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!
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.
Working in the snowy conditions of winter on the Western Front was a hard task for all soldiers. While the work kept you warm, the frozen conditions on the battlefield often made such work near impossible in the first place.
This French image from La Guerre Documentee shows a group of French Poilus working on their trenches in a wooded area with picks; so hard is the ground it seems that shovels are not enough. There has been a heavy snow fall and one man keeps watch over the far parapet, but this is likely to be a reserve position away from direct observation otherwise the soldiers would not risk getting up in the open like that. The soldiers are all wearing their great coats, have gloves and scarves, and the image gives us a good insight into how difficult life was on the Western Front during the winter months.
The Argonne Forest lies between the battlefields of the Champagne east of Reims and the ground at Verdun. The fighting here in 1914 established the lines around the forested area of the Argonne, where it would remain for much of the rest of the war. Still a forested area, it contains to this day much evidence of the war with trench lines still visible in many places.
This German image dates from the winter of 1915/16 and shows a well constructed trench in the Argonne Forest, where a lone German officer looks out across the snow. The lack of damage and the fact that he has no problem about popping his head above the parapet would indicate this was a reserve trench line, some distance back from the actual battlefield. Much of these reserve lines in the Argonne were finally taken by American troops in the final battles of the autumn of 1918.
The Yser front north of Ypres is a forgotten sector of the Western Front. It linked the Ypres Salient with the Belgian coast and for most of its length the front lines straddled the Yser Canal; with the Belgian Army dug in on the west bank and the Germans on the opposite bank. Nearly 30,000 Belgian soldiers were killed on this front which remained pretty static for most of the Great War until the final offensives of 1918.
This photograph, from a series of stereocards, shows Belgian troops in a typical trench on the Yser front in early 1917. It is a fairly basic straight trench, not zig-zagged for extra protection, and with a basic duckboard floor. The trench is also more of a breastwork than a trench dug in the ground, as this pretty much reflected the flood conditions that prevailed on this part of the front where digging in on the surface was impossible. High sandbag walls protect the trench occupants, two of whom are seen here in typical Belgian uniforms of the period.
The German army occupied Messines at the end of the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914 and remained in possession of the village until the Battle of Messines in June 1917. The village stayed in good condition, but with every building damaged or partially destroyed, until June 1917 when the preliminary bombardment for the attack of the New Zealand Division destroyed everything. This image dates from the Spring of 1917 and shows a German communications centre in Messines, just off the main square.
The archaeology feature in tonight’s programme very much reflects this German occupation; from the artifacts found in the trenches through the uncovering of German dugouts and tunnels; the ‘Last Witness’ of the Great War, the landscape, had much to tell us on this dig and some genuinely new discoveries were made.
My new television series, WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig, starts this evening on Channel 5 and today there will some posts connected with the programme and the dig we followed for more than six months in Flanders.
As part of the research for the series I was able to source a number of original images showing the village of Messines during the German occupation before everything was destroyed and also showing some of the trenches. This image was one from a small collection showing the typical trench construction in the front line area of the battlefield west of Messines. This particular trench is Weißergraben and lead to the front line area close to where the New Zealand Memorial is now located. The steel door seen in the trench may well be a kiln door from the brick factory that was on the edge of the village.
The trench design and construction is particularly noteworthy as it pretty much reflected what the archaeologists found during the dig; this style of trench support, trench wall and trench floor were all found. This will all be seen in tonights episode, starting on Channel 5 at 20.00.
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 arrival of thousands of Canadian troops in 1914 was a welcome addition to the forces of Great Britain and the Empire, but with the expansion of the British Army at the same time, there were accommodation issues when the Canadians first arrived. Sent to Salisbury Plain, some of the original billets were quite simple, but as the size of the CEF expanded, their camp did as well.
Training continued at a high pace and while many original CEF men were ex-regular soldiers or former members of the Canadian Militia, one thing they rapidly had to learn more about, as the war on the Western Front went static during the winter of 1914/15, was digging in. Here a group of Canadians are practicing trench digging in quite good ground. Within months they would be in the mud of Flanders, a very different experience from trench digging on Salisbury Plain during that first winter of the war.
This image is from the autumn of 1915 and shows men of the 2/4th Battalion London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), then part of the Royal Naval Division, in the front line trenches at Gallipoli. This weapon these Territorial soldiers are employing is typical of the makeshift weapons being used not only in the trenches of Gallipoli but the whole Western Front in France and Flanders.
