Ploegsteert Wood, Messines and Wytschaete

Ploegsteert in April 1919 and the village today
Eight miles south of Ypres, Ploegsteert Wood was a sector of the Western Front in Flanders in World War I, part of the Ypres Salient. After fighting in late 1914 and early 1915, it became a quiet sector where no major action took place. Units were sent here to recuperate and retrain after tougher fighting elsewhere and before returning to take part in more active operations. British Tommies referred to it as "Plugstreet Wood". There are numerous cemeteries around the wood.
View of 'Hunters Avenue,' a well known duckboard path which ran through Ploegsteert Wood, on February 16, 1918. The photo on the right shows the same spot 90 years later.
On the road is this sign noting the famous people who had served in this area.
Inside Ploegsteert Wood itself are three evocative cemeteries; entering from the North are:
Ploegsteert Wood CWGC
The cemetery was founded by enclosing a number of small cemeteries made by individual regiments. The grounds were established in December 1914 as the "Somerset Light Infantry Cemetery", expanding in April 1915 when the "Bucks Cemetery" was started by the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. A further cemetery was established by the Gloucesters and the Loyal North Lancashire regiments in October 1915, named "Canadian Cemetery, Strand" after its 28 Canadian graves and the nearby Strand trench. The cemetery was used by New Zealanders in 1917. It fell into German hands on 10 April 1918 and remained occupied until 29 September, when the Hundred Days Offensive swept fighting out of the Salient.

Toronto Avenue CWGC
Despite the name, derived from one of the paths running through Plug Street Wood, it has no connection with Canada but is in fact the only all-Australian cemetery in Belgium. 78 officers and men from the Australian 9th Brigade (3rd Division) who were killed during the Battle of Messines between June 7th and 10th 1917 lie here.

Rifle House CWGC
The cemetery in 1921 and today
This beautiful cemetery in the middle of Ploegsteert Wood and containing 229 graves takes its name from a strong point that stood in Ploegsteert Wood and was first established the first year of the war.

Footage of the cemetery

Mud Corner CWGC
This is the first cemetery upon entering through the official access way to Ploegsteert Wood via a muddy track just north of Ploegsteert Wood reached by a small road leading off the main road to Ypres.

It is one of the smaller of the 23 000 cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, with just 85 graves (two unidentified) dating from the outbreak of the Battle of Messines in 1917. It's too small to have an altar of sacrifice. All but one British grave are Australians and New Zealanders.

If you keep going down the road you reach Prowse Point Cemetery.
This is the only CWGC named after a person -Brigadier-General C B Prowse, DSO, Somerset Light Infantry, who died in July 1916, whilst commanding the 11th Infantry Brigade. In fact, Prowse is actually buried in Louvencourt Military Cemetery on the Somme, in France.

Footage of the cemetery
The pool in front is the result of a shell and was actually part of the front line.

Prowse Point is where the remains of men whose bodies have been discovered in recent times in or near the wood have been reburied. One such recovered body was Private Harry Wilkinson of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, found in 87 years after, identified by his name tag and buried here in 2001 with full honours.

Strand CWGC

Cycling north from Ploegsteert on the N365 north is Strand Military Cemetery with over 1000 burials. 'Charing Cross' was the name given by the troops to a point at the end of a trench called the Strand, which led into Ploegsteert Wood. In October 1914, two burials were made at this place, close to an Advanced Dressing Station.The cemetery was in German hands for a few months in 1918, but was very little used by them. There are now 1,143 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. 354 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to six casualties known or believed to be buried among them, and to 13 whose graves in four of the concentrated cemeteries were destroyed by shell fire.
There are also eight Second World War burials (three of which are unidentified) all dating from May 1940 and the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary force to Dunkirk ahead of the German advance.
Nearby one can see three British bunkers behind a house on the same side of the road.

Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing and Berks Corner CWGC
Just over the provincial (and linguistic) border, not far from Messines, lies the burial ground known as Berks Cemetery Extension. The most striking feature of this cemetery is the memorial to more than 11,000 missing soldiers from Great Britain and South Africa, who died as a result of ‘routine’ trench warfare or in one of the minor operations designed to support major offensives elsewhere. On the first Friday of every month the Last Post is sounded here at 1900 hours.
Further down the road is this impressive memorial where 11,369 men with no known grave are commemorated. The inscription on the interior of the circular top of the memorial shows that the memorial commemorates "those who fell fighting between the River Douve and the towns of Estaires and Furnes". The area covered runs from approximately near Warneton in the north (about three miles north-east of Ploegsteert) to Estaires in the south and includes Armentieres and Bois Grenier. It was unveiled on 7 June 1931 by the Duke of Brabant and was the work of the architect Harold Chalton Bradshaw, with sculpture by Gilbert Ledward and comprises a circular temple with pillars guarded by two lions, one of which embodies stern defiance and the other serenity. Ledward’s lions are quite magnificent and measure 198 x 482.5 x 157.5 cm. They are mounted on bases 90 cm high. Ledward also designed two coats of arms, carved in relief and placed on the exterior wall of the memorial. The names of the missing are inscribed on panels on the interior surfaces of Bradshaw's circular double colonnade and the names of the various battles which took place in the area are inscribed on the exterior walls. On either side of the Memorial is the Berkshire Extension Cemetery, and opposite is Hyde Park Corner Cemetery. Incidentally Ploegsteert Wood is where Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather drew his first war cartoons and where the legendary 'Old Bill' cartoon character was born.

The arms of the Country and of the Regiment on either side.
The names are arranged by Regiment, and then alphabetically within each regiment.

One lion growling in defiance in war and in repose in peace.

The cemetery extenstion with 876 graves is across the road from the memorial.

Members of Belgium's l'école Royale Militaire paying their respects in a short ceremony at the site.

Lancashire Cottage CWGC
Less than a mile along the rue de Ploegsteert is this CWGC started by the 1st East Lancashire (who have 84 graves in it) and the 1st Hampshire (who have 56) in November 1914. It was used as a front line cemetery until March 1916 and occasionally later. The cemetery was in German hands from 10 April to 29 September 1918 and they made a few burials in it during that spring and summer and now it has 256 Commonwealth burials and 13 Germans.
Underhill Farm CWGC
Turning right on the N365 just after the coming from the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing on the north-west edge of Ploegsteert Wood.
The dressing station from which the CWGC gets its name.

190 bodies lie here in toto from the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Towards Messines along the N365
An incongruous site cycling towards Messines from the south.

Whilst it may strike the uncharitable as a bit rich of the Irish setting up parks expounding on peace beyond its own shores whilst studiously ignoring the heroism of its own soldiers in the two world wars, this replica of an Irish ‘Round Tower’ at the Island of Ireland Peace Park near Messines was unveiled on 11 November 1998 by the President of Ireland Mary McAleese in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and King Albert II of Belgium to all Irishmen who served and died in World War I, especially in the three divisions raised in Ireland of the BEF: the 36th (Ulster) Division, the 10th Division and the 16th Division.
  There is also an upright tablet listing the counties of Ireland, the names flowing together to suggest the unity of death and a bronze tablet depicting a plan of the battle area.
 There are also nine stone tablets with prose, poems and letters from Irish servicemen:
Spent all night trying to console, aid and remove the wounded. It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretchers with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs.     —Chaplain Francis Gleeson, Royal Munster Fusiliers 
As it was, the Ypres battleground just represented one gigantic slough of despond into which floundered battalions, brigades and divisions of infantry without end to be shot to pieces or drowned, until at last and with immeasurable slaughter we had gained a few miles of liquid mud.     —Charles Miller, 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers 
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead, and tired men sigh, with mud for couch and floor, know that we fools, now with the foolish dead, died not for Flag, nor King, nor Emperor, but for a dream born in a herdsman’s shed, and for the sacred scripture of the poor.   —Tom Kettle, 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers 
In a matter of seconds, a hissing and shrieking pandemonium broke loose. The sky was splashed with light. Rockets, green, yellow and red, darted in all directions; and simultaneously, a cyclone of bursting shells enveloped us.     ”  —JFB O’Sullivan, 6th Connaught Rangers 
It is too late now to retrieve a fallen dream, too late to grieve a name unmade, but not too late to thank the Gods for what is great. A keen edged sword, a soldier’s heart is greater than a poet’s art. And greater than a poet’s fame a little grave that has no name.  —Francis Ledwidge, 5th Inniskilling Fusiliers 
I wish the sea were not so wide that parts me from my love, I wish that things men do below were known to God above. I wish that I were back again in the Glens of Donegal; they’ll call me coward if I return, but a hero if I fall.    —Patrick MacGill, London Irish Rifles
Hostilities will cease at 11.00am on the 11th day of the 11th month. After that time all firing will cease. This was joyous news. Approaching eleven o'clock in our sector you could have heard a pin drop. When eleven o'clock came there were loud cheers. The war was over as far as we were concerned.     —Terence Poulter, 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers
So the curtain fell, over that tortured country of unmarked graves and unburied fragments of men: Murder and massacre: The innocent slaughtered for the guilty: The poor man for the sake of the rich: The man of no authority made the victim of the man who had gathered importance and wished to keep it.    —David Starret, 9th Royal Irish Rifles
I mean the simple soldier man, who when the Great War first began, just died, stone dead from lumps of lead, in mire.     —William Orpen, Official War Artist
Footage of the official opening of the park by McAleese, November 1998
The Douve River south of Messines, showing on the left the bridge constructed by the 40th Battalion (Tasmania) immediately after their attack on 7 June 1917.

