The documentary Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars is about to start on BBC4 and promises to be a fascinating insight into the archaeology of the war underground on the Somme in 1916.
Part of the programme will apparently feature the Lochnagar Mine Crater, perhaps the most visited British mine crater today on the Western Front. But this was not always so.
In the inter-war period the Somme was visited by hundreds of thousands of battlefield pilgrims, many of whom came to La Boisselle and many of whom visited a mine crater there, but it wasn’t Lochnagar, but the Y Sap Mine Crater. This was a major ‘tourist location’ in the 1920s/30s as it was close to the Albert-Bapaume road and easily accessible from the main road, which Lochnagar was not. However by the 1970s the Y Sap crater was hardly visited and the owner filled it in; leading to Richard Dunning saving the Lochnagar Crater when that too was threatened with the site now preserved by the Friends of Lochnagar.
Today is the 96th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, the first British offensive against the Hindenburg Line and something of a forgotten battle. It was very much a British and Commonwealth battle, with Canadians attacking to the North at Vimy Ridge, New Zealand tunnellers working beneath Arras and Australians on the flank at Bullecourt. Amongst the British divisions were all three Scottish formations: 9th (Scottish), 15th (Scottish) and 51st (Highland), so like Loos in 1915 it was also something of a ‘Scottish battle’ too. Arras turned into a bloody struggle, despite early success on this day in 1917 but aside from the success of the Canadians at Vimy and the terrible loss of Australians at Bullecourt – often wrongly seen as separate battles by some – it is little remembered and aside from books like my Walking Arras, Jeremy Banning & Peter Barton’s Arras 1917 and Jon Nicholl’s Cheerful Sacrifice it has rarely attracted the attention of Great War historians in print. As we move towards the WW1 centenary, hopefully that will change.
This image comes from a special collection of Canadian images from the fighting at Arras that belonged to a CEF staff officer and shows Canadian troops on the slopes of Hill 145 looking down in the Douai Plain; it certainly emphasises how important a terrain feature was to both sides.
The Aftermath period of the Great War is an intriguing one as we know when the war ended, we know that people came back, we know that communities were rebuilt and cemeteries and memorials constructed. But actually it is probably the least documented period connected with the war and one that many find fascinating, so it is always good to find some images connected with it and this is part of a small collection recently acquired for the Great War Photos archives, and a new image will be appearing every Friday this month.
This image shows the community that the village of Hooge had become after the war. Hooge was just a hamlet on the Menin Road, east of Ypres, but it had become a pivotal site during the Battles of Ypres and had literally been blown off the map by 1918. A large Hooge Cemetery was constructed close to the site of these buildings, most of which are either recovered Nissen huts from army camps near Ypres or the type of provisional housing that was provided in 1919; all that most Belgians had to live in when they came back after the war. In most cases Belgian families lived in these until the 1922/23/24 period when the main rebuilding took place; hard for us to imagine now.
This aerial image dates from 1916 and shows the centre of Ypres around the ruins of the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral as it was at that point in the war – but in this case covered in a thick blanket of snow. The main square is in the centre of the photograph and towards the centre top is the road leading up to the Menin Gate and the Ypres Ramparts. It offers a very different and compelling image of Ypres, only half way through the conflict, but yet already very much in ruins.
The Western Front at its peak was over 450 miles long, stretching from the Belgian coast at Nieuport to the Swiss border near the village of Pfetterhouse. The terrain along that front varied widely from the flat plains of Flanders to the rolling downland of the Somme, through forests like the Argonne and into mountains when it reached the Vosges.
On the Belgian end of the front, at Nieuport, the trench system ran right up to the beach, with that end of the Western Front literally petering out in the sand. For most of the war it was held by the Belgian Army but in 1917 British troops took over the sector in the lead-up to what was eventually an abandoned plan to make seaborne landings further up the coast. However, in July 1917 the Germans went on the offensive here and attacked the forward positions held by British units around the town of Nieuport.
This photograph, from a German source, dates from that period and shows an overrun British trench following the fighting in July 1917. The bunker was in the extreme northern positions on the Western Front and directly overlooked the beach and indeed the sea; both of which are visible in the background on this image. It is probably not how most people think the Western Front came to an end on this Northern end of the battlefield!
