Spring Battlefields 2019 Day Six: The Forgotten Front

Today, with rain forecast for most of the day, I drove south to France to visit the so-called 'Forgotten Front' of the 1915 battlefields of Neuve-chapelle and Aubers Ridge. Certainly never forgotten by those who fought in this area, yet are among the less-visited areas of the Western Front, lying as they do about halfway between Ypres and the Somme. I came to this region last year to visit Loos and Festubert, and knew that I wanted to continue to explore further on this trip.

I continued where I had left off last September by beginning my day at the Neuve-Chapelle memorial to the missing of Undivided India. I was last here on a very sunny evening, somewhat the opposite of today, although it did stop raining shortly before I got there. Although it bears the names of the Indian missing from throughout the war, it stands on the site of the Indian Corps' involvement in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, which was fought from 10-13th March 1915.

Just along from the memorial is a Portuguese Cemetery, containing burials from when they occupied this sector in 1918. This set up a theme I would see repeatedly throughout the day, of land fought over both in the first year of the war and in the final months of 1918.

For my visit I was following the routes in the Holts' Guide to the Western Front- North and I have to confess, I'm not a huge fan of their routes. I find the maps are not easy to follow and the directional instructions not overly clear either. I never use them when in Ypres or the Somme. Still, for this region they do provide a lot of interesting information about an area not covered in other guidebooks.

Turning back into the village I stopped near the calvary roughly opposite. This is a replica of the original cross which had stood here throughout the First World War, falling during 1918. It remained onsite until (I think) 1958, being photographed by Arthur Yapp of the YMCA in 1920, when it was taken to Portugal as a memorial. The replica was put in its place.

After a bit of driving up and down the road between Neuve-Chapelle and Aubers, I managed to find where I needed to go to get to Layes Brook at the northern end of the battlefront. This stream in a deep ditch was a particular struggle for British troops across this area and needed to be traversed with light bridges. Just behind the ditch (to the British side) is a German bunker, the first of many I would visit today that still litter the region. The steps into the bunker are open and if you're wearing wellies you can go inside, although there are a few inches of water flooding the ground. The wet conditions do mean that it is now a haven for frogs.

During the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle British forces did make it forward of this position but they were unable to hold their ground and retreated back past the brook. That meant that the next section of my drive was all in the German side of the trenches, including the next bunker I stopped at. This one was in the middle of some fields and has largely become overgrown. However, the farmer has used the top of it to store artefacts that have been ploughed up, including shell cases and barbed wire stakes. There's also a lot of more recent farm detritus around it.

I crossed back over Leyes Brook slightly further south and crossed back into the centre of the village and on to Neuve-Chapelle British Cemetery. This is only a small battle cemetery, with about 50 graves. It includes the burial of Major C Harrison, who died on 12th March, leading the Rifle Brigade into an advance attempting to cross the brook. He, along with one of his Lieutenants, was killed in the cross-fire.

Tucked away a little further down the lane is another British Cemetery, Neuve-Chapelle Farm. This is of a similar size, although the layout of the graves is different here, with considerable space between each headstone. A large proportion of the known burials are of the Kensington Territorials, who were in reserve during the battle. 

Although they never directly came into contact with the enemy, they suffered losses through artillery fire. Captain Primsall was killed by artillery on 14th March, shortly before the battalion were due to move out.

This was the last of the sites directly in Neuve-Chapelle so I headed back past the Indian Memorial and on to Le Touret Memorial to the Missing and cemetery. I had visited last September, but I stopped to look for the name of Cpl Stuart Deane on the memorial. He was a Dursley man, working for the Gazette, but had then gone on to be a regular soldier in the Wiltshire Regiment. He was killed in October 1914, shortly after writing home to say he didn't think the war would last too long as the Germans seemed to be meeting defeat all aong the line.

Meanwhile, the burials in the attached cemetery largely date either from the start or end of the war, with few in between. There's a large number of (white, Christian) officers from the Indian Corps buried here, although notably absent are the other ranks. I would be visiting a specific Indian cemetery shortly.

Next I drove north to the village of La Couture where I stopped for lunch. The church here had been destroyed during the war and its original position is now marked by a Portuguese memorial. This was a really interesting memorial which features the church's wall with, on the outside, a portuguese soldier overcoming Death, while being watched over by the feminine figure of Portugal. The other side represents the inside of the church in ruins with fallen drapes and a broken drum.

Behind the new church there is a lovely park which contains another bunker. The only thing this one now guards is the lake and I was unable to get a good photo without disturbing the fisherman stood by it.

On up the road is La Vielle-Chapelle Cemetery, which contains the burial of another Dursley man, Pte George Smith, of 8th Glosters. He was killed on 22nd September 1918 near this area in the final advance over this ground. I, however, forgot to take a photo of this grave.

