Langemark is located about four miles north-east of Ypres, and it was near here that the Germans first used poison gas on the 22nd of April 1915 (officially the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge). Deploring this awful atrocity, the Allies did not take too long to employ this weapon themselves, at Loos just five months later.
Map of Langemarck localities
Langemarck in ruins during the War.
The Germans made ground from north of Langemarck, at that time held by the French, and in the confusion advanced around two miles towards Ypres following this use of gas.
Soldiers in the streets of Langemarck during winter
At Vancouver Corner, which is located about a mile south-east of Langemarck on the road towards Zonnebeke, is the Canadian 'Brooding Soldier' Memorial to those who were affected by this first use of chlorine gas during the Great War. Around 2000 Canadians died in this attack. The imposing statue of the Brooding Soldier stands at a cross-roads near the village of St Juliaan. The design of this memorial was deemed the runner-up after the stunning Vimy Ridge monument design was determined the main Canadian memorial, and so was used here, but due to costs a simpler design was used at other Canadian memorials on the Western Front, such as Crest Farm at Passchendaele.
The Brooding Soldier at dawn
The memorial stands in quite a large area, and the floral displays can be stunning here. In autumn the area is covered by red flowers. At the base of the monument is an inscription commemorating the Candaian soldiers, and set in the paving stones around it are directional arrows to various sites on the battlefield - including Landemarck. There is a visitors book located in a box to the rear, and an old pump can also be seen. There are large glasshouses situated behind the memorial site, so it is not in such an isolated spot as it was originally (see the photo below).
The Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner perhaps between the wars. Photo: NELS
The memorial at Vancouver Corner was unveiled on July the 9th, 1923 by the Duke of Connaught, with Marshal Foch, the Earl of Ypres (Sir John French) and the High Commissioner for Canada also in attendence. Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Turner VC spoke at the ceremony about the feats of the Canadians here in ensruring that the line did not break.
Despite this, the Germans made significant advances in this attack, and the picture below shows captured British trenches in April 1915, which would be around the time of the gas attack.
Captured British line, April 1915
Located about half a mile east of Vancouver Corner (reached by following the small road to the south-east past the glasshouses and then turning left) is a mill. This is a structure that was rebuilt after the War in the early 1920s, but the original mill here was given the name Totemuhle or 'Death Mill' by the Germans who used it as an observation post.
In the centre of Langemark is the rebuilt village church. The village, like others in the area, and like the centre of Ypres, still has cobbled streets. Standing beside the church are information boards, with details of the church, which has been destroyed several times over the centuries, including in 1798. The village itself had been largely destroyed by May 1915, and the information board also shows several pictures of the village and the church in ruins. During the Third Ypres offensive the village was taken by the Allies on the 16th of August 1917. It was to change hands two more times before the War ended.
Langemarck church during the War.
The site of Langemarck church later in the War. Photo: NELS.
There are several sites of interest on the road that leads from Boesinghe to Langemarck. Just after Pilkem is a cross roads, and located on the wall of a brick building oposite De Sportman bar is a plaque to Hedd Wyn. Hedd Wyn's real name was Ellis Humphrey Evans, and he served as a Private in the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
The plaque gives more information in three languages: Welsh, English and Flemish. It states that Evans was mortally wounded near this cross-roads on the 31st of July 1917. Just over a month later he was awarded, post-humously, the major Welsh poetry prize - the Chair of the National Eisteddfod. He is buried west of here at Artillery Wood Cemetery in Boesinghe. The plaque was erected on the 31st of July 1992.
Cement House Cemetery can be found further along this road west of Langemarck. This cemetery is actually still in use today, occasionally for concentrations of graves which have to be moved from other locations for various reasons, and also it is where the remains of soldiers who continue to be found in the region are buried.
There have been a number of burials at Cement House of the remains of soldiers found by the Diggers (a group of Belgian amateur archaeologists) during their battlefield excavations. On the 14th of November 2005 the burials took place here of three soldiers whose remains were found at Boezinge. The picture below shows the caskets at the cemetery before this ceremony.
Burials of British soldiers at Cement House Cemetery, 14th November 2005. Photo coutesy of The Diggers
Additional information on this and other activities of the Diggers can be found on the forumeerstewereldoorlog.nl in the section " De Diggers, Battlefield Exploration, Ieper".
Cement House was the name of a fortified farm building on the Langemark to Boezinge road. The cemetery was begun at the end of August 1917 by the 4th and 17th Divisions, and these 231 burials which continued until April 1918 now make up plot I, an unevenly spaced group of graves located on the left hand side of the cemetery. Row K in this original part of the Cemetery is interesting, in that it consists of one long row of headstones very close together, in fact many touching. Some of the headstones have two names on, and almost all the burials date from 12th - 20th October 1917. Soldiers buried in this row are from various units, including the Tyneside Irish, 20th Hussars and Royal Field Artillery, but this has the look of a mass grave, and I wonder what the story behind it is.
After the Armistice, other plots were created by the concentration of small burial grounds around Langemark and Poelcapelle. Nearly five hundred French graves were removed in 1922, and the space created then used for further additions. There are now 3576 Great War burials here, of which 2408 (two thirds) are unidentified. There are a small number of Second World War burials here too.
Travelling from Cement House Cemetery towards Langemarck, you soon reach a small river. This is the Steenbeek, well known to the soldiers who fought in the Salient. There is an Albertina Marker here as well, marking the end of the Steenbeek Offensive in September 1918.
