Today is the centenary of the Battle of Loos. On this day the first British ‘Big Push’ of the war began and it was also the first time that large numbers of men from the New Army – Kitchener’s Army – went into battle on the Western Front. Casualties at Loos were 2,013 officers and 48,367 other ranks killed and wounded, with 867 officers and 21,627 other ranks missing. Many of those killed and missing were never found – their names placed on the Loos Memorial. On the first day of the battle alone nineteen battalions suffered more than 450 casualties each, and the losses among Scottish regiments were particularly severe at Loos – making it very much a ‘Scottish battle’.
This photograph shows men of the 10th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment who took part in the battle on this day in 1915. They were in the first wave of the attack as part of the 1st Division attack near Bois Carré opposite Hulluch. The battalion’s War Diary describes the opening of the attack:
“….the assault was pushed home with the utmost resolution…. The officers fell as the position of their bodies showed, leading their men, and 16 out of 21 officers were lost. The bodies of our dead indicated how they died with their faces towards the enemy.”
Nearly 900 men of the battalion went into action and more than 600 of them became casualties by the time the battalion was relieved.
A hundred years ago today the men of the British Expeditionary Force were marching up to Mons on the eve of what would be the first British battle of the war, the Battle of Mons which began on 23rd August 1914.
This unusual image is from a Belgian postcard published in 1919 showing a group of men most likely from the 5th Division marching up alongside the Mons-Conde canal through the village of Jemappes, which would be the scene of heavy fighting the following day.
A century ago today Great Britain declared war on Germany. Units of the British Army immediately went onto War Stations and battalions like this one began to march out of camp or depot and towards pre-planned locations to gather in preparation for joining the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The BEF was Britain’s pre-planned response to a European War and units began to land in France as early as 5th August 1914 with the bulk of the first infantry and cavalry in the following week. Britain was now at war: the hour was go.
A century ago the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne in the streets of Sarajevo would take Great Britain on path of thirty-seven days to war, leading to the declaration of war against Germany on 4th August 1914. The plan to mobilise a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and take it to France was then implemented, with the first troops arriving as early as the next day, 5th August.
While the diplomacy was in operation, in the countryside of Great Britain a century ago the Territorials were heading off to the annual camps as the summer holiday period approached. Men who met regularly in local drill halls looked forward to the annual camp where all the localised companies came together as one unit. With the faint wisp of war in the air, Britain in the summer of 1914 was already becoming a land where the sight of khaki was commonplace, as with these men of the Royal Sussex Regiment (above) at their annual camp in Arundel in 1914. Few knew that this was just the start of it.
As Christmas approaches thoughts turn to trench life on the Western Front during the Great War. This image dates from a small private collection relating to the 1/13th Battalion London Regiment (Kensingtons) and was taken in France near Fleurbaix during the winter of 1914/15. The men are dressed informally as was typical of that early period of the conflict and aside from a great deal of personal kit being worn to keep the cold out, the man on the left has a typical goat/sheep-skin jerkin of this first winter. At least the rum ration is close at hand! The fact that the men are standing up and the parapet of the positions behind is low, would indicate this was in a reserve trench some distance from the actual front line.
These two images are postcards which are bent and tatty, the corners are curled up and they are pretty dirty. But they were once very important to one man: Joseph Kinna. Kinna was a family man who was conscripted in 1916 and joined the Gloucestershire Regiment. He fought with the 8th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment on the Somme and the reason why these postcards were important to him is shown on the reverse:
Joseph Kinna was wounded in that attack at Grandcourt, in the tail-end of the Somme battle, and posted home. Medically downgraded due to his wounds, he was eventually discharged from the army, aged 22, in 1917.
Two simple postcards, carried in a soldier’s pocket nearly a century ago; memories of his life back home to him, but today, as the nation pauses to remember, it is simple stories like this which transport us back to those days of the Great War when even a simple postcard meant something to one family at war.
Ninety-nine years ago today the British government declared war on Germany and for Britain the Great War began. A year from today the Centenary of the Great War starts with a joint reconciliation service of remembrance at Mons with British and German heads of state present.
Many of those with a long-held interest in the Great War view the upcoming Centenary with some trepidation. There is a fear the war will be trivialised into convenient media soundbites, a concern there will be too much focus on the dead of the war and not enough on those who survived, and among many academics disgust that achievements on the battlefield which lead to victory will be forgotten.
