Ploegsteert Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing is located near the village of the same name in Belgium, about ten miles south of Ypres (Ieper). In 1914 the Brits quickly renamed the village ‘Plug Street’ and so it remains to them today.
There are nine CWGC Cemeteries in the area, and the Memorial is situated adjacent to one of these, called the Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berks) Cemetery. Some of the other cemeteries aren’t accessible by road.
The Memorial was designed in the Pantheon style by H. Chalton Bradshaw, First Secretary of the Royal Fine Arts Commission, who was also the designer of the CWGC Memorial to the Missing at Cambrai in France and the Guards Division monument at St. James Park, London. Prominently situated at the Ploegsteert Memorial are two striking Lions Couchant, sculpted by Gilbert Ledward, which flank the entrance.
The Memorial is 38 ½ feet tall and 70 feet in diameter. Commemorated on these walls are 11,367 men, British and South Africans, who died in the area and have no known grave. Throughout the war ‘Plug Street’ was a quiet sector – neither side launched any offensives here – and so the casualties reflected on the Memorial and in the cemeteries are the result of attrition due principally to desultory shelling and disease. Nevertheless, there are only twelve CWGC WW1 Memorials in the world that commemorate more lost soldiers.
‘Plug Street’ is especially known in WW1 history for two things. First, it is widely accepted that the site of the famous Christmas 1914 truce is at St. Yvon, about 1 ½ miles NNE of Ploegsteert.
Second, it is where from January until June of 1916 the out-of-favor Winston Churchill served as an acting lieutenant colonel commanding the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers (6/RSF). Churchill was an old soldier of sorts, a Sandhurst graduate (barely), a veteran of combat in India, the Sudan and South Africa, and he still held his commission as a Major of Yeomanry with the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. For someone as well-connected as Churchill it was a mere formality to get himself transferred to active duty.
He did a short training stint with the 2nd Grenadier Guards but was unable to get a post there (he was angling for a brigade). Instead BEF Commander Sir John French had proposed the command of the new 39th Division, and general officer’s uniforms had been ordered from the tailors, but French was sacked by Prime Minister Asquith. French’s successor Sir Douglas Haig and Churchill had never got on well, so he had to settle for a seriously under strength ‘Kitchener’s Mob’ battalion.
While this was playing out Churchill simply assigned himself to a junket around the Front, including stints with the French, where a French general gave him the Horizon Blue Adrian pattern steel helmet that Churchill favored throughout his service; he even wore it when sitting for a portrait by Sir John Lavery.
Although his appointment was resented as being political, he was a satisfactory commander in a period when the unit was simply holding a defensive position. His superiors criticized him for lapses of discipline and ‘undue leniency’, and he incurred jealousy among his fellow officers (and favor with his men) because he could get equipment, supplies and privileges for his unit. He was still a rich and influential member of the upper class, so he enjoyed amenities ranging from his own bathtub to his own aircraft, which he used to flit back and forth to London from time to time (he learned to fly in 1913).
The generals passed him over for command of his own brigade, and 6/RSF was placed low on the list for replacements, so it dwindled until it was amalgamated with 7/RSF, and Churchill was out of a job.
However, through the entire period of his service Churchill still held his seat in Parliament , which wasn’t uncommon during WW1 (there were MP’s that were killed in action). In March Churchill took two weeks away from 6/RSF and delivered a major speech on the floor of the Commons, in which he asked for better aircraft, the rapid development of armored vehicles, conscription and less draconian discipline. Having carved out his stance, Churchill slowly worked his way back into the War Cabinet, becoming Minister of Munitions in July 1917.
When I first visited ‘Plug Street’ many years ago the CWGC sites were all there was to see. By 2011 there had been added a marker at the Christmas Truce site and a plaque about Churchill on the front of the Mairie. Now there are a visitor’s center, museum, marked trails and guided tours as well.
Since June 1999 The Last Post (British equivalent of Taps) has been performed live at the site on the first Friday of each month. See this here.
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