Cuinchy, Cambrin & Vermelles
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This page covers an area of the Western Front which is located between the towns of Bethune and la Bassee. It is roughly 30 miles south of Ypres and 20-25 miles north of the Somme battlefields. Whilst the latter two locations are of course the best known in terms of the British Army and the famous battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, the Western Front during the First World War stretched from the channel coast south to the border with Switzerland. The British and Commonwealth forces manned a part of this line; the exact length they held varied over the course of the War, but it consisted of sectors in Belgium and Northern France. Whilst the lesser-known sectors may not have seen the very large set-piece battles of the Somme and the Ypres Salient, there were battles fought here and in some cases particular sectors were loathed by the soldiers who spent time there.
Cuinchy is a small village located just to the north off the N41 that runs between these two towns, reached by following the D166 (which was known, here, as Harley Street by the British during the War).
Map of Cuinchy and Vermelles area
Cuinchy became known to me first by reading Robert Graves autobiography Goodbye To All That. Graves, with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was stationed at Cuinchy several times. Below is a trench map from June 1916, showing both German and British trenches. The infamous brickstacks and the canal can be clearly seen.
1916 trench map of Cuinchy area
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 picture below was taken from nearby the lock, near the location of a trench known as Sackville Street. This was around 400 m behind the Birtish lines, looking east towards where the front lines would have been. Robert Graves was in the line around here in 1915.
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 danger must have been bad enough; but rats, lice and other privations must have made life almost unbearable for the front-line soldiers at times.
There are two military cemeteries today near Cuinchy (and also a number of graves in the civilian Communal Cemetery). Woburn Abbey Military Cemetery is around 600 metres behind where the front lines ran. The village of Cuinchy 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.
The 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 it 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. There are now more than 550 burials here, with nearly half being of unidentified soldiers. One identified man here is Robert Young, from Morayshire. He was a tea planter in Ceylon before the war, and probably enlisted soon after its outbreak. He was 40 years old, and had been in France for less than a month when he was killed in action as a Private in the 24th Royal Fusiliers on the 15th of December 1915. 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 who is known to be buried in the cemetery. Behind the cemetery is a field, and during the war a trench named Willow Lane North ran across this field.
The other military cemetery near Cuinchy is the Guards Cemetery at Windy Corner. This is located to the north-west of the village, just west of the cross-roads which were known as Windy Corner during the War. The road it stands by was known as Westminster Bridge Road. Like Woburn Abbey, there was a house here during the War which was used as a Battalion HQ and also a Dressing Station. That was how this 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 name (on the CWGC lists it is officially "Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner").
It is a large, fairly square cemetery, with regular rows of grves although the headstones within the rows are unevenly spaced. Most are fairly well seperated, 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, there then being 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 shellholes". 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 it's 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, the Cemetery was greatly enlarged post-war with more than 2700 burials 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. However, his younger brother, Lieutenant Lionel Bickersteth Rundall, was killed just the day before serving with the 1st Gurkha Rifles, and has no known grave. Lionel is commemorated officially on the memorial to the mising at Neuve-Chapelle, but also by an inscription on Arthur's headstone here at Windy Corner.
There are more British graves in Cuinchy Communal Cemetery, located 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, amoung the civilian graves. One example is the grave of Second Lieutenant Sidney Barthropp, who died aged 22 on the 29th of January 1915. Another is that of Private J McQuilton, whose grave is squeezed between two 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 surroud 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.
One of the most familiar names on this part of the battlefield to many will be the Brickstacks, infamous of repute and of which Robert Graves, amoung others wrote. These were several stacks of bricks which had been manufactured by a brickworks located just to the south east of Cuinchy village. This site is now inaccessible, as it is on private land. It is located near an abandoned building which was an electricty generating station, found on the N41 a little east of the turn off to Cuinchy itself. The bricktacks were to the left of the road, just before the building as you travel east.
Behind this abandoned building, the land is very uneven and this disturbance may perhaps date from the war; but it is difficult to know what other activities have happened in the area over the last 90 years. In an ironic twist, the area is now popular with local shooting enthusiasts!
Cambrin is located about a mile south-west of Cuinchy, on the main N41 road, and was a little way 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 whiom 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; in others more evernly 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 Exension. It is located to the back of the church, with the civilian graves at the front and also at the rear. The military section contains nearly a hundred French soldiers graves as well, and the military part of he cemetery was in fact started by the French and taken over by the British in May 1915. Beside one of the French graves was a faded plaque with a private memorial to Auguste Joly, who died in April 1915.
There are again many burials here from the Battle of Loos, and often these burials were grouped together by battalion; for example there are 79 graves of 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders together in row C. Thee 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 contries. Many headstones have three names, including a section of closely packed headstone for men of the Middlesex Regiment. Another RWF 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 it was not worth rescuing him, 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 hat he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to his death'.. The inscription on his headstone reads 'Of all they brave adventures this the last, was the bravest'. Another RWF officer, Captain George Thomas died the next day (the 26th of September 1915). He was killed by a sniper watching troops retreating from the battlefield.
Vermelles village lies around three miles south of Cuinchy, and at least 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 then 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 casulaties 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 (the nationality of those who lay here is not known) in the ruins of the village.
German graves in a garden in Vermelles. Photo: H. David
Two graves in the ruins of Vermelles
These photos of crooked makeshift crosses standing in the ruins of this small, perhaps obscure village, have a sad and immediate effect and 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 fewer larger cemeteries - relatively fewer that is: there are many hundreds of military cemeteries in Belgium and France. However, in Vermelles today, there are only two British military cemeteries remaining: the small Quarry Cemetery and the larger Vermelles British Cemetery. The latter lies just off the D75 in the village, and is actually in two parts, which are 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 the plots (V and VI) across the track at the rear, which is also where the Cross of Scarifice is located. There are now over 2100 burials here.
Within the Cemetery are four graves of German soldiers. It may be tempting to speculate that these could perhaps be some of those in the pictures above; however the chances of this are remote. These graves may well have been destroyed by shell-fire, or lost, and these graves may well be those of prisoners captured who later died, or perhaps those killed in a raid. Unfortunately, the CWGC records are unlikely to shed any information on the subject, and so we will never know.
Also in Vermelles is a memorial to the 46th Division, which is shown on the Loos page.
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