This week the #Arras95 project has been commemorating the 95th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, fought in Northern France. But Arras is not the only major battle fought during this week 95 years ago; at the same time General Robert Nivelle was commanding the French Army into action on the Chemin des Dames.
The Chemin des Dames – or ‘Ladies’ Way’ – was a road than ran across an area of high ground north-west of Reims. It had been taken by the Germans in 1914 during the Battle of the Aisne and the offensive was a combined operation with the British attacks at Arras. Nivelle’s objective was to crush the German defences on the Chemin des Dames and destroy their dominance of the battlefield – all within a time frame of 24-48 hours. Sadly from the start things went badly; in the opening of the attack on 16th April 1917 French armoured forces took heavy losses on the right flank losing more than 150 tanks and the bombardment proved ineffective with substantial casualties among the infantry; 40,000 casualties alone in the first day of operations. The battle continued beyond the planned 48 hours into early May as gradually the French forces made some gains on the high ground but at huge cost. The offensive partially led to the mutinies in the French Army and ended Nivelle’s career as a commander.
This aerial image is from a small collection showing the battlefield across the Chemin des Dames around Fort de Malmaison in April 1917. WW1 French aerial images are very large – almost A3 size – and of a very high quality; a huge amount of detail can be picked out on them. Fort de Malmaison was built in 1877 and was in fact abandoned by 1914. Captured by the Germans in 1914 they used it until the battle crept close in 1917 but the Nivelle Offensive failed to reach it and there was only serious fighting here in October 1917. After WW2 the area in front of the fort was chosen for a WW2 German Cemetery but the ruined remains of the fort were fenced off for many years; now a group of volunteers regularly conduct tours of the site.
A larger version of the aerial photo can be viewed here.
We began this week’s look at French images of the Great War with horror, and we end with horror.
Nearly a century after the Great War, it is hard to imagine what a charnel-house the battlefields were during the conflict. Images that give an insight into the horror are rare. This one from the Verdun battlefields of 1916 was taken in the aptly named ‘Ravin de la Mort’ – the Ravine of Death. The caption states the skull was nick-named ‘The Crown Prince’ – after the Kaiser’s son who had commanded German forces at Verdun that year.
Today the skulls of Verdun are just as visible; under the ossuary at Douaumont are the bones of more than 120,000 soldiers who fell in the battle and could not be identified. The ossuary has purpose built glass windows so visitors can look in and see the piles of bones and skulls all positioned so they look at the inquisitive. It is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever visited.
The problem of body lice in the Great War was not confined to any nation or group of soldiers; everyone who served anywhere near the front line or in billets was affected by it.
In this stereo-card a French soldier in a reserve trench is one of a number of soldiers who have removed most of their uniform and spread them about the trench while they hunt for lice. It is also likely they were using this as an opportunity to do some basic cleaning but obviously this sort of cleaning could not be done in the front or support lines. Although many British soldiers considered French trenches far more ‘dirty’ than their own, all front line soldiers were afflicted by lice, something many were still ashamed of to a certain extent when I interviewed WW1 veterans in the 1980s.
Another from the French stereo-cards series, this shows a Poilu in a smashed position on the Western Front using a Chauchat machine-gun in an anti-aircraft role. The strafing of trenches by aircraft was a rare occasion in the Great War and this is no doubt posed. In fact there is very little this soldier could do even if an aircraft appeared as he has failed to load a magazine into the gun!
The Chauchat was a very cheaply made and produced light machine-gun used by the French Army from 1915 and was brought in to give French platoons some automatic fire capability. However the weapon would easily jam if it got muddy and had a poor reputation; made worse when it was issued to American troops in 1917/18. By the end of the war more than 250,000 had been produced.
Today is the 96th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of Verdun. This defining Great War campaign cost France and German more than 700,000 casualties in 1916 and for the French Poilu it became the notorious ‘mincing machine’ as seemingly regiment after regiment was thrown into the fighting here to stem the German advance and make sure that ‘They Shall Not Pass‘.
This image from a wartime set of French stereo-cards shows French soldiers in the quarries near Verdun at the site of a ‘Poste de Secours‘ or Dressing Station. French stretcher-bearers are seen towards the rear in the area where sandbagged dugouts line the quarry. The men at the front do not look wounded but appear to have just been fed, so there could have been a supply point here or field kitchen as well.
Verdun remains the by-word for the Great War in France and today ceremonies will be taking place at various sites on the Verdun Battlefield.