In early 1919 the British forces began the period of demobilisation and millions of men under arms exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes and went home. Before them thousands of men wounded, gassed and made sick by war service had been discharged. While the loss of three quarters of million men from Great Britain created the feeling of a ‘Lost Generation‘ the truth was most of that generation came home. Home to a decade of economic collapse and tough times for those with a family, trying to survive in the depression. Others with wounds struggled on in the aftermath of the war, lungs corrupted by gas and mind and body never quite the same. Even those physically untouched by the trenches still had the mental scars of the war and while they were a tough generation with no counselling the memories of their war lingered and all too often surfaced; one veteran I knew, for example, had been gassed in 1916 and the smell of the gas was like pineapples. He could not stand that smell for the rest of his life; it sent him into a blind panic. From a wealthy family, they lost everything in the Wall Street Crash and he found himself working in Joe Lyons tea shop, opening tins of pineapple chunks. But it kept his family from poverty so he stuck it, like he stuck three years on the Western Front.
We end this series of posts on Remembrance with an image of an unknown soldier. He wears no uniform, just typical clothes of a young man of the 1920s. But on his lapel is a badge which gives us a clue to what he once had been – the Silver War Badge. Issued to all those discharged due to wounds and sickness caused by active service it was worn as a badge of pride among Great War veterans. In some ways men like this are part of a huge anonymous Great War army – those who survived, the forgotten wounded, the majority. A hundred years after the Great War it is easy to remember the dead, and on Remembrance Sunday we should do that – but we should also recall the survivors: men who saw the best and the worst of the war, achieved it’s ultimate now forgotten victory and came home to a life that must have seemed unreal compared to the experience of World War One. The debt we owe that generation is not to see them as victims, but to recognise what they did, what they saw and suffered and how it changed Britain forever. We Will Remember Them… Them All.
Today was an exciting day for anyone with an interest in the Great War as the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the plans for the National Commemoration of the centenary period between 2014 and 2018. Unsurprisingly key dates like the outbreak of war, the First Day on the Somme and the Armistice, but plans were also outlined to remember Gallipoli, Jutland and Passchendaele, too. Cameron, who I thought spoke with some passion about the war, made it clear that the plans were a work in progress and actively sought input from interested parties to help shape what the period would become, and that is to be welcomed. The budget of £50 million sounds huge, but £35 million of that is for the revamp of the Imperial War Museum. Yet money will be made available for educating the next generation – funding for school visits to the battlefields was promised – and National Lottery funding would be allocated for local projects and heritage initiatives, which could potentially help save many crumbling memorials.
The Great War was an event that defined this nation and its population, and that of the Commonwealth. That the government is taking a serious and seemingly mature approach to commemorating the centenary of it is to be welcomed by all. No commemoration can ever hope to cover everything, but the funding of local projects should help ensure that some of the lesser known aspects of the conflict are brought into sharp focus.
Great War Photos is doing its bit for the centenary, too. Not only will the posting of previously unseen WW1 images continue here but I’m pleased that the Great War Photos archive will be used as part of a major centenary initiative and no doubt the site will post more about that in the future.
Thirty years ago when I first visited the Western Front, the battlefields were empty and forgotten; the hundreds of veterans I interviewed as a young history student earnestly thought that when they all faded away their war would slip into obscurity and never be remembered. These new plans ensure that 1914-18 will not slip from our conciousness and that the voices of that conflict will still be as vivid and important a hundred years later.
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.
Continuing with the series of post-WW1 stereo cards showing the battlefields as they were in the early 1920s
The Ypres Cloth Hall was one of the medieval gems of Europe prior to 1914. It has once been the centre of the European cloth trade and home to numerous stalls selling cloth from across the globe. This trade had made Ypres rich, wealthy enough to fund its own Vauban designed defences during the long periods of conflict that followed.
During the Great War the Cloth Hall came under fire during the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 and then caught fire the same November. Some, but not all, of its many treasures were saved and gradually by 1918 it was reduced to rubble as every shell from 77m up to 420mm naval shells fell on it at some point. Only the central tower stood proud, but that in ruins and two years after the end of the war we see it in this photograph pretty much in the same state it was at the end of the conflict. The howitzer was one of several war trophies on display in the main square at this time and appears to be a German 150mm howitzer. The photographers son is once again used for scale, as he sits on the gun.
