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Passing ‘Hellfire Corner’

Photo: Horse drawn transport braves Hellfire in daylight, heading toward Ypres – note the camouflage screens. [Historic Military Press]

 

From the relative safety of the severely-damaged streets of the city of Ypres, the men of the BEF marched to the front line of the Ypres Salient along the road towards the small town of Menin.

About two miles from Ypres, the Ypres-Roulers railway cut across the Menin Road near a crossroads. On maps of the time this place was called the “Halte”, and it was where tram-cars stopped to pick up passengers from the farms and cottages to take them into Ypres or, if travelling in the opposite direction, to Menin or Courtrai. This spot proved an ideal point for the German gunners, who had a good view of it from their positions on the higher ground further east, to set their sights.

Little wonder that this intersection soon acquired the nickname of “Hellfire Corner”.

Regarded as being amongst the most dangerous locations on the Western Front, the crossroads quickly became part of a major supply route for the British Army in the sector. With German gunners stood ready and their artillery pre-registered, it soon became standard practice for the infantry to make their way over the perilous crossroads at the run and for cavalry to gallop. Even motor vehicles passed Hellfire Corner at speed.

A hand-coloured copy, produced for an exhibition in the 1920s, of an original by the Australian photographer Frank Hurley. It shows a shell exploding at Hellfire Corner. [State Library of New South Wales]

To help troops pass Hellfire Corner, canvas screens were erected along the Menin Road to conceal movement, which was generally undertaken at night during the cover of darkness. At night this road was crammed with traffic, limbers, guns, pack animals, motor lorries and troops. Dead bodies of horses, mules and men, together with vehicle wreckage, littered the area, the fallen lying where the last shell had got them. Hellfire was ‘a ‘sticky’ spot that was always taken at the trot’.

Just what it could be like trying to travel up from Ypres to the front through Hellfire Corner was described by Driver G.L. Burton, 40th Division Motor Transport, Army Service Corps:

“We used to go through Ypres at night with no lights on our lorries, of course, as the road was under enemy observation from the various hills around. But there would be plenty of Very lights from our own guns and Howitzers in the ruins, and enemy shells bursting among the wrecked houses and roads. It was just fumes and dust and smells all the time, and sometimes there was gas too, sometimes incendiary shells. You could see them glowing red among the brick ends.

“It was so important to get the ammunition and supplies up that we were taking chances and running the lorries right up to Hellfire Corner, on the other side of Ypres on the Menin Road. I’d been the last to set off and when I got to Hellfire Corner it was chaos.

The lorries were scattered all over the place and even those that hadn’t been directly hit had run off the roadway, in among all the debris and debris, and the drivers were sheltering in the ruins … We decided to try and get the lorries back on the road facing home … The shells were simply thundering down … The road was littered with bodies and debris and shell-holes all over the place.”

We decided to try and get the lorries back on the road facing home … The shells were simply thundering down

It was only with the capture of Passchendaele in November 1917 that the Germans lost their final positions on the ridge overlooking the Menin Road, and Hellfire Corner was no longer the death-trap that had cost so many lives for so long.

Today Hellfire Corner consists of a large roundabout, though a lasting memory of the Great War still lingers – a demarcation stone, which marked the furthest extent of the German advance in the spring of 1918. Installed in the 1920s, the stone at Hellfire Corner is one of around 200 stones originally positioned at significant points along the Western Front in France and Belgium, though many have fallen into disrepair or have been destroyed.

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