Part 2: ‘Sent to die without a chance: The story behind this famed WW1 cemetery’

Nov 08, 2020
Headstones of fallen soldiers from the First World War are seen at the Tyne Cot Cemetery. Source: Getty

Read Part One of Ian’s Remembrance Day series here.

We next reach a Canadian cemetery, the final resting place of over 2,000 bodies. It’s called Vancouver Corner and has a large memorial with a figure, head bowed, in a Rest on Your Arms Reversed position.

We learn here that there were 1.5 billion shells fired in the Battle of Passchendaele alone. Of these 1.5 billion, one third failed to explode. On average, over 250 tonnes have been dug up each year since the war. If, like me, you assumed they must have recovered most of them by now then dwell on this – in 2006 they unearthed 700 tonnes. Imagine, 2 tonnes, per day, from something that happened nearly 90 years ago.

Each year in this area they average three deaths from unexploded munitions, 20-30 per cent of which are chemicals.

The Belgians, without any assistance from any of the conflicting nations, spent €20 million ($AU325 million) on a special machine to dispose the chemical shells. The known figures are that they have enough work for 60 years, but have no doubt that it will go on for well over another 100 as they find more ordinance.

Until 1976 they simply dumped them at sea but a treaty put an end to that. The disposal people are all volunteers, five have died since 1980 doing this work.

They have devised special suits for chemical disposal. It’s a two-layered affair and the body’s core temperature can quickly rise to 40 degrees inside them. Thus an individual is only allowed two disposals per day. After each individual disposal the suits are incinerated to avoid contamination and a new one put on. It costs the government a fortune. No other country contributes. Every day during spring and summer, every year, at 11.45am and 4.30pm, munitions are blown up at a special site.

We have pulled in to one of Sharon’s friend’s places. She explains they bought half a hectare with the intention of farming. On the first line of ploughing, 120m in length, they unearthed 29 shells.

She alights and returns with some of the things they’ve uncovered. Among them is a Lee Enfield .303 rifle with a bullet in the chamber and a full magazine, meaning it was being used in conflict right before it fell from the hands of its soldier. Another item is a large shell with cordite in it.

Then there’s something else she doesn’t bring onto the bus as the large cannon projectile is too heavy to carry.

Every day throughout this entire area, on all these country lanes, 90 years after the event, people put discovered munitions on the roadside for the bomb squad to pick up. They are in little piles beside telegraph poles, next to posts. If a chemical one is found, the bomb squad is called in and, if it’s leaking, they put it in a plaster cast and mark where the leak was.

The Battle of Passchendaele started on July 31, 1917. Most of the fighting was done in the summer, so the battle was timed to coincide with favourable weather. Unfortunately, it rained heavily in the two weeks beforehand. This did not stop Britain’s General Haig, clearly not one of Sharon’s most favourite people to ever inhabit the earth, from insanely ordering the command to attack.

More than 300,000 troops were lost. As a direct result of Haig’s decision more drowned in the quagmire than were actually shot. Having closely looked at the mud the day before I can fully understand how that must have happened.

The Kiwis lost more per capita than any other nation throughout the battle, which ended on November 10, 1917, and the Canadians won more Victoria Crosses (nine in total).

The Kiwis are the only nation not to accede to the Belgians’ request to consolidate the grave sites. Thus you see their memorials at quite a few places, all tagged with the words ‘From the uttermost ends of the earth’.

We stop at Tyne Cot Cemetery, named after the Northumberland Regiments who fought here.

There are 11,908 graves and a massive wall listing a further 34,888 who are missing after August 16, 1917. There are three Australian VC winners buried here.

The shape of the cemetery wall echoes the shape of the salient (a military term for a line that penetrates) that was here. The persistent fog swirls around the masses of white tombstones and the background of barely visible winter trees adds an eerie touch to the moment.

I notice wreaths dotted throughout the grounds that have been laid by English school classes. Apparently they get an actual name of a particular soldier, find out as much as they can about him, and then visit his grave and the war sites. It’s something that has my wholehearted support.

The breeze springing up pushes the chill air against my eyes and I initially blame that for the moisture that blurs my vision but soon realise it’s more than that. The wreaths have affected me and when I tread the narrow path to the information centre my mood isn’t helped by a crystal clear voice that is suddenly apparent, its invisible host reading out the names of the deceased, a new one every five seconds. Inside the centre photographs appear on a wall of the deceased as his name is read out. In here nobody speaks.

This is Part Two in a three-part series for Remembrance Day. Stay tuned for Part Three of Ian’s story coming this Wednesday, November 11, 2020.

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