All of these are legitimate concerns but it is clear the Centenary is also a time to educate and share knowledge. That is why I set up Great War Photos some eighteen months ago; a platform like a blog is an easy and accessible way for me to share the thousands of largely unseen images I’ve collected to be seen by a wider audience; and all it costs is some time and a few dollars for a web address. That such a project is of interest to others is clear; the site has so far been seen by more than 200,000 unique visitors from all over the world. People have requested to use images for private research, community projects and publications; all of which has been granted as it is precisely what I had hoped for when I set the site up.
I mention all this not to blow my own trumpet but to demonstrate how easy it is to take an active part in the Centenary. Blogs are free; adding images, artwork and sound or video files is easy. Many of those with years of collecting or researching WW1 have some sort of story to tell and surely the Centenary is the time to do that? Others have family stories to add, or names on a local memorial which once researched can be shared with others. All you need is the will and the ability to type.
The Centenary should be a time for collaboration and co-operation, as well as a time to publish books, enhance profiles and churn our programmes. Let us hope more and more take on that challenge.
So what has Great War Photos got planned for 2014? In the lead-up to the Centenary I plan to publish a number of images showing places on what would become the Western Front, showing how they looked on the eve of war; sleepy villages and flourishing communities. From August 2014 onwards I aim to focus on images connected with 1914: the fighting overseas as well as events on the home front.
I am trying to think positively about the Great War Centenary and I hope others will do so as well; it is an important period that should not be wasted by anyone with an interest in the subject.
A week long Remembrance theme starts on Great War Photos today and will include over the period leading up to and including 11th November a whole host of posts, with some days having several posts; reaching a peak around 11am on the 11th November. On 8th November the site will also host some images relating to my new TV Series on Messines – WW1 Tunnels of Death.
We start with an image relating to an event which took place 94 years ago today; the last great battle of the First World War, the Battle of the Sambre. By November 1918 the old trench system on the Western Front had collapsed and it was now open warfare. The Germans resorted to using geographical features to defend and on 4th November 1918 it was the Sambre-Oise Canal. More men went into battle that day than on the First Day of the Somme in 1916 but it was a very different battle, with minimal losses and mostly success; but not without some casualties; among them the war poet, Wilfred Owen.
This image was owned by a Great War veteran I knew, Josh Grover MM. It shows Lock No 1 on the Sambre canal where the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment crossed, supported by Royal Engineers. Two Victoria Crosses were awarded here, one to the commander of Josh’s battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Graham Johnson DSO. His citation reads,
“Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Johnson D.S.O., M.C., South Wales Borderers, attached 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex, for most conspicuous bravery and leadership during the forcing of the Sambre Canal on November 4th, 1918. The 2nd Infantry Brigade, of which 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex formed part, was ordered to cross the lock south of Catellon. The position was strong and before the bridge could be thrown, a steep bank leading up to the lock and a waterway about 100 yards short of the canal had to be crossed. The assaulting platoons and bridging parties Royal Engineers, on their arrival at the waterway were thrown into confusion by a heavy barrage and machine gun fire and heavy casualties were caused. At this moment Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson arrived and realising the situation at once collected men to man the bridges and assist the Royal Engineers and personally led the assault. In spite of his efforts heavy fire again broke up the assaulting and bridging parties. Without any hesitation he again organised the platoons and bridging parties and led them at the lock, this time succeeding in effecting a crossing after which all went well. During all this time Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson was under heavy fire, which, though it nearly decimated the assaulting columns, left him untouched. His conduct was a fine example of great valour, coolness and intrepidity, which, added to his splendid leadership and offensive spirit that he had inspired in his Battalion, were entirely responsible for the successful crossing.”
The Sussex crossed here successfully and Josh, a Lewis Gunner, survived when hit by machine-gun fire from the building shown in this photo; the bullets struck the machine-gun and not him. Josh lived a long life, and regularly returned to the battlefields in the 1980s; a memorial to him exists on the site where this action took place in 1918.
While for many Canadians the CEF attack at Vimy Ridge in April 1917 is Canada’s defining moment in the Great War, in many respects the more important period was the final Hundred Days from the Battle of Amiens on 8th August 1918 until the Armistice came into effect on 11th November 1918. During this time four Canadian Divisions fought more than 50 German divisions in the field, and were in action almost every day of that hundred day period, including the last moments of the war when the final British and Empire casualty was a Canadian; George Lawrence Price, who died at 10.58am. Commanded by Sir Arthur Currie the Canadians exemplify the changes in the whole British Expeditionary Force of which they were a part and showed that by 1918 commanders in the field were able to fight and win modern battles, using all arms of service working together in a modern and innovative approach. But while there was success on the battlefield casualties were high; more than 45,000 soldiers of the CEF were killed, wounded or missing at this time.
