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War history: Tyne Cot - the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in the world

12:00 03 May 2014

Galloway historian Mike Peters talking to students about the Third Battle of Ypres at Tyne Cot.

Galloway historian Mike Peters talking to students about the Third Battle of Ypres at Tyne Cot.

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A sobering experience... Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, has this week been working in the Ypres Salient. He reflects on a visit to Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in the world.

At the suggestion of King George V, the Cross of Sacrifice was incorporated into a viewing platform on top of a German blockhouse. It can be seen with powerful binoculars from the English Channel.At the suggestion of King George V, the Cross of Sacrifice was incorporated into a viewing platform on top of a German blockhouse. It can be seen with powerful binoculars from the English Channel.

There are thousands of different places to visit in and around Ypres, but there is one place that nearly all battlefield visitors want to see for themselves: Tyne Cot. This huge cemetery marks the high-tide mark of the protracted and bloody third battle of Ypres, which began optimistically on July 31, 1917, and rumbled on until November 10 that year.

The majority of battlefield visitors incorrectly refer to this series of battles as the Battle of Passchendaele. The name of this once-insignificant Belgian village conjures up images of pointless sacrifice in the mud of Flanders. Those who come with us to Ypres learn that the Passchendaele campaign was far more complicated than TV’s Blackadder and many historians would have us all believe. There is no better place to consider the titanic struggle to break out of the Ypres Salient than at the top of the ridge looking back over Tyne Cot.

The cemetery takes its name from the men of the Northumberland Fusiliers. The northerners are said to have thought the shape of the many German concrete blockhouses that defended the ridge resembled the outline of cottages in their home county.

Centred on a trio of blockhouses, this huge cemetery dominates the high ground on which it stands, and is so large that it can be seen with the naked eye from a great distance. In fact, it is said that the cross of sacrifice that stands atop the central German blockhouse can be seen with powerful binoculars from ships in the English Channel.

Tyne Cot is the largest CWGC cemetery in the world. A visit to the site brings home the scale of the losses incurred by British and Commonwealth forces during the Third Battle of Ypres.Tyne Cot is the largest CWGC cemetery in the world. A visit to the site brings home the scale of the losses incurred by British and Commonwealth forces during the Third Battle of Ypres.

Tyne Cot contains a staggering total of 11,871 burials; the seemingly endless ranks of graves represent the entire spectrum of nations that fought alongside Britain against the Imperial German Army. The presence of German graves scattered among the commonwealth ranks reflects the ethos of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission: that of equality in death.

The traditional Portland Limestone headstones are laid out in ordered formations. When viewed from the air, it is very similar to the layout of a large church or even a cathedral.

The architect Sir Herbert Baker deliberately avoided any suggestion of victory or imperial glory; there are no lions or imperial emblems anywhere in his design. In fact, the only statues are those of two carefully-placed mourning angels that survey the thousands of headstones.

The angels also watch over the wall at the rear of the cemetery. Etched into the wall are the names of almost 35,000 men who have no known grave. The tragedy is that after the armistice it was impossible to match these names to the thousands of bodies that are buried in the cemetery under the inscription “Known unto God”. These names are in addition to those already recorded on the Menin Gate − the wall bearing the names of those killed between August, 1917, and the armistice in November, 1918.

A walk through Tyne Cot can be a sobering experience and many of our regular battlefield visitors consider it to be the most memorable part of their Ypres tour.

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