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 the 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.
Ten civilians and forty-nine soldiers had died in and around Watou during May 1940 of which thirty-five were British, thirteen French and one of unknown identity. It appears that of the British casualties buried here, the majority had been participating in the Breakout on 29th-30th May 1940.
Three locals, Omer Leupe, Jerome Alleweireldt and Pascal Vallaey accepted the arduous task of exhuming corpses and making an inventory of personal items. Their working equipment consisted of “two buckets of pure water, a litre of creoline, 50 gms of cotton wool, 100 gms of iodine ink, 2 bandages, a broom, a bottle of strong drink and about 20 cigarettes (Belga or similar)”. By November 1940 all 49 soldiers had been reburied.
After the war, in January 1948, the British victims were transferred to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Hotton, and from October 1949 the French victims were slowly repatriated to France, mostly by their relatives. The one unknown soldier was reburied alongside the graves of WWI victims in the local church cemetery. By the end of 1957, the municipality of Watou decided to lease the burial ground and the site merged back into the landscape.
Around 1978, the local Doolaeghe family bought the plot as space to expand their transport company. However, due to an incident with one of their trucks, the neighbouring plot had been sold to another farmer before the sale had been agreed. Doolaeghe never sold on the original piece of land. It was turned it into a quiet piece of woodland with conifers and poplars, enclosed by a privet hedge. There was even briefly a small fishpond for musing and relaxing.
The Burial Ground at Watou, an unmarked clump of overgrown trees
The Burial Ground in 1940 (courtesy Jan Daschot)
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, obvious on the approach into Watou from the North, that is held sacrosanct to this day.
I have listed the men buried here during 1940-1948 by Regiment below:
Graves Concentration Report Form showing some of the burials recorded at Watou
East Riding Yeomanry, now buried at CWG Hotton
Major Geoffrey RADCLIFFE
Captain Thomas SISSONS
Captain Donald HALL
2nd Lt. Leonard BRABROOK 124411
2nd Lt. John COCKIN
2nd Lt. Lt Richard HUDSON
Corporal Robert SMITH
Lance Corporal Basil BALL
Trooper William OSTLER 7887355
Trooper Arthur TODD, 7893113
Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, now buried at CWG Hotton
Private Oscar ADAMS
Private Harold SHILCOCK 5387125
Private Denis COMLEY
Gloucester Regiment, now buried at CWG Hotton
Private Hugh POWELL
4th Battalion Cheshire’s, now buried at CWG Hotton
2nd Lt Francis GOLLAND 90570
Warrant Officer Robert SHEILS
Royal Engineers, now buried at CWG Hotton
Driver Walter GILCHRIST
Middlesex Regiment, now buried at CWG Hotton
Private Richard COVERDALE
19th Field Regiment RA, now buried at CWG Hotton
Warrant Officer Cecil PLAYFORD
RAOC, now buried at CWG Hotton
Warrant Officer Leonard WATTS 2026837
6th Battalion Yorks and Lancs Regiment, now buried at CWG Hotton
Lance Corporal George NICHOLSON 4750206
Military Police, now buried at CWG Hotton
Lance Corporal Reginald CASPELL
8th Battalion Worcester Regiment, now buried at CWG Hotton
Private Christopher WILLIS
Royal Corps of Signals, now buried at CWG Hotton
Signalman (motorcyclist) Victor MUNRO
98th Field Regiment, RA- now buried in Dunkirk Town Cemetery
Gunner Reginald WATTS- 935663
Watou Air Raid images
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 (& translation) 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.
Gunner Horace Nicholls
Gunner Sidney Vangrossy
2nd Lt Graham Cook
Abandoned British and French Army vehicles on roads towards Dunkirk, between Poperinghe and Proven, May 1940. Photograph courtesy Jan Daschot