If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England...
From The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke
Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world. It is located 9 kilometres northeast of the Belgian town of Ypres (known as Ieper to the local Flemish), the site of some of the most terrible fighting of the entire First World War. The entire town (including the famous Cloth Hall, now home to the excellent "In Flanders Fields" museum) was rebuilt in the old style after the war, because it was completely flattened by shelling in the fighting. Although there are numerous cemeteries in the area, including the German site at Langemarck (also home of a mass grave, holding 25, 000 bodies; most of whom were untrained students. The Jewish graves are also clearly out of alignment with other graves in their rows, from which you can draw your own conclusions) and the hugely impressive monument to the Canadians on Vimy Ridge (the site of massive mines dug under the German positions - the craters have to be seen to be believed. The trench systems at this site have also been preserved: in some places opposing trenches are only ten metres apart). The Essex Farm dressing station, where the Canadian Colonel John McRae wrote "In Flanders Fields", is also nearby.
Tyne Cot is a British and Commonwealth cemetery, and is also one of the monuments in the area dedicated to the commemoration of the Commonwealth dead who could not be identified. Originally this was to be delegated to just one site, but the sheet scale of the conflict made this impossible - there were simply too many, and so there are four separate places in the area where the names of those whose remains were never found or identified can be seen. The Menin Gate in Ypres, inscribed with the names of nearly 55, 000 dead who have no known grave, is one of these monuments. This gate was chosen because so many thousands of troops had passed through it
Tyne Cot and the other memorials and cemeteries only cover the dead from the fighting in Belgian Flanders, an area around Ypres (known as "Wipers" to British soldiers unable to pronounce the town's name) called the Ypres Salient. A salient was a bulge in the front line, and in this case it projected to the east, with Ypres near its tip. Salients were bad news, as the army which had managed to force the enemy back in that area (thus creating the bulge in the line) would have to face the enemy on three sides, invariably increasing casualty rates. At Ypres it was the British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and other Commonwealth troops who were in this position.
The Ypres Salient was formed in the first few months of the war, during the "Race For the Sea" when the fighting descended into the stalemate of trench warfare. It stretched roughly from Langemarck in the north to Ploegsteert Wood in the south, but constantly changed shape over the course of the war due to the various offensives and counter-attacks. The small but professional British Expeditionary Force (or BEF; the only professional army in Europe at that time) had managed to seize Ypres before the Germans could and before winter set in. The Germans were forced back to the infamous Passchendaele Ridge, where intricate defences were set up to thwart British attempts to break through. This is known as the First Battle of Ypres.
The Second Battle began in April 1915, and saw the use of gas in the war for the very first time, by the Germans. The British were forced back but with a shorter line of defence managed to regroup and hold the salient. The most famous of all the battles around Ypres, the Third, came in the summer of 1917 and lasted until November. The British attacked to relieve the weakened French army further south and take pressure off Verdun, but the fighting turned ugly as the weather deteriorated and German defensive positions were encountered. Most people have heard the stories or seen images of Commonwealth forces struggling uphill, through mud churned by shellfire and worsened by downpours, facing determined opposition in pillboxes and armed with machine guns. The casualties suffered were truly horrific. It was at Passchendaele (now Passendale) that Sir Douglas Haig earned his nickname of "Butcher" (although whether he deserves it is entirely subjective).
Ultimately the British were successful, with the ridge being captured in November by the 3rd Australian Division. Tyne Cot is located on the slopes up which the Commonwealth soldiers attacked - anyone visiting the cemetery cannot help but be struck by the seeming impossibility of the task. Although the Germans made advances in Hindenburg's Great Spring Offensive of 1918, no breakthrough was forthcoming and the Allies (now reinforced with American troops) pushed the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line, and the war ended in November.
After the war was over, the decision was used to use the site at Tyne Cot for a cemetery. This was helped by the fact that during the war, after the area had been captured by the British in 1917, the site had been used as a dressing station and 343 graves were already there. Five German pillboxes still remain from the times when it was part of the German trench system; others nearby were destroyed. When King George V made a visit to the battlefields in 1922 (four years later and work was just beginning - the extent of the clean up operation after the war is unimaginable) he himself suggested that the Cross of Sacrifice (present in every single War Graves Commission cemetery around the globe) be constructed on top of one of the largest pillbox. The cross at Tyne Cot is therefore much larger than usual, a pyramid of white stone covering the pillbox; there is a gap deliberately left in this pyramid so the original stone can be seen. The layout of the cemetery was designed by Sir Herbert Baker.
There is aninteresting story regarding the origin of the name "Tyne Cot". An old farm building, a cottage, used to stand on the site of the cemetery. British soldiers from the north-east of the country (the Newcastle area) abbreviated this to "cot" and added the name of the river that runs through Newcastle, the River Tyne. Thus the name Tyne Cottage, or Tyne Cot, appeared on British maps of the area that the Australians captured in 1917. When the area later became the site of a dressing station and then a cemetery, the name remained.
