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.
While the work on British cemeteries was going on the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge had begun to make German burial sites manageable and more permanent. Today modern visitors to the Western Front are used to mass commemoration at German war cemeteries and few perhaps realise that once every grave was individually marked, often with unique and impressive headstones.
This image of the German graves at Rancourt, on the Somme battlefields, is a typical example; it shows rows and rows of individual crosses each to an individual soldier: today the same cemetery has grey stone crosses, each one commemorating a minimum of four soldiers.
As the clearance of the battlefields was coming to an end and the cemeteries established, work on making them permanent began. Initially it had been discussed that the wooden crosses as featured in last weeks post showing Acheux British Cemetery would simply be replaced by stone ones. In the end headstones were chosen as it was felt more information about the casualty could be recorded on them.
Several locations were chosen to become ‘experimental cemeteries’ – sites where the initial plans for permanent commemoration could be seen and demonstrated. Forceville Communal Cemetery and Extension on the Somme battlefields was one site, pictured here in 1921 just after the cemetery was finished. The crosses had been replaced with headstones and a Cross of Sacrifice, which would become commonplace in all major war cemeteries, had been erected along with the Stone of Remembrance seen in the background here. Forceville was one of the locations visited by King George V during his King’s Pilgrimage in 1922.
The so-called ‘Silent Cities’, the soldier’s cemeteries of the Great War, numbered in the thousands when the conflict came to an end. While the war was no there had been no thought towards permanence or any architectural design and the then Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) and now Commonwealth War Graves Commission, were faced with a huge task of properly recorded what was in the existing cemeteries while their senior staff looked at ways to ensure the war dead would be properly remembered on a long term basis.
This image of Acheux British Cemetery was taken in 1920 and shows a typical Somme cemetery at this time; in good order and with graves marked by wooden crosses. Acheux had been behind the British lines in 1916, but had seen fighting again in 1918 but the fields beyond the cemetery show how an area so close to the battle area could largely escape the hand of war. The early pilgrims to the battlefields saw cemeteries like this and the IWGC were busy during this period photographing graves for the next of kin. But a permanent solution had to be found and the next phase of the IWGC’s work will be featured in next weeks post.
On this day when the first ANZACs came ashore at Gallipoli in 1915, remembering the sacrifice of Australian and New Zealanders on many battlefields from Gallipoli to the Western Front and beyond.
It is apt to recall that sacrifice in the words of one of those original ANZACs who served at Gallipoli, Leon Gellert.
The Last to Leave
The guns were silent, and the silent hills
had bowed their grasses to a gentle breeze
I gazed upon the vales and on the rills,
And whispered, “What of these?’ and “What of these?
These long forgotten dead with sunken graves,
Some crossless, with unwritten memories
Their only mourners are the moaning waves,
Their only minstrels are the singing trees
And thus I mused and sorrowed wistfully
I watched the place where they had scaled the height,
The height whereon they bled so bitterly
Throughout each day and through each blistered night
I sat there long, and listened – all things listened too
I heard the epics of a thousand trees,
A thousand waves I heard; and then I knew
The waves were very old, the trees were wise:
The dead would be remembered evermore-
The valiant dead that gazed upon the skies,
And slept in great battalions by the shore.
Leon Gellert, Australian Gallipoli veteran, 1924
This image comes from the same collection as the trench scene featured yesterday and shows three British officers of the 11th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment (Hull Tradesmen) in their dugout at Hébuterne in December 1916. This system of trenches had been taken over from the French in the summer of 1915 and despite attacks here during the Battle of the Somme, the line had remained unchanged.
Very few images exist taken inside WW1 British dugouts and this one shows it is a basic construction with solid timber supports. The occupants have salvaged a table from a nearby house and all are dressed for the cold; the officer on the right is wearing a goat or sheep-skin jacket, common in the winter but prone to being a breeding ground for lice. That particular officer is Second Lieutenant John ‘Jack’ Harrison. Harrison was a prominent local Hull rugby player; he had joined the Hull Pals in 1914 and served with them in Egypt and on the Somme. He would later be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery in the fighting at Oppy Wood on 3rd May 1917.
