On 31 July 1917, 103 years ago, British forces launched the 3rd Ypres Offensive against the German Army in Belgian Flanders.
Better known today as Passchendaele, the fighting raged for 104 days. Hundreds of thousands of service personnel on both sides became casualties. The cemeteries and memorials of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) at Ypres (today Ieper) are a lasting reminder of the men and women who gave their lives.
Discover below how one CWGC staff member has captured these places of remembrance on camera.
Hello, my name is Dirk.
I am 56 years old and I was born and raised in Ieper. I grew up amid the First World War cemeteries in Flanders Fields, so, for me, it was an honour to become a Commission gardener in 1985, at the age of 21.
I became interested in photography many years ago but never took it up properly until a colleague and friend asked if I wanted to join him on a photography course. Since then, a whole new world has opened up to me.
Every grave in a cemetery, and every name on a memorial, is a story. Taking photographs of these places of remembrance and bringing the unique atmosphere across for those who cannot come and visit themselves, really means a lot to me.
A photograph is not just an image, it's a story. If, in some small way, I can capture the story of the CWGC cemeteries and memorials at Ieper, my mission is complete.
I particularly like pictures of people visiting our cemeteries and memorials. They make me wonder: “Does that person have a loved one commemorated here…?” I always wanted to take a picture of people standing at the gate. However, I never want to bother people who are paying their respects. One evening I asked some friends to pose for me. I felt quite honoured when I was asked if it could be used on the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation membership card holder. Of course, I agreed. I still have one in my pocket today!
It was around 6.30 in the morning and I was on my way to have my car serviced, before going to work, when I saw this stunning sunrise. I just couldn’t resist making a detour to New Irish Farm Cemetery. I had to postpone my plans for the service on my car, but I never regretted it! Capturing the silhouette of this lovely tree was something that I always wanted to do, and that morning the sun was on my side!
When I come to Hooge Crater Cemetery for work I almost never go in, as the silo where I have to be is located behind it. On this day, I used the main entrance - something that I had never done before. Passing the Cross of Sacrifice, I saw an almost endless sea of white graves emerging in front of me. It gave me such an overwhelming feeling and made me imagine every grave being replaced by a person looking back at me. This view left a lump in my throat, and I wanted to convey that feeling in this picture.
Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood
In late September 1917, Australian forces took the shell torn trees of Polygon Wood. Today, Buttes New British Cemetery stands at the heart of Polygon Wood. It is the final resting place of over 2,100 servicemen, only 400 of whom are identified. Many of the headstones here bear the rising sun cap badge of the Australian Imperial Force.
Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial
Tyne Cot is the largest CWGC cemetery in the world. Almost 12,000 servicemen lie at rest here, while a further 35,000 who have no known grave are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. It is a place of international remembrance and reflection.
To mark the centenary of the 3rd Ypres Offensive, an international service of remembrance was held at Tyne Cot Cemetery in 2017. A huge amount of work was required to prepare the cemetery, so multiple gardening teams came to Tyne Cot in the days before the service to ensure it was immaculate. I was on a leave day but I couldn’t resist going with my camera to capture this special moment. Looking at it today brings back great memories!
Poelcapelle British Cemetery
The Battle of Poelcapelle in October 1917 marked a turning point of the 3rd Ypres Offensive. Since August, warm weather had dried out the ground, allowing the British and French armies to advance. In October, the rain came, and the battlefield soon became an impassable morass. Those who fell in these conditions were often lost without trace. In the years after the war many bodies recovered, but few could be identified. In Poelcapelle British Cemetery less than 1 in 5 of the 7,500 servicemen buried here are identified.
While walking around cemeteries I often read the headstones. In Poelcapelle British Cemetery most of the graves are of unknown soldiers. When there are so few identified graves in a cemetery it is hard to not read every name you find. When I see “age 22” or “age 24”, I can’t help but think of my own children who are the same age. It is upsetting to think about what these families must have gone through.
During a visit to Poelcapelle British Cemetery one evening I noticed this neat little shrubbery and wanted to try something new. As there was lots of backlight, the picture looked very dark when I saw it on my camera, so I thought it wouldn't be very good. When I came home, I looked at it on my computer and got a “wow” feeling. I have to admit that I am very proud of this unique picture – it was definitely worth standing in the prickly thistles to get.
Passchendaele New British Cemetery
In the final months of the 3rd Ypres Offensive the weather steadily worsened. Despite the terrible conditions, Canadian forces launched attacks against the village that would give its name to the entire campaign - Passchendaele.
Passchendaele New British Cemetery was constructed after the armistice on the outskirts of the shell-smashed ruins of Passchendaele village. Testament to the ferocity of the fighting, and the determination of the Canadian soldiers to take the village, almost half of the graves here bear the maple leaf of Canada.
I have learned to appreciate what an important role nature can play in bringing a photograph to life. As a photographer you must be prepared to adapt and seize every opportunity you get to capture a special photograph. For me, this an example of such a picture. I hadn’t expected to take this, but, as I was standing there in Passchendaele New British Cemetery, I saw the sun breaking through the clouds and knew it was now or never.
Bedford House Cemetery
The 3rd Ypres Offensive ended on 10 November 1917. In 104 days of battle, 76,000 British, Australian, South African, New Zealand, Canadian and Indian soldiers were killed, and many more bore physical and mental scars for the rest of their lives.
Of all the CWGC cemeteries in the Ieper area, Bedford House is perhaps one of the most beautiful that was created from the wasteland. Begun in the grounds of a Chateau that stood here during the war, today this cemetery is the final resting place of more than 5,200 servicemen. Its unusual design, complete with moat and tree lined entrance, makes it a firm favourite among all who visit.
I’ve always wanted to take pictures of Bedford House Cemetery in the snow. Some years ago, I woke up and saw a carpet of snow through my window and I thought, this is the moment I have been waiting for! When I arrived, it was grey and misty, but after a while, the sky cleared up – it was magnificent.
I have spent my life caring for those who lie in Flanders Fields, but it is more than just a job. I am immensely proud of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and feel privileged to have contributed to the care of those who gave everything for the freedom I enjoy today. I hope that in some small way my pictures have captured the importance of these cemeteries and memorials, but also the dedication of the remarkable people I work with every day.