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.
Working in the snowy conditions of winter on the Western Front was a hard task for all soldiers. While the work kept you warm, the frozen conditions on the battlefield often made such work near impossible in the first place.
This French image from La Guerre Documentee shows a group of French Poilus working on their trenches in a wooded area with picks; so hard is the ground it seems that shovels are not enough. There has been a heavy snow fall and one man keeps watch over the far parapet, but this is likely to be a reserve position away from direct observation otherwise the soldiers would not risk getting up in the open like that. The soldiers are all wearing their great coats, have gloves and scarves, and the image gives us a good insight into how difficult life was on the Western Front during the winter months.
This image was taken in the Vosges area, a region known for its severe weather and deep snow in the winter, and a sector of the Western Front in Eastern France where the fighting revolved around mountainous terrain. Here a group of French Alpine Troops are using skis are ‘on patrol’ although the front here was never really that fluid to allow such patrols to take place in the face of enemy positions and this is likely to be a posed image taken behind the French lines. However, it does give an insight into winter conditions in the Vosges in 1915.
This contemporary illustration from La Guerre Documentee shows a typical French Poilu in a front line trench in winter garb. The French soldier was issued with a substantial greatcoat worn over his tunic which did offer some protection from the cold, but as this illustration demonstrates they also had to result to make do and he has a pair of woollen gloves and a scarf to help make long periods in the front line during the winter at least bearable. The artist, Guy Arnoux, was a well known French illustrator of the period whose work appeared in many magazines and children’s books
As winter officially began this week it is an apt period to be looking at winter on the battlefields of the Great War and all this month the site will feature images relating to the winter period during WW1.
We start with a German image of the Vosges mountains in the snow sometime in 1915. The Vosges was the end of the Western Front, an area of occasionally heavy fighting but largely characterised by long periods of static attritional trench warfare. Being in Eastern France it was also the colder end of the front where during the winter temperatures regularly dropped substantially below zero. While the landscape in the snow might look attractive, and this also appears like a tourist photo, the reality is that men had to live in holes in the ground on battlefields like this during the winter period. The Great War generation was tough but even they struggled to cope in landscapes frozen solid and covered with deep snow.
The Western Front was more than 450 miles long and the British Army at one point occupied just over a hundred miles of it. Sometimes it is easy to forget the sacrifice of the French Army who held more than 300 miles of the front, or the more obvious fact the mighty German Imperial Army was holding all 450 miles on its side of the lines.
The so-called ‘French front’ had many of its own landmarks but for France and Germany one of its greatest symbols would be Verdun. Here both nations bled in 1916 with more than 770,000 casualties.
Fort Vaux was one of many static fortifications that came to characterise the battle; nearby Fort Douaumont fell to a handful of Germans but costs the lives of thousands of Poilus to retake. Fort Vaux was a more heroic story, at least in 1916. Surrounded, the besieged garrison under Commandant Raynal held on until food, water and ammunition all ran out. Raynal signalled his fate in a pigeon message delivered by the pigeon Valiant, which fell dead at the feet of the staff officers in the Verdun citadel once its mission was complete. Fort Vaux fell on 7th June but it was a hollow victory for the Germans who casualties were verging on catastrophic for a battle in which they had hoped to ‘bleed France white’.
Today Fort Vaux has been left in its wartime state and has an excellent museum. The pocked landscape that surrounds it reminds us of what once the whole Western Front landscape was like.
The French Army of the Great War was a huge conscript army which proved capable of more than doubling in size in the first few weeks of the war. As the Germans crossed the borders of Alsace-Lorraine the Battle of the Frontiers began and more and more troops needed to be shipped to the front.
This image from a French source shows soldiers in a railway carriage cheering as they begin their journey to the battlefield. France’s response to war in 1914 was rapid and successful, but costly – more than 300,000 French soldiers would be killed before the year was out in just a few months fighting.
The railway carriage they are sitting in was the standard used by French railways; it bears a famous inscription which would become well known to British troops ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8′; 40 men or 8 horses. It was painted on all these wagons and troops remembered it as a lot more than 40 British soldiers were usually packed inside!
With recent interest in Birdsong and the fascination with the war underground, there is a tendency to forget that mine warfare was not just restricted to Flanders and the Somme. It took place on many other parts of the Western Front and some of the Great War battlefield’s most impressive mine craters are in the French sector, not where the British Army fought.
This image shows a mine crater in the Champagne battlefields near Reims. The chalk of the Champagne was similar to Picardy, so it proved to be well suited to tunnelling operations, especially as the front here was static for so long. The Germans are wearing Stahlhelms so this image likely dates from 1917 or 1918; perhaps during the German offensive here in 1918 when much of the area was overrun until the final French offensive broke the German defences in the autumn of 1918.
