When the Great War came to an end it was not just soldiers on the battlefields who celebrated the close of hostilities; hundreds of thousands of families back home could begin to hope that finally their loved one would be coming home.
This image dates from the time of 11th November 1918 and shows a trio of young children, patriotic flags in their hands, rejoicing of the thought that daddy was on his way home. The little one looks pensive, apprehensive - perhaps she knows only daddy by name and can remember little of him in her short life. The survivors and their families like this were told the men of that generation were returning to ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ but the reality was that economic depression and streets with medal wearing veterans selling matches was what really lay ahead. The hope in these faces was betrayed, and the children depicted in images like this were fighting another war just a couple of decades later.
The Armistice came into effect at 11.00am on 11th November 1918 and effectively brought the fighting on the Western Front to a close. In more than four years of war Britain and the Empire had lost more than 750,000 dead in France and Flanders, with many times that wounded and sick. Just after 11am across the old battlefields British units gathered to commemorate the end of the conflict for them; all did it in different ways and some went to great lengths to record the event with a photograph. Here a group of men from the Ordnance Base Depot of the Army Ordnance Corps (AOC) were photographed together on that fateful day.
Others marked the day in a more robust way. Below a veteran of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers remembers 11th November 1918 near Courtrai in Belgium; the interview is taken from a recording made in 1982.
A week long Remembrance theme starts on Great War Photos today and will include over the period leading up to and including 11th November a whole host of posts, with some days having several posts; reaching a peak around 11am on the 11th November. On 8th November the site will also host some images relating to my new TV Series on Messines – WW1 Tunnels of Death.
We start with an image relating to an event which took place 94 years ago today; the last great battle of the First World War, the Battle of the Sambre. By November 1918 the old trench system on the Western Front had collapsed and it was now open warfare. The Germans resorted to using geographical features to defend and on 4th November 1918 it was the Sambre-Oise Canal. More men went into battle that day than on the First Day of the Somme in 1916 but it was a very different battle, with minimal losses and mostly success; but not without some casualties; among them the war poet, Wilfred Owen.
This image was owned by a Great War veteran I knew, Josh Grover MM. It shows Lock No 1 on the Sambre canal where the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment crossed, supported by Royal Engineers. Two Victoria Crosses were awarded here, one to the commander of Josh’s battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Graham Johnson DSO. His citation reads,
“Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Johnson D.S.O., M.C., South Wales Borderers, attached 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex, for most conspicuous bravery and leadership during the forcing of the Sambre Canal on November 4th, 1918. The 2nd Infantry Brigade, of which 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex formed part, was ordered to cross the lock south of Catellon. The position was strong and before the bridge could be thrown, a steep bank leading up to the lock and a waterway about 100 yards short of the canal had to be crossed. The assaulting platoons and bridging parties Royal Engineers, on their arrival at the waterway were thrown into confusion by a heavy barrage and machine gun fire and heavy casualties were caused. At this moment Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson arrived and realising the situation at once collected men to man the bridges and assist the Royal Engineers and personally led the assault. In spite of his efforts heavy fire again broke up the assaulting and bridging parties. Without any hesitation he again organised the platoons and bridging parties and led them at the lock, this time succeeding in effecting a crossing after which all went well. During all this time Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson was under heavy fire, which, though it nearly decimated the assaulting columns, left him untouched. His conduct was a fine example of great valour, coolness and intrepidity, which, added to his splendid leadership and offensive spirit that he had inspired in his Battalion, were entirely responsible for the successful crossing.”
The Sussex crossed here successfully and Josh, a Lewis Gunner, survived when hit by machine-gun fire from the building shown in this photo; the bullets struck the machine-gun and not him. Josh lived a long life, and regularly returned to the battlefields in the 1980s; a memorial to him exists on the site where this action took place in 1918.
Italy entered the Allied cause in 1915 and for the next two years the fighting took place between Italian troops and units from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the Battle of Caporetto the entire course of the war in Italy changed and it look as if the Italian Army might collapse. British troops were transferred from the Western Front from October 1917 and found themselves in some cases moving from the mud and slime of Passchendaele to an Italian winter, which several veterans I interviewed who fought there thought was much more preferable! The British units found themselves in Northern Italian, principally in the area around Asiago. They would remain here, later joined by both French and American units, until the Austro-Hungarian forces collapsed in October 1918. By this time more than 1,000 British soldiers had died in Italy, with more than 5,000 wounded or sick.
