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Kemmelberg

First World War Relics & Monuments

by J L Putman, M Soenen, & W Willems

Within the boundaries of the village of Kemmel alone there are a dozen military cemeteries, mainly British. But the most famous are two French monuments: the imposing obelisk, 'Monument Aux Soldats Français' ('Den Engel') on the top of the Kemmelberg and the mass grave known as 'Ossuaire Français'. Both commemorate the battle of the Kemmelberg at the end of April 1918.

Other well-known relics include the British Lettenberg bunkers and the German Bayernwald trenches.

'Monument Aux Soldats Français' ('Den Engel', 'The Angel')

This monumental seventeen metre-high memorial on the top of the Kemmelberg which is popularly known as 'Den Engel' is one of the most important French monuments in the Westhoek, the south-western corner of West Flanders. It was erected to commemorate the thousands of French who died in the Battle of the Kemmelberg at the end of April 1918. The column was unveiled on 18 September 1932 in the presence of the French generals, Lacapelle and Pétain.

Den Engel ('The Angel')
Photo © William Willems

'Den Engel' ('The Angel').

On the pedestal in front of the column is a statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory ('Victoria' to the Romans), whose sorrowful gaze is directed towards the French mass grave and the battlefield slightly further downhill.

About 1970 a lightning strike destroyed the laureated French helmet on top of the column.

'Ossuaire Français'

At the bottom of the western flank of the Kemmelberg, almost two hundred metres further downhill than 'Den Engel', lies the largest French military cemetery in Belgium. This cemetery actually consists of four mass graves which contain the remains of 5,294 French officers and soldiers. Only fifty-seven of them could be identified.

The cemetery is protected as a monument.

Ossuaire Français
Photo © William Willems

'Ossuaire Français'.

British military cemeteries

There are several British cemeteries within the bounds of the village of Kemmel, of which a few examples are given below.

The Lindenhoek Chalet Military Cemetery contains the burials of 282 British soldiers, ten Australians, fifteen Canadians, and eight New Zealanders.

Lindenhoek Chalet Cemetery, Kemmel
Photo © William Willems

Lindenhoek Chalet Cemetery, Kemmel.

At Dranoutre Military Cemetery, 422 British are buried, along with nineteen Canadians, sixteen Australians, one New Zealander, and one German.

Dranoutre Military Cemetery 1915-1918
Photo © William Willems

Dranoutre Military Cemetery 1915-1918.

These cemeteries are protected as monuments and are maintained by the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

Lettenberg bunkers

In the flank of the Lettenberg, a foothill of the Kemmelberg, one can still see four concrete bunkers from the First World War. These bunkers are shelters which were built by British soldiers in the spring of 1917. They formed the entrance to an underground headquarters. In April 1918 the bunkers fell into German hands.

British bunker on the Lettenberg
Photo © William Willems

British bunker on the Lettenberg.

Bayernwald trenches at Wijtschate (the 'Mine Battle')

This is a unique German site north of the village of Wijtschate (Heuvelland). In the 'Croonaert' forest one can go and see part of a German trench system. The whole presentation consists of two German 'listening shafts', a trench system of 320 metres in length, and four concrete bunkers. Bayernwald is the only German site of the First World War in Flanders with such a unique combination of elements.

The Wijtschate-Messines site is located on a 45 metre-high ridge and therefore had great military-strategic value, thanks to the excellent view it offered of the war front and the nearby town of Ypres.

The site has been reconstructed based on archaeological research. It shows ten percent of the original construction from the First World War. The site is accessed via a walking trail through the restored trenches.

Bayernwald, German trenches, Wijtschate
Photo © William Willems

Bayernwald, German trenches, Wijtschate.

The German troops captured this site from the French in 1914 and renamed it 'Bayernwald'. Between 1914 and 1917, they converted the site into an impregnable fortress.

The Germans also dug two 'listening shafts' of a depth of twenty-five metres here, one of which has been restored. The German soldiers feared British deep mines, but thanks to these corridors they were able to eavesdrop on enemy activities.

In the autumn of 1915, British troops, Australians, New Zealanders, and Irish and Welsh troops had indeed already started excavating twenty-four 'mine shafts', underground tunnels at great depths under the hills. Each end of the tunnel led to a large room under crucial German positions, in which thousands of kilograms of explosives were stacked.

After almost two years of digging, the British managed to lay out almost 500,000 kilograms of dynamite in these twenty-four rooms, spread over the entire front line between Ypres and Messines, over a distance of fifteen kilometres.

The ensuing 'Mine Battle' was one of the most successful Allied offensives of the First World War. Very early in the morning on 7 June everything went up at the same time; thousands of tons of earth, concrete, scaffolding, weaponry, and German soldiers. The largest explosion of the First World War could be heard as far as London. The chaos was indescribable.

Witnesses later stated that the ground first started to shake. Then great columns of fire shot up from the ground, forming great mushrooms. Finally, the earth came down with lots of noise.

By noon, Wijtschate and Messines were again in the hands of the Allies. Most of the craters left by the colossal mines in the landscape are still visible today as painful scars.

However, not all of the mines which the British had placed actually exploded. Five refused to go off and instead managed to survive both world wars. In 1955 one of the mines exploded following a lightning strike.

Of the four remaining mines, at least one unexploded mine - with an estimated load of 15,000 kilograms of explosives - lies under an agricultural field in Messines.

The quality of the ammunition detonators was poor, so many projectiles turned out to be 'duds', and remained unexploded on the battlefield.

More than a hundred years later, war projectiles are still regularly found in the Westhoek. Every year, the DOVO demining service collects more than 150 tons of war munitions from across the country for safe destruction. About two-thirds of this is found in the Westhoek, accounting for 9,000 projectiles in 2020.

Landscape and war exhibition (1914-1918)

This permanent exhibition in the 'Het Heuvelland' visitor centre in Kemmel explains in an understandable way the influence of the hills on the course of the First World War. The traces which can still be found in the landscape to this day are also extensively addressed.

 

 

Text copyright © Archeo Kemmelberg. An original feature for the History Files: Kemmelberg.