Writer Historian Producer

Tyne Cot graves and Memorial wall            

One of the most difficult and sobering places on the Ypres salient is a visit to the massive Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Tyne Cot, just two kilometres from Passchendaele where the awful casualties of this allied attack can be seen.  Named by the troops “Tyne Cot” after a barn among the German blockhouses that looked like Tyneside cottages, this cemetery is the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world with nearly 12,000 graves of which 8,367 are “Known unto God”.

The cemetery today sits on the line of advance for the Australian 3rd Division which attacked up the sloping ridge, through what is now the Tyne Cot cemetery and into the guns of the German blockhouses. These low, solid German defensive positions were protected by inter-locking fire and had the advance both of the high ground and the bottomless mud which at that time covered the battlefield.  Three of these block houses remain today, still there among the graves where men fell and where they are buried. Their ominous, solid, impregnable appearance is incongruous to the peaceful and serene ambience and character of this extraordinary place yet they say so much, are so dominant and so evocative of this frightful, violent time. How amazing they survive and sit there complete with their scars of battle. It is said that in 1922 when King George V visited the cemetery, he suggested that the Cross of Sacrifice, a feature of all war cemeteries, be built upon one of these three blockhouses and there it remains today; defiant, respectful and obvious in its intent.

German blockhouse within Tyne Cot Cemetery

As I walked among the graves it was hard to image the pain and suffering, the anguish of families and the immense loss this vast cemetery represents. I always say to my tour group – just image 12,000 men standing here to attention, a crowd at a football match – just all there, line upon line.  It is hard and awful at the same time to image. And to compound this, two men in three are unknown, buried but not identified. So sad not only for them, but for the relatives.  In the case of the Australians at Tyne Cot, of the 1,353, but the majority are unknown.

However, two Australian Victoria Cross recipients lie here: Captain Clarence Smith Jeffries who was killed leading an attack on a German strongpoint on the 12th October 1917, closer to Passchendaele and Sergeant Lewis McGee who was killed in fighting just across the road at Hamburg Farm. There they lie, so very far from home – in the case of McGee, leaving a wife and young child, never to return.  When you walk this hallowed ground, you can only agree. The awful price of war, the carnage and the waste and what for?       Lest we Forget. 

Will Davies


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