This image shows an 18-pounder field gun from the Canadian Field Artillery parading through Liege just after the end of the war. After the Canadian capture of Mons on 11th November their forces moved through several Belgian towns and cities and the local population, as this image shows, often came out to greet them.
Motorised transport was an essential part of any army in 1914, but very much in the minority compared the much greater amount of horse transport each nation put onto the battlefield. The British Army of 1914 lacked a great deal of it, so following the outbreak of war and by the time of the First Battle of Ypres, the War Office had commandeered a number of London motor buses along with their drivers, who became part of the Army Service Corps. These buses – which soon became known as ‘Old Bill Buses‘ with a reference to Bairnsfather’s Old Bill character – were photographed during First Ypres still painted in their London colours but by 1915 they were army green, with boarded up windows.
This image shows British troops waiting to board a series of buses to take them to a rest area somewhere in Flanders in 1915. The two men with their backs to the camera are officers, and their kit and the fact they are carrying rifles, reflects the changes that wartime conditions were enforcing; officers now had to try and look like the men to avoid being sniped. The ‘MT ASC’ white signage can be seen on the bus showing how they had now become standard equipment for some of the Mechanical Transport units of the Army Service Corps. One of the crew stands in the rear door, perhaps as he had done as a conductor in the days of peace.
This is a hand-tinted image from the 1930s which adds a lot to this wartime photograph of a group of Stretcher Bearers carrying in a casualty on the battlefield.
There were two types of Stretcher Bearers (SBs) in the Great War; Regimental SBs and those in the Royal Army Medical Corps. The ones at regimental level were in infantry battalions; traditionally in peace time these men were part of the battalion band and were musicians as well as SBs, but following the formation of Kitchener’s Army in 1914 that gradually began to change and men were selected for the aptitude rather than their ability to play an instrument, with the medical training coming second. Regimental SBs were the first port of call for battlefield wounded; they would search the battlefield for casualties and take them to the Regimental Aid Post for treatment by the RMO – the Regimental Medical Officer – usually a Lieutenant or Captain from the RAMC. From here they would be taken to a collection point where SBs from the RAMC would take over and transport them back to the nearest Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) or Main Dressing Station (MDS).
The weight of a wounded man was something to be reckoned with and while in pre-war training SBs practiced in pairs, the reality on mud-soaked battlefields was that it would take more personnel to evacuate each casualty even on relatively good ground; as illustrated here.
The town of Armentières was in Northern France, just short of the Franco-Belgian border. It was reached by British troops in October 1914 and trench lines established east of the town which would hardly move until 1918 – in fact they only moved at the time this German aerial photograph was taken during the Battle of the Lys in April 1918. The Battle of the Lys was one of the final German offensives of the war and launched in Northern France and Flanders on 9th April. Armentières was assaulted with mustard gas and was abandoned, not re-taken until September 1918. By that stage it’s buildings, many of which survive as this photo from Spring 1918 shows, were now in ruins and it became part of the Zone Rouge – the devastated area of France.
Although the scene of heavy fighting, Armentières was much more famous for the Great War song Madamoiselle from Armentières. First recorded in 1915, it was arguably one of the greatest ‘hits’ of the war and a song forever associated with the generation of WW1.
The use of British Cavalry regiments in the Great War is something that the War Horse film recently highlighted. In 1914 the British Army still placed a heavy importance on the role of cavalry not only in an offensive role to attack an enemy, but also in a reconnaissance one. This was certainly a task cavalry was used for in the early battles of the war although occasionally there were full scale charges such as that of the 4th Dragoon Guards and 9th Lancers at Audregnies on 24th August 1914. When the war went static cavalry had less of a chance to be directly involved but entire regiments still went into battle on horseback at High Wood on the Somme in July 1916, Monchy at Arras in April 1917 and during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, as just a few examples. In 1918 the war became more mobile and the use of cavalry in the front line became more commonplace again,with famous actions at Moreuil Wood and on the Hindenburg Line.
This image shows a soldier of the 5th Lancers during training before he departed to France in 1916. This is very much the sort of attire the regiment would have gone to war with in 1914. By the time this soldier joined the regiment on the Western Front they had been dismounted and were being used as infantry in the trenches, but like all cavalry in 1918 they returned to fight on horse back with the last British casualty of the war being a 5th Lancer killed on horseback near Mons on 11th November 1918, George Edward Ellison.
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.
