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Ploegsteert: British Bunkers and Dugouts

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

Ploegsteert Wood Sector

On the western side of Ploegsteert Wood was The Strand communication trench and this was the main entrance used by troops and carrying parties going to the trench lines.

Q29018 British troops outside shelters alongside a duck board track known as the Strand 19th October, 1915

The paths, tracks, rides, and fire alleys of the Ploegsteert Wood had been named by various regiments serving in the area at one time or another and many have London names. It was the London Rifle Brigade who were responsible for much of the cartography of the Ploegsteert area. The Strand, Fleet Street, Oxford circus, Rotten Row, Hyde Park Corner and Bunhill Row which is where the London Rifle Brigade had their headquarters. The Strand ran through the wood and bisected Hunter Avenue, this was a main fortified route that went from Ploegsteert to the Warneton Road. Hunter Avenue went via spy Corner to Rotten Row and past Moated Farm to St Yves, passing the cottage that Bruce Bairnsfather occupied at Christmas 1914.

IWM Q 56174 Major R L Haymes OC 6th Siege Battery RGA. The Moated Farm, Ploegsteert Wood, December 1914

IWM Q 56171 East Lancs. Regiment in reserve. Hunter's Lane, Ploegsteert Wood, December 1914

Linesman Map showing tracks in Ploegsteert Wood

Advanced Dressing Station, Charing Cross

The Australian Central Dressing Station 'Charing Cross', so called because, as it is in London, of its proximity to The Strand communication trench. It replaced one from 1914 that had been named by London troops of 11 Brigade under the command of Aylmer Hunter Weston. He was to command VII Corps which relieved the ANZAC II Corps here in August 1917.

ADS at Charing Cross. Authors image

The triple bunker was built by New Zealand engineers as an Advanced Dressing Station for the Messines offensive of June 1917. Described as ‘three concreted nissen huts – in good shelter’ it was used in April 1917 by the 11th Field Ambulance, 3rd Australian Division. From May 1917 it was used by the 9th Field Ambulance with 11th Field Ambulance back again in time for the Battle of Messines. It was to be used as a line of evacuation by both New Zealand and Australian troops.


There were many artillery positions in the area and the ADS attracted a great deal of fire from German heavy guns. As well as dealing with the wounded brought in from the many Regimental Aid Posts in the area the ADS was also a shelter from walking wounded troops seeking shelter from this artillery fire. Although many shells fell in the vicinity of the ADS it was not hit. The original earth roof, to provide camouflage, is still in place. In the event that the ADS could not be used the wounded were to be evacuated to Underhill Farm ADS and if this was out of action then the Divisional Collecting Post at Touquet Berthe was to be used. Today, the bunker is used by the farmer to house chickens.


Piggeries

This concrete shelter, it was a sentry box, is located in the forecourt to the right as you go through the gates of the farm, it is on private land.

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The Piggeries was a large building in which the King of the Belgians had a kept a fine breed of pigs. It was used as a billet and the pig styles built of concrete were full of straw in which men slept. Before moving their headquarters to Rifle House, located within the wood, the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade used the Report Centre on the corner of the road leading to the Piggeries from the Messines to Armentieres Road.


Canon Frederick Scott, chaplain to the Canadian 1st Division was visiting The Piggeries when he heard that the men were to go back into the trenches. He organised a church service and had collected a large congregation at one end of the Piggeries and was about to begin when: ‘…. I became aware that there was a fight going on at the other end of the low building, and that some of the men on the outskirts of the congregation were beginning to get restive… I said, ‘Boys’, I think there is a fight going on at the other end of the Piggeries, and perhaps it would be wise to postpone the service and go and see the fight, and then return and carry on.’ The fight was soon settled by a sergeant, and then I said, ‘Now, Boys, let us go back to the other end and have the service.


The 3rd Worcestershires and 10th Cheshires, 25th Division, spent November and December 1916, including Christmas Day, in the Piggeries. They rotated in and out of the line at Ploegsteert Wood.


The 1/7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, 10th Brigade, 4th Division, Falkirk’s Territorial battalion, were here. From the 1st February the battalion was given a length of line to defend in this period they sustained their first casualties. On 17 March the battalion took

Private Andrew Chesney. Buried in the Strand Cemetery

over the line opposite Ploegsteert Wood, forever known to the ‘Tommies’ as ‘Plugstreet’ with battalion HQ being located in the Piggeries and Grand Manque Farm. Private Andrew Chesney, Service number 2344, ‘B’ Company was killed on 29 March 1915. He is buried in the Strand Cemetery and is listed under Stenhousemuir in the Roll of Honour Section. https://www.theypressalient.com/post/andrew-kidd-chesney


The 10th Infantry Brigade held a front of 600 yards and the companies of the 7th Argyll’s rotated in and out of the trenches every four days. They remained in this sector until 17th April when they came out of the line and joined the rest of the Brigade which had moved to billets at Bailleul. On the 23rd April 10th Brigade was sent to the sector north of Ypres to prepare for the catastrophic counterattack at St Julien.


Battalions of the 9th (Scottish) Division, including the 11th and 12th Royal Scots, spent time at the Piggeries and in the line at Ploegsteert Wood in April 1916. Casualties from Falkirk District are buried in Rifle House and Ploegsteert Wood Cemeteries. Read more about these here Rifle House Cemetery https://www.theypressalient.com/post/rifle-house-cemetery Ploegsteert Wood Cemetery https://www.theypressalient.com/post/ploegsteert-wood-military-cemetery


The Catacombs Generator shelter

In the western part of the wood, between Red Lodge and Hyde Park Corner, is the concrete shelter that housed a 16hp 480-volt electricity generator, supplied by the Australian Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company known as ‘The Alphabeticals’ because of their initials, AE&MMBC. This provided power for the dugouts on Hill 63 and The Catacombs, officially named Hill 63 Dugouts, the Australians gave them the name Wallangara, although it was generally called The Catacombs. This was the most ambitious engineering project undertaken by the military on either side in the war. It was a system of chambers with connecting galleries, entrances and exits and had sleeping accommodation, on bunks, for 1,200 men and accommodation for 250 officers and men in steel huts outside, these were covered by the spoil from the workings. Before them, the Canadians in 1915, had shelters and dugouts on the southern and eastern slopes of the hill.

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The Catacombs were created by the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company and used throughout 1917 and 1918 by many Australian and other units. The main entrance at Hyde Park Corner was large enough to allow a large wagon to enter and this was set up in two one-way passage systems to allow the orderly entering and exiting of men. There were nineteen passages ‘streets’ lined with bunks and some of these streets were cordoned off for officers. Senior officers had rooms that contained two bunks, and a table. Platoon officers had smaller rooms and no table. There were also chambers for electrical equipment, signalling units, a small hospital, and a canteen. There were three exits to the north and the south. To ensure a flow of air and ventilation into The Catacombs the Australian engineers lit fires at some of the entrances, this created airflow, a technique that had been used by the Romans. In March 1918 plans were put in place to provide an alternative ventilation system using fans and passing the air through filters to purify it.


The opening ceremony, in the spring of 1917, was an extraordinary affair given the location of the dugouts to the front line. It was attended by nineteen generals and their staff, a crowd of onlookers from officers and men from other units in billets nearby, a regimental band was in attendance and General Plumer, commander 2nd Army, was given the honour of opening The Catacombs. Today, the many entrances and workings are filled in or covered by the natural growth of the wood. However, you can see three of the access points from the Red Lodge Road. These are concrete culverts and span the ditch that runs alongside the road.


Machine Gun Emplacement – Bunhill Row

This was constructed in February 1916 by the 11th Labour Battalion for a Canadian Machine Gun unit and was used by other units later. The Labour Battalion had a sand and gravel pit near Courte Dreve Farm, on the south side of Hill 63 on the road to Romarin, and they mixed the aggregate here before loading it onto a light railway for transport to the construction area. It has a wide field of fire to cover the approaches through the wood from the front line from either Regent Street or The Strand.

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Shelter near Mud Lane

On entering the wood from the entrance at Mud Lane look out for the partially damaged iron and concrete shelter in the trees to the right.

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This is located near where the Toronto Avenue breastwork crossed the light railway named Vancouver Railway, previously known as Prowse Boyd Line. The Australians also had a supply dump in this area.


Hunter Avenue Forts

Today, Hunter Avenue is fenced off with wire and barriers, it is on private land and is not accessible to the public and is used for pheasant shooting.


The forts, mainly built along the reserve line at Hunter Avenue, which also had a long sandbag breastwork running alongside, were small and gave protection from shrapnel and rifle fire. They were sited where Hunter Avenue was crossed by east-west rides running through the wood. In ‘Another World 1897 – 1917’, Anthony Eden, serving with the 21st Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and in the line at Reading Fort on Hunter Avenue, described them as ‘… a series of unimpressive forts offering no protection from shell fire.’ This was true for his friend and Company Sergeant Reginald Park who was killed when a 5.9 shell landed on a disused fort in which he was rat catching. He is buried in Berks Cemetery Extension, Grave I.F.3.


Eccles Fort, Eel Pie Fort, and the two forts named Mount Everest are located on Hunter Avenue. Eccles Fort is similar in construction to the Machine Gun Emplacement on Bunhill Row and was sited to cover the approach from Hampshire Lane and the parallel trench named Subsidiary Line. Eel Pie Fort protected the light railway known as the Eel Pie Line.


Blighty Hall

This is a concrete shelter made with iron sheeting, on the two side walls, and a concrete roof. It also had sandbag protection which can be seen on the outside walls. The lintel over the door has an inscription left by one of the builders. It was constructed, as a Regimental Aid Post, in September 1917, for the 8th Division by the 15th Company Royal Engineers. The British held the wood after relieving the Australians. The Australians had established a stretcher party relay post here, used during the Battle of Messines in June 1917, which they named Wantage.


Rifle House Bunker

This is partly underground with the entrance leading to a large, flooded chamber. It is located near the cemetery with the same name. It was built by New Zealand engineers and one of them left an inscription above the entrance ‘NZE’ 6/4/1917’ It was used by the Australians as a Regimental Aid Post during the Battle of Messines and the wounded would have been sent down the line to the Advanced Dressing Station at Charing Cross.


Lewisham Lodge

This is located close to Ploegsteert Wood Cemetery just off the track known as Fleet Street. It is rather unsubstantial for a concrete shelter, and it certainly did not withstand the shell that hit it. It is likely that it was constructed over a pre-existing sandbag shelter that was being used as an infantry headquarters.

Lewisham Lodge. Authors image

Prowse Point Cemetery

Within the grounds of the cemetery, you can make out the roof of what was a Regimental Aid Post. The Aid Post had been in this location since 1915 however, it was the Australians who strengthened it as part of their planning for the Battle of Messines. It consisted of a strong dressing room, the roof of which can be seen, and sixteen smaller dugouts, and one for the Regimental Medical Officer. The 10th Field Ambulance used this RAP during the Battle of Messines.

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Canpac Concrete Shelters

These concrete shelters are named after the light railway that was nearby, the Canadian Pacific, which went on westward into the Wood.

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They are located by taking the track opposite the Generator Housing and they are a little way down this track which also leads to the Piggeries. The shelters, one is slightly damaged from artillery shell hits and the other more so, were used by troops of the artillery batteries located in the wood.

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