“We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”
The above quote is from a speech given by HM King George V on May 11th, 1922, at the site of the unfinished Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Tyne Cot Cemetery near Zonnebeke in Belgium, which was a stop on his Pilgrimage Tour of the Western Front. If the words sound profound, well, they should, since the speech was written by Rudyard Kipling.
Tyne Cot sits on the location of a major German bunker complex called Flandern I Stellung that was captured by the 3rd Australian Division on October 4th, 1917, at the conclusion of The First Battle of Passchendaele Ridge. During the second battle, which began on Oct. 12th, a Canadian Advanced Dressing Station was located in the bunkers, and the cemetery was started then.
One hundred years ago yesterday the battle ended, with the Canadian Corps in firm control of the ridge, having held off all counterattacks. British commander Sir Douglas Haig felt able to claim a victory because the front line had been moved back about seven miles. The Canadians, who had suffered nearly 16,000 casualties, didn’t share Haig’s enthusiasm at all and were slow to put it behind them: seven months later Canada’s Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden delivered this threat to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George at a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet:
“If there is ever a repetition of Passchendaele, not a Canadian soldier will leave the shores of Canada so long as the Canadian people entrust the Government of my country to my hands.”
Three of the bunkers remain today. At the suggestion of the King, the largest was re-purposed to serve as both the base for the Cross of Sacrifice and a monument to the 3rd Australian Division, which bears this inscription:
THIS WAS THE TYNE COT BLOCKHOUSE CAPTURED BY THE 3RD AUSTRALIAN DIVISION 4 OCTOBER 1917.
Where in the world did the name ‘Tyne Cot’ come from? It was apparently a derivative of the map name given to the complex, possibly by a Northumberland Fusilier, who saw a resemblance to a hamlet of tenant ‘cottages’ from their home county and dubbed it ‘Tyneside Cottages’.
At Tyne Cot there are 11,965 burials, 8,369 of which are unnamed and 101 are unknown as to name or nationality. This makes it the largest CWGC cemetery in the world. British Expeditionary Force burials include personnel from the UK, Australian, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland and the West Indies, all of whom were lost in 1917 and 1918.
The Memorial to the Missing is the CWGC’s third largest, with 33,783 names inscribed plus another 1,176 New Zealanders listed separately. As mentioned in the article on the Menin Gate, that memorial wasn’t nearly big enough to list all of the missing in the Ypres Salient area, so the names of those lost after August 15th, 1917 appear here.
The cemetery and the memorial were designed by Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946) who also designed the Memorial to the Missing at Loos, along with eleven other CWGC sites in France. His pedigree is more fully explained in a previous article.
Baker’s creation is a long curving grouted stone wall made from quarried local rock called ‘flint’ by the British with inset panels of Portland Stone bearing the names, which closes off the eastern end of the cemetery that Baker intended to be the back but is now the de facto main entrance due to the siting of the car park. Towards each end of the wall there is a chapel-like rotunda, and there is an apse in the center that is entered through a temple facade with six sets of Doric columns. The government of New Zealand paid the cost of this feature, and within are inscribed the names of the New Zealanders as mentioned previously. The entire site is enclosed by a low boundary wall of grouted flint stone with an arched main gate, and was dedicated on June 20th, 1927.
If you can find someone today who knows anything about WW1, it can probably be summarized by these words: trenches, machine guns, gas and mud. The mud that they’re thinking of was here, and I can’t say it better than this, from prominent Canadian historian Tim Cook:
“The word, “Passchendaele” conjures vivid images of the Great War’s fruitless slaughter and epitomizes the nadir of war fighting. This was the place where seemingly homicidal, chateau-dwelling generals sitting kilometers behind the lines clucked their thin gums in delight as they planned to murder off their troops in one hopeless assault after another. The horrific pervasiveness of quicksand-like mud and unburied corpses brought to mind Dante’s images of hell. This blighted battlefield has maintained a firm grip on the popular memory of the war.”