The Memorial of the Missing
Having walked up the central gap between most of the graves towards the cross, writing on the back wall of the cemetery becomes visible as you pass the cross and walk over a wide gravel path. It soons becomes clear that the inscriptions are in fact names, seemingly countless, row upon row of names. It must be a list of all the graves here, you think.
In fact, you are looking at the Tyne Cot Memorial of the Missing. All those who died nearby between the 15th of August 1915 and the end of the war (many, if not most, in the 1917 battle of Passchendaele) but have no grave or even no remains have their name inscribed on this wall, by regiment. 34, 870 names are on that wall. That's thirty four thousand eight hundred and seventy men missing in that small area alone. Add to the equation the fact that the Menin Gate has 55, 000 names, and you begin to get an idea of the scale of the battles around the Ypres Salient. The memorial was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, with sculpture by Joseph Armitage and F Blundstone. It was unveiled by Sir Gilbert Dyett in July 1927, nine years after the war's end.
As with all Commonwealth graves (at least in this area), the headstones are of white stone, uniform size and inscribed with the following items. However, it should be noted that the regulations for the exact order in which these appear seem to be complicated, but most graves bear most of these features:
- Name, Rank etc (if known; if unidentified, the words "A Soldier of the Great War")
- Dates of Birth and Death (if known; if unidentified, blank)
- Regiment (if known; if unidentified, blank)
- Regimental crest (if known; if unidentified, blank)
- The Christian Cross (unless Jewish, in which case a Star of David. Jewish headstones also often have small stones placed on them and thus can be identified from some distance away)
- A Short Phrase (not compulsory; often simply "Known Unto God" if unidentified)
Now for the statistics. There are a total of 11, 856 graves in the Tyne Cot cemetery. The denominations break down as follows:
8, 901 British
1, 353 Australian
519 New Zealanders
90 South African
14 from New Foundland
6 from Guernsey
2 British West Indian
101 Nationality Undetermined
Almost two-thirds of those buried at Tyne Cot are unidentified; for example, 3 of the 4 German graves are of unknown soldiers.
There are also "Special" and "Kipling" Memorials in Tyne Cot, as in other British cemeteries. These are headstones with no graves, and were placed at a later date after 81 men were found to be buried somewhere in the cemetery. However, it is impossible to determine which of the Unknown graves they occupy, thus the Special Memorials to them. The Kipling Memorial records the names of twenty men who used to have graves nearby, but which were later destroyed by shellfire. Kipling Memorials state that "Their Glory Shall not Be Blotted Out"; these men are considered to be buried within the cemetery and therefore do not appear on any Memorial to the Missing.
Lest We Forget
Tyne Cot remains a poignant and moving reminder of the slaughter of the First World War. Everything about it, from its location to its name, is significant in understanding what took place in the Belgian countryside nearly 90 years past. Tradition is important - we have an obligation to those that died, to remember their sacrifice and ultimately do out best to ensure it does not happen again. However often history repeats itself, we must always remember. Tyne Cot is one link in the chain, as are all war cemeteries; the chain that includes every small war memorial in every town and village throughout Britain, France, Belgium and the world; and the ceremonies we participate in; the chain that we built to commemorate, and remember, the fallen.
There is only one fitting end to this writeup; I leave you with the immortal words of Laurence Binyon:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them
(For The Fallen)
I visited this area three years ago - I still bear a horizontal scar on my forehead, where I cut it on a piece of corrugated iron over a communication trench at Sanctuary Wood, aka Hill 62 (I wasn't looking where I was going, and the iron happened to be at exact head height...). I thought it significant that I spilt my blood where so many spilt theirs all those years ago. A picture of the trenches here, and more specifically of a piece of corrugated iron similiar to the one that I walked into, can be seen here: www.liv-coll.ac.uk/pa09/europetrip/brussels/images/trenches6.jpg
Also, there are plenty of companies offering battlefield tours of the area, if you ever get the chance. Ypres is also a nice town to visit, with several museums, and there exists a church with cushions decorated with the regimental crests of Commonwealth regiments who served in the area in both world wars.
There are many photos of Tyne Cot available on the web. However, to grasp the scale of the site without actually visiting (although this is extremely recommended) I would like you to take a look at the aerial photograph at: www.hellfire-corner.demon.co.uk/tynecot.htm.
It is possible to track down relatives who are buried at one of the cemeteries in Northern France and Belgium through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) online - I've done it with two great-uncles (I was given my two middle names in remembrance of these men) who both died in World War One. See www.cwgc.org to search the Debt of Honour Register.