 The same spot today; the Irish Peace Tower can be seen behind the buildings


The Battle of Messines began on 7 June 1917 when the British Second Army under the command of General Herbert Plumer launched an offensive near the village of Mesen (Messines) in West Flanders, Belgium. The target of the offensive was a ridge running north from Messines village past Wytschaete village which created a natural stronghold southeast of Ypres. One of the key features of the battle was the detonation of 19 mines immediately prior to the infantry assault, a tactic which disrupted German defences and allowed the advancing troops to secure their objectives in rapid fashion. The attack was also a prelude to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele, which began on 11 July 1917.
The New Zealand Battle Memorial for 1917 on the Messines Ridge taken September 29, 1918 by the 30th, 31st and 34th Divisions.
Returning with my students in 2013. The Messines Ridge (New Zealand) Memorial to the Missing is situated within Messines Ridge British Cemetery about five miles south of Ypres. Messines was considered a strong strategic position, not only from its height above the plain below, but from the extensive system of cellars under the convent known as the 'Institution Royale'. The village was taken from the 1st Cavalry Division by the German 26th Division on 31 October-1 November 1914. An attack by French troops on 6 -7 November was unsuccessful and it was not until the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917 that it was retaken by the New Zealand Division. On 10-11 April 1918, the village fell into German hands once more after a stubborn defence by the South African Brigade, but was retaken for the last time on 28-29 September 1918. This monument stands within Messines Ridge British Cemetery and commemorates over 800 soldiers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who died in or near Messines in 1917 and 1918 and who have no known grave. It is one of seven memorials in France and Belgium to those New Zealand soldiers who died on the Western Front and whose graves are not known all of which are found in cemeteries chosen as appropriate to the fighting in which the men died.
This is a small sample of the video clips showing views of the NZ Memorial, Messines Ridge, Belgium taken from the Video History Today database. 
Overlooking the German positions taken by NZ troops to reach the ridge in 1919, showing Irish Farm from the Rossignol Hill 63, and today.
Returning with my students in 2013

German pillboxes taken that remain on either side of the monument. 

 Messines Church 
 Kerkstraat 1914 and 2008

What was left during and by the end of the war
Memorial plaque commemorating Samuel Frickleton, VC who, following the outbreak of the First World War,  joined the New Zealand Military Forces in February 1915 and embarked for the Middle East with the 5th Reinforcements with the rank of corporal in the Canterbury Battalion. After arriving in Egypt in June, he became ill and was repatriated back to New Zealand and subsequently discharged as medically unfit for active service. After a period of convalescence, he re-enlisted for the NZEF in 1916. By March 1917, he had been promoted to corporal.  On 7 June 1917, Frickleton participated in the Battle of Messines. His battalion was attacking the edge of Messines village when it was slowed by two machine gun posts. He was awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) for his actions in dealing with these posts. The citation for his VC read as follows:
For most conspicuous bravery and determination when with attacking troops, which came under heavy fire and were checked. Although slightly wounded, Lance Corporal Frickleton dashed forward at the head of his section, rushed through a barrage and personally destroyed with bombs an enemy machine gun and crew, which were causing heavy casualties. He then attacked the second gun, killing the whole of the crew of twelve. By the destruction of these two guns he undoubtedly saved his own and other units from very severe casualties and his magnificent courage and gallantry ensured the capture of the objective. During the consolidation of the position he suffered a second severe wound. He set, throughout, a great example of heroism.     —London Gazette, No. 30215, 2 August 1917. 
 Frickleton was wounded in the arm and hip and was badly gassed, which would affect his health for the remainder of his life. Evacuated to England for medical treatment, he was presented with his VC by King George V on 17 September 1917, in a ceremony at Glasgow. By then he was an acting sergeant, which was confirmed later that year. After a period of further hospitalisation, he was selected for and underwent officer training. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in March 1918 and returned to the Rifle Brigade. However, his health problems persisted and he was repatriated to New Zealand in June 1918. He was accorded a hero's welcome and a reception was held at the Auckland Town Hall in his honour. He would spend the remainder of the year under medical care. He was discharged from the NZEF in December 1918.
Hitler's painting of the church during the war