This image comes from a small collection relating to the 11th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, the second Pals battalion raised in Hull in 1914 and otherwise known as the Hull Tradesmen’s battalion as it drew many of it’s original recruits from those who worked in various trades across Hull. As part of the 31st Division the battalion had moved from England to Egypt in December 1915, where it occupied defences along the Suez Canal which was then threatened by the Turkish Army. In March 1916 the battalion moved to the Western Front where it spent the next year on the Somme, aside from a short period in Northern France, taking part in the fighting for Serre in November 1916.
This photograph was taken in December 1916 after the first major snowfall on the Somme had melted, flooding the trenches. This particular trench was close to the village of Hébuterne and on the left of the image flexible tubing is visible which was part of a British trench pump system. The problem with alleviating this flooding is evident here. The soldier from the 11th East Yorks has a woollen cap comforter on under his steel helmet, a common practice during the winter months on the Western Front.
During the Great War the issue of cold weather gear for troops in the front line was limited. In the British Army soldiers had a leather jerkin and greatcoat but as the Northern French winters got colder – it dropped to more than -20 on the Somme during the winter of 1916/17 – a great deal of improvisation took place.
This photograph, dating from 1916, was taken in a French photographer’s studio in a back area on the Somme front. It shows a typical animal fur jacket worn by British troops; in this case with a separate over jacket and arm pieces. It was likely made from sheep or goat fur. While these were warm, they were also breeding grounds for body lice and while extensively used in the early war period, they were less common as the conflict progressed. The soldier also wears a British steel helmet, standard issue by this time, and the strap across his fur jacket is from the small haversack which contained his gas mask, likely to be a PH Helmet at this stage. His Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Rifle has a cover over the main working parts to protect it from the elements. Images like this are rare, especially those taken in studios, and it gives as an insight into what British troops wore during some of the winter periods.
Following the landings on D-Day and the subsequent breakout from Normandy, the British and Commonwealth troops from 21st Army Group found themselves crossing the Somme in early September 1944 and on the battlefields of their fathers’ war. One remarked that they crossed ground in hours that had consumed the previous generation for four years.
This photograph of the Thiepval Memorial was taken by a Royal Engineers officer in September 1944 who arrived in Thiepval and went to look at the memorial in the company of a couple of local French girls who appear in the image. The memorials looks sad and desolate, but undamaged. No flag poles, no flags or wreaths, but it was still there as the Somme beacon it had become following its construction in 1932.
The same officer also went up the nearby Ulster Tower and photographed the Thiepval battlefield from the viewing platform on the top. It gives a rare insight into what the Somme battlefields looked like at this time. Thiepval Wood and Connaught Cemetery are visible to the right, with the memorial on the skyline.
In the years that followed 1940 most of mainland Europe was occupying by German forces. Many of the German soldiers forming part of this occupying force stayed for years. On the battlefields of the old Western Front, German serviceman whose fathers had no doubt been veterans of the Great War often toured sites and with a pocket camera recorded their journeys in the same pilgrims past and present did.
This photograph was taken by a German soldier in 1943 and shows Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near Longueval on the Somme. Many wonder what the cemeteries looked like during the occupation and it is clear from this image that this was a site being well maintained; many Imperial War Graves Commission gardeners had stayed behind in 1940 and were still doing their pre-war work. In some cases local French people were carrying on with the task. The Germans appear to have let the work continue.
This cemetery took on another importance in 1944 when it became the selected rendezvous point for any air crew shot down in the Amiens Prison Raid in 1944.
The Somme front was taken over by British troops from the summer of 1915. The main town that became their staging post in this sector was Albert, a brick built small industrial town but with a huge basilica. The basilica of Notre Dame de Brebières had only been completed in 1895 but was already a centre of pilgrimage. It’s main tower had been struck by a shell in 1915 and the huge golden figure of the Virgin Mary with her outstretched arms holding the infant Jesus hung at a rather precarious angle. French Engineers wired it up to stopping it falling into the square below and the legend grew that ‘when the Virgin fell, the war would end’.
For British troops on the Somme, especially in the lead up to the 1916 Battle when thousands of men arrived, it became a major landmark. The men marched underneath it going to and from the trenches, and could see it from many of the front line positions. Postcard images of it could hardly be produced quickly enough, and were sent home in their sackfulls.
