The Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing
The name of this small village, and of the nearby wood, is actually Ploegsteert, but to those who served here during the Great War it became known as "Plugstreet". The village is at the very south of the area associated with Ypres; in fact it is not regarded as part of the 'Ypres Salient' by many. It is only about two miles north of Armenitieres, close to the French border and eight miles south of Ypres.
Plugstreet location map
Ploegsteert village is located to the south-west of the wood, and there are cemeteries and other sites of interest on all sides of, as well as within, the wood. There were no major set-piece battles in this area, and Ploegsteert remained in British possession during the major part of the War. Only in 1918 did the Germans take it briefly. There is much to see here, and an excellent guide book to the area in detail is A Walk Round Plugstreet by Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith.
Starting in the village itself, there is a plaque to Winston Churchill on the Marie. The 75th anniversary of unveiling of the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing (see below) was due shortly after I last visited, and signs for this commemoration were in evidence.
The Churchill connection is that, following the ill-fated Gallipolli campaign, Churchill resigned from the Government on November the 12th 1915. He had made up his mind to serve overseas, and stated in his resignation letter "I am an officer, and I place myself unreservedly at the disposal of the military authorities, observing that my regiment is in France." His regiment was the Queens Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and following his resignation he wasted no time; he made a speech in the House of Commons about his resignation on Monday the 15th of November, and in the morning of the 18th he left London for France. However, by the 22nd he was attached to the Grenadier Guards, and reported to be in the trenches.
According to Douglas Haig's diary Churchill wanted command of an Infantry Brigade. This was around the time that Haig took over as Commander-in-Chief from Sir John French, and Haig's diary for the 14th of December 1915 records that French wanted to give Churchill such a command. However, Haig wrote in his diary that this was "impossible, until Winston had shewn that he could bear responsibility as CO of a battalion". Churchill was appointed Commanding Officer of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, and was based at Ploegsteert for some time with this unit around early 1916.
An article in October 1923 in The Times on the 'Vanishing Battlefield' reports a signboard at the cross-roads in the village which listed 13 cemeteries in the near vicinity. Some of these are covered in detail on this page.
Many of the place names used for locations in and around the Ploegsteert area during the war show a strong London connection. For example, there was the Strand, Hyde Park Corner, Somerset House, Charing Cross, Regent Street and Oxford and Picadilly Circuses. There is also an 'Essex Farm' marked on trench maps in the area, not to be confused with the more famous Essex Farm (made so by the association with John MaCrae) which is located just north of Ypres.
Some of the cemeteries here also bear these famous London names. Travelling on the main N365 north from the village, on the right hand side of the main road and just west of the wood is Strand Military Cemetery.
This is a fairly large cemetery, with over 1000 burials. There are two entrance ways at either side with the register box by the front right entrance. Immediately inside, along the wall adjacent to the road are special memorials. A large block (these are known as Dunhallow blocks, after the cemetery they were first used in) commemorates 11 men who were buried in Ploegsteert Wood New Cemetery in 1914, but whose graves were later destroyed. There are then 14 special memorial 'headstones', 11 to these men and three to men buried in three other cemeteries whose graves were later lost. Two of these were buried by the Germans.
The cemetery was started very early in the war, when two soldiers were buried here in October 1914. It was then not used again until April 1917, and the original wartime burials can be found in the wider part of the cemetery to the rear - Plots 1 to 6. After the Armistice, other graves were brought in to form the later plots, nearer the road.
One of these later burials (Plot 9, N4) is that of Private Thomas Cordner of the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, and at the base of his headstone is a plaque, recording that he died trying to save a wounded friend, and that his memory was cherished by his sister who died in 1993. It ends with the quotation "A good name is better than fame or riches".
A house stands immediately to the rear left of Strand Cemetery, and the trackway leading to this is the start of the track known in the Great War as 'The Strand', from which the cemetery took its name.
Just north of Strand cemetery, on the right hand side of the road three bunkers together can be seen. They now have grass growing on their rooves, and were originally a part of the Advanced Dressing Station at 'Charing Cross'.
