Sanctuary Wood, located about two miles east of Ypres, is one of the most popular destinations in the Salient for the battlefield visitor. The museum located here is a very popular visit on school battlefield trips. One of the main features are the trenches behind the museum, and these do give a very good feel for what it must have been like to experience the mud and misery of the trenches in the salient.
The Holt’s Guide to the Ypres Salient covers this area well. For those who enjoy walking the battlefields, which is a great way to really see the ground, there is an excellent walk starting from the Museum in Paul Reed’s Walking Ypres.
Museum and Trenches
The Hill 62 museum has been operating for many decades, and underwent a renovation a few years ago. It 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 quite gruesome.
Stereoviews work by viewing two photographs through two eyepiece lenses, and this gives rise to a three-dimensional image. In some cases, the result is a startlingly clear 3-D view which brings the scene to life. The pictures here include trenches, artillery, war dead and many others. Do be warned that some of these may be quite upsetting.
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. The trenches here are sometimes though of as fake, but Paul Reed in his book Walking Ypres considers they are on the site of genuine British second-line trenches from 1915/1916.
Whatever time of year you visit, it seems that there is always at least a little mud around in the trenches, even in summer, and this can give some indication of how unpleasant life in the trenches must have been in Flanders. Bad enough in summer, but in winter with cold, mud, lice and rats, life must have been almost unthinkable for us today. On top of this of course was the ever-present danger from the German soldiers in their trenches only a few hundred yards away or less.
Just outside the museum was 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 gained its name because early in the War, some soldiers sheltered here, and sought sanctuary from a battle as they tried to return to their units. Following shelling in November 1914, the name seemed less appropriate, but it stuck.
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 shell holes, 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 this earlier one. It was begun in June 1916, and used throughout the remainder of the war.
After the war, between 1927 and 1932 many more graves were concentrated here. They were brought in from at least 18 other cemeteries or other locations, and some from as far away as Nieuport on the Belgium coast (20 miles away).
Most of the graves are laid out in regular semicircular rows. Towards the top of the cemetery by the Cross of Sacrifice are some irregular rows and also single graves scattered about. 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 inscriptions 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.
As always, behind the names inscribed on the headstones are stories of the men who lie here. The inscription on the grave of Private Geoffrey Bertram Brake of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles,reads “Not dead. Oh no! But bourne beyond the shadows into the full clear light“. Geoffrey was just 19 when he died on the 2nd of June, 1916.His body was identified by means of his identity disc, and the CWGC records note that a fountain pen was returned to his next of kin.
Lieutenant Hugh De Lacy Hulton-Harrop was educated at Eton and Cambridge and served as a Trooper in the 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, and died at the age of 35. He was also a Freeman of the Borough of Cambridge, and was twice Mentioned in Despatches.
Another interesting burial is Lance-Corporal Kenneth Sheppard, who enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1915 whilst under age, although he was born in Bedford in England. He served in the 1st Battalion Canadian Infantry and is one of the men whose exact burial site is not known, so he is commemorated by a special memorial.
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 Germans attacked and were forced back by machine gun fire. However, a ‘large-calibre shell’ fell amidst the defenders and caused casualties. The Germans attacked again 15 minutes later, but were again repulsed.
At about 9 p.m. German bombers managed to gain a foothold in the newly blown mine crater and the Canadians again had to 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.
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 Stroud and Cecil Godfrey White. Both were the sons of doctors, and they were killed in 1918. Stroud had served with the Leicestershires, but then transferred 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 remains of two officers were found among the wreck of a crashed plane about a mile east of Zillebeke, and they were both buried here in Sanctuary Wood Cemetery.
At that stage, the names of the men were not known. However, the markings on the aeroplane, and its 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”.
An inscription on the rear explains however that the memorial was originally placed beside Hooge Crater Cemetery, dedicated there in May 1921, and transferred to its present location in 1966.
Second Lieutenant Rae’s full name was Thomas Keith Hedley Rae, although Keith was obviously the name used by his family. He was from Birkenhead, and aged 25 when he was killed. His name, as one of those with no known grave, is inscribed on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
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 two sets of steps, one either 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 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.
This location is actually Hill 62, which the museum is named after. 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 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