Activities of the Diggers -THE WELL GATE

The prospected Boezinge canal site was, at certain times, veined with trenches. This becomes clear when these trenches, some of which it must be said were short-lived, are brought together on a synthesizing map (see : Who knows what ? Loopgraafkaarten / Trenchmaps).

Some of these trenches, in the regimental histories and war diaries, have a name. On the British side we find names like : Wyatt's Lane, Barnsley Road, Compton Corner, Colne Valley, Prowse Junction, Skipton Road (on the site or in the immediate vicinity). And on the German side (on British maps) : Cable Trench, Cactus Trench, Caddle Trench, Caesar's Nose,...

One of the trench names that intrigued us more than other names, however, was the Wellgate. Because, unlike other names, it did not contain a personal name or place name. And also because the name had some rather romantic connotation, though this of course is quite a subjective element. 'Well' : a shaft, usually lined with brick or stone, for obtaining water from an underground source, a very unmilitary element. And 'gate', in Scottish and northern English : a street, a road. If it does not sound idyllic in this military context, it certainly stirs the imagination ...

But let us first mention where the Wellgate is mentioned or indicated, and where the more or less exact location was.

Illustration 1 - From : E. Tempest, History of the 6th Battalion West Yorkshore Regiment, vol. I, Bradford, 1921, p. 60. (Situation autumn and winter 1915)

Trenches dug by the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, the 1st Rifle Brigade and the 1st East Lancashire Regiment. The Wellgate appears to be the second trench behind the most advanced British first line, about 200 meters behind it. It starts on the east bank of the canal, and goes farther east, where it links up with the Barnsley Road (at a spot under the post war farm Klein Zwaanhof, now vacant).

We also find the Wellgate, with the same course, in : E. Tyrall, The West Yorkshire Regiment in the War 1914-1918, London, vol. I, p. 142 (positions of the 49th Division, winter 1915-1916).

In the bottom left corner : Talana Farm. It is on Talana Farm Cemetery that most British soldiers were buried, killed at the site, especially beginning of July 1915. At least those who got a grave. For more than half (about 200) were reported missing, and have their last resting place on this battlefield site. And a name on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.

The Wellgate is also indicated on a map in : W. Somerset a.o., On the Western Front - 1/3rd Monmouthshire Regt., Abergavenny, 1926. Apart from the fact that not all the other trenches of ill. 1 are indicated, another difference is the course of the Wellgate : it does not link up with the Barnsley Road, but turns northeast to the Moortelweg (at the time called Wielkensstraat, part of which has been eliminated for the industrial estate).

Especially that sharp bend in the course puzzled us. That asked for an explanation. And it also might explain the name Wellgate. Close by, less than some 50 meters away there was (until end of 2000) a natural pond with some pollard willows. But that certainly was not the well. Besides, it was not indicated on any military map, not even on pre-war maps. (Which means that it probably was a shell hole, enlarged after the war to make it a watering place for cattle. So, not really a natural pond after all.)

But in September 2000 the riddle was solved : because then, by pure chance, the real well itself was found. A few days before, when the foundation for the driveway on the Ypes NV lot was laid, the bottom of what probably was the Wellgate had been exposed, with hundreds of British Lee Enfield cartridges nearby. But finding the well itself, that was due for 15 September 2000.


Friday 15 September 2000

A powerful metal detector signal, about 20 meter east of the Bargiestraat, makes us find, helped by an excavator, two large corrugated iron sheets. Under them : one jerrycan. But also, and far more important, about 3 feet below grass level, something that looked like a metal platform at first sight, but that appeared to be consisting of 29 British light railway rails, 2,10 m long (7 ft.), carefully placed one next to the other, and resting on a rim of bricks.

Johan Verbeerst (left) and Piet Demeester, standing on the platform of 29 light railway rails.

Patrick Van Wanzeele (foreground) has just fathomed the depth under it with his spade, which certainly was way too short. (For a longer sounding rod would later indicate a depth of 6,30 m (21 feet).)

This was bound to be the well the Wellgate was named after !

The well collar, crumbled off, appears to be made of red and yellow bricks. That this well was not constructed by the British troops is obvious. No need to be puzzled any longer, for we also remembered that on a cadastral map (the so-called Popp-map of appr. 1850) there were two small farmhouses. Loose bricks had been found nearby the year before. What looked rather unusual was that these two buildings were no longer on a military map of 1911. What we did not know at the moment, but realized now was : the two buildings had been pulled down, but the well of one of them had remained ! And it was this well that the British troops apparently had found and used as a drinking water well. But that would not be confirmed until when the water had been pumped out.

