The battle of Langemark resulted from Falkenhayn’s directive to the Fourth German Army to break through the Belgian/French forces along the Yser and proceed to capture the Channel ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkerque. By 20 October, on a curved line from Armentiéres to the Yser, seven British infantry divisions augmented by five French and British cavalry divisions faced the onslaught of eleven German infantry divisions and eight German Cavalry divisions.
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On 22 October, an attempted assault by the French 87th Territorial Division of général d’Urbal’s Army Detachment of Belgium between Langemark and Steenstraat was easily dismissed in the early afternoon. The German XXIII Reserve Corps aimed its artillery at Langemark, targeting at first the church and its tall steeple, then any shelter in the village. The German batteries maintained a murderous rate of fire; trenches at this time were not the elaborate constructions that they became later in the war and thus offered little in the way of protection, especially from howitzer shells. British artillery was unable to respond adequately, shells of all calibers being in short supply. By the end of the day little remained except rubble, and the few remaining inhabitants were evacuated during the night. At dusk the German 51st Reserve Division charged southwest of Poelkapelle against the line of the 5th Brigade, British 2nd Division. They were cut down by intense rifle fire; the surge stopped only 50 meters in front of the British line. Near Kortekeer some territory was gained by the Germans, only to be reclaimed the next morning by reinforcements from the 2nd Infantry Brigade.
During the night of 23 October, the French 17th Division moved into position, relieving the British 2nd Division which went into reserve. Two battalions were called upon immediately to support the badly stretched the British 7th Division by counterattacking German elements in Polygon Wood, at the same time when events along the Yser were reaching their climax. By the end of the next day the French IX Corps took over the line from Langemark to Zonnebeke, freeing the BEF to consolidate its units in positions to the south, where an intense artillery barrage preceded the German infantry’s advance. Through the organization of staff, clerks, and cooks, the 7th Division’s commanding officer, Major-General Thompson Capper, was able to stem the tide and retain Polygon Wood. Three days of fighting reduced Capper’s division to little more than one-half of its original size, and the assaults continued.
Langemark German Military Cemetery was started in 1915 and was expanded during the years of German occupation. After the war, with the agreement of the Belgian government, the graves from 678 smaller cemeteries were consolidated. Langemark now contains 44,304 dead, including 3,000 of the student soldiers of 1914. The Alte Friedhof (Old Cemetery) is entered through a huge, red sandstone gateway known as a Totenburgen. Inside the entrance is a room with oak-lined walls which are inscribed with the names of the 6,313 known dead, who were buried when the cemetery was inaugurated in 1932. Immediately in front upon entering the cemetery is a shrub-covered ossuary containing the remains of 24,917 German soldiers and to which recently discovered remains are occasionally added. Sixty-eight adjacent bronze panels are covered with 17,342 names of the identified bodies in the mass grave. Surrounding it are insignia of the student regiments. Rows of horizontal grave markers fill the remainder of the tree-shrouded cemetery grounds. Due to Belgian restrictions on space, each grave contains up to twenty bodies, with the stone listing their names or ‘Unbekannt Deutsche Soldaten’ for the unidentified. Groupings of three German stone crosses are randomly placed among the graves. Directly behind the mass grave along the rear border of the cemetery are four sculpted figures by Emil Krieger. These mourning soldiers continue their decades-long watch over the graves of their comrades. (50.920173,2.917385)
To the right are three blockhouses that formed part of the front line. Next to these is a newer section of the cemetery created as part of a 1954 further consolidation of German cemeteries in Belgium. Before and during the Second World War, Nazi propagandists used the ‘Kindermord’ story to encourage sacrifice of the individual for the state; Langemark eventually became a symbol of senseless sacrifice. Thus, it is now one of the most visited Ypres battlefield sites, frequented by tour groups and bus loads of schoolchildren.
The rough concrete 1917 German pillbox was captured by the British in 1918 and used as an Advanced Dressing Station. The medical facility was under the command of Robert Lawrence, brother of TE Lawrence of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ fame. (50.924366,2.913343)
A white stone in front commemorates the men of the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineer sections of the British 34th Division who fought near this spot in October and November 1917. Its walls bear the scars from the intense British bombardment. (50.924288,2.913305)
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