As Christmas approaches thoughts turn to trench life on the Western Front during the Great War. This image dates from a small private collection relating to the 1/13th Battalion London Regiment (Kensingtons) and was taken in France near Fleurbaix during the winter of 1914/15. The men are dressed informally as was typical of that early period of the conflict and aside from a great deal of personal kit being worn to keep the cold out, the man on the left has a typical goat/sheep-skin jerkin of this first winter. At least the rum ration is close at hand! The fact that the men are standing up and the parapet of the positions behind is low, would indicate this was in a reserve trench some distance from the actual front line.
These two images are postcards which are bent and tatty, the corners are curled up and they are pretty dirty. But they were once very important to one man: Joseph Kinna. Kinna was a family man who was conscripted in 1916 and joined the Gloucestershire Regiment. He fought with the 8th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment on the Somme and the reason why these postcards were important to him is shown on the reverse:
Joseph Kinna was wounded in that attack at Grandcourt, in the tail-end of the Somme battle, and posted home. Medically downgraded due to his wounds, he was eventually discharged from the army, aged 22, in 1917.
Two simple postcards, carried in a soldier’s pocket nearly a century ago; memories of his life back home to him, but today, as the nation pauses to remember, it is simple stories like this which transport us back to those days of the Great War when even a simple postcard meant something to one family at war.
Ninety-nine years ago today the British government declared war on Germany and for Britain the Great War began. A year from today the Centenary of the Great War starts with a joint reconciliation service of remembrance at Mons with British and German heads of state present.
Many of those with a long-held interest in the Great War view the upcoming Centenary with some trepidation. There is a fear the war will be trivialised into convenient media soundbites, a concern there will be too much focus on the dead of the war and not enough on those who survived, and among many academics disgust that achievements on the battlefield which lead to victory will be forgotten.
All of these are legitimate concerns but it is clear the Centenary is also a time to educate and share knowledge. That is why I set up Great War Photos some eighteen months ago; a platform like a blog is an easy and accessible way for me to share the thousands of largely unseen images I’ve collected to be seen by a wider audience; and all it costs is some time and a few dollars for a web address. That such a project is of interest to others is clear; the site has so far been seen by more than 200,000 unique visitors from all over the world. People have requested to use images for private research, community projects and publications; all of which has been granted as it is precisely what I had hoped for when I set the site up.
I mention all this not to blow my own trumpet but to demonstrate how easy it is to take an active part in the Centenary. Blogs are free; adding images, artwork and sound or video files is easy. Many of those with years of collecting or researching WW1 have some sort of story to tell and surely the Centenary is the time to do that? Others have family stories to add, or names on a local memorial which once researched can be shared with others. All you need is the will and the ability to type.
The Centenary should be a time for collaboration and co-operation, as well as a time to publish books, enhance profiles and churn our programmes. Let us hope more and more take on that challenge.
So what has Great War Photos got planned for 2014? In the lead-up to the Centenary I plan to publish a number of images showing places on what would become the Western Front, showing how they looked on the eve of war; sleepy villages and flourishing communities. From August 2014 onwards I aim to focus on images connected with 1914: the fighting overseas as well as events on the home front.
I am trying to think positively about the Great War Centenary and I hope others will do so as well; it is an important period that should not be wasted by anyone with an interest in the subject.
The documentary Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars is about to start on BBC4 and promises to be a fascinating insight into the archaeology of the war underground on the Somme in 1916.
Part of the programme will apparently feature the Lochnagar Mine Crater, perhaps the most visited British mine crater today on the Western Front. But this was not always so.
In the inter-war period the Somme was visited by hundreds of thousands of battlefield pilgrims, many of whom came to La Boisselle and many of whom visited a mine crater there, but it wasn’t Lochnagar, but the Y Sap Mine Crater. This was a major ‘tourist location’ in the 1920s/30s as it was close to the Albert-Bapaume road and easily accessible from the main road, which Lochnagar was not. However by the 1970s the Y Sap crater was hardly visited and the owner filled it in; leading to Richard Dunning saving the Lochnagar Crater when that too was threatened with the site now preserved by the Friends of Lochnagar.