Standing inside the crypt where Hitler had been billeted.

Messines Ridge British Cemetery
This cemetery stands at the former site of the 'Institution Royale,' shown then and after. 
The Cross of Sacrifice is on the site of the Institution's windmill and established after the Armistice when graves were brought in from the battlefield around Messines and from a number of smaller burial grounds. There are now 1,534 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in the cemetery. 957 of the burials are unidentified, but special memorials commemorate a number of casualties known or believed to be buried among them, or who were buried in other cemeteries where their graves were destroyed by shell fire.
 At the entrance surmounted by the Cross of Sacrifice is this memorial dedicated to the officers and men of the New Zealand Division and their part in the battles on the Messines Ridge in June 1917. The memorial, designed by Charles Holden, is located on the south-western edge of Messines village, on the Rue des Neo-Zeelandais. It lists 827 officers and men of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force with no known grave who died in or near Messines in 1917 and 1918. The land on which the cemetery and memorial were constructed had been the site of a mill (the Moulin d'Hospice) belonging to the Institute Royal de Messines (a Belgian orphanage and school, itself formerly a Benedictine abbey). The mill dated from 1445, but was destroyed during the war, with the memorial erected where the mill once stood. Messines was taken from the 1st Cavalry Division by the German 26th Division on 31 October-1 November 1914 and it was not until the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917 that it was retaken by the New Zealand Division. On 10–11 April 1918, the village fell into German hands once more after a stubborn defence by the South African Brigade, but was retaken for the last time on 28–29 September 1918. The inscription at the centre of the memorial reads
Here are recorded the names of officers and men of NEW ZEALAND who fell in or near Messines in 1917 and 1918 and whose graves are known only to God 
The names are shown on the walls to the right and left of the central inscription.
The body of a soldier thought to have been killed on June 7, 1917, during the New Zealand Division's capture of Messines and discovered during excavations of a pipeline in Messines in April 2012 is reburied February 25, 2013. His coffin was draped with the New Zealand flag and a soldier's hat as a guard of honour from Ypres Barracks fired three volleys as the Last Post and Reveille played followed by the New Zealand national anthem, sung by Kiwi soprano Carleen Ebbs. A metal shoulder badge NZR (New Zealand Rifles), a belt buckle and gas iodine capsules were found close to his remains. 
Footage of the ceremony, marred through a disruption by a lunatic

16th Irish Division and 36th (Ulster) Division Memorials
In 1917, the 16th Irish Division took a major part in the Battle of Messines alongside the 36th (Ulster) Division, due to both their recognition and reputation. Their major actions ended in the summer of 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele after moving under General Hubert Gough's Fifth Army command. By mid August the 16th (Irish) had suffered over 4,200 casualties and the 36th (Ulster) had suffered almost 3,600 casualties, or more than 50% of their numbers.The 36th were one of the few divisions to make significant gains on the first day on the Somme. They attacked between the Ancre and Thiepval against a position known as the Schwaben Redoubt. According to military historian Martin Middlebrook:
The leading battalions (of the 36th (Ulster) Division) had been ordered out from the wood just before 7.30am and laid down near the German trenches ... At zero hour the British barrage lifted. Bugles blew the "Advance". Up sprang the Ulstermen and, without forming up in the waves adopted by other divisions, they rushed the German front line ..... By a combination of sensible tactics and Ulster dash, the prize that eluded so many, the capture of a long section of the German front line, had been accomplished.
During the Battle of the Somme the Ulster Division was the only division of X Corps to have achieved its objectives on the opening day of the battle. This came at a heavy price, with the division suffering in two days of fighting, 5,500 officers and men, killed, wounded or missing.
Their attack was one of the finest displays of human courage in the world
War correspondent Philip Gibbs, 1st July, 1916
Of nine Victoria Crosses given to British forces in the battle, four were awarded to Ulstermen.

