The Battle of Loos, which took place 97 years ago today, was the first time the British Army used poison gas on the Western Front: to spearhead an attack on the lines that was a joint effort with the French Army who were also attacking simultaneously at Vimy Ridge and in the Champagne.
This image from a contemporary magazine shows Scottish troops being piped into action as they go Over The Top at Loos on the first day of the battle. Loos was very much a Scottish battle with some of the first wartime volunteers from the 9th (Scottish) and 15th (Scottish) Division taking part. Regimental pipers in Scottish regiments played a key role in keeping the morale of the men up as they went into battle and Piper Daniel Laidlaw of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers was awarded a Victoria Cross at Loos for bravery as a piper.
The gas used as Loos meant that British soldiers had to go over in their gas masks – at this stage the P Helmet, a hood like device seen being worn in this image. On parts of the British front gas blew back on the attacking troops, causing more casualties to British units than the enemy.
This week is the 97th Anniversary of the Battle of Loos, not only the first major British offensive on the Western Front but the first British use of gas and the first time on the Western Front entire formations of Kitchener’s Army men – the willing volunteers of 1914 – fought in a major battle. All this week Great War Photos will feature images connected with the battle.
We start with this group photograph of men of the Coldstream Guards in August 1915. Taken only a few weeks before the Battle of Loos it shows men of a Guards training platoon at their end of their course awaiting posting to the front. Up until this time the different battalions of the Guards had been posted across the British Expeditionary Force but a decision had been made to bring them all together under a unified command into what became the Guards Division. The units of the division – many of whom had been in action continuously since Mons in 1914 – were brought together that summer and assembled for the next offensive; although they would not play their part in the vanguard of the Battle of Loos but in fighting for locations like the Hohenzollern Redoubt.
Weeks of physical drill, bayonet practice, shooting on the range and training in all the new accoutrements of trench warfare had steeled these men in this photograph for the front. Within a month they were at the base being posted as re-enforcements to the Coldstream battalions in the Guards Division and then thrown straight into battle at Loos. As Guardsmen they gained a high reputation, which would see their regiment and the Guards Division at the forefront of engagements until the end of the conflict.
This is a hand-tinted image from the 1930s which adds a lot to this wartime photograph of a group of Stretcher Bearers carrying in a casualty on the battlefield.
There were two types of Stretcher Bearers (SBs) in the Great War; Regimental SBs and those in the Royal Army Medical Corps. The ones at regimental level were in infantry battalions; traditionally in peace time these men were part of the battalion band and were musicians as well as SBs, but following the formation of Kitchener’s Army in 1914 that gradually began to change and men were selected for the aptitude rather than their ability to play an instrument, with the medical training coming second. Regimental SBs were the first port of call for battlefield wounded; they would search the battlefield for casualties and take them to the Regimental Aid Post for treatment by the RMO – the Regimental Medical Officer – usually a Lieutenant or Captain from the RAMC. From here they would be taken to a collection point where SBs from the RAMC would take over and transport them back to the nearest Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) or Main Dressing Station (MDS).
The weight of a wounded man was something to be reckoned with and while in pre-war training SBs practiced in pairs, the reality on mud-soaked battlefields was that it would take more personnel to evacuate each casualty even on relatively good ground; as illustrated here.
There is an old adage that an army marches on its stomach, and by 1914 the British Army realised that to fight even a short war in Europe it would have to provide the required infrastructure to feed it’s troops on campaign. Much of this work was done by the Army Service Corps (ASC) and one of it’s key units in providing part of the staple diet was the Field Bakery. In 1914 there was one Field Bakery in every infantry division. Staffed by one officer and ninety-two men from the ASC it could produce enough bread for more than 20,000 men. Because of the nature of their work they did not set up these bakeries near the front, and many in 1914/15 were based in locations like Rouen and Abbeville, and a little nearer the front in St Omer and Hazebrouck. They tended to be static units that did not move around much.
This image shows the inside of a Field Bakery in France in 1914/15. A Non Commissioned Officer from the ASC is in the background overseeing the work and the men are in work aprons sorting and stacking the loaves so they can then be sent off to the troops at the front. Who the young lad at the front is, is something of a mystery; while there were many boy soldiers this one looks especially young; perhaps he was a local helping out?
I had an excellent few days at the remarkable War & Peace show last week. It’s always a good place to catch up with friends interested in Military History and also pick up some images for the archives from some of the many military stalls at the show.
