By the late 1920s the work on making the cemeteries along the old Western Front was in full swing and while a large number of cemeteries had been completed, many had not.
This image from the late 1920s shows White House Cemetery, close to Ypres and in the neighbouring village of St Jan, serves as a typical example. The cemetery wall has been built, the Stone of Remembrance and Cross of Sacrifice are in place, but the graves all have the original wooden crosses. The wide scope and variety of the crosses is evident as is the rural nature of the ground around Ypres, now in total contrast to what it looks like today.
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.
The ground around Ypres became a battlefield once more in May 1940 as the German Blitzkrieg pushed the British Expeditionary Force back towards the French coast around Dunkirk. Many German units passed through Ypres and these photographs show men from a German Field Artillery unit which had just been in action near Ypres visiting the Menin Gate just after the fighting in 1940. The number of photos of Germans visiting the Menin Gate in 1940 are quite staggering, and there must have been an awareness of not just what it was but what it stood for.
Through the power of Twitter a couple of days ago I found a new website Findery. The site is free to use and open to contributors from across the world. You simply sign up, make a profile and then start adding content. What attracted me to it was the ability to add geo-referenced content; choose an image, write something about it and then pin it to a location on a map. That brings a whole new dimension to image and knowledge sharing and for historians interested in place as well as past, there are a great deal of possibilities.
An example of what can be done is shown above; the image of the village of Locre in ruins was pinned to its exact location on the map and that is where it is displayed.
While this new site will not change what I will be doing here at Great War Photos, I will be adding some key photos from the past year to Findery and I really look forward to a smartphone App soon, so that photos can be taken and then immediately uploaded when ‘in the field’.
Meanwhile you can find me on Findery here: Battlefield Historian on Findery.
As some readers of my work will know I lived on the Somme for a decade. Aside from being surrounded by a wealth of history and battlefields, during that time the Old Front Line was literally on my doorstep as every time I tilled the kitchen garden shrapnel balls and bullets came up. In the village people brought us items unearthed by their ploughs and one day someone turned up with the remains of a Canadian soldier who had been found in the sunken lane behind our house. The archaeology of Great War was very vivid during that time and for six months of this year I found myself reliving some of that as I once again explored beneath the battlefields of the Western Front with my old friend, television producer John Hayes-Fisher.
This time our work brought us to Messines in Flanders, part of the Ypres Salient. Here for four years the front went from a war of movement to static trenches, gas, tanks and mine warfare: Messines was almost a microcosm of the whole Great War. Here we followed a project being undertaken by a group of professional archaeologists from Belgian Ordnance Clearance Company ADeDe. Headed up by Simon Verdegem, a young archaeologists with a passion for the Great War who had previously worked on digs such as the A19 Project, his team planned to work one step ahead of a major development: the placement of a massive water pipe and drainage system around the village of Messines. This would take them across several square kilometres of battlefield, making it the biggest professional dig on the Western Front in many years, perhaps ever.
We spent our six months in Flanders Fields following Simon and his team unearth a whole array of different trench systems: from communication trenches, to fighting trenches to infantry shelters and even concrete bunkers. This included one of the deepest intact trenches ever found in Flanders and along with it an amazing array of personal artefacts. The work was not without its dangers and a team of bomb disposal experts were continually on-hand to remove dangerous ordnance prior to its recovery.
The upcoming series on Channel 5 entitled ‘WW1 Tunnels of Death’ will give people an insight into what this fascinating and unique project has uncovered, and the story is assisted by numerous Great War experts such as Alex Churchill, Professor Peter Doyle, Josh Levine, Major Alexander Turner and David Whithorn. Two other versions have been made for BBC Worldwide and Arte, and there is also a US Version for the PBS Channel. The Channel 5 version will be shown at 20.00 on 8th and 15th November 2012.
It was a fascinating year back on and beneath the Old Front Line; we found ourselves in trenches, dugouts and tunnels, and looking at items that had not seen the light of day for nearly a century. But it wasn’t just about artefacts; during the dig the remains of a Commonwealth soldier was found and he will later be buried in one of the nearby cemeteries. He was one of thousands who lived and died in those trenches and dugouts we explored; voices now silent, and it is only the landscape and what lies beneath which can still bear fresh testimony to the story that was the First World War.
