This article by Rob Kirk first appeared ten years ago in Bulletin 86 : Feb/March 2010 pp 8 -10. Members receive Bulletin, the member magazine of The Western Front Association, three times a year. It is also available to Digital Members as a PDF.
Ypres Salient Tank Memorial unveiled at Poelcapelle
The unveiling of the Tank Memorial at Poelcapelle in Belgium on 10 October, to honour the 243 tank crewmen who fell in the Ypres Salient, was an unforgettable experience.
Among those who attended were relatives of men decorated for their gallantry in the attack during Third Ypres, when the Salient gained its reputation as 'The Cemetery of the Tanks'.
Together, they visited the very places where their ancestors fought – and in some cases, died. They were accompanied by a lone piper, with massed pipes and drums, and children from the village school choir sang at the inauguration ceremony.
Among those remembered were:
- Captain Clement Robertson, a 26-year-old South African, who won his Victoria Cross for leading his tanks into action on foot, under heavy machine gun, shell and rifle fire, following routes he’d reconnoitred and taped for three days and nights. He was killed after the objectives were reached.
- Captain Robertson is buried at the Oxford Road British Cemetery, and in October - ninety two years after his death, almost to the day - his medal was placed on top of his headstone by his great nephew Simon Robertson. His was the first of four VCs awarded to tank men in the Great War.
- Private Cyril Allen won a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part in the same action – at a site still known today as Robertson’s Bridge. On October 10th, Private Allen’s grandson, John Allen placed his grandfather’s DCM in front of Captain Robertson’s headstone.
- Private Allen survived Ypres, but died at Cambrai seven weeks later. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval.
The citations for Captain Robertson’s VC and Private Allen’s DCM are displayed in the Tank Memorial Register Book.
Another officer, Captain D H Richardson, won a Military Cross for holding out with his crew in the tank Fray Bentos for three days and nights in No Mans Land – under fire from German and British artillery. During the inauguration weekend, Captain Richardson’s grandsons visited the site of their grandfather’s heroics, at Gallipoli Farm.
The Tank Memorial itself is in the centre of the village, very near the place where one of Poelcapelle’s celebrated tanks, Damon II, was disabled during the battle and remained stuck in the ground for years. The village was rebuilt around her. She was later moved to the roadside, at the precise site of the new memorial, until the Germans destroyed her in WWII. A wreath was laid on behalf of Dr Mary Ward, the daughter of Damon II’s commander, Captain John Coghlan.
The Memorial itself is privately sponsored and is built on land donated by the Flemish Government and the Mayor of Langemark-Poelcapelle. It's made from black brick and cement, emulating the singular colour of the Royal Tank Regiment today, and has text explaining the significance of the tanks in the Ypres Salient. The text is headed with the Tank Corp legend: "From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond".
The Memorial includes a plan of the fighting compartment of a MK IV tank, and an original MK IV sponson observation plate is attached to it. In summer months, the Union Flag and the Belgian flag will fly side by side. The Tank Corp flag will be raised on special occasions. At the ceremony, 243 personalised poppy tributes were placed on behalf of the men remembered by the Memorial.
There was a strong turn-out from the Royal Tank Regiment, with Captain Ian Thompson and a contingent of NCOs, piper and soldiers of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, and Major General C M Deverell MBE, Deputy Colonel Commandant.
Standards were carried by the Royal Tank Regiment Association, the Royal British Legion Ypres Branch, the British Torch of Remembrance Belgium Branch and the Entente.
There was a particularly poignant moment when Jeremy Banning, a friend of Harry Patch – the Last Fighting Tommy – read an extract from Harry’s last drafted letter. Private Patch, a Lewis gunner with the 7th Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, fought at Passchendaele. He was to have been a guest of honour, but passed away earlier in the year, at the age of 111.
In the letter, Harry said: “I wish you all the best for the unveiling ceremony, and congratulate you wholeheartedly on erecting this much needed memorial .
The organiser of the inauguration weekend and the coordinator and sponsor of the project to build the Memorial is Chris Lock, of the Royal Tank Regiment Association and former 3rd Royal Tank Regiment.
He says: “Some have asked: why a Tank Memorial for the Ypres Salient today? These incredibly brave men have had to wait far too long for a memorial to commemorate and remember their losses and their suffering.
“History has been made and these men have their own memorial. It may be more than 90 years late in coming, but better late than never.”
For more detail about the Tank Memorial Ypres Salient, see:
The weekend was marked in a way tankmen would surely have approved - toast in rum from a WWI jar found in the ground in the 1970s. And it is by no means the end of efforts to remember the warriors of Poelcapelle. In a completely separate project, a local historian and engineer, Vanbeselaere, is masterminding an ambitious project to build a full-scale replica Damon II. He’s hoping to have it ready by the centenary of Third Ypres in 2017 or the Armistice in 2018. For more details about the Damon II project, see Bulletin No 84 (June/July 2009) or go to www.p1917.a.blogspot.com Rob Kirk
IMAGE: The 1 RTR Piper plus attending RTRA standards and standard bearers take their positions for the Inauguration ceremony