This was one of my finds last week; a nice photograph of men of the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers operating a steam train on the Somme in March 1918. The caption on the reverse indicates this train was being used to evacuate French civilians feeling from the German advance on the Somme at that time. Civilians running from a German attack is something we more associate with WW2, but it happened many times in WW1 as well, especially in the spring of 1918 as the German Army almost broke through on several parts of the Western Front.
Great War Photos shuts down for the summer now; it’s been an amazing year with more than 70,000 unique visitors since we started in January. Thanks for all your support and see you in the autumn!
With the Somme anniversary taking place last weekend, the Somme theme continues this week with an unusual post on Great War Photos; an image and an audio clip of a Great War veteran talking about the Somme.
The Liverpool Pals were formed in Liverpool in September 1914 as Lord Derby’s own ‘private army’ until they were taken over by the War Office. They recruited widely across the city reflecting it’s varied social nature in a way that no other formation did between 1914 and 1918. The battalions wore their own special badge, seen in this photo of them in training in 1915, which following the Derby family’s coat of arms – officially they were part of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The Pals crossed to France in 1915 and served with the 30th Division in the quiet months on the Somme front before going into action on 1st July 1916 in the attack on Montauban. One of their battalions was on the extreme right flank of the British Army on the Somme and went over linking arms with their French comrades. The battalions achieved all their objectives on the first – some of the few who did – but a few weeks later lost heavily in the fighting for Guillemont. While the number of original Pals dwindled with each passing month, the battalions continued to serve until the end of the war.
One of the original Liverpool Pals was E.G. Williams. A student interested in art and watercolour painting, Williams joined the Pals in 1914 and fought with them on the Somme, later being taken prisoner in 1918. He was one of several hundred Great War veterans I interviewed in the 1980s and this recording dates from that period, here talking about the 1st July 1916. In the clip he refers to a painting, one for more than 20 he did during the war, which he later donated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but today is another anniversary – of a forgotten battle from the same year.
On 30th June 1916 the men of the 11th, 12th and 13th Battalions Royal Sussex Regiment (South Downs) fought a two and a half hour battle in the German lines close to the ‘Boar’s Head’ at Richebourg in Northern France. More than 360 South Downs men were killed and 1,100 wounded or missing. Veterans called it ‘The Day Sussex Died’.
The South Downs were unusual in Sussex as they were the nearest the county had to ‘Pals’ battalions; this photo shows men of the 1st South Downs at Cooden Camp near Bexhill on Sea, during their training there in September 1914. At this stage there were very few uniforms and most men slept under canvas. Morale in this unit was very high; something that continued well after the war as the Old Comrades Association continued to meet until 1979 and the last South Downer died in the early 1990s.
You can read more about the battle here:
The Battle of the Somme fought in the Picardy region of Northern France between 1st July and 18th November 1916 was one of the largest British battles of the Great War and nearly a century later is one of the great symbols of that conflict, right or wrong. The battle cost the British Army more than 450,000 casualties and while historians still argue over whether the Somme was a victory or not, pressure on Verdun was relieved by the Somme offensive, the German line was broken and pushed back some way, and the last of the German ‘field army’ died in the trenches of Picardy; a battle that cost them even more men than the British.
During the ‘Big Push’ every regiment of the British Army and all of the major Commonwealth nations fought on the Somme, among them the men of the Royal Fusiliers pictured here. This image is dated June 1916 and was taken in a back area on the Somme while waiting to move forward. There is every reason to believe that these men are from the battalions of the regiment which attacked Ovillers on 7th July 1916 and suffered heavy losses in doing so, but this cannot be confirmed. They remain annoymous ‘Somme men’ who marched down the dusty lanes of France to an unknown fate and a pyrrhic victory in 1916.
More than 220,000 British, Commonwealth and French troops were casualties at Gallipoli; Turkish casualties were at least a quarter of a million, although some estimates put the true figure at many more than that. The British buried their dead but many bodies remained unburied at the time of the evacuation in 1916. When British parties returned in 1919 they found several cemeteries desecrated, and in the majority of cases the final resting place of British and Commonwealth dead could not be ascertained.
This image dates from 1919/20 and shows a ‘collection of bones & skulls’ – whether these are British and Commonwealth, French or Turkish, is impossible to say but they show the huge problem facing the burial parties that returned after the war and in this ANZAC week the image offers us a sobering insight into the sacrifice made in Turkey – by all sides – in 1915.
