Comines-Warneton is a Walloon municipality located in the Belgian province of Hainaut. It has a population of 17,884 (as at January 2013) a land area of 61.09 km² and is surrounded by the Flemish province of West-Flanders and France. The municipality includes the traditional villages of Comines (also the name of the French village on the other side of the Belgian-French border), Comines-ten-Brielen, Warneton, Bas-Warneton Ploegsteert and Le Bizet.
Battle of Messines
Comines-Warneton, like the surrounding area, was devastated during the First World War (WWI). Many Australians know Comines-Warneton as being where the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company built the Catacombs in 1915 and by its associations with the Battle of Messines two years later. This was the first large-scale action involving Australian troops in Belgium with the 3rd and 4th Divisions involved.
The Battle of Messines began on 7 June 1917 and was fought along a wide front. Australian infantry fought on the southern end of this line near Messines village. To the north at Hill 60 near Ypres/Ieper Australian tunnellers played a vital role in the detonation of part of a series of huge mines beneath the enemy’s trenches. The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company had worked there since November 1916. Finally, along the whole British front, 19 mines were exploded at the start of the battle with a devastating effect - an estimated 10,000 German troops died in the explosions.
Messines was an important success for the British Army leading up to the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres several weeks later.
Ploegsteert 14-18 Experience
The municipality\'s Ploegsteert 14-18 Experience interpretation centre is dedicated to events that took place around Ploegsteert in the south of the Ypres Salient during World War I. The centre depicts the experiences of soldiers and civilians through a 450 square metre scenography. Australian displays depict the Catacombs, Australian diggers’ participation in the Battle of Messines in June 1917 and their endurance through the bitterly severe winter of 1917-18.
Toronto Avenue Cemetery
The Ploegsteet Toronto Avenue Cemetery is one of many World War I cemeteries located in Comines-Warneton. It contains the graves of 78 Australian soldiers and is the only all-Australian cemetery in Belgium, and the only one on the Western Front with headstones identifying those who are buried there. On 25 April 2011 an inaugural ANZAC Day commemoration service was held at the cemetery jointly by the Embassy and the Municipality.
Reflecting back to the night hours of 6-7 June 1917, the area around Ploegsteert Wood was full of columns of Australian soldiers of the 3rd Division. They were struggling through the dark towards the lines from which they would have to attack the Germans in the Battle of Messines shortly after first light. As they moved forward, the Germans deluged the area with gas and incendiary shells. The men of the 40th Battalion, the only all-Tasmanian infantry battalion of WW1, had to put on their gas masks and wear them for hours, and as they passed Ploegsteert Wood, they saw transport animals collapsed on the sides of the roads, gasping for air.
The … battalions …were meeting with steady gas–shelling, and on their entering Ploegsteert Wood, in whose stagnant air the gas lay densely, the difficulties increased. Long stoppages occurred, intervals of tense anxiety for all ranks. The Germans were shelling the wood more heavily, using high–explosive and incendiary shells as well. One of these exploded a dump near the track of the northernmost column … checking the march for a moment … A high–explosive shell burst in the leading platoon of the 39th Battalion as it reached ‘Ploegsteert Corner’. Here and there officers and men were hit direct by gas–shell. Wherever the slowly–moving columns were locally dislocated by such incidents, and excitement or haste occurred, men tended to be gassed by the steady shower of shell, and fell out by the way, retching and collapsed.
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume IV, p.589
Toronto Avenue Cemetery is on the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium and more information about the cemetery can be found on the Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918 website. The Remembrance Trail website contains interactive maps of the 1917 battles in Belgium, photographs, films and panoramas. It also has three distinct stories about Australian experiences of Ypres, Zonnebeke and Ploegsteert Wood during World War One.