Most Tommies called it the ‘Leaning Virgin’ or the ‘Golden Virgin’. When the Australians arrived in July 1916 they had another name for it – Fanny Durack. Durack was an Australian female olympic swimmer who had won a gold medal in the 1912 Olympics. The Diggers thought it looked like Fanny diving into a swimming pool!
Destroyed by 1918, the Virgin finally fell to British guns when the town was captured in March 1918. Rebuilt in the 1920s, it still dominates the Somme landscape to this day.
Taken at one of the many temporary photographic studios close to the Somme battlefield, this image shows three Sergeant Majors of the 20th Battalion Canadian Infantry CEF on the eve of marching to take part in the attack on Courcelette, on 15th September 1916. On this day the 20th helped capture the village and over the next month were heavily involved in the continued fighting for Regina Trench.
All three men in the photograph were old soldiers and were now senior Warrant Officers in the battalion. Bandmaster R. More (left) was the Warrant Officer Class 1 in charge of the battalion band, which played in camp when out of action and provided men as Stretcher Bearers on the battlefield. Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant A.B. Brown (right) was ‘Quarters’ the man who ensured the battalion got its quota of food, equipment and ammunition. In the centre is the ‘Regimental’ – Regimental Sergeant Major J. Collet. Having had a long career in the British Army, Collett saw the 20th through some tough battles on the Western Front and was decorated with the Military Cross for bravery in the fighting at Courcelette. All three men survived the war and were typical of the tough warriors that made up the CEF on the Somme in 1916.
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!
With the Somme anniversary taking place last weekend, the Somme theme continues this week with an unusual post on Great War Photos; an image and an audio clip of a Great War veteran talking about the Somme.
The Liverpool Pals were formed in Liverpool in September 1914 as Lord Derby’s own ‘private army’ until they were taken over by the War Office. They recruited widely across the city reflecting it’s varied social nature in a way that no other formation did between 1914 and 1918. The battalions wore their own special badge, seen in this photo of them in training in 1915, which following the Derby family’s coat of arms – officially they were part of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The Pals crossed to France in 1915 and served with the 30th Division in the quiet months on the Somme front before going into action on 1st July 1916 in the attack on Montauban. One of their battalions was on the extreme right flank of the British Army on the Somme and went over linking arms with their French comrades. The battalions achieved all their objectives on the first – some of the few who did – but a few weeks later lost heavily in the fighting for Guillemont. While the number of original Pals dwindled with each passing month, the battalions continued to serve until the end of the war.
One of the original Liverpool Pals was E.G. Williams. A student interested in art and watercolour painting, Williams joined the Pals in 1914 and fought with them on the Somme, later being taken prisoner in 1918. He was one of several hundred Great War veterans I interviewed in the 1980s and this recording dates from that period, here talking about the 1st July 1916. In the clip he refers to a painting, one for more than 20 he did during the war, which he later donated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
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.
Mametz Wood was a large area of woodland close to the villages of Mametz and Contalmaison reached by British troops within the first week of the Somme offensive. In a weeks worth of fighting it cost the Pals battalions of the 38th (Welsh) Division – “Lloyd George’s Army” – more than 5,000 casualties as they attempted to cross what became known as ‘Death Valley’ and fought their way from tree to tree, pushing the German defenders back. Today a large red dragon looks over the regrown wood, in memory of the sacrifice here in July 1916.
This incredible photo is part of a collection taken by an officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers who became a professional photographer after the war. The image was taken up a tree near Caterpillar Valley just before the first attack and is simply entitled “looking towards Mametz Wood”. It is arguably the only known image taken in combat during the fight for Mametz Wood and the circumstances of taking it are unbelievable to say the least! When we think of the Somme, we think of smashed ground and crater zones; in July 1916 it was full summer and much of the Somme was still untouched, as this photo clearly shows.
The Battle of the Somme fought in the Picardy region of Northern France between 1st July and 18th November 1916 was one of the largest British battles of the Great War and nearly a century later is one of the great symbols of that conflict, right or wrong. The battle cost the British Army more than 450,000 casualties and while historians still argue over whether the Somme was a victory or not, pressure on Verdun was relieved by the Somme offensive, the German line was broken and pushed back some way, and the last of the German ‘field army’ died in the trenches of Picardy; a battle that cost them even more men than the British.