At times someone with a casual interest in the Great War could be forgiven for thinking Gallipoli was an ‘Australian Battlefield’ but the reality is that the majority of troops who assaulted Turkey on 25th April 1915 were British. This image depicts the men of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers landing at W Beach that day. Coming under fire from the bluffs above they took heavy losses and my own grandfather, a member of a Naval party from HMS Implacable, rowed them in and remembered the sea running red with their blood. The bravery of the men that day resulted in the award of sixVictoria Crosses leading to the legend of ‘six VCs before breakfast’. W Beach itself would be officially renamed ‘Lancashire Landing’ in honour of the action here on the first day of the landings.
The village of Monchy le Preux was scheduled to be captured on the first day of the Battle of Arras but was not taken for several days after heavy fighting and a costly – and rare – cavalry charge. The men of the Newfoundland Regiment took over the village and defended it against a German counter-attack on 14th April 1917, it becoming one of their major battle honours and one of the reasons leading to them becoming a ‘Royal’ regiment.
This image comes from a small album of photographs taken by a British Gunner veteran who returned to the Arras battlefields where he had fought in the 1920s. It shows the Newfoundland Memorial – a Caribou – mounted on a British observation pillbox, itself built into an old house. Around the memorial the village is rising from the ashes – beyond it the as yet incomplete mairie can be seen, for example. The memorial is one of five similar Caribous placed on the key battlefields where the regiment fought in WW1; a sixth is in Newfoundland itself.
The fighting at the village of Bullecourt to the south of Arras did not start until two days into the battle and 95 years ago today men of the 62nd (West Riding) Division and Australian troops assaulted the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt with limited success. The fighting at Bullecourt continued into May with the West Ridings and Australians losing heavily on 3rd May 1917; the deadliest day of the Battle of Arras.
This image is from a German photograph and shows British dead from the 62nd (West Riding) Division left behind in the German trenches after one of the failed attacks. These Yorkshire Territorial troops took heavy casualties in the fighting of both April and May 1917. Among those who fought at Bullecourt with the division was author Henry Williamson, who later wrote the classic Tarka The Otter.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, part of the northern operations of the Battle of Arras, which took place 95 years ago today, was one of the defining moments for Canada in the Great War. Up against formidable objective, all four Canadian Divisions – men from every part of Canada – took the ridge in five days at the cost of just over 10,000 Canadian casualties. Together with success in the British sectors at Arras, the sort of advance experienced on 9th April 1917 had hitherto only rarely been experienced and reflected the change in approach to battle not only in the Canadian Corps but in the British Army on the Western Front as a whole.
For a post-war Canada coming to terms with the lost of more than 66,000 Canadian soldiers in the Great War the fighting at Vimy took on a symbolism hard for others to understand; many felt that it was almost as if Canada as a Nation had come together on the slopes of Vimy Ridge. The French government gave the battlefield to Canada who turned it into a memorial park which today is one of the most visited sites on the Western Front battlefields, and one of the largest areas of preserved WW1 battlefield.
Today’s photograph is an official photograph but taken from a special album of photographs published during the war as part of an exhibition of Canadian war photographs. The photographs were printed in landscape format in quite large scale direct from glass negatives, so the quality is very high. This dramatic image shows Canadian troops going into action 95 years ago today on 9th April 1917 – they are men from the 29th Battalion Canadian Infantry who were operating on the southern end of the Vimy front.
During the Great War thousands of women served at home and overseas as Nurses working in military hospitals or in Casualty Clearing Stations closer to the battlefield. They provided vital skills and fulfilled an important role, one which is often overshadowed by the events on the battlefields themselves.
This image taken at a military hospital in Britain and shows a badly wounded Sergeant of the Sherwood Foresters escorted by two of the key types of WW1 Nurses. On the left is a member of the Queen Alexander’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) who were the regular establishment of military nurses serving as part of the British Army; a Territorial branch of QAIMNS also provided additional personnel. On the right is a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD); this was what many young women joined during the war – in fact as many as 100,000 joined it by 1918. Arguably the most famous WW1 VAD was Vera Brittain whose Testimony series of books provide a fascinating insight into the work of Great War nurses and how the war affected young women.
