By Craig Gibson
For Canadian troops arriving in Flanders, Ypres — “Wipers” to the men — was a deadly place, the air criss-crossed with shrapnel, bullets, and poison gas. The thousands of Canadian tourists who will be arriving here over the next year for the Passchendaele and armistice centenaries will face no such dangers, that is, if they manage to stay clear of the strong Trappist ales and stray munitions that still claim the unwary.
Yet the former Western Front can still be a disorientating and chaotic place for the battlefield pilgrim, filled as it is with a daunting array of memorials, cemeteries, museums, trench recreations, and tour companies, all competing for their time and Euros.
As I recently discovered during a three-month stint in the area, however, there is a simple solution: pay a visit (or two) to Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery and its accompanying Visitor Centre, opened in September 2012.
Unlike other Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries that roughly follow the bulge of the Ypres Salient — where those who were killed in action or who succumbed to wounds prior to evacuation were hastily buried, often with no identification — Lijssenthoek is just a short drive or bike ride south-west of Poperinge, well behind the former trenches. Beyond the range of all but the heaviest guns and next door to the Poperinghe-Hazebrouck railway, the site was ideally situated for the establishment of a field hospital.
Originally owned by farmer Remi Quaghebeur, the land was leased to the French Army in early 1915, as mobile warfare ground to a halt and trenches were dug. Later in 1915 the British took over the hospital, eventually adding four casualty clearing stations, totalling some 4,000 beds. The site became a crucial link in the handling of the thousands of casualties that would flow from the bloody Ypres salient battlefields over the next four years. It soon dawns on me that my own great-grandfather, Pte Edward Samuel Smith, 4th Machine Gun Company, 2nd Canadian Division, suffering from ‘myalgia’ in the spring of 1916, may very well have passed through the hospital before his death on the Somme later that year.
While the first burials in the cemetery were mainly French (since repatriated), by war’s end the vast majority were British and Dominion, although Chinese, German, and even American burials are represented.
Unusually, the cemetery includes one female casualty, Nellie Spindler, a British nurse killed in a bombing raid in 1917, as well as a civilian, an Imperial War Graves Commission (the predecessor of the CWGC) gardener, Thomas McGrath, who died in 1920.
As the war intensified, the hospital grew. Living quarters, operating theatres, wards, pharmacies, latrines, storage facilities, offices, chapels, paving and landscaping, and street signs were added, as were the less expected vegetable gardens and fields for baseball, cricket and soccer. Water was piped in from Monts des Cats. It quickly became a village unto itself.
Built adjacent to the cemetery, the information centre actively engages visitors to the site. While glass walls invite the outside in, an overarching narrative graphic history is provided. Interactive touchscreens provide access to primary documents. There are also artefacts, audio snippets derived from letters and diaries (a so-called ‘listening wall’), and a space where visitors are encouraged to pin images of the fallen. Its disparate elements seamlessly work together, and encourage quiet contemplation.
Most visitors will have at least some passing knowledge of the deaths and horrific wounds caused by the fighting on the Western Front. What they arguably will be less well informed about are the extraordinary steps that were taken to save, repair, and return to civilian lives the men so damaged. “The handling of immense numbers of broken men,” concludes the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services, “had become a procedure almost as mechanical as that of breaking them.”
Remarkably, of the casualties who made it to Lijssenthoek, only three per cent died, and those who did die are the ones buried next door in the beautiful Sir Reginald Blomfield-designed cemetery. Whereas over two thirds of the 12,000 burials in nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery, the main cemetery of the particularly dreadful Third Battle of Ypres (1917), or simply Passchendaele, are ‘Known unto God,’ those brought to Remy Siding, the name by which the British came to refer to Lijssenthoek, were usually alive, and hence identifiable. Of the over 9,000 burials, only 24 are unnamed.
Besides the fact that two Canadian field hospitals were established on the site in 1915, and that over 1,000 Canadians are buried within its walls, there is a certain Canadian flavour to the history of Lijssenthoek.
Among the more noteworthy casualties, for instance, is Canadian Major-General Malcolm Smith Mercer. A native of Etobicoke (now a Toronto suburb) and commander of Third Canadian Division, he had the misfortune of being killed during the German attack at Hooge on June 3, 1916.
And among the medical researchers working at a Lijssenthoek hospital was a Canadian doctor, Lawrence Bruce Robertson, who arrived in November 1916 and began experimenting with blood transfusions, a life-saving innovation in the field of combat surgery.
Certainly the circumstances were ripe for medical research, and in January 1918 British Evacuation Hospital No. 10 was designated a research centre, where new orthopaedic surgery techniques and gas casualty treatments were pioneered.
Since admission to the Lijssenthoek Visitor Centre is free, spring the 5 Euros for the superb exhibition catalogue. I do, and return on two subsequent occasions — with no regrets.
So before you return the rental car, pack away the chocolates, and polish off your final Hommelbier, consider spending an hour or two at Lijssenthoek Cemetery and Visitor Centre. Whether you remember, honour, or simply learn, it’s time well spent.