Langemark is a village in West Flanders, Belgium that was the site of three engagements in the First World War. Towards the end of the First Battle of Ypres, Oct. 21st– November 14th, 1914, the German command sensed a weak spot in the British defenses here and rashly sent inexperienced German reservists of the XXVI Corps in Napoleonic-style waves against Tommy Atkins and the Mad Minute, resulting in heavy casualties. On April 22nd, 1915, at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans used gas for the first time on the Western Front near here, panicking French colonial troops into a retreat that was stopped by the Canadians at Frezenberg Ridge. Finally, during the second phase of the Third Battle of Ypres (August 16th -18th, 1917), also called the Passchendaele Offensive, British units pushed the Germans out of Langemark but lost momentum and the ANZAC’s had to be brought in to get to the top of the ridge.
Today Langemark is principally known for its German cemetery. With 44,530 burials, it is the largest Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission) WW1 cemetery on the Western Front.
German military cemeteries are quite different from the British or American sites. There is no Cross of Sacrifice, Stone of Remembrance, brooding lion or eagle. The few sculptures in these cemeteries tend to be depictions of mourning families, in fact, the whole theme is mourning rather than patriotism or glorious sacrifice. There are no flowers but lots of trees, and everything is black or gray rather than white, so the sites appear dark and gloomy even on sunny days. The Germans believed in burying several bodies in each grave so that the dead would not lie alone. Often the limbs of the bodies were intertwined to signify comradeship.
There are no memorial tablets listing the names of the missing, although there are mass graves where the names of those known to be buried within are displayed. Langemark has one of these that contains 24,917 burials – two of them are British soldiers.
The cemetery is inextricably entwined with the First Battle of Langemark. Many of those reservists mentioned above were from the quasi-military organizations that were the fraternities of the time at German secondary schools, universities and technical institutes. These student groups had volunteered en masse – one source reports that the total number signing up was 40,761. They were sent into action after less than seven weeks of training and led by elderly reserve officers unfamiliar with modern weaponry.
“Freiburger Tagblatt, No. 263, November 12, 1914:
WTB [Wolff Telegraph Service]. Berlin, November 11. Report from General Headquarters. On the Yser section of the front we made good progress yesterday. We stormed Dixmuiden. Approximately 500 prisoners of war and about nine machine guns fell into our hands. Further to the south our troops forced their way over the canal. To the west of Langemarck our young regiments attacked, singing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles while advancing against the enemy lines and taking them.”
Victory was claimed but not achieved and there was no mention of the appalling losses. Here was born the legend that the student battalions sang the first stanza of the patriotic song Das Deutschlandlied, while charging the foe, and the event became known in Germany as the KINDERMORD VON YPERN (“The Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres”). The lost student soldiers were seen by their survivors as symbolic of a glorious sacrifice for the nation and an inspiration to the youth of future generations. Pictures widely distributed at the time showed the fallen sleeping in the lap of Christ.
In 1928 a group of students and war veterans visited Langemark and, finding the graves scattered and overgrown, started the effort to build an appropriate cemetery, which was dedicated on July 10th, 1932. At that time, a German attending wrote; “The earth of Flanders which drank the blood of the German youth has once again become holy ground”.
On the center of the large mass grave mentioned above there is a large headstone bearing a bronze wreath of oak leaves with the sculpted biblical words (in German)
“I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
There are hundreds of flush markers on the graves of 19,613 more soldiers, each stone bearing the names of several men. There are four life-sized mourning figures standing in reverent silence at the front of the mass grave, a 1956 sculpture by Emil Krieger (1902-1979).
On one side of the entrance building there is a chapel-like room with oak panels inscribed with 6,313 names of soldiers who were originally buried in the lower part of the cemetery. On the opposite side are panels with the names of the approximately 3,000 student soldiers buried here, and inevitably the site became known as the Student Cemetery – Der Studentenfriedhof.