A little further north on the main road is 'Hyde Park Corner'. On the right hand side here is the fairly small Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berkshire) Cemetery.
Begun in April 1915 and used until November 1917, this contains some 90 graves. Among them is the grave of Albert French of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, who died in July 1916 aged just sixteen. Grave 1A is that of Rifleman Samuel McBride, of the 2/Royal Irish Rifles, who was executed for desertion not far from here at Hope Farm (near Prowse Point Cemetery, see below) on the 7th of December 1916.
Directly opposite, on the other side of the road is the much larger (Royal) Berkshire Cemetery Extension, which also contains the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing. The cemetery was started in June 1916 and used until September 1917. Some of the graves here are located back to back, and an early photograph of this cemetery in the Michelin Guide to Ypres shows this.
The Royal Berkshire Cemetery Extension in 1919. Photo from Michelin Guide to Ypres
At the Armistice, the Cemetery consisted of the graves in Plot 1 only (which is to the right of the memorial as you look at the cemetery from the road, with the graves set at an angle to the road). In 1930, Plots 2 and 3 were added by moving graves from Rosenburg Chateau Military Cemetery and Extension, which was located north-west of here. This was an unusual circumstance; many smaller cemeteries and isolated burials had been moved in the years immediately following the Armistice, but these graves were moved much later. These plots are to the left of the Memorial to the Missing, which stands in the centre of the cemetery space.
The graves in Plots 2 and 3 had to be moved because the Rosenburg Chateau Military Cemetery and Extension stood in the grounds of the chateau of that name, and the owner felt that, as he rebuilt his house, the cemetery would stand too close to it. Despite pleas from the British and Belgian authorities, he remained firm, and eventually the 475 men buried there were exhumed and moved the half mile distance to this, their final resting place. In March 1930 The Times reported that "each body, as it was reverently taken from the earth, was placed in a coffin draped with the Union Jack and removed by motor ambulance to the Royal Berkshire Cemetery Extension". This now contains 876 burials in total. A Duhallow block situated to the left of the memorial commemorates five soldiers originally buried in Rosenberg Chateau Cemetery and Extension whose graves were destroyed in later battles.
A soldier contemplates the graves at the Royal Berks Cemetery Extension. Photo: Biebuyck
Also in the Royal Berkshire Cemetery Extension is the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing. This is a circular structure, supported by pillars, around the outside of which are the panels inscribed with the names of the missing. On the top of the memorial are inscribed the words "Berks Cemetery Extension". Two large stone lions flank the memorial, which was designed by H. Charlton Bradshaw, and opened in 1931. The opening ceremony was attended by large crowds, and pictures published in The Times show some of them using the plinths of the lions in order to secure a better view of the ceremony! The 75th anniversary of the unveiling has just passed (in May 2006).
At present, 11,369 men with no known grave are commemorated here, with their names (as at other memorials) arranged by Regiment, and then alphabetically within each regiment. 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. The registers for the Memorial give information on the relevant battles.
Leaving the Ploegsteert Memorial and again heading north towards Ypres on the main road, there is a small road leading off to the left. A few hundred yards along this, just before it bends to the left, is a large bunker which is overgrown and just an empty box structure. This may be what was was known as the 'Report Centre', an exit from an underground complex in the hill behind it, Hill 62, which was known as the 'Catacombs'. This was large enough to hold two infantry battalions (around 2000 men) at a time.
Just to the north of the present-day Ploegsteert Wood are two fairly small cemeteries, reached by a small road leading off to the right as you continue north on the main road towards Ypres. The first is Prowse Point Cemetery, with an information board located in the small parking area in front of the cemetery.
From here Messines church can be seen to the north on the ridge, and Mud Corner Cemetery is lower down the slope in front of Ploegsteert Wood. This cemetery was started early in the war (November 1914) and used right up until April 1918. There are graves from November 1914 at the front as you enter the cemetery. The cemetery was named after (then) Major Charles Prowse, who later as Brigadier-General of the 11th Infantry Brigade was killed on the 1st of July 1916 at Beaumont Hamel, and is buried in Louvencourt Military Cemetery. However, the position was known as Prowse Point during the war, and in the Australian 9th Infantry Brigade War Diary there is a reference to a Regimental First Aid Post being located at 'Prowse Point' in June 1917, as well as a 'hot food and drink dug-out'. Today the total number of British and Commonwealth burials here is 224, and there are 12 German graves. The pool now in front of the Cross of Sacrifice, seen in the photo below, was actually part of the front line here.