The Royal Army Medical Corps was formed in 1898 to properly provide medical facilities for soldiers on the battlefields. Many useful lessons had been learnt from the Boer War and the advance in medicine in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods meant that by 1914 the RAMC provided among the best medical facilities of any combattant nation in Europe. As the army expanded the RAMC likewise had to grow too and the most common form of RAMC unit during WW1 was the Field Ambulance. These consisted of 10 officers and 224 men who operated close to the battlefield providing immediate medical treatment for casualties being brought in from the areas where the fighting was taking place. At a Field Ambulance a wounded soldier would be treated, stabilised and assessed and most likely moved on to the next level of medical facility – usually a Casualty Clearing Station – by ambulance; either horse drawn or motorised.
This image was taken on the Somme in late 1916 and shows three Stretcher Bearers of a Field Ambulance operating in the terrible conditions that prevailed during that period. The small haversacks they have are the bags containing their PH Helmet gas masks. The man on the left has a rain cover over his Service Dress cap – indicating how wet it was at the time – and all three have ‘trench waders‘. These were rubberised over trousers come boots which could be worn in flooded trenches. White Somme chalk is liberally plaster over the waders and one wonders what duties in the front line these men have just returned from? Carrying a stretcher was hard at the best of times but over wet ground and through flooded trenches was even harder and the smiles here no doubt bely some tough times during the hardest winter of the war on the British sector of the Western Front.
We had a Somme week last week and we begin this week with a Flanders themed series of posts.
This image shows men of the 1/5th Battalion London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade) on the eve of leaving for Flanders in November 1914. They are already in the winter garb that would serve them well in the trenches of Flanders. Their war would take them first to the village of Ploegsteert – ‘Plugstreet’ to the British Tommy. In a typically flat lying area of Flanders, the trenches here were half trenches and half breastworks – positions built above ground level – and they soon became clogged with water and mud as winter set in. A brief respite came on Christmas Day 1914 when the men of the London Rifle Brigade took part in the now famous Christmas Truce and came out of their trenches into No Man’s Land for the first time since they had arrived at Plugstreet.
All but one of the men in this photo survived Plugstreet but the 1/5th Londons were very much a Middle Class battalion and several were commissioned and died as officers. But caught in time these ‘mud men of Flanders’ about to enter winter quarters south of Ypres looked relaxed, calm and prepared – at least for the weather.
One of the most famous musical hall performers of the Great War period was Basil Hallam Radford. Otherwise known as ‘Gilbert The Filbert – The Nut with a K’ or the ‘KNut’. This humour seems very dated now but it was a phrase in common usage by that generation and appears on captions and sign-boards in many WW1 images. The ‘K’ was also often linked to Lord Kitchener during the war and in photos of Kitchener’s Army men they often refer to themselves as ‘KNuts’.
These Somme KNuts are from the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. They arrived on the Somme in July 1916 and took part in the fighting near Pozieres and later at High Wood where they took heavy casualties. While the 2nd was a regular battalion the majority of men in it by 1916 were wartime volunteers, which again here could explain the ‘KNut’ reference.
Many photos like this we taken in villages close to Albert on the Somme; in houses turned into studios or in back-gardens and even in the street. They show soldiers in an ‘Active Service’ look very different to photographs taken in training.
Continuing with the Somme theme, this is a German snap-shot taken by a soldier in the 26th (Reserve) Division showing British soldiers captured on the Somme in July 1916. It is believed the photograph was taken in the village of Miraumont, which appears to have been a processing area for POWs, and that these were men captured between Thiepval, Beaumont-Hamel and Serre. The Scottish Sergeant with his back to the camera seems to be marshalling the men and one man has a shell dressing on his face indicating a battle wound from the recent fighting in which these men were captured. In the early stages of the Somme many soldiers were captured in the German trenches when attacks went wrong, or got cut off in No Man’s Land and were unable to return to their own lines. The 26th (Reserve) Division was a Wurtemburg formation which had been on the Somme front since late 1914.
There is something haunting about the face of this soldier; the image was taken while he was serving in the Loos sector, possibly in one of the photographic studios at Bethune. It shows Sergeant William George Clive, a 26 year old from Tooting in London. Clive joined the 1/15th Battalion London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles) in 1914 and by the time he went to France in March 1915 he was a Corporal. Before the Somme he was promoted to Sergeant and was killed on 15th September 1916 when his battalion took part in the attack on High Wood, suffering heavy casualties. Originally buried on the battlefield with other members of the unit, his grave was moved to Caterpillar Valley Cemetery after the war.
As I’m off to the Somme to make a documentary with Dan Snow this week, it will be a Somme-themed week on Great War Photos.
This image shows a group of men from a Divisional Signal Company of the Royal Engineers. There was no Royal Signals in WW1 and signalling work was done at battalion level by infantry signallers and for larger formations by the REs. Photographed amid the ruins of a typical Somme building – possibly a church or town hall by the large chalk blocks – these men have all the kit they need to carry out their signalling work. Rolls of cable allowed field telephone to be connected; some men have the tools needed to cut and trim the cable; examples of field telephones in their leather bags can be seen and the man on the front right holds an example of a British phone in his hand. Signallers wore a white and blue armband and although it is not clear on every man in this image, the armband is being worn here.
The men have obviously recently been in action and some trophies of war can be seen amongst their kit; two German Picklehaubes are visible, as is an example of a German Luger. The meaning of the caption on the board – ‘The Cherry Stickers’ – sadly appears to be lost in time.
Ending a brief look at some portraits this week we finish with this post-war image of a Great War veteran. Taken sometime in the 1920s, most likely in the man’s back garden of his house, he is dressed like any other man of the period – but tucked away on his waistcoat are the ribbons of the British War & Victory medals, the standard campaign medals for the Great War, and on his lapel the badge of Comrades of the Great War. He has a very expressive face and one wonders what his war had been and where; what had he seen and endured? Men like this survived, came home and tried to continue with a normal family life, but the experience of the war was always there somewhere; rarely would it surface with those who had never been there themselves – a sort of conspiracy of silence, which historian Professor Peter Doyle has written about on his blog. A silence today only hinted at with images like this.
The winter months on the Western Front, even for a tough generation like that of the Great War, could be a trying time. Temperatures on the Somme in 1916/17 dropped to below -20 and living in exposed muddy ditches in weather like this often caused more casualties than from enemy fire.
Private William Kelly Saunders is pictured here in France during the winter of 1915/16 wearing a lightweight rubberised waterproof cape to offer some protection against wet weather and some home-made ‘trench gloves’ fashioned from goat or sheep fleece to keep the cold off while working in the front line. Underneath he is wearing the standard uniform of his regiment, the London Scottish. While the fleece gloves may have been warm soldiers soon found they became breeding grounds for lice and often ended up throwing them away.
This week the site will feature a series of Great War portraits relating to different aspects of the war and different theatres.
This image of Private George Whiting of the 2nd Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was taken in Salonika in 1918. Salonika, Macedonia as it was known – often ‘Muckydonia’ by the troops – is very much a forgotten front of the Great War. British troops served there from 1915 and fought Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops in support of their Serbian allies. The campaign was charactised by periods of intense fighting, static warfare just as on the Western Front, and huge casualties from disease; malaria from mosquitoes being the biggest problem. By 1918 the British Army had suffered 162,517 from disease along and over half a million men in Salonika were treated for non-battle injuries or sickness.
George Whiting wears a typical uniform of the warmer periods spent in Salonika; light-weight Khaki Drill (KD) uniform rather than the thicker woollen Service Dress, although that was worn here during the winter months, and shorts. In his hand is a Solar Topee or Pith Helmet, again part of the warm weather uniform worn by British troops here. On the band, or pugree, round the helmet is the badge of his regiment. Sewn on his lower right sleeve are two Overseas Chevrons indicating George had served in Salonika since 1916.
I was out yesterday at a local postcard fair and one of the images I found with this one. It is a small postcard image, badly creased and a little faded, and cost virtually nothing; the dealer almost gave it to me. But it is one of the more remarkable images I have rescued in a while.
Why? Photographs of the wounded, especially the seriously wounded, are far from common. It was a well known fact during the war that King George V would not visit military hospitals as it ‘upset him’. That attitude was shared with a large part of the British public not touched directly by the war. ‘Respectable’ wounded with light and less visible wounds, dressed smartly in hospital blues could easily be accepted but men with burns, or gas injuries and amputees were far less visible, and that extended to photographs as well.
This image shows three wounded soldiers who are all double amputees; with the terrible injuries caused by shell-fire in the Great War these men were far from unique but they are very much missing from the imagery of the conflict. Many veterans felt that the dead were more readily accepted that the wounded, and that those injured on active service were somehow forgotten. A century later soldiers who are double amputees just back from conflict are again part of our culture but thankfully they are accepted and treated with dignity in a way that the wounded of the Great War were arguably not; the future for the three men in this photograph was potentially bleak – a meagre pension, little chance of work and a drain on their family. Some interesting statistics on The Long, Long Trail show that of the the 2.2 million wounded serving with the British Army some 8% were discharged as invalids, as these men would have been; three of the more than 182,000 who fall into that category.