The area around Loos was one of France’s richest coal mining districts and the landscape was populated with mining communities and old pit heads. Arguably the most famous was the so-called ‘Tower Bridge‘, a massive pit head lift which stood to the rear of Loos village and which reminded those who saw it of the original Tower Bridge in London. Loos itself sat in a hollow but the top of Tower Bridge could be seen from the British trenches before the battle and it soon became a landmark. Men from the 15th (Scottish) Division took the village on 25th September 1915 and just as the Germans had used it as an Observation Post, British gunners soon did the same until it was eventually destroyed. Many of the men who served at Loos acquired postcards of Tower Bridge in towns like Bethune, and kept them or sent them home to family. Images of it appeared in the popular press of the day.
By 1918 there was little left of Tower Bridge but it was rebuilt post-war. The mining industry in Northern France pretty much collapsed in the 1960s/70s and the pit which the new Tower Bridge served closed. The image below was taken by WW1 author John Giles in the 70s showing the building before it was demolished once more. Today only a few traces exist of Tower Bridge, now tucked away between houses and a small park.
By the end of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916 nearly 150,000 British and Commonwealth troops had died in the fighting. Behind such a stark number are a multitude of human stories; the true cost of the Somme, which British families bore in 1916.
This photograph was taken at Hawthorn Ridge No 1 Cemetery, near Beaumont-Hamel, in 1919. It shows the parents and sister of Eric Rupert Heaton by his grave, a simple wooden cross. The photo was taken by his brother, an army chaplain. Eric had died on 1st July 1916 leading his platoon up the slopes of Hawthorn Ridge; his body had not been found until the November placing him among the ‘missing’ and giving the family some faint hope he might have survived.
On this 96th Anniversary of the Somme we should remember the sacrifice and the often forgotten achievements of the British Army in the Great War, but achievements always come at a cost – and this photo gives us a rare glimpse into what that cost really was for some families.
The Menin Road was the old Roman road which ran between Ypres and Menin in Flanders. During the Great War much of the fighting revolved around the area where the road passed and as such it was turned into a virtual moonscape by the close of the war in 1918.
This image from 1920 shows an area which appears to be north of the Menin Road close to Hooge. The houses in the background could well be those on the Menin Road, then being rebuilt and the large crater could be a smaller mine crater, one of many in this sector. Again the photograph gives a vivid insight into the desolation of the Great War battlefields just a few short years after the war.
The village of Ploegsteert – ‘Plugstreet’ to the British troops during the Great War – was at the southern end of the Ypres battlefields and was dominated by a huge expanse of woodland: Plugstreet Wood. The area saw fighting in the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 but then settled down to static trench warfare and rapidly became known as a ‘nursery sector’ where units fresh from England could acclimatise to the conditions of trench warfare. Many famous people served here in WW1: author Henry Williamson in 1914, war poet Roland Leighton in 1915, and Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden in 1916. The wood was overrun in the Battle of the Lys in April 1918 and finally taken by the Hull Pals in September 1918.
This image – another of the Nightingale stereo-cards – dates from 1920 and is taken on the Ploegsteert-Messines road, just south of Hyde Park Corner. The trees on the left are the western side of the wood and show what state it was in by the end of the war. The buildings ahead are close to the site of Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berks) Cemetery, opposite which today is the Ploegsteert Memorial. The rising ground in the distance is Hill 63, beyond which was Messines and the Messines Ridge. Although not a lunar landscape like the ground immediately around Ypres, the photo once again gives an insight into the desolate state of the battlefields at this time.
During the Great War the Germans produced a vast amount of images depicting the conflict; unlike in the British Army, German soldiers were not punished if they had cameras and every German division appears to have had a photography unit that took images which were put onto postcard as souvenirs for the soldiers. In addition, many German units published photo books while the war was still on and these give us a valuable insight into the battlefields as they were at this time.
An example of this is Die Schlacht bei Arras which was published in Munich in 1918. It contains 350 printed images of the German Army in the Arras sector. Some of the photos date from 1916 but many were taken during the 1917 operations. They show the villages in a varying state of destruction, trench life for the Germans, British prisoners, shot down aircraft and numerous other scenes.
The above image shows British prisoners taken during the fighting in May 1917 being marched to the rear. The worst day at Arras was 3rd May when there were huge casualties with many prisoners of war; it is likely these men were captured at this time. The image is taken at one of the villages in the rear area close to Douai, which was the main logistics and supply centre for the German Army at Arras.
The final Aftermath image this week comes from the same collection of stereo cards and the caption for it states the photograph was taken at Langemarck, one of the Flemish villages heavily fought over near Ypres during the Great War.
On close examination of the image it is clear the tank is a Mark IV Female – armed with machine-guns – and the legend ‘B4′ is painted on it which identifies the tank as being part of the 2nd (‘B’) Battalion Tank Corps.