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 was Private Harry Wilkinson of the 2/Lancashire Fusiliers. His body was found in 2000, and he was reburied here in 2001 with full honours.
A cross commemorating Harry Wilkinson stands by the side of the road near to where his remains were found, 86 years after he died. This cross is not too far from Prowse Point Cemetery, and is located south of the St. Yvon craters. Private Harry Wilkinson was killed in action on the 10th of November 1914, and there is a faded picture of him next to the cross.
In the field behind this cross, the remains of three more British soldiers were found in March 2006. An identity disc was found with one, and he has been "identified" by the press as Private Richard Lancaster who, like Harry Wilkinson, served with the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers and also died on the 10th of November 1914. Living relatives of Private Lancaster have been traced and the story reported in the national press. However, the formal identication requires procedures by the MoD which are likley to take many months. The remains were found towards the rear of the field, to the right of the pylon. Richard Lancaster's name is currently engraved on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing.
Just north of the Harry Wilkinson cross, a road turns to the west back towards Prowse Point Cemetery. On the north side of this road is another cross which commemorates the Christmas Truce of 1914 - the Khaki Chums cross. It is near where the houses are located, on the edge of a field. More recently, an information board has been erected beside the cross.
The story behind this memorial can be found in an article written by Taff Gillingham of the Khaki Chums (also known as The Association for Military Remembrance, who are specialists in many aspects of British and Commonwealth military history) on a page on Tom Morgan's Hellfire Corner website. Members of the Association actually spent five days over Christmas 1999 living in a waterlogged trench here. They placed the cross in position at the end of their stay, and it has been maintained and cared for by the local people since.
Returning to Prowse Point Cemetery, a track to the left of the cemetery leads down towards the wood. This track was crossed by a trench named 'Look Slippy' during the War. About 100 yards down this track is a smaller cemetery. This is Mud Corner Cemetery. A small dyke runs across the front of the cemetery and the gatpost shows just the year 1917. During the War there was a third smaller cemetery (called Prowse Point Lower Cemetery) which was located between the two. The thirteen graves there were moved to Strand Military Cemetery after the war.
Mud Corner Cemetery was begun during the Battle of Messines, on June 7th, 1917, and was only used until December of that year. It is lower-lying than Prowse Point, and the low aspect which was prone to flooding probably gave the spot it's name. It contains nearly all Australian and New Zealand graves, with only one from the UK.
The track continues around Mud Corner Cemetery, and a left turn then leads into Ploegsteert Wood. This is signposted towards three other cemeteries which are located within the wood itself.
Entering the wood and following the track round as it bends to the left, eventually there is a "cross-roads" of tracks. Here one can go either left (towards Toronto Avenue Cemetery) or right (towards Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery and Rifle House Cemetery). Again, these are clearly signposted.
Toronto Avenue Cemetery is to the left, and so is near the northern edge of the wood. This is a small, original cemetery, with just three rows of burials. Unlike many other CWGC cemeteries, it (and the other two cemeteries within the wood itself) are not surrounded by a wall, but by a green wire fence. Because of this, here and also in Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery, the "Land Tablet" (the large stone stating that the land for the cemetery is given in perpetuity) is set on the ground within the cemetery, rather than as more usually, inset into the wall. Despite the Canadian connotations of the name, those buried at Toronto Avenue Cemetery are all Australian, men who fell at the Battle of Messines.
Just to the right of the Great Cross is a single grave in row C. This is actually marked on the plan in the cemetery register by the name of the man buried here - Piggott. Captain Francis John Piggott died on the 10th of June 1917. He enlisted as a Lieutenant aged 33 near Sydney with "C" Company, 36th Battalion on the 17th of February 1916. He was a natural born British subject, working in Marine Insurance. He sailed on the Beltana from Sydney on the 13th of May 1916, the journey to Plymouth taking nearly two months. He was promoted to Captain in August 1916, and his battalion spent some time at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain before being posted to France in November 1916. He had 11 days leave in the "south of France" in May 1917, and he was killed in action just 10 days after rejoining his unit.
