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.
The Belgian Army in some ways is often a forgotten force in the Great War. Their men fired some of the earliest shots when the Germans crossed the border during the Schlieffen Plan and by the end of 1914 they were holding the Yser Front from north of Ypres to the Belgian coast at Nieuport; positions largely along the Yser Canal. By 1918 more than 30,000 Belgian soldiers had died in the war.
This image from the winter of 1917 shows two Belgian soldiers equipped for the cold, dressed in their greatcoats. After 1914 much of the Belgian Army equipment was supplied by Britain and the Belgians began to wear a uniform that was a variation of the some of the British designs as all their factories had been overrun by the Germans. But their headgear was always distinctive, as seen here.
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.
Italy entered the Allied cause in 1915 and for the next two years the fighting took place between Italian troops and units from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the Battle of Caporetto the entire course of the war in Italy changed and it look as if the Italian Army might collapse. British troops were transferred from the Western Front from October 1917 and found themselves in some cases moving from the mud and slime of Passchendaele to an Italian winter, which several veterans I interviewed who fought there thought was much more preferable! The British units found themselves in Northern Italian, principally in the area around Asiago. They would remain here, later joined by both French and American units, until the Austro-Hungarian forces collapsed in October 1918. By this time more than 1,000 British soldiers had died in Italy, with more than 5,000 wounded or sick.
This photograph shows British and Italian troops at a railway siding. The British soldiers are Royal Engineers and may well be from the Railway Operating Division running the railway system that supported the British forces here.
The Salonika Front is arguably one of the most forgotten in terms of where British and Commonwealth troops served in the Great War. British troops were sent to the region in 1915 to help the Serbians, who were already beaten by the time the first soldier landed. However, a complex relationship with neighbouring Greece lead to thousands of British troops, later joined by French, Italians and Russians, facing the Bulgarian Army, an ally of the Central Powers, on the Salonika front. Again it mirrored the Western Front with an extensive trench system and while there were big battles here, especially in the final phase of operations in 1918, the greatest threat was from disease, especially malaria. By the end of the campaign more than 10,600 British soldiers had died in Salonika, many of disease rather than from bullets or shells.
The troops of the British Salonika Force, as it was officially known, had many names for this theatre of war, some unpublishable, but the commonplace ‘Muckydonia’ summed up how many of them felt about being here and was a play on the region’s other name, Macedonia.
This images shows two British soldiers of the 8th Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in Salonika in 1916, in a back area where street photographers took images of those out on ‘local leave’. They are wearing Khaki Drill uniforms, much lighter and cooler than the usual Khaki woollen tunics. The men are also issued with Wolseley Pattern Helmets, common attire in the the warmer theatres of war.
Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq, was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the start of the Great War. With oil interests in the region, British troops were first despatched to the region in 1914 to prevent the Turks from interrupting the supply of oil, much of which was used by the Royal Navy. Gradually Mesopotamia, or Mespot, turned into a full-scale war with large numbers of British and Indian Army troops involved. In 1916 there was a major defeat at Kut, but gradually the war turned in Britain’s favour leading to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the region in 1918.
There were trenches and battles in Mespot that saw some of the earliest forms of British desert warfare. Here two soldiers of an Army Service Corps unit have constructed a field stove in a trench system. The goggles they wear were required kit in Mespot where sandy desert winds could reduce visibility very quickly and sand particles blind soldiers very quickly. One author called Mespot ‘The Bastard War‘ and it is clear that conditions were tough here for British troops, up against an often underestimated but formidable enemy like the Ottoman Turks.
The Eastern Front in the Great War is something few are aware of; the Eastern Front of a generation later in Hitler’s war has eclipsed it and the fact that at any given time more than a million German soldiers faced potentially millions of Russian troops, both deadlocked in the East in the same way there was deadlock in the West. The Eastern Front became a mirror of France and Flanders in some ways; trenches, No Man’s Land, barbed wire, shelling and attrition. Joined by troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire more than 800,000 Germans died in the East along with 1.15 million Austro-Hungarians; opposite them more than 2.2 million Russians died before the Russian Revolution changed everything.
This photograph comes from a collection of a young German gunner who served on the Eastern Front between 1914 and 1917, before he moved to France where he died in 1918. Here two German war horses are pulling a transport wagon used to carry material, food and other equipment for the artillery regiment he served with. In both World Wars horses were the only reliable transport in the often awful conditions on the Eastern Front: extremities of cold and rain which turned the roads and battlefield into a quagmire, and often caused more casualties from the elements than the enemy. Thousands of horses died on the Eastern Front, forgotten animals on a forgotten front.