Museum and Trenches
Whilst there is some debate about the authenticity of the trenches at Sanctuary Wood, there is no doubt that this site, about two miles east of Ypres, is one of the most popular destinations in the Salient for the battlefield visitor.
Sanctuary Wood location
There are several reasons for this, firstly the exhibits in the museum, but mainly, I suspect, because the trench lines behind the museum give a very good feel for what it must have been like to experience the mud and misery of the trenches in the salient. Some other sites are perhaps more exact, and even more clinical in their appearance; at Sanctuary Wood you get the somewhat run-down and dilapidated trenches that zig-zag across the ground much as they might have during the War.
Sanctuary Wood pictured in the 1930s. Photo A. Chapman from "Twenty Years After"
The trenches are reached by passing through the museum. The entry price seems to vary somewhat, but on my last visit for an individual it cost 6 Euros. The museum contains a large number of relics and artefacts from the Great War, including weapons, personal effects and photographs. Worth special mention are the stereoviews. There are a number of steroviewers located on benches as you enter the museum, and these contain many views, some of which are extremely gruesome. Stereoviews used to be quite widely used, and the pictures can still be found occasionally. By viewing through the two lenses, the image is brought into three-dimensional relief, and whilst the quality of some of the pictures leaves something to be desired, for some the result is a startlingly clear 3-D view which brings the scene to life. The pictures include trenches, artillery, the dead and many others. Do be warned that some are quite upsetting however.
From the museum, you walk outside into the wood itself. The trench system at Sanctuary Wood is actually quite extensive, and includes sections which run underground, or at least beneath the cover of "elephant-iron" corrugated roof sections.
Whatever time of year you visit, it seems that there is always at least a little mud around in the trenches. When I was last there in March this year, there was quite a lot, and there were not too many people prepared to splash through it and brave the covered dark sections.
Just outside the museum is a large pile of World War One shells, pictured below. Also nearby are several early German gravestones, and the remains of what look like large engines.
The wood was given it's name because early in the War, some soldiers sheltered here, in effect were offered sanctuary, from a battle as they tried to return to their units. Following shelling in November 1914, the name could hardly be considered appropriate, but it stuck.
The trenches here may be part of the Vince Street and Jam Row complex. A wartime wooden sign board for Vince Street can be seen in the displays at the Hill 60 museum, not far away.
Sanctuary Wood preserved trenches between the wars. Photo M. Delannoy
The remains of an original shell-blasted tree stand in Sanctuary Wood, and this is a popular place for visitors to leave poppies. The area around the trenches is still pocked with shellholes, and the area remains one of the few sites where you can get something of an impression of the actual terrain and landscape during the Great War.
Sanctuary Wood Cemetery
Just around 100 metres down the road from the museum and trenches is Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. Originally, there were three British cemeteries in Sanctuary Wood dating from 1915 onwards; however all three were severely damaged during the battle of Mount Sorrel. Two were never subsequently found, but the remnants of the third were located, and the current cemetery was based on the earlier one, and this was begun in June 1916, and used throughout the War thereafter.
Between 1927 and 1932 many more graves were concentrated here from near and far, from at least 18 other cemeteries or other locations, as far away as Nieuport on the Belgium coast. Although most of the graves are laid out in regular semi-circlular rows, towards the top of the cemetery by the Cross of Sacrifice are irregular rows and also single graves scattered about, and these are the original graves forming Plot 1. Many of the burials (60%) within the cemetery are unidentified. There are a number of special memorials with various wordings including "Known to be buried in this cemetery", "Buried elsewhere in this cemetery" and "Buried near this spot", perhaps reflecting the damage done to the original 1915 cemetery in 1916.
The inscription on one grave, that of Private G.B. Brake of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, struck me on one visit. It reads "Not dead. Oh no! But bourne beyond the shadows into the full clear light". Geoffrey Bertram Brake was 19 when he died on the 2nd of June, 1916. The register is one of those that contains interesting information on many of those buried here. For example, the entry for Lieutenant Hugh De Lacy Hulton-Harrop records that he was educated at Eton and Cambridge and had served as a Trooper in he South African War with the Shropshire Yeomanry. He was commissioned into the 5th Lancers, and then in the Great War served with the 5th Lancers and also the 1st Life Guards. He was a Freeman of the Borough of Cambridge, and was also twice Mentioned in Despatches. He was 35 when he died on the 12th of May 1915.
Another interesting entry is that for Lance-Corporal Alfred Shepherd, who enlisted in the Candain Army in 1915 whilst under age. He was born in Bedford in England, but his parents are listed in the register as Henry James and Florence Mary Sheppard (sic) of Buffalo in the United States. The register records that he was killed in action at Hill 60 on the 24th of April 1916. The War Diary for the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion records that after a 'fine and warm day', at 6.30 p.m. a heavy bombardment opened and a mine exploded on the eastern slope of Hill 60. At 7.15 p.m. the bombardment lifted from the Canadian front line to concentrate on their communication and reserve trenches. At the same time the Germans attacked and were turned back by machine gun fire. However, a 'large-calibre shell' fell amidst the defenders and caused casualties. Another German assault was atempted 15 minutes later, but also repulsed. However, about 9 p.m. German bombers managed to gain a foothold in the newly blown mine crater and were advancing along a sap, and the Canadians again had to engage them and force them back. By midnight, things had quietened down, but the trenches had been badly damaged and the 1st Battalion had suffered 28 wounded and 20 killed. An interesting note in the War Diary report of that night is that 'communications by telephone held out longer than might have been expected and the damage to the wires fully demonstrated the value of using all available means of protecting them from shell fire'. Alfred Shepherd is one of those whose exact burial site is not known, and so he is commemorated by a special memorial.
