A hundred years ago today the men of the British Expeditionary Force were marching up to Mons on the eve of what would be the first British battle of the war, the Battle of Mons which began on 23rd August 1914.
This unusual image is from a Belgian postcard published in 1919 showing a group of men most likely from the 5th Division marching up alongside the Mons-Conde canal through the village of Jemappes, which would be the scene of heavy fighting the following day.
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.