The Fields Of War – Tyne Cot Military Cemetery
I recently described a trip to Belgium in 2012 when I visited the area where my grandfather fought in the First World War. My first stop that day was at the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Zonnebeke near Ypres. This is the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world. At Tyne Cot are the resting places of 11,954 soldiers of the Commonwealth forces. It contains the graves of men who died throughout the war, from the earliest casualties in 1914 at the start of the war to the final men to fall in the last minutes of the conflict in 1918. The area around Tyne Cot was the scene of some of the most bitter and prolonged fighting of all. Standing in the perfectly maintained grounds your eyes are drawn first to the thousands of headstones laid out in neat geometric patterns but I could not help gazing beyond them to the gentle rolling hills and sparsely populated farmlands beyond. These were the fields where so many died, where after the war the land was so desolate and torn apart by years of shelling that nothing would grow, except of course for the blood red poppies that sprang up everywhere and became the universal symbol of the war.
Tyne Cot itself became a cemetery in 1917 when the ridge where it now stands was captured by the British Army and became an Advanced Field Dressing Station. So severe were the injuries dealt with there that, without adequate supplies for their treatment, 354 of the wounded died and were buried. The ridge was re-taken by the German forces in 1918 and some German soldiers were buried on the site, though most of them were removed and re-interred in German military cemeteries after the end of the fighting.
Tyne Cot is dominated by a white marble monument at its center. The Cross of Sacrifice, also known as the Great Cross, was built at the request of King George V on his visit in 1922 and stands tall in the centre of the cemetery on the site of a German blockhouse that once stood on the ridge. Some of the old blockhouses, or “pillboxes,” were retained and form part of the Tyne Cot complex.
Of those 11,954 who are commemorated here, there are the graves of 8,367 men whose names are lost in time. Wandering around the grounds, it is all too obvious that most of the headstones of men whose names, and therefore ages, were recorded were in their teens or early twenties. This in itself is a moving and sobering sight. But for me most emotional experience was to see the stones of all those who died as “unknown soldiers” and whose headstones carry the poignant inscription “KNOWN UNTO GOD.”
Perhaps even more poignant is the long curving wall of the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing which records the names of 34,000 British and New Zealand soldiers who were known to have died in the local area known as the Ypres Salient but whose remains were never found.
Tyne Cot attracts thousands of visitors each year but somehow manages to retain a solemn and respectful atmosphere. It is an emotional place to visit, but one that should be on the itinerary of all who come to the area and want to understand a little more about the great events of a century ago.
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