The village of Wytschaete was fought over throughout the war, originally taken by the Germans in November 1914, it was retaken by Commonwealth forces during the Battle of Messines on June 7th 1917, it then fell into enemy hands once again in April 1918, before it was finally retaken on 28th September 1918.
Wytschaete in April, 1916

La Grand Place before the war and today

Wytschaete CWGC
Wytschaete (or 'White Sheet' as Tommies referred to it) cemetery contains 486 British, 31 Australian, 19 Canadian, 11 South African, 7 New Zealand, 1 German and 673 unknown burials. The cemetery also contains some 25 special memorials.
Footage of the cemetery

16th Irish Division Memorial

Just outside the cemetery is a memorial that had been unveiled on August 22 1926 to commemorate the 16th (Irish) Division at Wytschaete and commemorates its capture of Wytschaete on 7 June 1917, the opening day of the Battle of Messines.

Somer Farm CWGC
Somer Farm during the war and today; with 87 graves from Britain and Australia and one unknown grave it is a cemetery so small it doesn't have a registry box.
Comparison of some of the graves as they appeared after the war and today, standardised:
 Pte Patrick Joseph Curran
L/Cpl W. A. Jones
 L/Cpl William Edward Alchin
 The grave of Pte George Lilley, visited by his parents after the war and today

Oosttaverne CWGC
Originally there were two cemeteries (No. 1 and No. 2) here and had been started after the village was captured during the Battle of Messines.
One of two bunkers that can be seen still behind the cemetery.

The cemetery was is situated in what had been No Man's Land before the Battle of Messines, 1917. During the Second World War, the British Expeditionary Force was involved in the later stages of the defence of Belgium following the German invasion in May 1940, and suffered many casualties in covering the withdrawal to Dunkirk. The cemetery contains 1,119 First World War burials, 783 of which are unidentified. Scattered among these graves are 117 from the Second World War, five of them unidentified.
 The 19th (Western) Division Memorial between the wars and today
Topped with the Butterfly device of the 19th Division, it honours their role on the first day of the Battle of Messines when they took Oosttaverne.

Spanbroekmolen was the name of a windmill 1 mile south-west of Wytschaete on the Messines Ridge.
The scene today 

The Spanbroekmolen Mine Crater, also known as Lone Tree Crater and now 'The Pool of Peace, is a result of the largest of nineteen mines blown by the British Army on the morning of June 7, 1917 which signalled the start of the Battle of Messines.

Spanbroekmolen CWGC
About five miles south of Ypres, this lonely cemetery is named after a windmill which stood nearby and contains the graves of men killed in action on the first (or, in three cases the second) day of the Battle of Messines in 1917. The cemetery was destroyed in subsequent operations but found again after the Armistice. There are 58 casualties of the First World War buried or commemorated in the cemetery or whom six remain unidentified who have special memorials commemorating their graves which had been later destroyed.

Going back to the main road towards Kemmel is Irish House CWGC
This lovely graveyard initiated in 1917 by the Irish Division contains 77 and over half remain unidentified. After Operation Michael the Germans took it from April to August 1918. The wall around this plot sited midway between Heuvelland and Wytschaete is reminiscent of those dry stone walls one sees throughout Ireland.

Derry House #2 CWGC

This cemetery is just north of Messines on a road leading from the Rijselseweg N365, which connects Ypres to Wytschaete and on to Armentieres.

The cemetery was begun in June 1917 by the 11th Division (32nd Brigade) and used as a front line cemetery until December 1917. It was used again in October 1918 by the 2nd London Scottish. Although this cemetery is named "No.2", there is no other cemetery of this name. Altogether there are 126 British and 37 Australians buried here. 
A pillbox beside the dead, created by remains of a concrete command post built by engineers of the 37th Division in July 1917; you can see it in the darkened box-shape in the centre of the CWGC plan on the right.