Today is 11th November; 95 years ago today at 11am the fighting on the Western Front came to an end.
This image is from the front cover of a small leaflet that was produced for the first Poppy Day in 1919 and was owned by the wife of Second Lieutenant Leonard Brown who died serving with the East Surrey Regiment in Flanders in 1918; after nearly four years on the Western Front, having been commissioned from the ranks.
Nearly a century later the symbol of the Poppy endures and today in Ypres, at the Menin Gate, Poppy petals will fall from the ceiling in remembrance of that generation who marched to Flanders and is no more.
We Will Remember Them.
By the 1930s the work on the war cemeteries was almost complete, but the final cemetery was not actually finished until September 1938; one year before the outbreak of the Second World War.
This image of Regina Trench Cemetery, right out in the fields close to the village of Courcelette, had been built on a site where heavy fighting had taken place involving men of the Canadian Corps in September-November 1916. It was subsequently enlarged post-war by concentrating graves in from the surrounding area.
The headstones here look new; the trees are young and the plants which would give them the appearance of the ‘English garden’ just beginning to take hold. Today it remains a place of tranquility and reflection just as it was in those early days, and one of many Silent Cities well off the tourist route and rarely visited.
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.
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.
In the years following the end of the Great War the civilian population that had once lived in the towns and villages on the former battlegrounds began to return. In the immediate area around Ypres the villages were uninhabitable for the first couple of years, so people lived in Ypres at night and went to work on their former homes during the day; clearing detritus and rubble in preparation for a rebuild.
This image shows one of the temporary communities for such people. The provisional wooden housing was put in place until permanent residences could be rebuilt, in most cases at least 3-4 years after the war was over.
During the Third Battle of Ypres tanks from the recently formed Tank Corps operated in Flanders, but usually with limited success. The nature of the ground meant that many bogged down and were either damaged or destroyed by artillery fire. Many infantry soldiers referred to them as ‘shell magnets’ on the open battlefields leading up to Passchendaele.
These tank wrecks were still very visible in the 1920s and many became tourist attractions, most notably close to the Menin Road at the so-called ‘Tank Cemetery’.
This particular Mark IV tank was lost ‘near Langemarck‘ according to the caption and appears to be a partner of another Langemarck Tank previously featured on the website. There are no distinguishing marks on this vehicle so it is impossible to speculate when and how it was lost. However, research indicates it may be a tank from B Battalion Tank Corps, who were action here in August 1917.
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.
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.
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.
When the Great War came to an end it was not just soldiers on the battlefields who celebrated the close of hostilities; hundreds of thousands of families back home could begin to hope that finally their loved one would be coming home.
This image dates from the time of 11th November 1918 and shows a trio of young children, patriotic flags in their hands, rejoicing of the thought that daddy was on his way home. The little one looks pensive, apprehensive – perhaps she knows only daddy by name and can remember little of him in her short life. The survivors and their families like this were told the men of that generation were returning to ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ but the reality was that economic depression and streets with medal wearing veterans selling matches was what really lay ahead. The hope in these faces was betrayed, and the children depicted in images like this were fighting another war just a couple of decades later.
This rather unusual image was taken on the steps looking down into the main archway of the Menin Gate and dates from the early 1930s. The Menin Gate had been unveiled in July 1927 and within a year was the focus of Remembrance in the area with the nightly playing of the Last Post – something that continues to this day and was only interrupted by the Second World War. A small group of battlefield pilgrims can be seen looking around at the names; same no doubt veterans, perhaps others with a special name to see? A private, personal pilgrimage frozen in time.
It is often forgotten how many families went to France and Flanders during the inter-war period; by the 1930s Ypres alone was receiving more than a quarter of a million visitors from Britain and the Empire. Most such pilgrimages were subsidised in some way as the cost for the average family was prohibitive, but the desire to make that journey was a strong one.
This image is from a small collection taken during one such pilgrimage in the 1920s. There are no captions on any of the pictures but evidence seems to suggest this is Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, near Poperinghe; at that time it was the largest British cemetery on the Western Front with nearly 10,000 graves; Tyne Cot, today the largest, had as yet not been finished.
