The Musée de la Grande Guerre opened in the French town of Meaux – in the heart of the 1914 Marne battlefields – in late 2011. While this is its second year and has had good visitor numbers, I do not think it has quite reached the radar of English speaking visitors as yet and I myself have only just had a chance to pay the museum a visit.
I must confess that I did approach the visit with some trepidation; modern museums can often have themes which at times seem remote from the core subjects of the Great War and occasionally go for audio-visual over objects. In the case of this superb museum my fears were unfounded as it proved to be one of the best museums I have visited in a long time and now is in my top five WW1 museums in the world!
The visit at the Musée de la Grande Guerre starts with a short film taking you back to the origins of the Great War and the Franco-Prussian War. You then proceed into the pre-war galleries which emerge into a display of soldiers marching to war in 1914 and the main hall. This hall is packed with a Marne Taxi, pigeon loft, WW1 aircraft a FT17 tank, artillery and two large trench displays. Off of it are other rooms which follows themes or the timeframe of the war, equally packed with fascinating objects, imagery and artwork. Two and a half hours here just flew by and it is one of those great museum where I know I shall return each time and see something I missed previously.
The trench displays were particularly effective; a trench ends on a wall where the movement and activity in the trench is cleverly blended with archive film from WW1 – see below.
The museum has a well stocked bookshop at the end, good, clean toilets, safe and plentiful parking, and a nice little cafe which does drinks and light snacks. You cannot take bags inside but there are lockers to leave them in. It has good disabled access for a French museum and the staff are all very friendly.
I cannot recommend the Musée de la Grande Guerre enough and combined with a visit to some Marne battlefield sites close by, this makes the Marne an exciting battlefield to visit.
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.
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.
This image was taken in the Vosges area, a region known for its severe weather and deep snow in the winter, and a sector of the Western Front in Eastern France where the fighting revolved around mountainous terrain. Here a group of French Alpine Troops are using skis are ‘on patrol’ although the front here was never really that fluid to allow such patrols to take place in the face of enemy positions and this is likely to be a posed image taken behind the French lines. However, it does give an insight into winter conditions in the Vosges in 1915.
This contemporary illustration from La Guerre Documentee shows a typical French Poilu in a front line trench in winter garb. The French soldier was issued with a substantial greatcoat worn over his tunic which did offer some protection from the cold, but as this illustration demonstrates they also had to result to make do and he has a pair of woollen gloves and a scarf to help make long periods in the front line during the winter at least bearable. The artist, Guy Arnoux, was a well known French illustrator of the period whose work appeared in many magazines and children’s books
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 Winter War post yesterday looked at the uniform and kit worn by British troops during winter periods on the Western Front.
This image, dating from 1915, shows a group of German soldiers dressed in their version of the make-do gear to keep them warm during a winter in the trenches. The sturdy coats are leather with a fur liner, again likely to be sheep or goat fur like the British version but a more complex garment and perhaps a little better? The coats have a fur collar and two of the German soldiers have beards, something British soldiers were not allowed to have, even during the winter. It certainly makes an interesting comparison to the sort of kit available to those on the other side of No Man’s Land.
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.
This German image shows an officer and men from the ’12 Sachsen’ in a snow covered dugout in Northern France during the winter of 1914/15. This unit was in fact the Königlich Sächsisches Feldartillerie-Regiment Nr. 12, part of the German 23rd Division. It had fought in Belgium in 1914 and also in the Battle of the Marne and then had been in action on the Aisne. During the winter of 1914/15 it was north-west of Reims, where this photo was taken. Equipped with 77mm Field Guns, the regiment was based some way from the front line as this type of dugout even in the early period of the war would have been quite a target directly on the battlefield. In 1915 the regiment would go on to fight in the Champagne and later in 1916 on the Somme.
As winter officially began this week it is an apt period to be looking at winter on the battlefields of the Great War and all this month the site will feature images relating to the winter period during WW1.
We start with a German image of the Vosges mountains in the snow sometime in 1915. The Vosges was the end of the Western Front, an area of occasionally heavy fighting but largely characterised by long periods of static attritional trench warfare. Being in Eastern France it was also the colder end of the front where during the winter temperatures regularly dropped substantially below zero. While the landscape in the snow might look attractive, and this also appears like a tourist photo, the reality is that men had to live in holes in the ground on battlefields like this during the winter period. The Great War generation was tough but even they struggled to cope in landscapes frozen solid and covered with deep snow.