Ypres was gradually rebuilt, using the original medieval plans, but it took time – the Cloth Hall was not finished, for example, until the early 1960s. Today it houses the council offices and the In Flanders Fields Museum.
The use of horses and horse transport by the Chinese Labour Corps is not something widely considered but this image shows two types of such transport in use in 1919. On the left is an Army Service Corps Water Cart and on the right a General Service Wagon. In both cases the driver of the vehicle is from the Army Service Corps but they both have CLC in the cab with them.
One can only speculate on the circumstances of this photograph but it was taken in 1919 and in the rear background is a road sign which points to the village of Roisel. Roisel is on the Somme and was the scene of fighting in August 1918. At the time this image was taken the CLC were being employed in this area to bury the dead and clear the area of unexploded ordnance. It is therefore likely that these War Horses and their masters were being employed in such work and were part of a team roving the Somme battlefields at this time.
The subject of horses in the Great War has proved a popular subject on this site, no doubt fuelled by the huge success of the War Horse movie. This week on the Blog we move to Monday, Wednesday and Friday posts and this week all have a War Horse theme.
This image shows personnel of an Army Veterinary Corps (AVC) unit in France in the early period of the war. When the regular army of the British Expeditionary Force want to war in 1914 most of its transport – like most European Armies of the day – was horse drawn and an important part of its Order of Battle were AVC units like those seen here who treated the horses wounded and injured on active service, or those that had become ill during the winter of 1914/15. Horse care by the AVC was a hugely important job as the regular army operated on the premise of having a limited number of available horses and it was better to treat animals and return them to work rather than put them down; unless that was unavoidable.
By 1918 there were dozens of AVC units operating on or just behind the front, treating thousands of horses and in many ways they are the unsung heroes of an army that even in the last year of the war with increased mechanisation still relied heavily on horse transport.
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.
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.
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.
It is often not realised that the Women’s Land Army – something very familiar for WW2 – actually was founded in the Great War. With war volunteers, and then conscription, the farming community rapidly found itself stripped of a workforce and from 1915 women began to take the place of the men in the fields. By 1917 a quarter of a million women were working on farms across Britain.
This unknown Woman’s Land Army worker wears a typical uniform of the period; a wide brimmed hat with the Women’s Land Army badge of the period, a rubberised waterproof jacket very similar to an army despatch riders coat, jodpers, good shoes and leather gaiters. It was very much practical and not stylish.
Women like this did very important work in the Great War, now largely forgotten a century later and somewhat overshadowed by the more glamorous Land Girls of a later generation.
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.
The 8th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment was a Pioneer battalion raised in Sussex in 1914. While many Pioneer units were raised in the Midlands and North of England where the male population was often used to hard physical labour and made excellent army Pioneers, those that lived and worked in Britain’s rural communities were found just as suitable. The men who joined this battalion in September 1914 were largely drawn from the rural towns and villages of West Sussex and were older than the average recruit; men in their late 20s and into their 30s. They trained at Colchester and then went to France in July 1915 as Pioneers to the 18th (Eastern) Division.
This photograph was taken in Belgium in the autumn of 1917; it is one of a number I have all with the same farm buildings in the background which were typical of the sort of structures found in the area around Poperinghe. The 8th Royal Sussex spent some time here in 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres and it appears they invited a local photographer to take pictures of the whole battalion platoon by platoon, judging by the different examples I have. Unfortunately these images were not named, so while we know when and where the photo was taken, and what unit it was, we have no idea who these men were: a frustratingly common problem with Great War images.
Another image from the Ron Short collection, this shows officers and men of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment out at rest in the village of Berles-au-Bois, between Arras and the Somme, in early 1917. At this time the battalion had moved into forward positions at Ecoust St Mein opposite Bullecourt, and used Berles as a rest billet when not in the line.
Berles-au-Bois had previously been on the front line before 1917, it being a sector taken over by Brotish troops in 1915 and well described in I.L. Read’s Of Those We Loved. In 1917 the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line suddenly placed the village behind our lines and largely out of the range of most artillery.
On the walls of the house occupied by the Queen’s are Billet Officer’s chalk marks; they would mark buildings up so that when a new unit came in they knew which buildings were theirs and how many soldiers each dwelling could hold.
