Book Review 'The Battle of the Ypres-Comines Canal 1940' by Jerry Murland

Discussion in 'Books, Films, TV, Radio' started by Jonathan Ball, Dec 10, 2019.

  1. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    The fate of hundreds of thousands lay in the hands of a few depleted units hastily thrust in to position. It was a setting for a tragedy on a giant scale. Indeed, the very names that caught one’s eye on the map – Ploegsteert, Messines, Wieljte, Langemark, Passchendaele – were heavy with the tragedies of an earlier war. These were the fields of Flanders, habituated in agony.

    Ieper, or, if you prefer the French name, Ypres is without doubt the most widely visited British Battlefield of today. This latest of Jerry Murland’s excellent series of guide books will provide the explanation to the uninitiated as to why there are 1940 burials in some of the 150 cemeteries which are to be found in what was ‘the immortal salient' of the 1914-18 war.

    The fighting along the line of the Ypres-Comines Canal in 1940 is known as the Battle of Whytschaete, which to the Tommy’s of the earlier war was ‘White Sheets’. As Murland points out, the Battle honour of Whytschaete adorned many a Regimental flag but was a battle few have heard of.

    The fighting was fierce and the defence, as seen so many times when the BEF turned around to face the Germans, unsparing. Murland, citing Gregory Blaxland before him, argues convincingly that this was the battle that allowed the bulk of the BEF to reach Dunkirk and evacuation.

    The canal itself was never completed and in many areas remained little more than a dry ditch. The men who held the line thought little of it. However, the line was to be held and sometimes it required the officer present to draw his revolver to ensure that in certain areas it was. Every man was expected to do his bit and nobody could be spared. That included ‘Cooks, Batmen and Pioneers’ who picked up a rifle and went in to the line.
    Many acts of individual bravery ensued. Take this as an example of Private Anthony Wynne at the bridge at Houthem:

    On Sunday morning he took up his position with a Bren gun alone in the forward edge of the village some 30 yards from the blown bridge across the canal. On the arrival of some 100 Boche on the far side of the canal he stayed at his post alone, firing his Bren with great effect. The Germans were quite unable to reach him and his post, which was constructed in the side of a house and must have been sufficiently strong to withstand small arms fire… He remained there until midday on Tuesday [28 May, when the Boche had to bring artillery to bear on the house in order to quieten the post. The house received a direct hit, which must have killed him.

    Wynne’s courage and sacrifice, although recognised later in the Regimental History, was never recognised in terms of decoration. He probably wasn’t the only one either.

    The fighting along the line is covered in detail throughout the book. The maps and locations are easy to find today and Murland’s use of today's road names is to be applauded and makes it very easy for the modern visitor to find the sites in question with the two suggested walking tours and a further one along the entire line by car included. Within the environs of Ieper many of these places are already well known but I wonder how many visitors are just aware of the 1940 history that took place there? Examples are many but for instance the defence of Hill 60 by 2/RSF and the fighting patrol of Roy Cholmondley towards the German gun lines located on Hill 62 by Sanctuary Wood. Ieper itself was defended by 4/Green Howards of 50 Division. Battalion HQ was at Shrapnel Corner and their line ran from Zillebeke Lake and along the Ramparts via the Lille Gate. The bridge so many cross today to reach the Menin Gate was blown by Lt David Smith of the Royal Engineers. It’s all in here.

    After nearly three days holding the line the BEF were finally ordered to withdraw westwards towards Poperinghe. The following morning the Swastika flew over the Cloth Hall in Ypres.

    Of all the guide books in the series Jerry Murland has written this is the one I was looking forward to the most and it delivers in spades. Ieper’s 1940 History, perhaps understandingly overlooked given the carnage of the 14-18 war, is, to paraphrase Lord Plumer when he unveiled the Menin Gate in 1927, no longer missing. It’s here.

    The Battle of the Ypres-Comines Canal 1940

    Last edited: Dec 10, 2019
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