Today is Cambrai Day: the anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 when a force of more than 400 Mark IV Tanks broke the defences of the German Hindenburg Line and finally showed what tanks were capable of. Cambrai turned from a battle of great success to failure, but it heralded a new type of warfare and changed the nature of the battlefield forever.
This photograph was taken after the conclusion of the battle in December 1917 at the railway marshalling yard at Cambrai. When the battle had turned to disaster for the British, a large number of Mark IV Tanks were captured and taken away by the Germans for analysis and eventual incorporation into their own tank force. Many of these tanks were used against the British in the German Offensives of the Spring of 1918, and against the French near Reims.
At the time of Cambrai Britain’s tank force was known as the Tank Corps which later became the Royal Tank Regiment. On this Cambrai Day we recall their unofficial motto, inspired partially by the experience in 1917 and remember Tankies of all nations.
From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond.
On a weekend where Remembrance is on many peoples minds, this image for once needs little description; two old soldiers, still serving, visiting a comrade’s grave at Bethune Town Cemetery in 1919.
Lest We Forget.
The Great War poets need little introduction here; the work of Graves, Owen and Sassoon among others has come – rightly or wrongly – to symbolise the war. But there are many lesser known poetical voices often highlighting areas not covered in the mainstream work. A fine piece of poetry by two such poets – Bernard Newman and Harold Arpthorp – is just one example.
The Road To La Bassée was written in 1934 following a visit by these two Great War veterans to the battlefields where they were amazed to find the fields they had once known, touched then by the cruel hand of war, had returned to normality – and life continued. It is a poem with hope – that the war had been fought to return the world back to normality and that long may that normality continue – and then the sacrifice had not been in vain.
The image above shows the shattered La Bassée in 1920, looking as it did when the war ended. Few buildings are left standing and the tower seen in the background was a concrete German observation tower built into a former grain tower. By then it was part of the Zone Rouge – the devastated area of France where the fighting had taken place.
Newman and Arpthorp’s work deserves to be better known.
I went across to France again, and walked about the line,
The trenches have been all filled in – the country’s looking fine.
The folks gave me a welcome, and lots to eat and drink,
Saying, ‘Allo, Tommee, back again? ‘Ow do you do? In ze pink?’
And then I walked about again, and mooched about the line;
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine.
But the one thing that amazed me most shocked me, I should say
– There’s buses running now from Bethune to La Bassée!
I sat at Shrapnel Corner and I tried to take it in,
It all seemed much too quiet, I missed the war-time din.
I felt inclined to bob down quick – Jerry sniper in that trench!
A minnie coming over! God, what a hellish stench!
Then I pulled myself together, and walked on to La Folette –
And the cows were calmly grazing on the front line parapet.
And the kids were playing marbles by the old Estaminet –
Fancy kiddies playing marbles on the road to La Bassée!
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine –
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know,
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
But down by Tunnel Trench I saw a sight that made me start,
For there, at Tourbieres crossroads – a gaudy ice-cream cart!
It was hot, and I was dusty, but somehow I couldn’t stay –
Ices didn’t seem quite decent on the road to La Bassée.
Some of the sights seemed more than strange as I kept marching on.
The Somme’s a blooming garden, and there are roses in Peronne.
The sight of dear old Arras almost made me give three cheers;
And there’s kiddies now in Plugstreet, and mamselles in Armentiers.
But nothing that I saw out there so seemed to beat the band
As those buses running smoothly over what was No Man’s Land.
You’d just as soon expect them from the Bank to Mandalay
As to see those buses running from Bethune to La Bassée.
Then I got into a bus myself, and rode for all the way,
Yes, I rode inside a bus from Bethune to La Bassée.
Through Beuvry and through Annequin, and then by Cambrin Tower –
The journey used to take four years, but now it’s half an hour.
Four years to half an hour – the best speedup I’ve met.
Four years? Aye, longer still for some – they haven’t got there yet.
Then up came the conductor chap, ‘Vos billets s’il vous plait.’
Fancy asking for your tickets on the road to La Bassée.
And I wondered what they‘d think of it – those mates of mine who died –
They never got to La Bassée, though God knows how they tried.
I thought back to the moments when their number came around,
And now those buses rattling over sacred, holy ground,
Yes, I wondered what they’d think of it, those mates of mine who died.
Of those buses rattling over the old pave close beside.
‘Carry on! That’s why we died!’ I could almost hear them say,
To keep those buses always running from Bethune to La Bassée!’
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.
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 Western Front was more than 450 miles long and the British Army at one point occupied just over a hundred miles of it. Sometimes it is easy to forget the sacrifice of the French Army who held more than 300 miles of the front, or the more obvious fact the mighty German Imperial Army was holding all 450 miles on its side of the lines.
