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War history: Tyne Cot – the silent city

PUBLISHED: 15:10 14 July 2014 | UPDATED: 15:10 14 July 2014

The awe-inspiring Tyne Cot cemetery, pictured over the years. Photograph: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The awe-inspiring Tyne Cot cemetery, pictured over the years. Photograph: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

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It’s one of the most emotive and heavily-visited sites in the Ypres Salient – the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Tyne Cot. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, explains why

The awe-inspiring Tyne Cot cemetery, pictured over the years. Photograph: The Commonwealth War Graves CommissionThe awe-inspiring Tyne Cot cemetery, pictured over the years. Photograph: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

It is not uncommon for visitors to the First World War battlefields to say they just cannot picture or imagine the huge numbers involved, or the scale of the loss. It is difficult to grasp the scale of the casualty figures incurred by all sides.

This is often not helped if a tour itinerary is just a succession of cemeteries, beautiful as they are. They can blend into one and lose their impact. A balanced itinerary – creating a mix of battlefields, museums and cemeteries – often helps.

However, there is one cemetery that most visitors to Ypres want to see: Tyne Cot – the largest CWGC cemetery in the world.

The CWGC cemeteries on the Western Front are often referred to as “silent cities”. If that is the case, the staggering array of headstones that populate Tyne Cot are surely the citizens of what must be the capital of these silent cities.

The awe-inspiring Tyne Cot cemetery, pictured over the years. Photograph: The Commonwealth War Graves CommissionThe awe-inspiring Tyne Cot cemetery, pictured over the years. Photograph: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The cemetery stands on the slopes of the Broodseinde Ridge, in the centre of one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Ypres Salient.

The struggle to climb the ridge and drive off its determined German defenders was costly even by First World War standards and involved some of the most harrowing fighting of the war.

British soldiers and those of almost every commonwealth nation fought through horrendous weather conditions, barbed wire, murderous artillery and machine gun fire to take the ridge.

This is one chapter in a saga of battles that we refer to now as Passchendaele. It was in fact the third battle of Ypres: the big push that started on July 31, 1917, and came to a rain- and mud-sodden halt on November 10.

The awe-inspiring Tyne Cot cemetery, pictured over the years. Photograph: The Commonwealth War Graves CommissionThe awe-inspiring Tyne Cot cemetery, pictured over the years. Photograph: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

A visit to Tyne Cot gives an insight into the number of casualties, the nature of the ground over which the battle was fought and also the strength of the German defences.

In the centre of the cemetery is a viewing platform built on top of a German concrete blockhouse. From here you can view the battlefield and the cemetery.

There are 11,956 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried in Tyne Cot; 8,369 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to more than 80 casualties known or “believed to be” buried among them. In addition, there are almost 35,000 names of missing soldiers who have no known grave listed on the memorial wall at the rear of the cemetery.

These are staggering figures, especially when one considers there are so many other cemeteries and memorials within the bounds of the salient, not least the Menin Gate.

There is so much to discover at Tyne Cot. Each headstone tells its own story.

The blockhouse on which the viewing platform stands was the scene of a small battle and, later, a shelter for the wounded. The design and construction of the cemetery after the war is a tale in itself, and of course there is the obvious question: why is it called Tyne Cot?

The next Galloway tour to the Ypres Salient is on Tuesday, September 23. Why not join us as we discover the answers to these questions?

www.travel-galloway.com/ww1centenary

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