The Belgian frontier village of Watou is about 10 miles to the East of Cassel and straddles one the main evacuation routes towards Dunkirk. In the First World War it was behind the lines of the British held Ypres Salient and many British soldiers were billeted here. During May 1940, Watou was in British control, specifically the 2nd Division, until the night of the 29th May. It appears that the Somerforce’s Breakout of the morning of 30th May was heading towards Watou in the mistaken belief that it was in still in British hands.
Air Raids and Burial Ground
Watou was subjected to two German air-raids during the Battle of Cassel on 27th and 28th May 1940, which inflicted civilian and military casualties, some of whom were buried in nearby front gardens. During the Cassel breakout on 30th May there were additional British casualties that needed burial and so a burial ground was purchased by the mayor just outside the town on the Houtkerkestraat Road. It was used to re-bury the air-raid victims, as well as providing graves for Major Cartland and the men from his column near to where they had been killed.
The site has never been developed, although all the victims have since been re-interred to other graveyards. It has become a copse of overgrown trees that is held sacrosanct to this day.
Air raid damage photographed in Watou, 27th May 1940. The convoy was heading North through Watou towards Dunkirk and had been strafed by German bombers. B&W images courtesy of Jan Daschot. The same scene in 2019
Flemish Grave documentation kept in the mayor of Watou’s office describing Major Cartland’s burial details and belongings. Similar documents exist for all the other casualties buried here.
Abandoned British and French Army vehicles on roads towards Dunkirk, between Poperinghe and Proven, May 1940. Photograph courtesy Jan Daschot