And when you focus in on this image, among the sea of wooden crosses, there she is – a women looking back at the photographer. Was she a mother, a sister, a wife, a lover, a friend? The half-seen face with the smart dress, arms at her side almost as if at attention by the grave – what must have crossed her mind, and the thousands and thousands of other women like her who visited the Old Front Line to make some sense of loss, some sense of the cost of that war? Looking at the name on the cross would she have echoed the words of Vera Brittain, following her own visit to her brother’s grave?
“At every turn of every future road I shall want to ask him questions, to recall to him memories, and he will not be there… How trivial my life has been since the War ! I thought, as I smoothed the earth over the fern. ‘How mean they are, these little strivings, these petty ambitions of us who are left, now that all of you are gone! How can the future achieve, through us, the somber majesty of the past?’ ” (Testament Of Youth)
As the Germans were pushed back across Northern France in September 1944, they withdrew across the Belgian border but made little attempt to defend most of Belgium. Ypres was liberated by Polish Troops, part of 21st Army Group, on 6th September 1944 and that evening the Last Post was played at the Menin Gate; the great memorial to the missing which had remained silent to the sound of bugles since May 1940. From that evening when a new generation in khaki gathered round the buglers, the Last Post has been played every evening ever since; it recently celebrated the 29,000th playing.
British units from 21st Army Group used Ypres as a base as Operation Market Garden took them into Holland, and this image shows men from a Royal Artillery unit gathering in front of the damaged Menin Gate in September 1944. The Gate had come under fire in May 1940 and been damaged when the road bridge in front had been blown by a Royal Engineers officer. The damage to it, repaired in the 1950s, is visible when the image is enlarged. This iconic symbol of the Great War battlefields was among the last major monuments to be liberated, as the old battlefields returned to the silence of peace that been theirs for the two decades before 1939.
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.
Conflict had revolved in and around the Flemish city of Ypres for centuries. During the Great War it was laid-waste by four years of bombardments and this once ‘medieval gem’ was reduced to rubble. Rebuilt using the original plans in the 1920s and 30s, the city had literally risen from the dust. Life had returned to normal and the beauty of the city had been restored, although some buildings like the Cloth Hall had not entirely been finished by 1939.
It is hard for us to imagine what the people of Ypres must have felt therefore when war ravaged the city once more in May 1940. As fighting took place around Ypres between British and German forces, shells landed in the city centre. Buildings were not being particularly targeted but troop movements drew shell-fire, just as they had done in the Great War. And as such shells struck the buildings where those movements were taking place.
This image was taken by a German soldier just after his unit entered Ypres in May 1940. It shows the north side of the main square with the Hotel t’Zweerd on the right and a building that today is a bank. It is typical of some of the punishment meted out to Ypres at this time. Below the same German soldier photographed the exit from Ypres towards Poperinghe, which in WW1 had been ‘Bridge Number 10’. The moat bridge over the Ypres-Comines canal had been blown by British engineers, leaving quite a mess.
Several Great War battlefields were fought over once again in May and June 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg broke in the West and the Nazi war machine overwhelmed country after country ending with the Battle of France. Flanders became a battlefield once more when German troops engaged British units around the city in May 1940, as they pulled back to the coast and Dunkirk.
During WW2 many German soldiers carried their own cameras off to war. Camera ownership was very high in Germany in the 1930s and many German soldiers had grown up with photography. During the conflict they took millions of images, often right on the ground where the fighting was taking place.
This photo shows a crew from a German Pak 36 anti-tank gun set up on the Menin Road in May 1940 at what during the Great War had been called ‘Clapham Junction‘. Beyond the hedge just behind the crew was ‘Stirling Castle’. Just over twenty years before this whole area had been a moonscape, resounding to the sound of shell-fire. Once more guns roared on the Menin Road and one of the German crew had a minute to stop and photograph the 18th (Eastern) Division Memorial that was close to the same junction (below).
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.
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.
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.
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.