Photographs of German war cemeteries always fascinate me as they not only dispel the myth that Germany never properly commemorated it’s battlefield fallen but that it gives us an insight into how revered their dead was in the same way we treated our own.
This photograph from 1915 shows a German cemetery just behind their front line in the Champagne sector. There are several villages called Fontaine in this area and it does not appear that a cemetery of this name exists today; it is likely the graves were moved into a larger cemetery post-war.
The quality of Great War images is so great that it is possible to enlarge areas of them to get out aspects that might not at first be so obvious. The enlargement of the section below captures a moving moment in time as a German soldier holds his cap in his hand with head bowed, remembering a friend and comrade who lies in the grave before him.
Le Crapouillot – no, this is not a French swear word or a turn of phrase the British Tommy secretly used to describe the French Poilu, but the name given to French Trench Mortar weapons in the Great War. As we saw from the post on Wednesday the French Army was quick to react to the situation of trench warfare and realised that essentially WW1 was a huge siege war – and that in previous siege wars mortars had been used to propel projectiles towards the enemy positions and try and break that siege.
The name Le Crapouillot was one used in the trenches; the mortars were described as ‘little toads’ and a toad is ‘crapaud’ in French. In fact far from being the centre of humour the Crapouillot units of the French army were elite troops with specialist kit. The sort of mortars shown in this illustration from 1915 could fire substantial projectiles hundreds of metres across the battlefield and cave in trenches, dugouts and strong-points. Various examples existed and their role on the battlefield from 1915 was vital giving the French Army a good weapon to counter the German Minenwerfer and other types of trench artillery being used at that time.
The experience of 1914 taught the French Army that to be conspicuous on the battlefield meant certain death; especially on the modern battlefield with massed machine-guns and artillery. In 1914 alone France had lost over 300,000 Poilus killed in action and despite going to war locked in the mentality of the Franco-Prussian the French Army proved remarkably quick to adapt to the war when it went into stalemate during the winter of 1914/15.
The French Army was the first to introduce a steel helmet; a first this was a light steel skull cap worn under the issue Kepi. Then an officer called August-Louis Adrian adapted the design of the Paris fire helmet to produce the M15 Adrain helmet, worn by the men in this illustration, which became the standard French helmet for the rest of the war. The French also discarded the dark blue serge and red trousers and adopted the Horizon Blue uniform, also seen here; it was felt the blue would blend in with the skyline when French soldiers attacked, rather than attempt to develop a uniform colour that would blend in with the shattered landscape.
New uniforms also meant new weapons and stuck in trenches unable to emerge and fire their weapons, both sides turned to using the periscope rifle, also seen in this illustration; in this case enabling the Poilu to fire his 8mm Lebel rifle remotely and safely using the periscope fitted to the frame. It was just the start of adapting old weapons to work in a new way, or re-introducing old weapons from earlier siege wars.
The French Army of 1914 was a truly massive one; the infantry alone numbered 173 separate regiments each made up of 3000-4000 men. It was armed with one of the best field guns in Europe – the 75mm – and it’s soldiers carried a powerful 8mm Lebel rifle. The soldiers – who would quickly become known as the Poilu – were all conscripts who would spend most of their adult life committed to French military service; first as full-time regulars, then reservists and finally as territorials.
While the Poilus weapons were modern, his tactics and uniforms were not. As can be seen in this contemporary image from 1914, showing a French infantry regiment marching to war, the men are wearing uniforms that have changed little since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The men wear bright red, somewhat conspicuous, trousers and blue serge tunics. They advance en-masse with their officer at the front and the flag flying. While this is obviously an illustration the facts reflect the awful truth; that while France was prepared for war in 1914, it was not prepared for the Great War. By the 31st December 1914, just five months of conflict, France had lost more than 300,000 men killed on the battlefield; nearly a fifth of their loss for the entire war. Troops in column easily visible to an enemy with powerful artillery and a large number of machine-guns stood little chance, something the casualty figures reflect.
But as will be seen on Wednesday, despite or perhaps because of these losses, France was one of the first combatant nations to truly adapt to the conditions of trench warfare.
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.
Battlefields of the Great War were often littered with unburied dead killed on patrols in No Man’s Land or in the last attack. The recovery of such bodies was often too dangerous to be attempted or if the body was of an enemy soldier the inclination to do it may not have been there. Such sights therefore became quite standard to the average front line soldier.