The so-called ‘French front’ had many of its own landmarks but for France and Germany one of its greatest symbols would be Verdun. Here both nations bled in 1916 with more than 770,000 casualties.
Fort Vaux was one of many static fortifications that came to characterise the battle; nearby Fort Douaumont fell to a handful of Germans but costs the lives of thousands of Poilus to retake. Fort Vaux was a more heroic story, at least in 1916. Surrounded, the besieged garrison under Commandant Raynal held on until food, water and ammunition all ran out. Raynal signalled his fate in a pigeon message delivered by the pigeon Valiant, which fell dead at the feet of the staff officers in the Verdun citadel once its mission was complete. Fort Vaux fell on 7th June but it was a hollow victory for the Germans who casualties were verging on catastrophic for a battle in which they had hoped to ‘bleed France white’.
Today Fort Vaux has been left in its wartime state and has an excellent museum. The pocked landscape that surrounds it reminds us of what once the whole Western Front landscape was like.
The abbey of Mont St Eloi is located on a ridge north of the city of Arras. An abbey was first built here in the seventh century but the buildings that became a landmark on the Arras front date from the eighteenth century. Fighting raged around St Eloi in 1914 and 1915, as the French advanced on the nearby Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy Ridge. Shells damaged the main towers and much of the main abbey building.
When the British came to Arras in 1916 they established billets in Mont St Eloi, medical facilities, gun sites and a Royal Flying Corps aerodrome beneath the twin towers of the abbey. Thousands of troops were here in the lead-up to the Battle of Arras in April 1917 and again when the fighting returning in 1918. It was even said that a pilot flew between the towers in 1918! To many who served on the Arras front, it was very much a local landmark.
Today the towers of Mont St Eloi are a protected French national monument and very much part of local tourism in the Pas de Calais.
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.
The Canadian Army was small prior to the Great War, but it had a large Militia – equivalent to our Territorials. Canada’s response in 1914 to Britain declaring war on Germany was immediate and a decision was made to create a Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) with many of the original units having a nucleus of men from the pre-war militia. Within weeks a Canadian Division was ready for overseas service and it’s units dispatched to England where they assembled for eventual service in France and Flanders. Of the men who served in this original CEF, some 70% were born in the United Kingdom.
This group of CEF originals are from the 1st Canadian Brigade Canadian Engineers, part of the 1st Canadian Division. They are photographed in camp on Salisbury Plain where the CEF was in final training to be sent overseas. Within a few months these men were in the trenches in Flanders and in April 1915 they would be heavily involved in the Second Battle of Ypres, when poison gas was used for the first time.
This week is the 97th Anniversary of the Battle of Loos, not only the first major British offensive on the Western Front but the first British use of gas and the first time on the Western Front entire formations of Kitchener’s Army men – the willing volunteers of 1914 – fought in a major battle. All this week Great War Photos will feature images connected with the battle.
We start with this group photograph of men of the Coldstream Guards in August 1915. Taken only a few weeks before the Battle of Loos it shows men of a Guards training platoon at their end of their course awaiting posting to the front. Up until this time the different battalions of the Guards had been posted across the British Expeditionary Force but a decision had been made to bring them all together under a unified command into what became the Guards Division. The units of the division – many of whom had been in action continuously since Mons in 1914 – were brought together that summer and assembled for the next offensive; although they would not play their part in the vanguard of the Battle of Loos but in fighting for locations like the Hohenzollern Redoubt.
Weeks of physical drill, bayonet practice, shooting on the range and training in all the new accoutrements of trench warfare had steeled these men in this photograph for the front. Within a month they were at the base being posted as re-enforcements to the Coldstream battalions in the Guards Division and then thrown straight into battle at Loos. As Guardsmen they gained a high reputation, which would see their regiment and the Guards Division at the forefront of engagements until the end of the conflict.
The French Army of the Great War was a huge conscript army which proved capable of more than doubling in size in the first few weeks of the war. As the Germans crossed the borders of Alsace-Lorraine the Battle of the Frontiers began and more and more troops needed to be shipped to the front.
This image from a French source shows soldiers in a railway carriage cheering as they begin their journey to the battlefield. France’s response to war in 1914 was rapid and successful, but costly – more than 300,000 French soldiers would be killed before the year was out in just a few months fighting.
The railway carriage they are sitting in was the standard used by French railways; it bears a famous inscription which would become well known to British troops ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8’; 40 men or 8 horses. It was painted on all these wagons and troops remembered it as a lot more than 40 British soldiers were usually packed inside!
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.