Cuinchy, Cambrin and Vermelles

This page covers three villages, Cuinchy, Cambrin and Vermelles. They are found in an area of the Western Front located between the towns of Bethune and la Bassee in France. This is roughly 30 miles south of Ypres, and 20-25 miles north of the Somme battlefields.

Whilst lesser-known areas like these may not have seen the very large set-piece battles of the Somme and the Ypres Salient, there were still significant battles fought here and in some cases, particular sectors were all too familiar to, and often loathed by the soldiers who spent time there.

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Cuinchy

Cuinchy is a small village located just to the north of the D941 that runs between Bethune and la Bassee. It’s reached by following the D166 north from the D941 (this road was known as Harley Street by the British during the War).

Cuinchy is bisected by the Canal d’Aire, a wide canal with a lock located within the village. During the war, the front lines ran to the east of the village, and the lock was perhaps half a mile behind the British lines. The trench map of the area below dates from June 1916.

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The picture below was taken from nearby the canal lock, near the location of a trench known as Sackville Street. This was around 400 m behind the British lines, looking east towards where the front lines would have been. Robert Graves was in the line around here in 1915.

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Cuinchy will be a familiar name to those who have read Robert Graves autobiography Goodbye To All That. Graves, with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was stationed here several times. Below is a trench map (from June 1916), showing both German and British trenches. The infamous brickstacks and the canal are clearly marked. A passage from Goodbye To All That describes one of the horrors that men had to deal with in the Great War – rats: “Cuinchy bred rats. They came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly”. The constant strain of being under fire and in mortal danger must have been bad enough; but rats, lice and other such horrors must have added to this and made life almost unbearable for the front-line soldiers at times.

There are two military cemeteries today near Cuinchy (and also military burials in the village civilian Communal Cemetery).

Woburn Abbey Military Cemetery is around 600 metres behind where the front lines ran. The village was within the range of German guns for most of the War, and Woburn Abbey was the name used for a house which stood just to the east of the cemetery location. This house was used as both a Battalion HQ and also a Dressing Station.

The original cemetery (Plot 1) was first used by the Royal Berkshires in June 1915, but by January 1916 use was mainly discontinued because the cemetery was too exposed to enemy artillery fire. After the Armistice, graves were brought in from at least five other cemeteries, four of which were within Cuinchy, to make up the other four plots that exist today. There are now more than 550 burials here, with nearly half being of unidentified soldiers.

There are small fir bushes at the ends of each row of graves by the central ‘aisle’ leading to the Stone of Remembrance, and at the rear four larger trees flank the Cross of Sacrifice. On the left side at the rear are special memorials to two men believed to be, and one man known to be buried in the cemetery. A trench named Willow Lane North ran across the field which can be seen behind the cemetery.

There are more British graves in Cuinchy Communal Cemetery, located near Woburn Abbey Cemetery, just to the south-east of the village on the D166E. The civilian cemetery existed prior to the war and was marked on trench maps. Presumably, to a certain extent, the graves had to be fitted into the cemetery around existing burials. The Cross of Sacrifice and the majority of the hundred-plus war graves are located towards the left rear, with headstones scattered along two rows alongside the civilian graves.

The cemetery register is located in a small box set in a pillar, next to the graves of three Coldstream Guardsmen graves just in front of the Cross of Sacrifice. However, some of the graves are set by themselves, among the civilian graves. The First World War graves here (with two exceptions) date from 1915; mostly from the first few months of that year. One man died at the end of 1914, and another in 1917.

There are also six Second World War graves from 1940. The contrast between the simple CWGC headstones and the more ornate civilian tombs that surround them is marked. There is a small hedged in plot of graves right at the front of the cemetery, with Irish and Coldstream Guardsmen who died in February 1915 buried here, and also one long row of graves at the front – some of these are the World War Two burials, but there are some First World War men buried at either end. In 1916, a trench called Seventh Street ran along the left-hand edge of the cemetery.

The second military cemetery near Cuinchy is the Guards Cemetery at Windy Corner. This is located north of the canal, to the north-west of the village. It is just west of the crossroads known as Windy Corner during the War from which it takes its name. The road it stands by was known as Westminster Bridge Road. Like Woburn Abbey, there was a house here during the War which also was used as a Battalion HQ and a Dressing Station. The cemetery was started in early 1915 by the Second Division. It was used especially by the 4th Guards Brigade, hence the first part of the cemetery name (on the CWGC website it is officially “Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner”).

It is a large, fairly square cemetery, with regular rows of graves although the headstones within the rows are unevenly spaced. Most are fairly well separated, but occasional groups are close together. There are special memorials on the right side to men originally buried in Indian Village North Cemetery which was near Festubert, whose graves were later destroyed, as well as four Indian soldiers buried in 1915 near Givenchy. There are more special memorials behind the Stone of Remembrance to commemorate men believed or known to be buried here in Guards Cemetery. A stone bench is positioned just inside the cemetery entrance to the left.

Plots 1, 2 and most of Plot 3 at the front form the original part of the Cemetery, which was used until May 1916, when there were nearly 700 graves here. However, in 1918, the cemetery was so heavily shelled that it was reported that it had become “literally a series of shell holes”. In 1919, it was restored and because it had been well surveyed before being so damaged, every cross (today replaced with headstones) was restored to its original position. Some rows in the middle of the cemetery are almost entirely made up of unknown burials. Men who died at the Battle of Loos, on the 25th of September 1915 are well represented, there being several in the front row, and as well as at least two Lieutenant-Colonels there are of course many Guardsmen buried here.