A report in August 1917 gives the location of his grave as Sheet 28 SW Ed 4B, M (V?)15.C.1.1. The sheet sent from the IWGC states that he was buried in the "R.E. Farm Group of Cemeteries (Toronto Avenue Cemetery) Belgium 110". He is stated as buried "end of row C".
He may perhaps have been engaged, as his three line will made in November 1916 leaves £50 to Miss Gwendoline Treloar, and everything else to his mother, Mary Piggott. His effects, which had been stored at Amesbury in Wiltshire by Chaplins & Co., were eventually returned in June 1918 to his mother in Australia. They included two cameras and a set of chess men, as well as the usual military effects and clothing. His mother had at least one other son serving (in the 33rd Battalion).
Also in this cemetery is the grave of Private Alfred Alexander Burns, also of the Australian 36th Battalion, who died on the 7th June 1917, age 25. The inscription on his grave reads "In remembrance of my loving husband and our dear Daddy". Alfred Burns enlisted in Sydney in early 1916, aged 23. He had a tattoo of "True Love and Hands Clasped" on his right forearm, and was charged when at Larkhill in training in November 1916 with "conduct to the predjudice of good order and military discipline" - he had refused to obey an N.C.O.'s order. He was buried, probably with others who fell the same day, by Reverend Richmond of the 33rd Battalion. Burns was married to Florence, and had two daughters when he died - named Florence and Mary - obviously who the 'Dear Daddy' was from.
Leaving Toronto Avenue Cemetery, returning to the spot where the tracks cross, one can continue straight ahead towards Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery and Rifle House Cemetery. There is something of a quiet brooding intenstity about the wood as you walk through it. Thomas Nash, who served here with the 4th Gloucesters in 1915, described it as
"......a place of horrors. The gruesome relics of the earlier hand-to-hand fighting were still in evidence, and broken fragments of rifles and bayonets, half-buried bodies, swamped dug-outs and hastily built redoubts all told their story plainly.........Everywhere were scenes of terrific fighting, and the wood was oppressive with their spirits of men slain in passion, not honest healthy ghosts. Two large crosses marked the graves of German soldiers of the 104th Saxon Infantry in mass. In one dug-out, Purity Villa, our men had been surprised by a German patrol and butchered in their sleep".
Just off the track to the right before Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery the vestigial remains of bunkers can be seen. It's not easy to know from which part of the war they date. The fact they have been infilled with bricks might suggest they are relatively early.
Just past these bunkers, a ride crosses the track; this is "The Strand", which eventually runs out of the wood on the west, near Charing Cross and Strand Cemetery.
Just after this, on the right is Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery. This cemetery was made by the joining up of several small seperate cemeteries which had been started in the war by different units. These included the Somerset Light Infantry Cemetery (started by the 1st Battalion in December 1914), the Bucks Cemetery (the 1st/1st Buckinghamshire Battalion, Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, in April 1915) and the 1/5th Gloucesters (made between April and May 1915). Other graves were added later during the War, effectively forming a single larger cemetery. At the far right end of the cemetery, the original small plot of Somerset Light Infantry burials can be clearly seen.
These burials date from late 1914 to early 1915, with many from the 19th of December 1914. This was the date of the 11th Brigade's attack on the position known as the 'Birdcage' - a German fortified strongpoint just to the east of the wood, which gained it's name from the amount of wire placed around the position. The 1/Somerset Light Infantry were a part of this attack, and did take the German lines, but the attack failed to carry the 'Birdcage'. The middle row of graves and several in the back row in the plot (seen in the picture above) are all of officers and men who died that day. When I took these photographs, it was steadily raining, and it is not hard to imagine the men under this dripping wood as they buried their fallen comrades. At that point they probably could not guess there were still nearly four years of war to go.