This photograph shows British and Italian troops at a railway siding. The British soldiers are Royal Engineers and may well be from the Railway Operating Division running the railway system that supported the British forces here.
While for many Canadians the CEF attack at Vimy Ridge in April 1917 is Canada’s defining moment in the Great War, in many respects the more important period was the final Hundred Days from the Battle of Amiens on 8th August 1918 until the Armistice came into effect on 11th November 1918. During this time four Canadian Divisions fought more than 50 German divisions in the field, and were in action almost every day of that hundred day period, including the last moments of the war when the final British and Empire casualty was a Canadian; George Lawrence Price, who died at 10.58am. Commanded by Sir Arthur Currie the Canadians exemplify the changes in the whole British Expeditionary Force of which they were a part and showed that by 1918 commanders in the field were able to fight and win modern battles, using all arms of service working together in a modern and innovative approach. But while there was success on the battlefield casualties were high; more than 45,000 soldiers of the CEF were killed, wounded or missing at this time.
This image shows an 18-pounder field gun from the Canadian Field Artillery parading through Liege just after the end of the war. After the Canadian capture of Mons on 11th November their forces moved through several Belgian towns and cities and the local population, as this image shows, often came out to greet them.
Following the fighting on the Western Front in 1914 the war became stalemate and both sides dug in. The Indian Corps spent that first winter in cold and wet conditions that they struggled to cope with and many men became casualties of the elements as much as of the enemy. Although the Indian Corps took a leading role at Neuve-Chapelle and also the diversion for the Battle of Loos in 1915, another bad winter was feared and so gradually the Indian units were pulled out and moved to Mesopotamia or Palestine. A few cavalry units stayed behind but by 1917 Indians returned in large numbers with the formation of the Indian Labour Corps. By this stage of the war Britain had realised that infrastructure and a large available labour force was a key to victory, and so recruited foreign labour from every corner of the Empire, including India.
This image shows men of the Indian Labour Corps on the battlefield sometime in 1918. Trenches cut in chalk are visible behind the group, probably placing this near Arras or on the Somme. The presence of a bell tent would indicate this is some distance from the fighting, however. The white British soldiers are likely to be the NCOs in charge of the unit, as was common practice with all foreign labour units. The Indian Labour Corps was very active on the Somme front in 1918, their men assisting in the post-war clear up as much as the more famous Chinese Labour Corps.
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!
The town of Armentières was in Northern France, just short of the Franco-Belgian border. It was reached by British troops in October 1914 and trench lines established east of the town which would hardly move until 1918 – in fact they only moved at the time this German aerial photograph was taken during the Battle of the Lys in April 1918. The Battle of the Lys was one of the final German offensives of the war and launched in Northern France and Flanders on 9th April. Armentières was assaulted with mustard gas and was abandoned, not re-taken until September 1918. By that stage it’s buildings, many of which survive as this photo from Spring 1918 shows, were now in ruins and it became part of the Zone Rouge – the devastated area of France.
Although the scene of heavy fighting, Armentières was much more famous for the Great War song Madamoiselle from Armentières. First recorded in 1915, it was arguably one of the greatest ‘hits’ of the war and a song forever associated with the generation of WW1.
Pozieres British Cemetery was started when a Dressing Station was established close to here in 1917. After the war the site was chosen to make a permanent cemetery and graves from the 1916 fighting for the village were moved in here. The Pozieres Memorial – the walls visible to the rear of the graves – was added later to commemorate those who fell in the March-April 1918 operations and had no known grave.
This image dates from the 1930s and shows the completed cemetery but with some of the original features still in evidence. Of particular interest are the wooden crosses crowded into one area; these are the original grave markers and there was no-one buried under them at this stage; headstones had already replaced them. Families visiting the battlefields at this time could claim original crosses and even apply for them by post.
The larger cross was a memorial to the 1st Australian Division which had been unveiled here on 8th July 1917. The Division had suffered over 7,700 casualties in the Pozieres fighting. The cross was later replaced with a permanent memorial and was taken back to Australia.
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.
Today we feature some more photos from the Lauder album, taken by a young women who travelled to the battlefields between Reims and Verdun in 1925.
