Welcome to the second in the series of my favourite cemeteries of the Western Front. As with the previous post, these are all cemeteries and memorials that are maintained by the CWGC who do a fantastic job all year round, making sure these sites are looked after in the right manner. If you haven’t already, you can read the first part of this blog post series, in order to find out more about the CWGC.
The first cemetery on the list for this post is Essex Farm Cemetery in the Ypres Salient. There are 1206 burials at the cemetery, of which 1102 are identified. This cemetery is one of the most well-known from the First World War for many reasons, and as such, it is a very popular site to visit. The first reason is the fact that Essex Farm was where Lt Col John McCrae, a doctor in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, worked in the Advanced Dressing Station situated there and wrote the well-known poem In Flanders Fields in May 1915. He wrote the poem as a tribute to a friend who had been killed during the war, in one of the concrete bunkers that can still be seen at the site today. The poem grew to be extremely popular and was published in magazines and newspapers. Unfortunately, McCrae became very ill in 1918 and was evacuated to a base hospital on the coast. John McCrae died on 28th January 1918 aged 45 from pneumonia and is buried at Wimereux Communal Cemetery. Another reason that people visit Essex Farm Cemetery is because one of the youngest fatalities in the British Army in the First World War, Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick is buried there. He was born on Valentine’s Day 1900 and was only 14 when he signed up to the army in January 1915. He was killed on 14th January 1916, one month shy of his 16th birthday. People are often shocked at how young Valentine and wonder how he managed to join the British Army. In fact, this was not uncommon. It is believed that 250,000 young men under the age of eighteen enlisted throughout the war. There were many reasons why this happened. Sometimes the young men were quite large in stature and build and may have appeared older than they actually were. In some cases, they would have been unable to prove exactly how old they were as they might not have had access to official documents such as their birth certificates. Also, the armed forces were so desperate for men that any willing volunteer was welcomed greatly. However, the reason why this cemetery is a particular favourite of mine and why it is included in this post is the burial of Thomas Barratt VC. VC stands for Victoria Cross – the highest bravery award given in the British Army and it is awarded for extreme acts for bravery in war (for further information, please read the VC stories section of the website). Because he is buried in a well visited location, Barratt’s story is a well known one, but this doesn’t make it any less important to me. I will cover Thomas’ story in more detail in the VC stories section of the website in due course but the reason why he is important to me is that he is my local Victoria Cross winner, from Coseley in the West Midlands. He spent a significant part of his childhood in a workhouse in Dudley before he was taken in by his grandmother. He was a large man – 6 foot 2 in height and broad in build – and worked for a company that made boilers. Thomas Barratt was part of a patrol on 27th July 1917 with his unit 7th Bn South Staffordshire Regiment, where his actions as a sniper saved lives. Unfortunately, he was killed by a shell exploding after the patrol.
Second on the list for this blog post is Caterpillar Valley Cemetery and New Zealand Memorial in Longueval, France. The Cemetery was given its name due to the long valley that it is situated near to. From the cemetery, you can see the horseshoe of woods that were fought over during the Battle of the Somme. It is a large cemetery, with 5573 Commonwealth burials of which only 1175 are identified. There are special memorials to 32 casualties known or believed to be buried among them, and to three buried in McCormick’s Post Cemetery whose graves were destroyed by shell fire during the following fighting. The great majority of the soldiers buried or commemorated here died in the autumn of 1916 and almost all the rest in August or September 1918. Aside for soldiers from Britain, the largest group of known burials are from New Zealand. There is also the Caterpillar Valley (New Zealand) Memorial at this site which commemorates the 1205 officers and men of the New Zealand Division who were killed in the fighting on the Somme in 1916 and have no known grave. The memorial is one of seven in France and Belgium for the missing soldiers from New Zealand, which are in locations close to where these men died. As a continuing act of remembrance, on 6th November 2004, a set of remains of an unidentified New Zealand soldier were disinterred and entrusted to New Zealand in a special ceremony. The remains were taken back to New Zealand and placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Wellington. The reason why this location is one of my favourites is because of the fondness I have for New Zealand as a whole. I had wanted to go to New Zealand for years, and I was lucky enough to spend three weeks there in September 2018 for my honeymoon and found the country to be an inspiring place. Since coming back, I have further developed my interest in the New Zealand Division and the actions the unit was involved in. As such, I find Caterpillar Valley a very moving place, knowing I have seen some of the places these young men were familiar with before they lost their lives.
The third and final location on this blog post is the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Whilst it isn’t a cemetery in the traditional sense, it marks death in the same way. The memorial commemorates more than 72,000 men from Britain and South Africa who are ‘missing’ and have no known grave. It is the largest Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world. Most, but not all, of the names on the memorial are men who were killed as a result of the Somme Offensive of 1916. The memorial is over 45 metres in height, dominating the landscape for miles around. After the First World War, it was decided that there had to be some form of recognition for those who had no known grave. Somewhere for their loved ones to attend, to pay their respects to their loved ones. The monument was inaugurated in 1932 by the Prince of Wales after 4 years of construction. The lengthy construction was due in part to the condition of the land that was being built on top off, with wartime tunnels and unexploded ordnance being prevalent. Notable commemorations include cricketer Kenneth Hutchings, writer Hector Hugh Munro, also known as Saki and Cedric Dickens, grandson of novelist Charles Dickens. There are also seven holders of the Victoria Cross commemorated on the memorial. Behind the memorial is the Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery. The cemetery contains the graves of 300 Commonwealth servicemen and 300 French servicemen. The majority of these men died during the Battle of the Somme, but some also fell in the battles further away. This place has become a favourite location of mine due to the awe-inspiring architecture and the way it makes me feel. It truly is a spectacular place, that words cannot do justice to and it cannot fail to have an effect on an person. It still has an effect on me, and I have visited the memorial on many occasions.
Make sure you read part 3 to find out about some more of my favourite cemeteries.
‘Til next time!