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Zillebeke Churchyard

The commune of Zillebeke contains many Commonwealth cemeteries as the front line trenches ran through it during the greater part of the First World War.

The Commonwealth plot at Zillebeke Churchyard was designed by W H Cowlishaw.

Cemetery Location

Zillebeke Churchyard is located 3 Km east of Ieper town centre on the Maaldestedestraat, a road leading from the Meenseweg (N8), connecting Ieper to Menen. From Ieper town centre the Meenseweg is located via Torhoutstraat and right onto Basculestraat. Basculestraat ends at a main cross roads, directly over which begins the Meenseweg. 2 Km along the Meenseweg lies the right hand turning onto the Maaldestedestraat. The churchyard itself is located 1.8 Km along the Maaldestedestraat on the left hand side of the road, within the village of Zillebeke.


This is one of the most visited cemeteries in the Salient and is known to many as the ‘Aristocrats Cemetery’ due to the high number of officers who were members of the aristocracy. A large majority of those aristocrats were already serving as regular soldiers when the War began, the exception being Second Lieutenant Baron Alexis George de Gunzburg (Grave B.1) who was Russian by birth his parents had a town house in Paris and a chateau outside the city. He was educated at Eton and was working in London when war was declared. He acquired British citizenship and joined the army being commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the 11th Hussars in September 1914. He was attached to the Royal Horse Guards, 7th Cavalry Brigade as an Interpreter. He was killed on 6 November 1914 while carrying a message for Lord Kavanagh, commanding the Brigade, to Colonel Gordon Chesney Wilson of the Royal Horse Guards, who was also killed that day and is buried in the cemetery at Grave B.2

They were typical of the social elite of the Edwardian period and the British Army officer corps at the beginning of the war which was still socially and educationally exclusive. The aristocracy provided forty-one-percent of the entire officer corps and the officer corps was still very much influenced by the unwritten code of gentlemanly conduct. All of the British officers commemorated or buried at Zillebeke attended public schools before being commissioned and eight passed through Sandhurst and are very representative of the Edwardian officer class that went to War in 1914.

Many of the aristocrats buried in Zillebeke Churchyard fought in the First Battle of Ypres in late October and early November 1914. We think of them as seasoned soldiers however, Second Lieutenant John Henry Gordon Lee Steere, (Grave F.1), 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, had only been in the frontline a matter of weeks when he was killed on 17 November 1914. Falkirk District man L/Cpl Neil Thomson, 11th Battalion Royal Scots (Grave J.1), was employed as a miner in his local colliery when he enlisted in August 1914 and died, not in battle, but when part of a working party. Of the aristocrats buried here eight are listed in Burke’s Peerage, one is from a Russian aristocratic family, and three are in Burke’s Landed Gentry. The remainder have links to aristocratic or wealthy professional families.

(Captain Richard Long Dawson, 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards Grave E.6)

Reconstruction of the church began in 1923, and apart from a few minor changes and improvements made by Georges Lernould, the Ypres architect, it is a replica of the original church.

(IWM Q 17848 View of Zillebeke in 1919. The mound is all that remains of the Church.)

(IWM Q 57191 Red Cross post in Zillebeke a day or so before the village was destroyed, October 1914.)

Memorials located inside the Church

In addition to the seventeen 1914 burials there is one other 1914 casualty who is commemorated with a plaque inside the church his name also appears on the Menin Gate, Lieutenant Alfred Felix Schuster, 4th (Queens Own) Hussars. Age 31. Died 20 November 1914. He was killed in the fighting at Hooge and although his body was recovered by the regiment there is no record as to where it was buried. The plaque was placed in the church after it was rebuilt and there is no record as to why however, the fact it is in the church suggests that it maybe that he was buried in the churchyard.

Also inside the church there are a further two permanent memorials, a stained glass window commissioned by Mrs Evelyn St George in memory of her son Second

Lieutenant Howard Avenel Bligh St George (pictured) who was killed on 15 November 1914. The window was designed by Reginald Bell an depicts St George killing the dragon and framed by the coat of arms of the St George family. Another less obvious to view are the church bells heard each day. They were gifted by the de Gunzburg family and were first heard on the eve of he village fair in August 1924. The larger of the bells is called ‘Catharina’ and weighs 744kg and the smaller named ‘Alexis’ weighs 397kg and has the inscription ‘Given by Baroness Henriette de Gunzburg to remember her son, the soldier Baron Alexis George de Gunzburg who fell in Zillebeke in the year 1914.’

Unidentified burials

Although Zillebeke village was behind the front lines until April 1918, it was in full view from the German lines and was regularly shelled throughout the War and this shelling destroyed a number of graves and the grave markers. Today, six headstones mark the graves of unidentified remains of men. It is possible that Lieutenant Alfred Schuster is one of them.

Controversy surrounds another that of Mid-Antrim MP, Captain the Honorable Arthur Edward O’Neill, ‘A’ Squadron, 2nd Life Guards, holding the dubious distinction of being the first MP killed in the War. His name is listed on the Menin Gate. His son Lieutenant-Colonel Shane Edward Robert O'Neill fell in the 1939-1945 War. Accounts of the time suggest that he was buried in the churchyard however, the CWGC remain non-committal as they hold no records of his burial. The contemporary 1914 accounts indicate that he

was buried next to Grave B.2 Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon Chesney Wilson, Royal Horse Guards, and Grave C.3 Second Lieutenant William Sinclair Peterson, Royal Horse Artillery, attached to the 2nd Life Guards. All three were killed on 6 November 1914. Killed in the same action was Major the Hon Hugh Dawnay, commanding 2nd Life Guards, he was only in command for twelve days before he was killed. He was a close friend of Winston Churchill with whom he had served at Omdurman. Both Dawnay and O’Neill were thought to have been buried in the churchyard however, Dawnay’s body was identified in 1924 as the unidentified Life Guards officer found in Harlebeke New British Cemetery therefore casting doubt on O’Neill being buried in Zillebeke Churchyard and why the CWGC remain non-committal.

Contemporary accounts of Zillebeke Churchyard

Captain Sir Morgan Crofton, an officer with the 2nd Life Guards, 7th Cavalry Brigade, wrote in his diary on Wednesday 11 November of the deaths of Dawnay and O’Neill: ‘Saw the account in the Daily Mail of Dawnay’s and Arthur O’Neill’s deaths. They were killed in the counter attack at Zillebeke on Nov 6th when the Regiment was brought up to fill a gap in the line. We had several Casualties that day. Dawnay had only just returned from the staff to take command as we had had so many losses. A very fine soldier and a delightful man. Arthur O’Neill returned to the Regiment on the outbreak of War from being a Member of Parliament.’

The Regiment were in Railway Dugouts and he wrote on Thursday 19 November: ‘Near Zillebeke we rejoined the rest of the Regiment, and orders were received to spend the night in some dugouts which had been cut in the bank of a deep railway cutting, at a point 1 mile out of Ypres…. On the whole the dugouts were very comfortable. They consisted of 6 sheds, made chiefly out of salvaged material from Zillebeke.’

On the 20 November he walked back to Railway Dugouts via Zillebeke and wrote of what he saw: ‘… found a fearful state of wreckage. Every house had been hit, whole fronts were torn away. The steeple had been knocked off the Church which was filled with Bricks and rubbish. The Altar had been hit and was covered with rubble under which the Altar cloth could be seen torn and stained. All the Candelabra, Pictures, statues, etc were lying on the floor, broken and torn off the walls. In one corner a cupboard had been broken open, and the gold embroidered vestments were lying about on the floor covered with Bricks and Mortar. All the windows were broken but the Organ was untouched….. Outside in the Churchyard, marked by rough wooden crosses were the newly made graves of Lord Bernard Gordon-Lennox, Lord Congleton and Symes-Thomson, all of the Grenadier Guards, also Lt Peterson of my Regiment, and about 20 others all of whom had been killed in the attack of Nov 6th when Dawnay and O’Neill were also killed.’

(IWM HU 122606 Major Bernard Charles Gordon-Lennox) Authors image

He next visited the Church on 9 February: ‘The body of the Church had almost disappeared, and so had the steeple, the ruined tower alone remained… In the porch of the church, the only habitable place, lived a French Guard of a corporal and four men, though for what reason they were there nobody knew. Inside the church lay remnants of a 10th century font, and several broken plaster saints. The Church Yard had several enormous shell holes in it, which had uprooted the monuments, smashed open the vaults and laid bare the coffins and the dead. These vaults were half full of rainwater, and in many cases the zinc or tin coffins were floating about, with their occupants exposed or bobbing over the sides…. I was very glad to see that the graves of Bernard Gordon-Lennox, Congleton and Stocks of the Grenadiers, and Peterson of my Regiment were untouched, though their names, which had been written in pencil on wooden crosses, were in danger of being washed out by the rain and bad weather.

By 1917 a network of communication trenches had been created in the area leading to the front line at Observatory Ridge and Sanctuary Wood. These theoretically allowed for easier unobserved movement. One of these trenches, Zillebeke Street passed close by the church. Lieutenant-Colonel, the Hon Ralph Gerard Alexander Hamilton, Master of Belhaven and the only son of the 10th Lord Belhaven and Stenton, passed Zillebeke Church on 17 May 1917. He was on his way up the line to one of his gun Observation Posts (O.P.) near Sanctuary Wood. His commanded a Royal Artillery Brigade and his gun positions were in this area: ‘The Colonel, Ryder, and I rode part of the way up this morning. We only got as far as ‘Den Groenen jager’ mounted, as they were shelling the road in front very heavily with 5.9’s. From there we walked to the corner of Zillebeke Bund (the lake located to the west of the village and where the British had dugouts in the high bank of the lake), where we got a guide who took us up to the front line, near Sanctuary Wood. We passed within 30 yards of Zillebeke church, but as we were in a great hurry, I did not go to see Peter Petersen’s grave. It was a good thing I did not stop, as a shell burst just over the place, less than a minute after I passed.

(Linesman map. showing communication trenches to the front line)

Edmund Blunden as an officer with the Royal Sussex Regiment remembers passing Zillebeke Church in 1917 and recalled in ‘Undertones of War’: ‘A short ditch led to Zillebeke Church by a little stream which murmured over pots and pans, as having no reason to change its habits because of a dull war; ruined brickwork hugged the ground… Zillebeke tileyard (the Tuilerie now the site of a British cemetery) had ceased work and a little smoke there was naturally a dangerous thing. The church tower was not yet altogether down, but one lost its architectural distinctions in one’s quick movement over the road, under German observation, one’s eye managed to register nevertheless a number of wooden crosses… From that point, two trenches went to the firing line, Vince Street, the north one and commanded a pretty view of a farm called Dormy House… the trench led into a brutalized little wood known to mournful history as Maple Copse; and so did the other trench from the south, Zillebeke Street, which had shallowly twisted along past a battalion headquarters, Valley Cottages. The only way to get to Valley Cottages was to hoist one’s self out of Zillebeke Street into the full gaze of competent German observers… It was best to have no business in those cottages in daylight.

(Zillebeke Street today. Authors image)

Canadian’s killed June 1916

The Canadian’s were in the front line around Zillebeke in June 1916. On the 6 June at approximately 11.45pm. ‘B’ Company, 24th Battalion, Victoria Rifles of Canada, under the command of Lieutenant C.S.B. White, where passing in single file along the road in front of Zillebeke church when a heavy shell burst among number 5 Platoon. The company commander was hurled into a roadside ditch, twelve men lay dead on the road, including two from ‘B’ Company’s Signallers, eleven were severely wounded. An Artillery battery was held up in the road, a dangerous place to be as the Germans continued to shell the area, while a party of stretcher bearers cleared the wounded and the dead were moved to the side of the road. They were buried in the churchyard however, only two have marked graves the others were so badly injured that they could not be recognised or the graves were subsequently destroyed in shelling.

Zillebeke Lake

Zillibeke Lake was known by various names during the War, Etang de Zillebeke, or Zillebeke Bung were two common names. This was the only significant body of water in the front line. The water was never fit to drink with signs warning the soldiers against this. The high banks were tunnelled into to create dugouts and an Advanced Dressing Station was established here and the Royal Field Artillery had their gun sites in the area. The pathway, known to the men as Hell-blast Corner because it was observed by the Germans who would shell the men and supplies going to the front line can still be seen today. Located in a house near here was a Brigade HQ used by various units. Past Hell blast corner are the communication trenches, Vince Street and Zillebeke Street which were used as a routes to the front line. The 1/5th Leicestershire Regiment described the area in 1915: ‘ The lake is triangular and entirely artificial, being surrounded by a broad causeway, 6 feet high, with a pathway along the top. On the western edge the ground falls away leaving a bank some twenty feet high, in which were built the ‘Lake dugouts’ – the home of one of the support battalions…

(Zillibeke Lake today. Authors image)

The Zillebeke Raid of June 1918

This action involved 350 men from 1/4th Duke of Wellingtons this was about half of the battalion. The idea behind the raid was to capture prisoners and to cause damage to the enemy. Although, the most important element was to give the newly drafted officers and men an opportunity to gain experience of close contact with the enemy. The whole operation was to be over within two hours. Twelve platoons comprised the raiding party and each had a specific role and they were to be in deployed in no man’s land by 11.30pm ready to begin their advance at midnight. The artillery were to lay down a barrage along the line of Leinster Road and a smoke barrage to cover the advance with fire commencing at 12.15am. The forward platoons were to take the first objectives and then on seeing a red flare fired by the commander of ‘B’ Company, the support platoons were to advance to Half Way House. The operation ending with the raiders withdrawing at 1.30am.

The two platoons of ‘C’ Company had been detached to capture the German position on Hill 40 however, they came across a German working party before they could do this. The Germans retired some fifty yards beyond the Hill and the British came under sustained artillery fire but still managed to hold the position until they withdrew at 1.30am. Elsewhere, the raid was going well. By setting off fifteen minutes before the British barrage was due to begin the raiders had managed to avoid the German counter fire and got through unscathed. The right flank secured Hellblast Corner while the central platoon came under fire from a well secured German machinegun position fifty yards from the Tuilerie. Cutting the wire they managed to get within ten yards of the position before rushing it and capturing the gun and four prisoners. ‘B’ Company came under fire from three machine gun positions and trench mortars located 150 yards from the Tuilerie Chimney and they decided to secure the ground until it was time to withdraw. ‘A’ Company, on the left and on the other side of Warrington Road, were given the signal, at 1am, to advance and they crossed Cavalry Road with the leading two platoons occupying positions some two hundred yards further on. A large German dugout was found near the road and after grenades hand been thrown in three German prisoners were taken. ‘A’ Company were ready to advance to Half Way House but did not see the signal that was fired at 1am and the withdrawal, aided by rockets being fired from the Ramparts at Ypres and white tape being laid to guide the raiders back through the British wire, began at 1.30am. The raid objectives had been achieved with eleven prisoners taken, a light machine gun captured and damage inflicted on the German positions. The cost was three dead and seventeen wounded. Two officers received the Military Cross, three NCOs the Distinguished Conduct Medal (one of them Sergeant Loosemore had already won the V.C. in August 1917), and sixteen other ranks were awarded the Military Medal.

(Linesman Map. showing the ground over which the raid took place)

‘Glubb Pasha’ An Engineer at Zillibeke

John Glubb was an eighteen year old officer in the Royal Engineers who had his first experience of the trenches at Zillebeke. He was later to become a Lieutenant-General and commander of the Arab Legion throughout the Second World War and then until 1956 and became famous as ‘Glubb Pasha’. He died in 1986.

He arrived in Zillebeke on 14 December 1915 and he wrote: ‘We are a little way behind the front line trenches, and are badly overlooked by the Germans, both from the east of Sanctuary Wood, and from Hills 59 and 60 on the south.’ He wrote of the village of Zillebeke: ‘The village is completely in ruins. Every shattered fragment of a house is full of filth, old clothes, rags and bedding, left behind by the original inhabitants when they fled, and since used for sleeping on or torn up to dress wounds. Strewn around are thousands of half-empty jam or bully beef tins, the contents putrefying, together with remains of rations, scraps of bone and meat. There is no living thing visible but rats, big brown rats, who themselves are often mangy, and who barely trouble to get out of your way.

His billet was in a dugout under the ruins of a house which he described as ‘the size of a large dinner table – nine feet by twelve.’ He had to crawl on all fours to enter the dugout and it was in a state of darkness day and night. On the 16 December he went to work in Sanctuary Wood repairing and rebuilding the trenches. The Engineers built the trenches that are a feature of the Trench Museum at Sanctuary Wood. The German trenches were only, in places, 25 yards from the British. On the 17 and 18 December they had to abandon work on the trenches: ‘because the gunners wanted to have a beano on the German trenches.’ The trenches were so close together that the British trenches had to be evacuated to ensure the safety of the men. On the 19 December he wrote: ‘We were woken at 5.30am by the loud krump of a shell landing close by. Others followed in quick succession, and from 5.30am to 6.15am, Zillibeke was plastered with shells of every calibre from field artillery to about nine inch. At the same time, there was a beastly smell of gas, and we were all weeping at the eyes. I dodged out of our shelter and ran along to check the men’s shelters, but none had been hit.

He went with a working party to repair the trench known as Gourock Road but because of constant German shelling the work was stopped early. He sent his men back via Dormy House Lane, a communication trench leading from Sanctuary Wood, and he returned via Zillibeke Street, leaving from Maple Copse, which was under shell fire. ‘I went down Zillibeke Street. I found a man of the Durham Light Infantry lying in the trench with a broken leg. I and Sergeant Frankenburgh, two sappers and a DLI sergeant carried the man to the dressing station in Maple Copse. The poor fellow’s thigh was smashed and he suffered agony with every movement. He kept crying ‘No! No! I can’t! O God, leave me alone!’’

(Linesman Map. showing Gourock Road, Maple Copse and Zillibeke Street)

On 22 December he went on a tour of the front line with his commanding officer, colonel and the CO of the 6th Durham Light Infantry. While they were standing in the trench a German ‘whizz-bang’ shell burst amid the group. It killed three men and the CO of the DLI, Colonel Jeffreys was heard to reply to one of the men when asked ‘Are you hit, sir? I am afraid I am.’ Glubb’s own CO, Colonel Symon’s, was also hit and was lying in the bottom of the trench with a thigh wound. Glubb ran down the trench for stretcher bearers and Symons was carried to the Dressing Station at Maple Copse. It was while at the Dressing Station that Glubb noticed his own wound ‘My left foot had felt numb since the shell burst, but I had been too preoccupied to notice it much. Now I looked down at tit and saw that there was a gash in my gumboot and that blood was coming out. I asked the doctor to have a look at it, and he cut off my boot, and told me that my big toe was smashed up and must have been hit by a shell fragment. He tied it up and gave me a tetanus injection. I hobbled back down Zillebeke Street to our dug-out.’ He was then transferred to a Casualty Clearing Station at Hazebrouk so ending his first short encounter with the trenches.



12647 L/Cpl Neil Thomson

11th Battalion Royal Scots

Age 23



Son of Mr N Thomson, of Crosscroes Farm, Avonbridge


Zillebeke Churchyard contains thirty two Commonwealth burials and commemorations of the First World War. Fourteen (mainly officers) belonged to the Foot Guards or the Household Cavalry who died in 1914. Six of the burials are unidentified and special memorials commemorate two casualties whose graves were destroyed by shell fire.

UK- 22

Canadian - 10

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