These images show some knocked out tanks which were then visible close to Fort La Pompelle, just outside Reims. The fort had been on the front line for four years during the Great War but had never fallen. In June 1918 a German attacked was launched on the fort which included a large number of captured British Mark IV tanks (largely taken at Cambrai) being used by the German Army, painted in their own colours and given German names. The wrecks of the tanks knocked out here in June 1918 became tourist attractions post-war and remained here until they were scrapped by the Germans during the occupation of WW2.
The Lauders were some of thousands who visited these wrecks in the 1920s and 30s.
This evening BBC1 will be screening The Bomber Boys about the men of Bomber Command in the Second World War. It is often forgotten that there were bombers operated by the RAF in the Great War, used to bomb targets on or behind the battlefield or much deeper into enemy territory.
When the Great War broke out aircraft were un-armed and used in a reconnaissance role. German Zeppelins brought the first bombs onto targets away from the battlefield, and by 1917 the Germans had developed the Gotha bomber capable of making bombing runs on Britain from bases in Belgium. By 1918 the British used a number of aircraft to bomb Germany, the DH9 being one of the workhorses and used in combat by, for example, 99 Squadron RAF who bombed the city of Saarbrücken in Germany in July 1918.
This image comes from a small collection owned by a veteran of the RAF who flew in 1918 and shows one of his fellow pilots with two 500lb bombs; again the size of bombs used in WW1 is surprising considering the nature of the aircraft. The early pilots and crews of these bomber squadrons paved the way for the next generation of Bomber Boys, many of whom had read the adventures of Great War pilots while at school in the 20s and 30s.
Unicorn Cemetery close to the village of Vendhuile is on the Hindenburg Line battlefields which saw fighting in 1917/18. It gets its name as some original burials were made by the burial officer of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division whose insignia was the head of a Unicorn. It contains the graves of nearly 600 British and Commonwealth casualties of the Great War who fell here in the last two years of the war.
This photograph shows the family of one of these casualties visiting the cemetery in the early 1920s. The cemetery has not been made permanant and a wooden signboard bears the cemetery name and map reference. The plots have already been laid out and a little fence placed round with a gate; at the time this image was taken, the decisions about how to make these cemeteries permanant were in fact still being made.
Who these early battlefield pilgrims were is sadly not noted on the photograph; it would appear perhaps to be a sister on the left and mother on the right – perhaps father took the photograph? Given the cost and difficulty in getting to these places at that time for many families like this it was a once in a lifetime visit; that this photograph was special to those in it is clear from the fact that it remains mint; well hidden and well stored for decades until I found it in a Sussex junk shop in the 1980s.
This photograph is from the same gunners photo album that yesterdays came from; the owner was an officer in the 218th Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery on the Hindenburg Line in 1918.
The image of ‘The Major’ who is not named, gives a good insight into the way officers dressed in the last phase of the war. The old ‘cuff-rank tunic‘ with the officer’s rank on the cuff, which had cost some many young officers their lives in 1914 and 1915 had seen a resurgence and the Major is wearing his here. He has a sandbag covered helmet to reduce the shine in bright conditions, and straps indicate a map case on one side. Nearest the camera the Major has the container tin of a French gas mask held in a leather sling, with a first field dressing attached to it. The British gas mask could not fit in this tin, so we can only speculate what might be in it – perhaps a whisky flask?!
This image comes from an album belonging to an officer who served in 218th Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. The pictures are all small, which may indicate a Kodak pocket camera which seem to have been fairly common in the late war period. The officer served with the unit in the final months of fighting on the Western Front and took a number of photos of battlefield areas on the Hindenberg Line.
This image shows a German MG08 on the lip of a sunken lane somewhere near the St Quentin canal area in October 1918. This was the standard heavy machine-gun of the German Army in the Great War capable of firing 400 rounds a minute. An ammunition tin is seen on the far left and next to it nearer the gun is the condenser tin; this was connected to the gun by a leather hose and condensed the steam in the guns water-cooling jacket back into the tin where it could be used to refill the jacket for the next shoot. The positioning of the gun suggests a good field of fire beyond the lane, but it’s less than permanent position is also typical of German defences in the last phase of the war as the Germans were being defeated and thrown back, and could not rely on the sort of entrenchments they had prepared earlier in the war.