Also of interest is the Strombos Horn on the wooden crate next to one of the officers: this was a very loud gas alarm and was increasingly used instead of gas rackets and gas gongs so that it could be heard above the sound of gunfire. It was powered by a compressed air cylinder that activated the klaxon noise. From 1916 onwards twenty of these were issued for every mile of front.
This image comes from the same collection I featured when Great War Photos began a month ago; it was taken by an officer of the battalion, Ron Short, who served with the battalion in Belgium, France and Italy 1917-1919.
At a time of year when snow is imminent, this photograph of men of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Regiment, part of 7th Division, doing bayonet practice in the snow of the old Somme battlefields is particularly poignant. While the Somme front had been abandoned and British troops moved forward towards the Hindenburg Line, units out of rest would use the old Somme area and carry out training here, even in the cold and snow of winter. The late winter and early spring of 1917 was especially cold and snow fell well into April.
While bayonets caused less than 1% of the casualties in the Great War, bayonet fighting was something that was very much part of the British Army’s training of the period. One manual stated:
“The officers will take all proper opportunities to inculcate in the mens’ minds a reliance on the bayonet; men of their bodily strength and even a coward may be their match in firing. But the bayonet in the hands of the valiant is irresistible.”
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.
The use of trains in the Great War is a neglected subject; railways were the super-highways of the day used to transport everything from material to men and horses. In the British and Commonwealth forces trains were operated by the Railway Operating Division (ROD) of the Royal Engineers which recruited men who had worked on the railways in civilian life to operate the trains on active service.
Depicted here are trains of the ROD abandoned on the Somme during the March Offensive of 1918. They were photographed by a German soldier at this time just off the Albert-Bapaume road close to the village of Pozières. The British had put in a railway system here as a Casualty Clearing Station had been in operation at this point in 1917 and the wounded had been brought in by ambulance and then moved further back by train. The trains had also brought up artillery ammunition for a number of shell depots that had been established in the area. The barren nature of the Somme battlefields at this time is evident in the background.
This soldier of the Royal Sussex Regiment was photographed in Eastbourne sometime in 1916. He is wearing a style of uniform that became very symbolic of the Great War: Hospital Blues.
A form of hospital uniform had been introduced even before the Boer War but in the early years of the Great War the need to ensure that convalescing soldiers had a uniform they could wear in public became quite important; if they stepped out in civilian clothes there was always the risk they might attract the attention of zealous patriots who went round handing out white feathers to men not in uniform whom they suspected were not doing their ‘bit’ for King and Country.
The Hospital Blues uniform was therefore available for convalescing troops in Britain; some were issued for France, but the emphasis on issue was on the Home Front because of the problems of interaction with the public. It consisted of a white shirt, a bright red woven tie and a blue jacket; all of which can be seen in this image. As is visible here the soldier also wore his Service Dress cap with regimental insignia; where no cap was available, soldiers often wore their regimental badge on their lapel. The uniform was worn with pride as it showed that not only was the man in the armed services, he had served overseas and been wounded.
The fact that this photograph was taken in Eastbourne may also indicate the unknown soldier here may have been a patient in Summerdown Camp; constructed on the high ground above the town, it was one of the largest convalescent hospitals in Sussex during the Great War, and photographs of it will feature in a future posting.
Tonight the long awaited dramatisation of Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong will be broadcast on BBC1. The Great War is very much the focus of the story and in particular the war beneath the Western Front involving the men who served in Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers. As part of the research for the programme the actors visited the current archaeological work being undertaken at La Boisselle.
This rather tatty and crumpled image I found tucked in a book on WW1 tunnelling I rescued from a second-hand bookshop many years ago. Nothing is written on it, but the background is consistent with many photographs I have that I know were taken on the Somme. The men in the photograph are all Royal Engineers, who formed the Tunnellers, and some of them have the look of a hard, tough life on their faces. Who these men were we will probably never know but they look typical of the sort of men that fought that underground, subterranean war under the Somme; older, tougher, and used to hard physical labour. Were these beloved Sappers of a young officer who commanded them? Were they mates who shared that time in Picardy? The photograph, as do so many, offers more questions than it answers.
But whatever, these are the faces of the men of Birdsong, which following on the heels of War Horse, has certainly brought WW1 into the media spotlight and made many pause a thought for that generation of the Great War.