The French Camouflage Service used this fact and constructed their own dead soldiers from papermache and other material. This illustration from La Guerre Documentée shows the dummy body of a German soldier having replaced an actual one on the front line wire close to a French trench. The dummy body is hollow to allow a soldier to gain access to it’s interior and observe from within. Obviously a papermache dummy offered little protection from bullets or shell fire so armoured sheeting was often placed inside or the soldier wore trench armour to protect him. There are images in the archives of the Imperial War Museum showing similar dummies constructed by the Royal Engineers, so it is likely to have been a device used by all sides on the cluttered battlefields of the Great War.
Another task of the French Camouflage Service was deception; to trick the enemy into believing that something was happening when it wasn’t or troops were in a specific area when in fact they were in another. One ruse was the so-called ‘Chinese Attack‘ where dummy soldiers would be used with real covering fire to simulate an attack taking place. This would prompt a response from the enemy who would reply often revealing positions that could be spotted and then dealt with by artillery fire, or it might draw enemy troops into a forward position in great number which could also be dispersed with shell-fire.
This illustration from La Guerre Documentée shows one such Chinese Attack taking place. A series of life-time wooden cut-outs of soldiers have been made and painted and been placed in front of a trench, and can be raised and dropped using a pulley system. This example is quite a sophisticated one; some British examples I have come across indicate that sandbags stuffed with straw with a tin helmet pushed on top were used; how effective that was is difficult to say.
The use of camouflage in the Great War is something not widely appreciated or even known about. This week the site will feature a series of images from La Guerre Documentée a little known French publication printed in 50-odd parts in 1919/20. Unusually for contemporary publications it used colour illustrations widely, the majority of which were specially commissioned and have never appeared in any other source.
The image above shows the preparation of a steel observation of a type commonly used in many front line positions. These bunkers would be manufactured behind the lines and then brought up at night and installed in a forward position with a good field of vision. If just put in place without any attempts to disguise them the bunker would be highly conspicuous and likely to be destroyed by artillery fire very quickly. The French Army camouflage service therefore painted on camouflage before they were taken up the line, and often created a covering that would blend in with the battlefield they were going to be placed on. In many cases such devices were never spotted and allowed the user to get clear observation of key points on the battlefield.
This week the #Arras95 project has been commemorating the 95th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, fought in Northern France. But Arras is not the only major battle fought during this week 95 years ago; at the same time General Robert Nivelle was commanding the French Army into action on the Chemin des Dames.
The Chemin des Dames – or ‘Ladies’ Way’ – was a road than ran across an area of high ground north-west of Reims. It had been taken by the Germans in 1914 during the Battle of the Aisne and the offensive was a combined operation with the British attacks at Arras. Nivelle’s objective was to crush the German defences on the Chemin des Dames and destroy their dominance of the battlefield – all within a time frame of 24-48 hours. Sadly from the start things went badly; in the opening of the attack on 16th April 1917 French armoured forces took heavy losses on the right flank losing more than 150 tanks and the bombardment proved ineffective with substantial casualties among the infantry; 40,000 casualties alone in the first day of operations. The battle continued beyond the planned 48 hours into early May as gradually the French forces made some gains on the high ground but at huge cost. The offensive partially led to the mutinies in the French Army and ended Nivelle’s career as a commander.
This aerial image is from a small collection showing the battlefield across the Chemin des Dames around Fort de Malmaison in April 1917. WW1 French aerial images are very large – almost A3 size – and of a very high quality; a huge amount of detail can be picked out on them. Fort de Malmaison was built in 1877 and was in fact abandoned by 1914. Captured by the Germans in 1914 they used it until the battle crept close in 1917 but the Nivelle Offensive failed to reach it and there was only serious fighting here in October 1917. After WW2 the area in front of the fort was chosen for a WW2 German Cemetery but the ruined remains of the fort were fenced off for many years; now a group of volunteers regularly conduct tours of the site.
A larger version of the aerial photo can be viewed here.
We began this week’s look at French images of the Great War with horror, and we end with horror.
Nearly a century after the Great War, it is hard to imagine what a charnel-house the battlefields were during the conflict. Images that give an insight into the horror are rare. This one from the Verdun battlefields of 1916 was taken in the aptly named ‘Ravin de la Mort’ – the Ravine of Death. The caption states the skull was nick-named ‘The Crown Prince’ – after the Kaiser’s son who had commanded German forces at Verdun that year.
Today the skulls of Verdun are just as visible; under the ossuary at Douaumont are the bones of more than 120,000 soldiers who fell in the battle and could not be identified. The ossuary has purpose built glass windows so visitors can look in and see the piles of bones and skulls all positioned so they look at the inquisitive. It is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever visited.
The problem of body lice in the Great War was not confined to any nation or group of soldiers; everyone who served anywhere near the front line or in billets was affected by it.
In this stereo-card a French soldier in a reserve trench is one of a number of soldiers who have removed most of their uniform and spread them about the trench while they hunt for lice. It is also likely they were using this as an opportunity to do some basic cleaning but obviously this sort of cleaning could not be done in the front or support lines. Although many British soldiers considered French trenches far more ‘dirty’ than their own, all front line soldiers were afflicted by lice, something many were still ashamed of to a certain extent when I interviewed WW1 veterans in the 1980s.
Another from the French stereo-cards series, this shows a Poilu in a smashed position on the Western Front using a Chauchat machine-gun in an anti-aircraft role. The strafing of trenches by aircraft was a rare occasion in the Great War and this is no doubt posed. In fact there is very little this soldier could do even if an aircraft appeared as he has failed to load a magazine into the gun!
The Chauchat was a very cheaply made and produced light machine-gun used by the French Army from 1915 and was brought in to give French platoons some automatic fire capability. However the weapon would easily jam if it got muddy and had a poor reputation; made worse when it was issued to American troops in 1917/18. By the end of the war more than 250,000 had been produced.
Today is the 96th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of Verdun. This defining Great War campaign cost France and German more than 700,000 casualties in 1916 and for the French Poilu it became the notorious ‘mincing machine’ as seemingly regiment after regiment was thrown into the fighting here to stem the German advance and make sure that ‘They Shall Not Pass‘.
This image from a wartime set of French stereo-cards shows French soldiers in the quarries near Verdun at the site of a ‘Poste de Secours‘ or Dressing Station. French stretcher-bearers are seen towards the rear in the area where sandbagged dugouts line the quarry. The men at the front do not look wounded but appear to have just been fed, so there could have been a supply point here or field kitchen as well.
Verdun remains the by-word for the Great War in France and today ceremonies will be taking place at various sites on the Verdun Battlefield.
By 1916 the French Army was defending nearly two thirds of the Western Front and in many respects of all the combatant nations had reacted mostly quickly to the conditions of trench warfare; they were the first to adapt their conspicuous uniforms to wartime conditions with the implementation of Bleu Horizon, the first to introduce steel helmets with the Adrian helmet and during the winter of 1914/15 widely introduced trench weapons and hand grenades.
This image shows a typical French front line trench in 1916. All the men wear Bleu Horizon tunics and Adrian helmets. The image is not likely to have been taken in the front line as the men are too exposed, but it looks like a typical sap used in forward positions. The man holding up what looks like a rolling pin is in fact holding a Barbele Grenade that was used to cut paths in barbed wire defences. All the men are wearing French M2 Gas Masks; some 29 million of these were produced and could give five hours protection against phosgene gas. The man with the canister on his back is holding and using a Vermorel Sprayer; this was a pre-war piece of agricultural spayer used to dispense a solution that would help disperse gas. Both sides used them during the war.
Over the next week I will be publishing a number of images of the ‘French Front‘ on the site. It is often forgotten that the French Army held more than 300 miles of the Western Front and by the close of the war the French had lost more than 1.4 million dead; twice the number of dead suffered by Great Britain for example. These particular images come from a series of contemporary stereo-cards produced in France during the war.
This image shows a French Poilu in a front line position in what looks like the Champagne. Contemporary accounts of the Great War often record trenches in French sectors being full of half-buried dead soldiers, or the sides of them being the fields graves of men who had died defending those very positions. When old trenches were taken over again in the final battles of 1918 the ground fought over had often been a battlefield earlier in the war, the bones of the dead soon revealed the bitter nature of the previous fighting. Here this Poilu stares thoughtfully at the camera while the remains of a former occupant of the trench lie almost casually around him.
Following on from yesterday we again feature some images from the photo album of ‘D.Lauder’ a young British woman who may have worked as a Nurse attached to the French Army who visited the battlefields between Reims and Verdun 1925.
Navarin Farm was a position on the Champagne Battlefields of 1915 which saw heavy fighting in the fighting of September 1915. French troops assaulted and captured the German positions here at great loss and it soon became a household name throughout France.
After the war it was selected as one of the sites to build a French National Ossuary. The ‘pyramid’ memorial to the Armies of the Champagne was unveiled in 1924 and not only contains numerous memorials to those who fought here but underneath are the bones of more than 10,000 men who fell on the Champagne battlefields.
Today part of the desolated ground around the memorial is still preserved but the view in 1925 (below, taken from the Navarin Farm monument) gives an idea what the war had done to battlefields like the Champagne.