There are also two Victoria Cross winners buried in this cemetery. The first is Second Lieut JH Collin of the Royal Lacaster Regiment and the other is Second Lieut J Schofield of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Both were killed on 9th April 1918, putting up a brave resistance against the German advance.

At the top of this road, tucked away down a path between two hedges is Zelobes Indian Cemetery. Here there is no Cross of Sacrifice or Stone of Remembrance (the latter lacking most likely because it is too small to receive one; there is one present in the centre of the Indian Memorial), making this a non-Christian space. Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims are all buried side-by-side, including a large number of Gurkhas.

This was the end of the Holts' Neuve-Chapelle route so I drove the few miles back into Aubers to walk the memorial route of the Battle of Aubers Ridge. This battle, like Neuve-Chapelle, was another small attack made in the Spring of 1915. Both were hampered by a severe lack of artillery shells and neither made any notable advance.

Driving into Aubers, the hill onto the ridge was notable - relatively steep but not very long - although any view which could be gained from the height was today missing as the sky was beginning to darken again. I parked by the church and the village's memorial and then walked south to Aubers Ridge Cemetery. The burials here dated both from the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915 and the Battle of  Fromelles in July 1916.

Walking back towards the village on another lane, there were a few more concrete bunkers visible in the fields. One right by the road was shaped like a house; the concrete had been laid inside a small pre-existing house as a disguise.

Back in the village there was another blockhouse, this one two-storey. Known as the Kaiser's Bunker, as he supposedly once visited, this was an observatory tower, with space to house animals downstairs.

I next walked east towards Fromelles on a road which was once a light railway supplying the German lines. As I left the village it started to rain heavily, although luckily, just a few minutes after I put on my waterproof trousers it dried up again. The few rumbles of thunder also didn't come to much (thank goodness!).

The last bunker in this route is one built by the 4th Field Pioneers, as the engraving above the door records. This one is now known as Hitler's Bunker as he is said to have visited in 1940. However, it is more likely, according to the guidebook, that the one he actually visited was in Fromelles village.

After visiting this bunker, I realised that I had made a mistake in reading the map. The Holts' route for Aubers said it was 3 miles, although I then realised that the associated map contained the sites both for Aubers and Fromelles, which would be a further 7 miles, plus a couple to get back to the car. Frustrated (and yet another reason I wasn't enjoying the guidebook), I turned around and walked back into Aubers to pick up the car and then drive into Fromelles. I was next going to look at the Battle of Fromelles, fought 19-20th July 1916 as a diversion from the Battle of the Somme. There was a strong Australian presence here, which was evident in the cemeteries and memorials.

I parked by the museum and was hoping to visit, but adding to the frustration it's closed on Tuesdays! Nevertheless, I visited the cemetery next door to it, Pheasant Wood Cemetery. This cemetery was interesting as it was only dedicated in 2010. The burials came from the nearby Pheasant Wood (as it was named on British maps) and had only been uncovered after 2007 when their location was discovered by Australian historian Lambis Englezos.

Driving north towards the British front line, I next stopped at the Australian Memorial Park, which is built on top of German defensive fortifications. Some of these concrete structures have been preserved within the site and a bronze statue was built in the middle in the 1990s, commemorating he Australians' fighting in July 1916. It wasa at this battle that the Australians suffered their greatest concentration of losses, exceeding even Gallipoli.

The statue is entitled 'Cobbers', taken from the German slang of soldiers calling out to the stretcher bearers "don't forget about me, Cobber!".

Slightly further along is another Australian site, the VC Corner Cemetery. This is another unusual cemetery as the burials were made in two mass graves, with the names instead recorded on a memorial wall, akin to the memorials to the missing. I'm not sure why it was done in this way. but this makes it much more like the French cemeteries that feature an ossuary.

This cemetery is located in what was No Man's Land during 1916. Turning north once more and crossing the British line, the last few cemeteries I visited were those attached to aid posts. The first was La Trou Aid Post Cemetery which is beautifully set within a moat and under some weeping willows. Those buried here include Canadian soldiers who were holding the line near here in early 1916. Most date from the first half of the war.

Further up the lane is Rue Petillon Mil Cemetery which is much larger and includes burials from throughout the war. Interestingly here, the Australians killed at Fromelles in 1916 are buried with headstones touching "shoulder to shoulder" while much more space is given elsewhere.

Somehow today time seemed to speed by really quickly and by now it was already half past four. I had initially planned to go into Armentieres afterwards, but there wasn't time so I decided to leave this for another trip. Driving back up to Poperinge, I was thinking about how much more of this area I still want to see, as I don't feel yet like I really understand the landscape or the lines of battle. I think at some point I'll have to fit in a visit here where I can cycle the battles to fully get to know the region. It would probably make sense to spend a few days here on the way down to the Somme on a future visit.


No comments: