Using the War Diary and other accounts, I recreated a ‘Cassel Breakout Walk’ in 2019. Although it isn’t possible to walk directly over farmland, the flat landscape gives a good impression of the features that the Somerforce soldiers would have used to dead-reckon their way towards the Dunkirk beaches.
I used the newly-created Flemish gardens at the Jardin du Mont des Recollets, close to one of 367 Battery’s Northern gun positions, as a starting point.
A lot of accounts seem to exaggerate the distances, for example Watou is described as being ‘20 miles from Cassel’ when in reality it is less than 10 miles. I think this reflects the difficulty they had in negotiating farmland in the dark without adequate maps while being pursued by hostile enemy fire.
An obvious plume of flames and black smoke from Dunkirk town would have been visible on their horizon to their left as the columns of soldiers advanced cross-country through the Flanders plain towards the Belgian border. The two mounds of Cassel and the Mont des Recollects would have been visible behind the men as the only high ground between them and the sea.
Looking North towards Dunkirk in 1940
There are roadside ditches and hedgerows which would have provided some cover in darkness, and scattered farm buildings that would also have offered temporary shelter. At the point Winnezeele comes into view, with its obvious church spire, the organised columns of men would have broken down into smaller individual groups dodging German fire.
Bois St Acaire
The most atmospheric part of this walk is the track that runs through the Bois St Acaire; this gives an impression of being unchanged in the 80 years since it was the scene of mass casualties and surrender after German shelling.
Once the Belgian border is crossed, the town of Watou becomes visible. It is here that the majority of Somerforce and, presumably, the 140th Regiment encountered the most heavy German resistance and where most were herded into captivity. Townsfolk of Watou remember the British POW’s being assembled by German forces in the town square before being force-marched South in the direction of Lille.
Watou Town square in 2019, where many of the Cassel garrison soldiers were congregated by German forces before being force-marched into captivity.
Major Cartland and the Temporary Burial Ground
The ditch where Major Ronald Cartland’s column made a last stand, accompanied by several 140th Regiment soldiers is, I think, adjacent to the main D17 Dunkirk road about 200 yards to the North of Watou, adjacent to the site of the temporary burial ground.
Temporary burial ground, seen from fields to the West. Watou
Roadside ditch alongside the burial ground on the Houtkerkestraat towards Watou
The Route in Photographs, 2019
Various scenes at the Franco-Belgian border near Watou