Research online at the Landships website shows that tank B4 was lost in the fighting north of Inverness Copse on 23rd August 1917. Commanded by 2/Lt P.C.Chambers it first broke down, was repaired, and then moved up only to be hit and burnt out – evidence of the battle damage is clear on the photo. Chambers got out and survived Third Ypres only to be killed on the Somme in 1918.
This tank formed part of the famous ‘Tank Graveyard‘ close to Clapham Junction, which remained a tourist attraction well into the 1920s and 30s. Here the hulks of tanks knocked out in 1917 littered the ground where they had bogged, been disabled or knocked out.
Nearly a century after the Great War it is hard for modern battlefield visitors to imagine what a desolate wasteland the battlefields were immediately after the war. In areas like Flanders and the Somme nothing was left after four years of war; buildings were dust, ground was polluted by gas and the battlefields overgrown with war detritus scattered everywhere.
The journey made by the unknown photographer who took these stereo card images featured over the past couple of weeks was quite something in 1920 and this image shows the sort of landscape he had to deal with. His car has paused on an old battlefield trackway. These paths were created by men of the Labour Corps to allow movement across the devastated zone and were usually made of wood planking or railway sleepers. The sleeps were often covered with hessian material so that those using it had some degree of traction. By 1920 many were still in use as the only ways to cross areas where the fighting had been at its greatest.
The caption for this image reads ‘Mametz Wood‘ – one of the key areas of fighting on the Somme in both 1916 and 1918 and where in July 1916 the 38th (Welsh) Division suffered heavy casualties in their first major battle of the Great War.
This post-war stero-card shows some of the ruins of central Ypres in 1920. In fact it shows some of the rubble and walls of the Cloth Hall with one of the Menin Gate lions in front. The sign among the rubble reads:
THIS IS HOLY GROUND.
NO STONE OF THIS FABRIC MAY BE TAKEN AWAY,
IT IS A HERITAGE FOR ALL CIVILISED PEOPLES.
It was at this time that the future of Ypres was still under discussion; Winston Churchill put forward the idea of preserving it in its wartime state and foresting the old battlefields. The people of Belgium rightly wanted their land back and did not want to reside inside a museum so this never happened, but the rebuilding of the city was not complete until the 1960s.
I recently acquired a small collection of stereo-cards from around 1920 which were images taken by a British photographer who toured the battlefields at this time. They give a fascinating insight into what the battlefields looked like in this aftermath period and some of them will feature on the blog this week.
This image is taken in the main square in the town of Péronne, a small town on the Somme used as a headquarters by the Germans from 1914-17, the British in 1917-18 and retaken by the Germans in March 1918 until captured later that September. The ruined building behind was the town hall used as a headquarters by the Australians after the capture of Péronne in September 1918 and they remained the street in front ‘Roo de Kanga’ – the local mayor officially renamed the street with that name in 1998 on the 80th anniversary of the liberation. Under German occupation before 1917 the town hall once bore a sign in German which read “Nicht argern nur wundern!” (“don’t be angry only marvel!”) and which is now in the Historial museum in the town. The tank is likely to be a MKIV or MKV, both used in the fighting around Peronne in 1918.
The young man in the image is likely to be the photographer’s son as he appears on other photographs that will appear this week.
In the years between the First and Second World Wars thousands travelled to the battlefields in France and Flanders. Many were the families of those who had fallen, but some were also veterans of the war, going back to make sense of their past and perhaps pay their respects to an old comrade who hadn’t come home. Several of the veterans I interviewed had gone back in the 20s/30s and said it was hard even then to find some of the places they had known. Two veterans expressed their feelings in the poem The Road To La Bassée:
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine -
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know,
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
This photograph from the 1930s shows one such veteran, at New Irish Farm Cemetery, close to Ypres. He looks down on a row of graves of two Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Machine-Gunner and an Irish Rifleman. Which one was the grave he had come to see? Was it a family member or a comrade he had left behind on the battlefield? We will never know, but it was clearly a defining moment for him, and one he wanted to recall by having the visit photographed. This is not a tourist snap; it is an insight into loss, regret and no doubt a little guilt, at having survived when this man did not. What was passing through his mind as he looked down on the white stone? The beauty of a simple image that poses more questions than it answers.
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.
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.
We start this week with images from the album of a battlefield pilgrim who travelled to the French battlefields between Reims and Verdun in 1925. The album belonged to a ‘D.Lauder’ who appears to have been a woman in her late twenties. Whether she had a connection to the family of the famous Sir Harry Lauder is not clear, but it appears she may have worked as a volunteer Nurse attached to the French Army, which explains why she visited locations outside of the usual area for British pilgrims.
