YPRES VISIT 2018
This edition of Brumration will reflect on some of the sites we visited on the first day of our WFA Branch trip to Ypres in April 2008. Our first stop was at Hill 60. There is now a walkway and more information boards to guide you around the site, but it remains as it has been since 1918, a War Grave. Beneath the soil are the remains of Tunnellers from Britain, Canada, Australia and Germany, as well as soldiers from countless regiments who fought over four years over this tiny bit of land.
Hill 60 was a 60 metre high spoil heap on the single track railway South East of Ypres where it crossed the Messines Ridge. Two lower spoil heaps on the other side of the track are known as The Dump and The Caterpillar. The significance of this spoil heap was that from its summit, in the flat landscape of the Ypres Salient, the Germans could see the spires of Ypres and the British held hamlet of Zillebeke.
Hill 60 was the scene of bitter fighting when it was first captured by the Germans from the French on 10th December 1914. The British took over the area, including the tunnels started by the French, to lay mines under the German positions. The first mine was blown by British Royal Engineers in February 1915, and in March 1915 the newly formed 173 Tunnelling Company began three new tunnels about 20 metres from the German lines. From the outset, the miners came across bodies and body parts of soldiers killed in earlier encounters, ‘decaying and oderous’. The task of the miners was truly horrific but on 17th April 1915 the mines were blown and in yet more bitter fighting, the Hill was recaptured.
On 5th May 1915 the Hill was recaptured by the German 15th Corps and it remained in German hands until the Battle of Messines 7th June 1917. After months of tunnelling, two mines were exploded at Hill 60 and The Caterpillar and the Hill was once again in British hands. These were two of 19 mines which were fired that morning along the Messines Ridge.
Hill 60 was part of a planned withdrawal on 15thApril 1918. The 21st Division moved to a line west of Zillebeke Lake and it was finally retaken by an Anglo-Belgian force on 28th September 1918.
The Caterpillar Crater, unlike those at Hill 60, is now filled with water and provides a beautiful tranquil setting on one of three walking tours of the Ypres Salient. The entry point for this circular walk is at The Bluff.
From the two mines exploded at the Northern end on the Messines Ridge we moved on to visit the mine craters around Wijtschate. We walked past the water filled crater at Peckham Farm to visit the Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery. It is in the centre of some large fields and reached by a neatly mowed grass path. It has 58 graves, 43 of which are men of The Royal Irish Rifles.
In preparation for the attack on the Messines Ridge the 36th Ulster Division were in position at Kruisstraat, just to the right of where the Spanbroekmolen mine would be fired. Leading the 8th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles into action was Lt Witherow but many of his men never reached their objective. Lt. Witherow, following the orders he had been given, had set off with his Company as soon as the protective barrage opened up. The Spanbroekmolen mine was 15 seconds late being fired and Witherow’s men were caught in the explosion.
To their left, waiting to go into action were the 16th Irish Division. For perhaps the first time in history Ulster and Southern Irish Regiments would be fighting side by side. The Irish Peace Tower is visible in the distance from Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery.
The Spanbroekmolen crater was renamed ‘The Pool of Peace’ when it was purchased by Lord Wakefield following a campaign by Tubby Clayton the founder of Toc H. As a result it has been left untouched as a memorial.
Close by is Lone Tree Cemetery. It is tucked away behind farm buildings and you approach along a concrete path protected by electric fences. I assume they are to keep the cows off the cemetery site rather than visitors on the path. Railway buffs would be delighted to see that some of the electric fencing is recycled narrow gauge railway track. The cemetery has 94 burials, 57 are men of the Royal Irish Rifles.
There are no accurate figures for the German losses resulting from the explosion of these mines. At the end of the battle 10,000 men were listed as missing and over 7,000 prisoners had been taken. Speaking in 1927, Sir John Norton Griffiths stated that he believed a frontal attack on the Messines Ridge without the mines might have cost the lives of 50,000 men.
We visited Perth (China Wall) British Cemetery in the afternoon. Its unusual name derives from a communication trench that led to the Menin Road. This was shielded by a wall of sandbags and became known as ‘The Great Wall of China’. Our main objective was to honour the memory of 2nd Lt. Frederick Birks VC, MM 6th Battalion Australian Infantry as a result of research carried out by one of our party, Keith Kellaway.
2nd Lt Birks was born in Buckley in Flintshire and had worked in John Summers steelworks in Shotton. In August 1913 he emigrated to Australia, where he worked as a waiter. In August 1914 he enlisted in Melbourne in 2nd Australian Field Ambulance, Australian Army Medical Corps. He served in Gallipoli and on two occasions he was wounded, and was evacuated to Egypt in December 1915. Having arrived in Marseilles in March 1916, he was promoted to Lance Corporal and was awarded the Military Medal for leadership and service with a team of stretcher bearers while under shellfire at Pozieres. After being promoted to Corporal, he was commissioned in April 1917.
2nd Lt. Birks VC was awarded his VC ‘for conspicuous bravery in attack (at Glencorse Wood) when accompanied by only a Corporal he rushed a strongpoint that was holding up the advance’. When the Corporal was wounded he continued alone and captured the enemy machine gun post killing the defenders. He later organised a small party who attacked another strongpoint killing many of the defenders and capturing an officer and 15 men. He was killed later that day when attempting to rescue some of his men buried by an enemy shell. Keith Kellaway laid a poppy wreath at his grave on behalf of the Birmingham Branch WFA and the Mayor of Buckley.
Perth (China Wall) Cemetery although started by the French in 1914, became a British concentration cemetery. I t has 2,674 graves with 1,371 of those ‘known unto God’. There are graves which contain the remains of 9, 11 and 16 soldiers.
There is also the grave of Captain William Henry Johnston VC. 59TH Company,Royal Engineers who on 14th September 1914 repeatedly ferried a raft over the River Aisne with his hands, taking ammunition in one direction and wounded in the other while under heavy fire. He was killed at Ypres on 8th June 1915.
War Underground by Alexander Barrie Major &Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient Keith Kellaway for information on 2ND Lt Birks
Our day ended at the ceremony of the sounding of The Last Post at The Menin Gate. I was very proud to be part of our Branch wreath laying party with Jonathan and Chris and honoured to walk in the footsteps of so many others who have paid their respects to the fallen. We followed a high level delegation from New Zealand and following us a couple from Canada on a battlefield tour. On the Wall behind us stretching from the floor to the top of the monument were the names of men from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry who have no known grave.