Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery

Overview

  • The cemetery was built was accommodate some of the dead of World War I.
  • The cemetery is located 12 kilometres west of Ieper town centre, and 4.5 kilometres southwest of Poperinghe.
  • There are almost eleven thousand graves, belonging to men from several different nationalities.
  • These graves include that of Aubrey R. Knight, my great great uncle.
  • The cemetery was started in 1914 by the French, who had a triage area there. In 1915 the British began in process casualties in Lijssenthoek as well, and unfortunately had to use the cemetery too.
  • Lijssenthoek is the second largest cemetery in Belgium, after Tyne Cot.

Hisory of the Cemetery

Although the village of Lijssenthoek was never close to the front, it was situated directly on one of the main communication lines between the rear echelons and the trenches. This meant it would have seen a lot of traffic, both to and from the front, with supplies and men going forwards, and casualties coming back. Therefore, Lijssenthoek had to fulfill an important role: an intermediary between two fundamentally different worlds.

There are three reasons why Lijssenthoek was chosen as a place to process casualties.

  1. Speed. To maximise the survival chances of the men, they had to be treated as promptly as possible. The medical facilities at the headquarters, located a few miles back from the front, were too far away to provide emergency treatment.
  2. Versatility. The headquarter's hospitals were too inflexible. What if there was heavy fighting elsewhere on the front and medical services had to be moved to bolster the treatment of soldiers there? What if the enemy was gaining the upper hand, and the front was edging backwards? Supplies and invalids would have to be moved backwards too.
  3. Simplicity. At the front, quick and efficient sorting of casualties and first aid was all that was needed: patch up the men so that they would survive the journey to a proper hospital. When at the hospital, more advanced techniques, such as amputations and plastic surgery, as pioneered by Sir Harold Gillies, could be applied. The advanced medical services located back from the front were not required here, and would only reduce patient throughput.
For these reasons, a flexible and efficient casualty sorting area was required as close to the front as possible, just out of range of the German howitzers. As Lijssenthoek was in the perfect place, a triage area, or casualty clearing station (C.C.S.), was built in the village. The purpose of the C.C.S. was to deal with the droves of men coming back from the front, to sort patients according to severity of injury. Obviously, the unlucky ones, who were too low down on the list, were left to die, as valuable medical resources were given to those with a greater chance of surviving. As so many men were 'too low down on the list', the C.C.S. had an attached cemetery. By Armistice Day, so many graves already existed, the decision was made to make it an official war graves site, and Sir Reginald Blomfield was commissioned to design the site.

Today, the cemetery is immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), and is very impressive, with yew trees dotted round the site, the customary marble Cross of Sacrifice and a small brick-housed Stone of Remembrance.

The Dead

As the cemetery was attached to the C.C.S., an uncommon number of the dead are identified. In fact, only 34 out of 10784 graves bears the eerie epitaph "Known unto God", which signifies that the soldier(s)'s remains were too disfigured or decomposed to identify.

Of the thousands of men buried here, about 7,400 are British, over 1,000 are Canadian, over 1,000 are Australian, nearly 300 are from New Zealand, 30 are South African, about 700 are French and about 30 are Chinese.

These soldiers come from a variety of different regiments and units - far too many to detail here. However, I believe it worthwhile mentioning the Leicestershire Regiment, who has many men buried here, including Major Harold J.F. Jeffries, who commanded 'D' Company of the 1/5th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment, and the Labour Corps, whose presence explains the Chinese dead. Hundreds of thousands of Labour Corps troops were recruited from South Africa, India, Fiji and many other countries by the Commonwealth for World War I, and although they couldn't be used within 10 miles of the front, the new German Gotha bombers meant that many of the supposedly safe civilian workers died, including 2000 Chinese.

All the graves are treated with equal respect by the CWGC, as they should be.

My Personal Feelings about the Cemetery

Cemeteries are not merely there to house the dead, they are there to encourage remembrance, to evoke emotion and to give tangible form to death0.

When war dead are wrapped up in nice, clean statistics, like they are above, it is easy to forget just what a tragedy World War I was. So, so many young were killed, wiped out from history, at the whim of the European aristocracy. Before visiting Lijssenthoek, I don't think I knew quite what war meant. In fact, not only was I only at the cemetery as part of my role in the Combined Cadet Force, an overtly military force, I was thinking of pursuing a career in the British Army. Even standing next to the Cross of Sacrifce and staring out over the sea of graves, for as far as I could see, I still did not get what I was looking at. It was only when I went to place a wreath at the grave of my great great uncle, and thought about what he must have been like, that I realised that every piece of stone in this place, all 10,784 of them, represented a young man, like me, with a whole life ahead of them. Each piece of stone represents an amazing thing: a human being, with it's own likes, loves and hates. Every one of those stones is an individual life lost needlessly, and it will never be replaced. Just imagine standing over the grave of your father, brother or son, and then multiplying that loss 10,000 fold.

One of my jobs in the cadets was as a bugler - I played the Last Post and Reveille at various memorial events for the Lancashire Fusiliers. As my relative was buried at the site, and so were a few ex-members of my school's cadet contingent, I decided to play the Last Post at the cemetery, and as I played those notes in the windy, wet Belgian field, I cried.


Sources:
Commonwealth War Grave Commission, <http://www.cwgc.org/>
Canada's Digital Collections, <http://collections.ic.gc.ca/>
"The Silent Cities", Sidney C. Hurst, 1993. The Naval & Military Press