Today is the 96th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, the first British offensive against the Hindenburg Line and something of a forgotten battle. It was very much a British and Commonwealth battle, with Canadians attacking to the North at Vimy Ridge, New Zealand tunnellers working beneath Arras and Australians on the flank at Bullecourt. Amongst the British divisions were all three Scottish formations: 9th (Scottish), 15th (Scottish) and 51st (Highland), so like Loos in 1915 it was also something of a ‘Scottish battle’ too. Arras turned into a bloody struggle, despite early success on this day in 1917 but aside from the success of the Canadians at Vimy and the terrible loss of Australians at Bullecourt – often wrongly seen as separate battles by some – it is little remembered and aside from books like my Walking Arras, Jeremy Banning & Peter Barton’s Arras 1917 and Jon Nicholl’s Cheerful Sacrifice it has rarely attracted the attention of Great War historians in print. As we move towards the WW1 centenary, hopefully that will change.
This image comes from a special collection of Canadian images from the fighting at Arras that belonged to a CEF staff officer and shows Canadian troops on the slopes of Hill 145 looking down in the Douai Plain; it certainly emphasises how important a terrain feature was to both sides.
The Western Front at its peak was over 450 miles long, stretching from the Belgian coast at Nieuport to the Swiss border near the village of Pfetterhouse. The terrain along that front varied widely from the flat plains of Flanders to the rolling downland of the Somme, through forests like the Argonne and into mountains when it reached the Vosges.
On the Belgian end of the front, at Nieuport, the trench system ran right up to the beach, with that end of the Western Front literally petering out in the sand. For most of the war it was held by the Belgian Army but in 1917 British troops took over the sector in the lead-up to what was eventually an abandoned plan to make seaborne landings further up the coast. However, in July 1917 the Germans went on the offensive here and attacked the forward positions held by British units around the town of Nieuport.
This photograph, from a German source, dates from that period and shows an overrun British trench following the fighting in July 1917. The bunker was in the extreme northern positions on the Western Front and directly overlooked the beach and indeed the sea; both of which are visible in the background on this image. It is probably not how most people think the Western Front came to an end on this Northern end of the battlefield!
The Musée de la Grande Guerre opened in the French town of Meaux – in the heart of the 1914 Marne battlefields – in late 2011. While this is its second year and has had good visitor numbers, I do not think it has quite reached the radar of English speaking visitors as yet and I myself have only just had a chance to pay the museum a visit.
I must confess that I did approach the visit with some trepidation; modern museums can often have themes which at times seem remote from the core subjects of the Great War and occasionally go for audio-visual over objects. In the case of this superb museum my fears were unfounded as it proved to be one of the best museums I have visited in a long time and now is in my top five WW1 museums in the world!
The visit at the Musée de la Grande Guerre starts with a short film taking you back to the origins of the Great War and the Franco-Prussian War. You then proceed into the pre-war galleries which emerge into a display of soldiers marching to war in 1914 and the main hall. This hall is packed with a Marne Taxi, pigeon loft, WW1 aircraft a FT17 tank, artillery and two large trench displays. Off of it are other rooms which follows themes or the timeframe of the war, equally packed with fascinating objects, imagery and artwork. Two and a half hours here just flew by and it is one of those great museum where I know I shall return each time and see something I missed previously.
The trench displays were particularly effective; a trench ends on a wall where the movement and activity in the trench is cleverly blended with archive film from WW1 – see below.
The museum has a well stocked bookshop at the end, good, clean toilets, safe and plentiful parking, and a nice little cafe which does drinks and light snacks. You cannot take bags inside but there are lockers to leave them in. It has good disabled access for a French museum and the staff are all very friendly.
I cannot recommend the Musée de la Grande Guerre enough and combined with a visit to some Marne battlefield sites close by, this makes the Marne an exciting battlefield to visit.