Also buried in this cemetery is Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, whose grave stands by itself in a row set at right angles to the others near it (Plot 1, Row G). Talbot House (Toc H) in Poperinghe was named in his memory.
In Plot 4, Row C, grave 7 are buried Eric H.N. Stroud and Cecil Godfrey White. Both were the sons of doctors, and were killed in 1918. Stroud had served with the Leicestershires, but had then moved to the RAF. He was listed as missing on the 21st of April 1918, after his aeroplane did not return. Several years after the war had ended, the reamins of two officers were found amoung the wreck of a crashed plane about a mile east of Zillebeke, and they were buried in Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. At that stage, the names of the men were not known. However, the markings on the aeroplane, and it's serial number (C5037) confirmed that it had been flown by Lieutenant Stroud and Captain Cecil Godfrey White, from the 53rd Squadron on the day both went missing. On the basis of this, the bodies were identified, and the grave marked as such. The IWGC wrote to the families to tell them of this news; even nine years after they were killed, the knowledge that their sons now at least had a known grave must have been some small comfort.
Just outside and to the left of the cemetery is a memorial to Second Lieutenant Keith Rae. This is in the form of a Celtic cross, with an engraved sword decorating the top.
On the front of the memorial, above the base, is the inscription "Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life". Below this is an inscription stating that the memorial is in memory of Keith Rae of the 8/Rifle Brigade, "the dearly loved youngest son of Edward and Margaret Rae". It goes on to state that Second Lieutenant Rae was killed on this spot on the 30th of July, 1915, "fighting in the Great War for humanity". However, there is an inscription on the rear of the base which explains that the memorial was originally placed beside Hooge Crater Cemetery and dedicated there in May 1921, and was transferred to the present spot, outside Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, in 1966. Although this is inscribed on the memorial itself, other sources suggest the original location was in the grounds of Hooge Chateau, acroos the road from Hooge Crater Cemetery, and that the cross was moved in 1968.
Second Lieutenant Rae's full name was Thomas Keith Hedley Rae, although Keith was obviously the name used by his family. His family were from Birkenhead, and he was aged 25 when he was killed. His name, as one of those with no known grave, is inscribed on the Menin Gate. At the very bottom of the memorial at the front, an inscription states that the memorial is also in memory of 2/Lt Rae's brother officers and men who fell that same morning and afternoon - the 30th of July, 1915. On that day, the Germans attacked at Hooge early in the morning, using their new weapon - 'liquid fire'. Keith Rae is said to have stood on the parapet of his trench, burned and wounded but still resisting the oncoming Germans.
Around 100 yards the other way from the museum (that is, uphill), is the Canadian Memorial at Hill 62. At the bottom set in the wall is a stone with the inscription "Canada 1916". The approach is up steps with several tiers and restraining walls. There are two sets of steps, one leading up each side of the wide approach. At the top is a square monument of the same type as found on the location of Crest Farm at Passchendaele.
The inscription reads "Here at Mount Sorrel and on the line from Hooge to St. Eloi the Canadian Corps fought in the defence of Ypres, April - August 1916". Set in the ground around the monument are the direction markers and names pointing to the various sites around, including Ypres, Hill 60 and Messines. The monument is set in the centre of a lawned area with a path around, and at four points there are vantage points with curved walls that you can appreciate the views from. From the one indicated by the Ypres marker, you can indeed clearly see the town's spires in the distance.
Note that this location is Hill 62; Mount Sorrel was located around 1000 yards south-west of here. On the 2nd of June, 1916, the Germans launched an attack which gained ground in Sanctuary Wood, took Hill 62 (also known as Tor Top) and also Armagh Wood and Mount Sorrel to the south. Further advances were made by the Germans in some areas of this line over the next few days. Because of the strategic importance of this high ground, plus the close proximity to Ypres (only two miles), Plumer wished to counter-attack and recover it. On the 13th of June, starting at 1.30 a.m., the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions recovered much of the ground previously lost, including Armagh Wood, but could not recover Hill 62 or the northern part of Sanctuary Wood. However, the Germans did not hold Hill 62 either; instead it sat between the two front lines in No Mans Land, as did Mount Sorrel. German casualties during the Battle of Mount Sorrel were estimated at around 4,500 wounded or missing and 1,223 killed. Losses for the Canadians were probably much the same. Less than three weeks later, the losses on the first day of the Somme would make these numbers seem small in comparison.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Tony Spagnoly & Ted Smith: Salient Points One