Once again, this cemetery was greatly enlarged post-war with more than 2700 burials brought here from other small cemeteries and also from the battlefields of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert. This makes a total of nearly 3500 burials today, with many of these – over 2000 – being unidentified. One who is known is Captain Arthur Montagu Rundall, who died on the 20th of December 914 serving with the1st/4th Gurkha Rifles. His younger brother, Lieutenant Lionel Bickersteth Rundall, was killed the day before whilst serving with the 1st Gurkha Rifles and has no known grave. Lionel is commemorated officially on the memorial to the missing at Neuve-Chapelle, but also by an inscription on Arthur’s headstone here at Windy Corner.

One of the most familiar names on this part of the battlefield was the Brickstacks of which Robert Graves, among others, wrote. These were several stacks of bricks which had been manufactured by a brickworks located just to the south-east of the village. This site is now inaccessible, as it is on private land. It is located near an abandoned building which was an electricity generating station, found on the N41 a little east of the turn off to Cuinchy itself. The brickstacks were to the left of the road, just before the building as you travel east.

 

Cambrin

Cambrin is located about a mile south-west of Cuinchy, on the main D941 road, and was behind the front lines for most of the war, sometimes by as little as 800 metres. There is a British war cemetery located just off the main road to the north of the road, reached by a path. It is not always easy to park here, but the cemetery is well worth a visit. This is Cambrin Military Cemetery, reached by following a small path that runs between the walls of gardens on the left and a tall fir hedge on the right. The main cemetery entrance is actually furthest from the road, but there is a secondary entrance reached first.

There are 816 men buried here, all of whom are identified. The cemetery was originally positioned behind the Mayor’s house and was known as Cambrin Chateau Cemetery. Several of the headstones bear two names, and they are set out in regular rows but in some case so close that they touch; others are more evenly spread out. Despite its location so near the main road, this is a beautiful and peaceful cemetery. On the headstone of Lieutenant Harold Soden (grave C9) is the inscription “This memorial is substituted for one erected by officers and men of his company”. Many of those buried here died in the Battle of Loos in September 1915, as Cambrin is only a little way north of Loos. During the war, a trench known as Tourbieres Alley skirted the southern edge of the cemetery.

The other cemetery in Cambrin is next to the church: Cambrin Churchyard Extension. This is just to the south of the D941, and there is parking here, so this may be an easier spot to park to visit both cemeteries in the village. The CWGC burials are located to the rear of the church, with the civilian graves at the front. The military section contains nearly a hundred French military graves as well, and the military part of the cemetery was started by the French and taken over by the British in May 1915.

Again, many of the burials here are from the Battle of Loos, and often grouped together by battalion. For example, there are 79 graves of 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders together in row C. There are many also from the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers, Robert Graves’ battalion at that time, and a row of their graves from the Battle of Loos is shown below. Altogether there are 1,211 burials from Britain and Commonwealth countries. Many headstones have three names, including a section of closely packed headstone for men of the Middlesex Regiment.

One notable Royal Welch Fusiliers man buried here is Captain Arthur Samson, from Rugeley in Staffordshire. In Robert Graves Goodbye to All That, Samson’s end is graphically described. ‘Samson lay groaning about twenty yards beyond the front trench. Several attempts were made to rescue him……..three men got killed in these attempts; two officers and two men wounded’. When at last Samson’s orderly managed to reach him, Samson sent him back saying he was so badly hit that he was not worth rescuing and apologising for the noise he had made. Later, Graves records how he found Samson’s body after dark. ‘The first dead body I came upon was Samson’s, hit in seventeen places. I found that he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to his death‘.

The inscription on Captain Sansom’s headstone reads ‘Of all thy brave adventures this the last, was the bravest’.

The grave of Captain Arthur Samson at Cambrin

The grave of Captain Arthur Samson at Cambrin

Vermelles

Vermelles village lies another mile south of Cambrin, and for part of the War was another hot-spot. In Goodbye to All That Robert Graves describes the village as having been “taken and retaken eight times last October” (that is, 1914). When Graves was billeted there in June 1915 he records that not a single house remained undamaged. It was only three-quarters of a mile from the British front line, and yet Graves and his fellow soldiers played a cricket match in the village, screened by the remains of houses from enemy observation.

As Vermelles was so close to the front line during the War, it was not surprising that casualties were buried in small clusters in this village. The two pictures below both show graves in Vermelles during or shortly after the War. The top picture shows six German graves in what appears to be a back garden, and the lower one two graves (nationality unknown) in the ruins of the village.

These photos of crooked makeshift crosses standing in the ruins of this small village convey the horrors of the War. Despite the difficulties, soldiers of all sides tried their best to give their fallen comrades the best burial that they could in the circumstances.

After the war, these small burial plots were concentrated into larger cemeteries, and in Vermelles today there are only two British military cemeteries. Vermelles British Cemetery lies just off the D75 in the village and is actually in two parts,  separated by a small road.

The larger part nearer the main road contains the Stone of Remembrance, and Plots I-IV. Plot I (on the left front as you enter from the main road) was the original cemetery and was known as the Gloucester Graveyard as it was laid out around the time of the Battle of Loos (September 1915) by the Pioneers of the 1/Gloucesters. After the armistice additional graves were added, including plots V and VI which are across the track at the rear,  where the Cross of Sacrifice is also located. There are now over 2100 burials here, including the graves of four German soldiers.

The other cemetery near Vermelles is Quarry Cemetery, which is located to the north east of the village, reached by following the Rue Voltaire towards Auchy-les-Mines.  The cemetery is down a dirt track, and is set in a chalk pit in the ground, hence the name. There are over 130 burials here and due to damage caused by shell fire many graves are marked “buried near this spot”.

Also in Vermelles is a memorial to the 46th Division, which is shown on the Loos page.

 

Acknowledgements

Input from members of the Great War Forum