November 7, 2017. After visiting Cement House Cemetery and the grave of Vincent Carr, and the St. Julien Monument to commemorate the position where Canadians were during the first poison gas attack, we stopped at the German Military Cemetery in Langemark. Its official name is “Deutscher Studentenfriedhof”, one of four German cemeteries in the Flanders region of Belgium. ‘Studentenfriedhof’ means ‘the students’ cemetery’ and is called that due to the large number of young volunteer soldiers who are buried here.
This is the only German cemetery that seems to get visitors at all, especially non-Germans. It’s an impressive but depressing cemetery.
The cemetery has 44,061 burials. 25,000 of these were unknown and buried in a large communal grave.
Over the decades, researchers have identified 17,000, whose names are now on bronze plaques positioned around three sides of the cemetery.
After this rather chilling stop, we continued on to the Passchendaele Canadian Memorial, located on Canadalaan (Canada Lane) in Zonnebeke.
It was here that we were reminded of the madness of the Battle of Passchendaele. British and Australian soldiers had tried, from July until early October 1917, rather unsuccessfully, to capture the German-occupied Belgian coast. They made only minimal advances and the commander of the British forces, Sir Douglas Haig, ordered the Canadian Corps to take their place and capture Passchendaele.
20,000 Canadian soldiers arrived in the midst of heavy rainfall and waist-deep mud, and no one seemed to have enough sense or authority to force a rethink to the plan to begin an assault at that time of year. The only voice of sanity was Canadian-born Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, who took the time to inspect the battlefield and, after doing so, protested that the planned attack would cost 16,000 Canadian casualties. No one listened to him.
So, on October 26, 1917, Canadian troops began a series of attacks in the area. On October 30, 1917, with the help of two British divisions, they began the assault on the village of Passchendaele, inching their way from shell-crater to shell-crater, under heavy fire. The landscape was already destroyed by shelling and heavy rain. Roads, trees, and most buildings were gone. It was in the midst of this that Vincent Carr from North Tryon died, instantly killed by a high explosive shell.
Troops reached the outskirts of Passchendaele during a terrible rainstorm, and held on for five days, waist-deep in mud and exposed to German shelling. Reinforcements arrived on November 6, and by November 10 Canadian troops occupied the village, thus ending the battle. Almost 12,000 Canadians were wounded, and over 4,000 died.
The Passchendaele Canadian Memorial has the following inscription on one side, on a granite block, saying:
“The Canadian Corps in Oct-Nov 1917 advanced across this valley – then a treacherous morass – captured and held the Passchendaele ridge.”
The Battle of Passchendaele, which lasted 100 days, had more than Canadian casualties. 275,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed and wounded, among them the Canadian casualties already mentioned. 220,000 German soldiers were also killed and wounded.
Beside the Passchendaele Canadian Memorial is the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke, which concentrates on the Battle of Passchendaele itself. They have begun a Passchendaele Archives Project of trying to put faces and stories to those who died between July 12 and November 15, 1917 during the battle. If you have a relative, and a photo, please consider supporting this project. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.passchendaele.be for more information. They will send you a form to fill out: Passchendaele Archives Questionnaire.
After these two visits, Pieter was finally persuaded to go for a snack before continuing on with the war memorial tour. Across from the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 was a lovely restaurant, Brasserie De Volksbond, where Pieter and I shared Belgian bread and Passendale cheese.
Yes, while we Canadians know Passchendaele for the battle, it’s better known for its Passchendaele beer and Passendale cheese.
If you are wondering about the spelling difference, the Belgians have a much simpler spelling of their village and region!
Our next stop on the War Memorial Trail, after a much needed lunch break, was Tyne Cot British Cemetery, which was also in Zonnebeke. Comments or stories? You can share them by emailing us at email@example.com or by commenting on this blog.
© Daria Valkenburg