Despite the sterling efforts of the CWGC, cemeteries in a wood like this must be very hard to maintain. Being underneath a tree, there are lichen growths and stains on the headstones. The Cross of Sacrifice itself shows damage at the side - the structure splitting, presumably due to damp and cold conditions here.
A little further along the track is the final cemetery within the wood: Rifle House Cemetery. This was named after a hut which was used as a headquarters, which stood nearby. Again, it is an early cemetery, begun in November 1914.
The headstones in plots 1 and 2 here have unusual imprint for the plot letter - this being within a slightly inset rectangle on the stone. There is a group of Rifle Brigade burials here, and again there are the graves of men who fell in the attack on the 'Birdcage' on December the 19th, 1914
The cemetery plan shows the entrance at the side of the cemetery, just next to the Cross of Sacrifice. However, today it is at the front, by plot 1 row A. The plan also shows the land tablet set in the ground at the back centre of the cemetery. However, unlike the other two cemeteries in the wood, at Rifle House there is a small brick built structure, and the land tablet is now located on the wall inside it.
The track shown on the plan still leads around the side of the cemetery towards where the entrance used to be - and in fact carries on round the back of the cemetery. There is nothing left of Rifle House itself, but some small lumps of concrete and iron fortification bars can be seen across the track to the rear of the cemetery. The track eventually leads to a cross-roads of tracks, and that running north-south now is Hunter Avenue. At points along this track are the ramins of small strongpoints, or bunkers, which were given names such as Eel-Pie Fort and Eccles Fort. One of these is shown below.
Another which can be seen a little further on to the south is probably the bunker which was known as 'Eel-pie Fort'.
The interiors of both forts are cramped and small, with limited views through the slit in the front. In both, the pillars at the base of the slits are made from bricks, presumably taken from some local buildings for the purpose. It should be noted that apart from the tracks to the cemeteries, the wood is private property.
South of the wood, on the road between Ploegsteert and Le Gheer, is Lancashire Cottage Cemetery. This was begun by the 1st East Lancashires and 1st Hampshires in November 1914. There are also burials from many other units, including the Gloucesters.
One man who served with the 4th Gloucesters was Thomas Nash, who kept a diary of his war-time experiences. He served initially in the ranks with the Gloucesters, and later as an officer in the 16th Manchesters. After his death, his son edited and published his memoirs under the title The Diary of an Unprofessional Soldier, and as an excellent record of service during the Great War this book is highly reccomended. Nash was based at Ploegsteert in 1915, near Le Gheer, very close to here, and on their first night in the trenches they were greeted with "an indescribeable odour". When the dawn broke, they found that this was due to "heaps of dead Germans lying just in front of our parapet", and also "a field of decaying corpses behind our trenches".
Nash also records some of his comrades who died - and several of them lie here in Lancashire Cottage Cemetery.
"April 27th : Pounds was shot through the head at dawn, and Voisey later......I stumbled against Voisey wrapped up in a blanket, waiting in a corner of C Company's headquarters until the body can be got back. More trouble this afternoon; a German shell burst in Happy Valley wounding five men. Badman has since died and Corporal Chapman and Granfield are in a critical condition".
Pound (rather than Pounds, according to the cemetery register), Voisey and Badman are buried next to one another in Plot 1, row F at the back left of the cemetery. These brief descriptions add something to the story behind the names......the corpse of Voisey wrapped and left in a corner until there was time to take him for burial, and the death (which was obviously not instantaneous) following wounding by a shell of Private Oliver Badman of Bristol - who was just 17 when he died.
Whilst the Ploegsteert sector was perhaps quieter than some others, with no famous set-piece battles, there remains much of interest to see here. A walk in Plugstreet Wood is a rewarding experience, whatever the Flanders weather may be.
Artillery observation post near Ploegsteert.
Sources & Acknowledgements
National Archives of Australia website
Major & Mrs Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Western Front - North
Commonwealths Wargraves Commission website
T.A.M. Nash (Ed.): The Diary of an Unprofessional Soldier
Gary Sheffield & John Bourne: Douglas Haig - War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918
Tony Spagnoly & Ted Smith: A Walk Round Plugstreet
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