary didn't record how many of its number fell in the attack, but did note that they killed 80 Germans. I wouldn't be too convinced by the accuracy of this number.


I then advanced on up the hill into Wytschaete village itself. The road is quite a drag up through here, demonstrating what important high ground it was and why the Battle of Messines was so important. In the village I stopped at Somer Farm Cemetery, which contains burials from after Messines, when the line was being held in the summer of 1917. Among them is local man Pte Robert Percy Smith of Coaley, who served with the 8th Glosters and had died on 5th August 1917.

The 8th Glosters had been the reserve unit moving up behind 58th Brigade on 7th June. They came forward to the Black line, parallel with this cemetery, at 8:10am before attacking the next village over of Oosttaverne that afternoon. They captured the Odonto Trench at the furthest point of the planned battle later that day.

It was in the direction of Oosttaverne that I next cycled, stopping in at Derry House Cemetery. This was a front line cemetery in the second half of 1917 and has an interesting layout in two enclosures, with the Cross of Sacrifice in its own space in the middle.

Onwards a bit, I followed Linesman to the extent of the advance on the Oosttaverne Line. Here the ground is notably flatter, levelling out to the Gheluvelt plateau. There was considerable advantage gained from this position, with the Messines Ridge now serving to protect the British position rather than to threaten it. 

Today, not much marks the spot so I turn back and headed in the direction of St Eloi, stopping on the way at a small memorial to the 19th Division. This is a simple, dark cross bearing the butterfly emblem of the division.

Also by here is Oottaverne Wood Cemetery which looked beautiful in the bright sunshine. One of the burials here is Captain Douglas Reid King, a doctor with the RAMC, who was killed on 7th June. He had been a member of the OTC while at Glasgow University and after graduating in August 1914 joined the Medical Corps. Shortly prior to Messines he had been awarded the Military Cross, most likely for his work at Vimy Ridge.

I passed through St Eloi to visit the last of the Messines craters, but they don't open until 1st April (grr) so I headed on to Voormezeele, where there are two large cemeteries for burials brought in from the area throughout the war.

Next I headed back in the direction of Kemmel to La Laiterie which I had missed when I had got lost earlier. This is another huge cemetery, expanded from a first aid post, now with a less-than-attractive factory behind it. One local man buried here is Sgt Albert George Wyatt of Rock Cottage, Stinchcombe, who died on 1st October 1917. He was another of the New Army recruits who served with the 8th Glosters in this area throughout 1917.


Just opposite La Laiterie is the location of another YMCA hut. It is now just a field, but in 1917 it had been one of the last buildings before the trenches and one of the first stops for refreshment upon men's return. I was able to locate this one from a description in the YMCA's journal and to match it with the photos at the Imperial War Museum. It was built into the basement of a ruined house, providing a relatively safe place from any nearby shelling.


After this, I turned back up the road and headed in the direction of Poperinge, making just a couple more stops on the way. The first was to the American Memorial, a reminder that this hard-fought ground from 1917 had to be recontested a year later following its loss to the Germans in the Spring.


Then, I stopped at two last cemeteries which also contain a number of burials from the 1918 battles. Both of these have an interesting layout (designed by Lutyens) which facilitates the hillside they are built onto. In the second, Klein Vierstraat, is buried Captain Noel Henry Bruce Hastings of the 8th Glosters, who was killed at the Battle of Messines. He was just 23 years old, having enlisted on 22nd September 1914. Prior to his death, he had the dubious honour of being the battalion's longest serving officer, such was the risk continuously faced by officers throughout the First World War.

The ride back to Poperinge was lovely, on really quiet lanes in the beautiful sunshine. Even if this is the best weather of the next week (which the forecast is currently suggesting), I have been very lucky to have such great sunshine.

Kathryn

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