One of the most famous musical hall performers of the Great War period was Basil Hallam Radford. Otherwise known as ‘Gilbert The Filbert – The Nut with a K’ or the ‘KNut’. This humour seems very dated now but it was a phrase in common usage by that generation and appears on captions and sign-boards in many WW1 images. The ‘K’ was also often linked to Lord Kitchener during the war and in photos of Kitchener’s Army men they often refer to themselves as ‘KNuts’.
These Somme KNuts are from the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. They arrived on the Somme in July 1916 and took part in the fighting near Pozieres and later at High Wood where they took heavy casualties. While the 2nd was a regular battalion the majority of men in it by 1916 were wartime volunteers, which again here could explain the ‘KNut’ reference.
Many photos like this we taken in villages close to Albert on the Somme; in houses turned into studios or in back-gardens and even in the street. They show soldiers in an ‘Active Service’ look very different to photographs taken in training.
The winter months on the Western Front, even for a tough generation like that of the Great War, could be a trying time. Temperatures on the Somme in 1916/17 dropped to below -20 and living in exposed muddy ditches in weather like this often caused more casualties than from enemy fire.
Private William Kelly Saunders is pictured here in France during the winter of 1915/16 wearing a lightweight rubberised waterproof cape to offer some protection against wet weather and some home-made ‘trench gloves’ fashioned from goat or sheep fleece to keep the cold off while working in the front line. Underneath he is wearing the standard uniform of his regiment, the London Scottish. While the fleece gloves may have been warm soldiers soon found they became breeding grounds for lice and often ended up throwing them away.
This image came from a small collection taken by a soldier of the Army Service Corps in France in 1915 with a Kodak pocket camera. Most of the photographs show the vehicles in his unit but this one is captioned ‘Highland troops’. As such they are likely to be from a unit in the 51st (Highland) Division.
The men featured in the photograph are wearing the leather 1914 Pattern equipment; with the huge influx of volunteers in 1914 the army could not equip every soldier with the standard 1908 Pattern webbing so a leather set was produced instead; many units wore it in France well into the end of 1916; it was not popular with the troops as it did not balance the load well and gave soldier’s back-ache. I can remember many veterans I interviewed in the 1980s saying they would ditch it at the first opportunity for webbing.
The men in the photo also appear to be going into action as cotton bandoliers of .303 ammunition can be seen; normally only carried to the front line at the time of an impending attack. The 51st (Highland) Division took part in several major engagements on the Western Front in 1915, most notably at Festubert and Givenchy, before they moved down to the Somme in the summer of 1915 and took over the sector at La Boisselle from the French Army.
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.”
The 14th Battalion London Regiment (London Scottish) were an unusual battalion of the British Army before the Great War. Formed from the Volunteers in 1908 as part of the Territorial Force, to join the unit a soldier had to be either Scottish, or of Scottish descent. He also had to pay a joining fee; the money being used for regimental funds. Before 1914 this fee was ten pounds, an enormous sum; it was done to ensure that the men who joined the rank and file of the regiment were from Middle Class families and not the back streets of London. It was a popular regiment and on the outbreak of war was almost a full establishment; unusual for Territorial battalions which were normally under-strength. It was also one of the best equipped; the regimental funds ensured that the London Jocks were the only battalion in the army with the latest Vickers Machine Guns for example. It marched to war in September 1914 and fought at Messines on Halloween 1914; becoming the first Territorial infantry battalion to see action in the Great War.
These photographs are from a small album belonging to a pre-war member of the regiment and were taken on the eve of war at the regimental headquarters, 59 Buckingham Gate in Westminster. This building had been used to house the Titanic Enquiry in 1912.
These are informal photographs taken with a Kodak pocket camera and show the soldier whose album it was – later commissioned as many originals of the unit were – and some of his mates before they fought under the ‘Burning Mill of Messines‘ in October 1914.
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 image comes from an album belonging to an officer who served in 218th Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. The pictures are all small, which may indicate a Kodak pocket camera which seem to have been fairly common in the late war period. The officer served with the unit in the final months of fighting on the Western Front and took a number of photos of battlefield areas on the Hindenberg Line.
This image shows a German MG08 on the lip of a sunken lane somewhere near the St Quentin canal area in October 1918. This was the standard heavy machine-gun of the German Army in the Great War capable of firing 400 rounds a minute. An ammunition tin is seen on the far left and next to it nearer the gun is the condenser tin; this was connected to the gun by a leather hose and condensed the steam in the guns water-cooling jacket back into the tin where it could be used to refill the jacket for the next shoot. The positioning of the gun suggests a good field of fire beyond the lane, but it’s less than permanent position is also typical of German defences in the last phase of the war as the Germans were being defeated and thrown back, and could not rely on the sort of entrenchments they had prepared earlier in the war.
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.