During the ‘Big Push’ every regiment of the British Army and all of the major Commonwealth nations fought on the Somme, among them the men of the Royal Fusiliers pictured here. This image is dated June 1916 and was taken in a back area on the Somme while waiting to move forward. There is every reason to believe that these men are from the battalions of the regiment which attacked Ovillers on 7th July 1916 and suffered heavy losses in doing so, but this cannot be confirmed. They remain annoymous ‘Somme men’ who marched down the dusty lanes of France to an unknown fate and a pyrrhic victory in 1916.
The village of Thiepval was one of the largest on the Somme prior to 1914. Dominated by a chateau, the family who owned it employed a large number of estate workers and owned local farms in the days when agriculture involved large numbers of people. In September 1914 it was captured by the Germans and turned into a bastion in their line of defence on the Somme, sitting on high ground that became known as the Thiepval Ridge. On 1st July 1916 the village was directly attacked by Pals Battalions of the 32nd Division, who were mown down in No Man’s Land by well entrenched German machine-gunners unaffected by the preliminary bombardment. The battle for Thiepval would continue for another two and a half months until it was finally taken by the 18th (Eastern) Division in a brilliant operation using tanks and clearly demonstrating the ‘learning curve’ on the Somme in 1916. Today it is the site of the main memorial to the missing on the Somme.
This aerial photograph is from an original taken before the 1st July and shows the German trench system from Thiepval Wood (on the left of the image) across to the village. The intricate nature of the German defences and their obvious strength and depth are quite apparent from this photo; at least from the benefit of more than ninety years. In 1916 as good as this aerial intelligence was, it was believed that artillery alone could destroy positions like this on the Somme front; something that 1st July 1916 would prove otherwise.
We return to the Aftermath of the Great War this week with a photograph from the stereocards which contain images taken on the battlefields in 1920.
Peronne was a town which had been a German headquarters until it was abandoned in 1917. It was then used by the British until lost in the German Offensive of March 1918 and then finally liberated by Australian troops in September 1918. Although not raised to the ground like Ypres, none of its buildings escaped damage and it classified as part of the Zone Rouge post-war.
The Chateau in Peronne was actually an old French infantry barracks, which had seen brief fighting between Wellington’s Redcoats and French troops in the aftermath of Waterloo in 1815. The Germans had used it as an Army Headquarters as its walls were so thick; by the end of the war although badly damaged it was the only building which survived partially intact and it remains in the centre of Peronne to this day. For many years the Chateau was abandoned but in 1992 it re-opened as the local war museum, the Historial and it remains in use for that purpose to this day. Parts of the structure seen in this image are still visible in the Historial today.
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.
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.
The Royal Army Medical Corps was formed in 1898 to properly provide medical facilities for soldiers on the battlefields. Many useful lessons had been learnt from the Boer War and the advance in medicine in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods meant that by 1914 the RAMC provided among the best medical facilities of any combattant nation in Europe. As the army expanded the RAMC likewise had to grow too and the most common form of RAMC unit during WW1 was the Field Ambulance. These consisted of 10 officers and 224 men who operated close to the battlefield providing immediate medical treatment for casualties being brought in from the areas where the fighting was taking place. At a Field Ambulance a wounded soldier would be treated, stabilised and assessed and most likely moved on to the next level of medical facility – usually a Casualty Clearing Station – by ambulance; either horse drawn or motorised.
This image was taken on the Somme in late 1916 and shows three Stretcher Bearers of a Field Ambulance operating in the terrible conditions that prevailed during that period. The small haversacks they have are the bags containing their PH Helmet gas masks. The man on the left has a rain cover over his Service Dress cap – indicating how wet it was at the time – and all three have ‘trench waders‘. These were rubberised over trousers come boots which could be worn in flooded trenches. White Somme chalk is liberally plaster over the waders and one wonders what duties in the front line these men have just returned from? Carrying a stretcher was hard at the best of times but over wet ground and through flooded trenches was even harder and the smiles here no doubt bely some tough times during the hardest winter of the war on the British sector of the Western Front.
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.