Catapult guns were employed from 1915 to allow soldiers to fire hand grenades or small explosive charges (often contained in jam tins) over much greater distances than they could throw them, or more often fire them from positions of safety as seen here. The weapon could be set up and loaded, then fired at the enemy positions. In most cases the sort of distance they were firing projectiles was only measured in tens of yards, which was also typical of conditions on the battlefield in 1915 when both sides often lived almost on top of each other. In this photo the officer on the left has a grenade in his right hand about to load it while the Private on the right has the contraption used to tighten the catapult. In his other hand is a box periscope, no doubt used to observe the enemy targets safely before firing.
The 2/4th Londons stayed at Gallipoli until evacuated in late 1915 and then went to Egypt where they were disbanded, most personnel going to France to join a re-formed 1/4th Battalion which would go on to fight on the Somme.
The Hindenburg Line was a system of defences built by the German Army during the winter of 1916/17. They officially called it the Siegfried Stellung (not to be confused with the Siegfriend Line) but the British believed it was called the Hindenburg Stellung – and the name Hindenburg Line adopted.
It was built as a response to the outcome of the Somme and the Germans believed that with a model system of defences with deep and wide trenches to stop tanks, thick belts of wire and bunkers, it would be impregnable. The battles of 1917 and 1918 proved otherwise as the British Army showed it was capable of dealing with
This image shows the Hindenburg Line around the village of Le Tronquoy on the Aisne; as yet untouched by shell fire. A sense of the depth of the trenches can be seen and the thick black marks are the belts of barbed wire, showing what a formidable obstacle they were. This section of the Hindenburg Line did not see serious fighting until the final stage of the war when it was breached in October 1918.
Le Crapouillot – no, this is not a French swear word or a turn of phrase the British Tommy secretly used to describe the French Poilu, but the name given to French Trench Mortar weapons in the Great War. As we saw from the post on Wednesday the French Army was quick to react to the situation of trench warfare and realised that essentially WW1 was a huge siege war – and that in previous siege wars mortars had been used to propel projectiles towards the enemy positions and try and break that siege.
The name Le Crapouillot was one used in the trenches; the mortars were described as ‘little toads’ and a toad is ‘crapaud’ in French. In fact far from being the centre of humour the Crapouillot units of the French army were elite troops with specialist kit. The sort of mortars shown in this illustration from 1915 could fire substantial projectiles hundreds of metres across the battlefield and cave in trenches, dugouts and strong-points. Various examples existed and their role on the battlefield from 1915 was vital giving the French Army a good weapon to counter the German Minenwerfer and other types of trench artillery being used at that time.
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.
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.
Another from the French stereo-cards series, this shows a Poilu in a smashed position on the Western Front using a Chauchat machine-gun in an anti-aircraft role. The strafing of trenches by aircraft was a rare occasion in the Great War and this is no doubt posed. In fact there is very little this soldier could do even if an aircraft appeared as he has failed to load a magazine into the gun!
The Chauchat was a very cheaply made and produced light machine-gun used by the French Army from 1915 and was brought in to give French platoons some automatic fire capability. However the weapon would easily jam if it got muddy and had a poor reputation; made worse when it was issued to American troops in 1917/18. By the end of the war more than 250,000 had been produced.
Following on from the first of the images from the Kensingtons published yesterday, today we have two images showing the reality of living in the trench system they were shown digging in the previous image. Above is a 1915-style dugout being used by men of the 13th London Regiment whose trenches these were. It shows how basic such constructions were in early 1915. Inside the men have an array of comforts – many ordinary soldiers in this battalion were from well off London families and one wonders how many treats from top London stores are among them! – and they are pretty informally dressed; the man on the right has Wellington boots on and they are all wearing Gor Blimey hats. A bucket with punched out holes serves as a make-shift brazier.
Below is a close up another dugout again showing its flimsy construction, with one wall being a propped up piece of wobbly tin or ‘elephant iron’ as it was known at the time. The Balaclava helmet being worn by the man in the dugout is a good example of another piece of cold-weather gear worn by troops at this time; many of these came from home knitted by mothers, wives or sisters.
This image is the first of a number that will appear on the site this week which are taken from a small collection of photographs taken by a soldier in the 1/13th Battalion London Regiment (Kensingtons). The Kensingtons were a pre-war Territorial Force battalion – Saturday Night Soldiers as they were popularly known – who had crossed to France in November 1914 where they served in the Neuve-Chapelle sector with the 8th Division.
This sector of the Western Front was very flat and dominated on the German side by the Aubers Ridge. The trenches here were a mixture of trenches and breastworks built above ground level, as seen here. Taken in early 1915 the photo shows that the trenches here were still very primitive at this stage and offered little protection from the elements let alone shell fire; both sides were still learning about the realities of static warfare at this stage in the conflict. Given that the men are pretty exposed in this photograph – as well as the photographer himself – it is likely to be a reserve position, away from the front and out of view of the enemy.