Part of an 1850 cadastral map, with the two buildings that had already been demolished before the war. On this map we have projected :

  • the well near one of the buildings (approximate location)
  • the Wellgate (yellow line)
  • the 1st German line
  • the boundary (partly) of the prospected site (red dashed line)
  • the (new) Bargiestraat (laid 1998).

Note that the course of the Kleine Poezelstraat has been altered since. The stretch A-B had already been replaced by A-C before the war. The stretch C-D of the Wielkensstraat (later called Moortelweg) has disappeared since the industrial estate was laid out in 1998.


Friday 22 September 2000

At dusk, a few feet from the well rim we find the original British pump. On it we read the manufacturer's name T&J HOSKING LTD ENGINEERS LONDON SE. The year of manufacture : 1915. And the serial number : 457.

Surfacing after 85 years :

the original military pump.

Saturday 23 september 2000

A stretch of the trench, about 10 feet long, linking up with west side of the well, is laid bare. And that afternoon we have visitors : WTV (West-Flemish Television), a Canadian TV crew, a Dutch journalist, and most important : a delegation of the Durham Light Infantry Association. They had come to the Ypres area as part of their 'Millennium Pilgrimage to Belgium and France', more specifically to attend the funeral that day at Cement House Cemetery (Langemark), some 3 miles to the east, of a Durham Light Infantry soldier, whose remains our team had found 26 May 2000.

We quote from the article that later was published in the Chester-le-Street DLI Association Branch magazine (written by Clive Bowery) :

"Recently the Diggers had uncovered the remains of a number of British soldiers. A shoulder title enabled one of these to be identified as a member of the DLI. It was the remains of this unidentified soldier that were interred on that Saturday. The buglers sounded the usual Last Post and Reveille, a wreath being laid. In addition to our party of 51, a large number of other people attended the burial service.

After the service, Jacky Platteeuw, of the Diggers, very kindly offered to show us the site where the remains had been found. We spent a fascinating 30-40 minutes at the site. We also inspected the work currently in progress. We were fortunate enough to see the remains of a duckboard being uncovered after more than 80 years of being hidden. We also saw a British ammunition box being uncovered, with live rounds of .303 being dug up with every movement of the spade.

A short ceremony of remembrance was carried out before we left."

And we admit : hearing the sounds of the Last Post at the battlefield site on that sunny September day, sent shivers down our spines.

Members of the Durham Light Infantry Association visiting the battlefield site on the canal bank.

An emotional moment :

Buglers George Atkinson and Tommy McKenna sound the Last Post, in remembrance of the found DLI soldier, and the many dozens of other soldiers killed at the site, and whose remains are still there.

For ever.

Friday 29 september 2000

The climax is near : shortly before noon pumping starts, which will take a few hours. And when only about 1 foot of water is left in the well, a dozen platform rails are removed and a ladder is let down.

Pumped out and ready for internal exploration :

the well.

After a few elementary precautions have been taken, the walls of the shaft visually inspected for its stability, and the collar cleared of loose bricks that might fall down, one of the Diggers descends. One of the Old Guard, it must be said, who, armed with a video and photo camera, claimed the right to go down the first (as 'Boesinghenaar'), also wanting to feel physically, and even more : mentally, what it is like to descend into a depth in which for the past 80 years - and maybe a hundred more - not one single living soul had descended.

Diggers have their ups, and their downs ... In this case 6,30 m (20 1/2 ft.)

One of the most striking features : the alternating layers of yellow and red bricks.

Anybody who had hoped that this well bottom would like Aladdin's Cave reveal heaps of interesting war stuff, was in for a disillusion. Going with the hands through that one foot deep water on the wooden floor produced nothing but a 2 inch thick layer of sludge and mud. Apart from that : nothing, except a leaden pump tube (of the original 19th century pump).

And this absence of anything material on the bottom was understandable. The well had been used as a drinking water reservoir, and had to be kept clean at all costs. And after the war the rail platform and the earth on it must have sealed off the well almost hermetically.

After measurements and photographs had been taken the well was covered again with the rails. One mystery less... And so : forward to the next mystery. And that was some 100 meters to the west : the continued exploration of the International Trench. But that is for a later article.

The well (circle) with the covering rails, and the trenches that link up with it. Total length from west (down) to east (up) : almost 13 meters. Duckboards of 2,00 m (6 ft. 7 in.) long and 0,34 m (1 ft. 1 in.) wide.

 

 

What will the future bring for the Well ? Filling it in would archaeologically and historically be unforgivable. Arrangements have been made wit the owner (Ypes NV) that this well, which fortunately was ot planned under the actual plant, but just near the edge of the driveway, will be integrated in the green area as it is planned. And it is our intention to provide the well later with a board explaining its historical significance.

 


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