A wartime picture of the Steenbeek can be seen below: this is taken from the History of the 20th Light Division, which were involved in the action to cross the Steenbeek and take Langemarck in August 1917.
The Steenbeek during the war Photo from 'The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division'
Just after the river, on the left is a memorial to the 20th Light Division. Early in the morning of the 16th of August, 1917, the 60th and 61st Brigades of the 20th Division crossed the Steenbeek by temporary bridges covered with canvas to muffle their footsteps. The artillery barrage commenced at 4.45 a.m., and the infantry attacked whilst the barrage "crept" forwards. They took a German strongpoint known as Au Bon Gite, and although the condition of the ground was poor (the 20th Divisional History calls it "nothing but a swampy crater field") they village and the station. During this action, Private Wilfred Edwards of the 7th KOYLI and Sergeant Edward Cooper of the 12th KRRC won Victoria Crosses, in both cases for for advancing with scant concern for their own safety on concrete strongpoints that were resisting the infantry advance.
The final objective was reached by 8.00 a.m., although the Germans counterattacked in the afternoon, pushing the 20th Division troops back a little. Like many other sites, new housing has now encroached almost all around the memorial to the brave men who fell in this action, as can be seen on the modern photograph, when compared to the one below from the 1930s. At that time, the memorial stood in open fields.
The memorial to the 20th Light Division
The memorial to the 20th Light Division in the 1930s Photo: NELS
Just north of the village is the sombre Langemarck German Cemetery. There are relatively few German cemeteries on the Western Front battlefields, but this one, despite being much smaller in area than Tyne Cot, in fact has many more burials. This is because the burials are effectively several mass graves, although there are headstones (which are flat to the ground) as well. There are also occasional clusters of small crosses. However, these are not actual grave markers.
Recently, a new car park has been created to the right rear of the cemetery (coaches and cars used to park on the edge of the road across from the cemetery entrance). The route from the car park leads along a gravel walkway into a tunnel like structure in which there are four audiovisual presentations running.
The first presentation runs on a single television screen, whilst the next are each shown on two screens. They show images of the area before the war, aerial footage of it today with specific sites marked and shown on the ground. There are also views of early postcards of the cemetery with crosses, and then later picture showing it looking rather overgrown. Once you reach the end of this walkway, a cobbled pathway lined with pollarded trees runs beside the road to the cemetery entrance.
Inside the entrance block there are chambers to the left and right. In the left one there is a map of area, with Langemarck and the cemetery marked. On the walls of the chamber to the right are lists of names.
Once you enter the cemetrery there is an inscription on a flat stone with a sculpted wreath. This records the 44,061 men buried here. Ahead is the mass grave of nearly 25,000 men. The names of those known to be buried here are recorded on eighty-six upright bronze panels beyond this entrance.
Just to the left of this central inscription, on the edge of the first of the upright bronze panels is a plaque commemorating two British soldiers: Privates Albert Carlill (Loyal North Lancs) and Leonard Lockley (Seaforth Highlanders). Both these men died late in 1918, Carlill just a week before the end of the war. Both originally had commemorations in CWGC cemeteries (Carlill at nearby Cement House, although his name is also on bronze panel 10 here), but recently they were officially recognised as being among those buried here at the German Cemetery, and so the plaque was put in place in around 2005.
At the rear of the cemetery are four stone soldiers watching over the graves. In addition, there is a small chamber on the right-hand side of the entrance where the names of the German missing are inscribed. Somehow, this cemetery (and the German Cemetery at Fricourt on the Somme) manages to be more forbidding and perhaps a grimmer reminder of the war than most British and Commonwealth Cemeteries, which tend to use light stone in their construction and for their grave markers.
The front of the cemetery has iron gates to paths leading along the front of the cemetery; I have an old picture from this Cemetery (1930s), and when you compare this with a modern picture, it appears the paving slabs in front of the gate have been relaid since it was taken. I cannot replicate the original angle, as it seems to have been taken from the roof of the entrance. However, you can see that there were many crosses here at that time.
A view of the gate within Langemarck German Cemetery. Photograph: Kruger
The gate at Langemarck German Cemetery today
Within the cemetery are the remains of three concrete blockhouses. These were taken in October 1917, and behind these and the memorial blocks between them (which can be clearly seen in the lower photograph below) lie nearly 9,500 more German soldiers.
A new visotors centre was being constructed next to the cemetery when I last visited. I will be returning in the spring of 2007 and will update this page after that.
North-west of the village, on land captured in 1917 are a bunker with in front of it a memorial to the Artillery and Engineers of the 34th Division. This states "To the Glory of God and in memory of the officers, warrant and non-commissioned officers and men of the Artillery and Engineers of the 34th British Division". On the sides are inscribed the names of the units, including Divisional engineers, Pioneers, Northumberland Fusiliers and artillery units. specifically from October and November 1917.
The bunker is directly behind the memorial, and its massive and strong construction can clearly be seen from the iron bars set within the concrete.
I visited this spot once on a bitter March day, with a brisk and freezing wind making it feel even colder. As I walked around this bunker, the soft mud stuck to my boots until my feet felt twice as heavy as normal. After this, I was glad to take off my hiking boots, get back into my car and warm up. But this was mid-March, and it hadn't rained for at least a few days. It gave me perhaps the smallest inkling of what the bitter mid-winters in December and January, or the cloying mud in spring after rain might have been like - but the true grim reality of living in the trenches in the cold and the mud remains thankfully almost unimaginable.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Great War Forum
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient
V.E. Inglefield: The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division
The Times online archive