Fort Vaux was one of the famous French forts which featured in the fighting during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. It had fallen to the Germans in June and was later recaptured that November. The women in the photo above are standing on an Observation Post which directed some of the forts gun turrets. The smashed nature of the ground is clearly visible.
When visitors came to Fort Vaux in the 1920s they were given a French Army guide, whom Miss Lauder photographed on top of the same bunker. He holds a miner’s lamp in his hand which was presumably used to take his party through the tunnels of the fort.
When the early pilgrims to the Ypres battlefields in Flanders began to arrive from 1919, with a war shattered town and landscape finding accommodation for them was something of a problem; many stayed in nearby Bruges, Ghent or Ostend and motored down.
A testimony to the huge influx of visitors is shown in this image which is of the Hotel Excelsior in Ypres from around 1922. The ruined city was in its early stages of being rebuilt and this became one of the first substantial temporary buildings constructed, close to the railway station.
Battlefield pilgrims could stay here in basic rooms and as can be seen from the front of the hotel, it became a hive of activity for taxis and other touring vehicles who from 1920 onwards began to offer guided tours of the battlefields. Another reminder that the modern battlefield tour industry is far from new.
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing was unveiled on 1st August 1932; we saw a few weeks ago the Last Post being played as part of the ceremony; here is an image of the assembled crowd who had travelled to the Somme for the inauguration ceremony that day.
Such pilgrimages were not new – visitors had first been seen on the old battlefields in 1919 – and this was not even the first one to the Somme, yet it was the first large scale pilgrimage since the British Legion had organised their own in 1928. But this in many respects was a pilgrimage with a difference; here were not families who had come to see a grave. No wives or mothers or children could walk the rows of headstones to find one with ‘their’ name on. For these were the families of the legions of the missing; men who had ‘no known grave’. What to do with these missing? In previous wars such men had never been commemorated, but as this war had touched almost every family in the land, crossed every class and social barrier, and on some battlefields more than half the dead were missing, it was felt unfair for the loved ones of these men to have nothing to see, nothing to remember but a fading vision. The solution were the huge memorials to the missing, which in many places came to define the battlefields on which they stood.
Future generations would make much of these memorials like Thiepval, and wonder at the long lists of names. But on this day, and in this crowd, all minds were focussed on but a single thought; of that name, that face, that voice which had once been dear to them and was lost. There had always been that feint hope; alive somewhere, lost their memory, perhaps missing no more, but now nearly two decades after the Somme the final reckoning; a name in stone, a final acceptance, and all the grief and heartache that brought.
When the civilian population returned after the Great War the villages, towns and landscapes they had known were reduced to rubble or a mass of shell holes. In the immediate post-war period no-one lived in any of the villages around Ypres; during the day the people returned to their communities to salvage and begin the rebuilding process and at night they slept in Ypres. One writer described the ‘ghostly silence’ on the battlefields after dark, in stark contrast to the war years.
This image from 1921 shows an old railway sleeper track running through what had been Chateau Wood, close to the hamlet of Hooge on the Menin Road. The overgrown by devastated nature of the ground is obvious, and the destritus of war not far away; several shells are visibile, all minus their copper driving bands and brass fuses – quite likely removed by civilians like those in the photo trying to make a small living from the scrap.
In most battlefield areas the serious rebuilding did not begin until 1922/23, which meant that the people in this photograph lived a very primitive existence, often in old wooden army huts, for several years until their shattered communities rose from the ashes.
It is easy to believe that battlefield tourism is a modern phenomena but in terms of the Great War it began as early as 1919 with the publication of the first battlefield guide. Today the huge number of travellers who went to France and Flanders in the 1920s and 30s is forgotten; at one peak it was estimated than more than 300,000 people travelled to the battlefields in one year, for example.
This image comes from a small album owned by a veteran of the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment (Cambridgeshire). The Cambs battalion took heavy casualties at La Boisselle on 1st July 1916 – the First Day of the Battle of the Somme – and fought in many other engagements on the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Hindenburg Line. This veteran returned to the battlefields twice in the 30s and in 1936 went on a special pilgrimage with his old comrades of the 11th Suffolks to attend ceremonies on the Somme for 1st July 1936 – the 20th Anniversary.
Our image of Great War veterans is now of old men, but here they are middle-aged in their 40s. There are some decorated men among them; one has a Military Cross and another a Military Medal. The older man in the middle of the group has campaign medals going back to the Boer War. The white disk they are all wearing has a chequer-board in the middle; the insignia of the 34th Division whose memorial they are standing in front of and with whom the 11th Suffolks served.
It is a poignant reminder that when we visit the Somme, we travel in the footsteps of earlier pilgrims.