By 1916 the French Army was defending nearly two thirds of the Western Front and in many respects of all the combatant nations had reacted mostly quickly to the conditions of trench warfare; they were the first to adapt their conspicuous uniforms to wartime conditions with the implementation of Bleu Horizon, the first to introduce steel helmets with the Adrian helmet and during the winter of 1914/15 widely introduced trench weapons and hand grenades.
This image shows a typical French front line trench in 1916. All the men wear Bleu Horizon tunics and Adrian helmets. The image is not likely to have been taken in the front line as the men are too exposed, but it looks like a typical sap used in forward positions. The man holding up what looks like a rolling pin is in fact holding a Barbele Grenade that was used to cut paths in barbed wire defences. All the men are wearing French M2 Gas Masks; some 29 million of these were produced and could give five hours protection against phosgene gas. The man with the canister on his back is holding and using a Vermorel Sprayer; this was a pre-war piece of agricultural spayer used to dispense a solution that would help disperse gas. Both sides used them during the war.
Over the next week I will be publishing a number of images of the ‘French Front‘ on the site. It is often forgotten that the French Army held more than 300 miles of the Western Front and by the close of the war the French had lost more than 1.4 million dead; twice the number of dead suffered by Great Britain for example. These particular images come from a series of contemporary stereo-cards produced in France during the war.
This image shows a French Poilu in a front line position in what looks like the Champagne. Contemporary accounts of the Great War often record trenches in French sectors being full of half-buried dead soldiers, or the sides of them being the fields graves of men who had died defending those very positions. When old trenches were taken over again in the final battles of 1918 the ground fought over had often been a battlefield earlier in the war, the bones of the dead soon revealed the bitter nature of the previous fighting. Here this Poilu stares thoughtfully at the camera while the remains of a former occupant of the trench lie almost casually around him.
Following on from yesterday we again feature some images from the photo album of ‘D.Lauder’ a young British woman who may have worked as a Nurse attached to the French Army who visited the battlefields between Reims and Verdun 1925.
Navarin Farm was a position on the Champagne Battlefields of 1915 which saw heavy fighting in the fighting of September 1915. French troops assaulted and captured the German positions here at great loss and it soon became a household name throughout France.
After the war it was selected as one of the sites to build a French National Ossuary. The ‘pyramid’ memorial to the Armies of the Champagne was unveiled in 1924 and not only contains numerous memorials to those who fought here but underneath are the bones of more than 10,000 men who fell on the Champagne battlefields.
Today part of the desolated ground around the memorial is still preserved but the view in 1925 (below, taken from the Navarin Farm monument) gives an idea what the war had done to battlefields like the Champagne.
We start this week with images from the album of a battlefield pilgrim who travelled to the French battlefields between Reims and Verdun in 1925. The album belonged to a ‘D.Lauder’ who appears to have been a woman in her late twenties. Whether she had a connection to the family of the famous Sir Harry Lauder is not clear, but it appears she may have worked as a volunteer Nurse attached to the French Army, which explains why she visited locations outside of the usual area for British pilgrims.
Fort Vaux was one of the famous French forts which featured in the fighting during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. It had fallen to the Germans in June and was later recaptured that November. The women in the photo above are standing on an Observation Post which directed some of the forts gun turrets. The smashed nature of the ground is clearly visible.
When visitors came to Fort Vaux in the 1920s they were given a French Army guide, whom Miss Lauder photographed on top of the same bunker. He holds a miner’s lamp in his hand which was presumably used to take his party through the tunnels of the fort.
While the British soldier was known as ‘Tommy‘, the French soldier was called ‘Poilu‘ – literally translated the ‘hairy one’ as French servicemen were not required to regularly shave in the same way British ones were.
This image was taken in front of the church in the village of Caix on the Somme in May 1915. It shows two men, the one on the right an officer, of the 414th Regiment d’Infanterie. This infantry regiment was formed in March 1915 and it’s original personnel was made up of 3/5 of men from the Class of 1915; those just conscripted at eighteen, so it was predominantly a very young regiment. It moved to the Somme front shortly afterwards and took over what the regiment’s history called a ‘quiet sector’ at Foucaucourt. It then moved to the Santerre plain area, where this photograph was taken. Four months later the regiment moved to Souchez to a landscape smashed flat by shell fire and in 1916 at Verdun, so one wonders what happened to these two Poilus in the months following the taking of this tranquil photo; resting in a quiet sector on an old plough, an echo of older times.
The children’s author Michael Morpurgo published War Horse in 1982 long before the growth of interest in the Great War began. He has said many times that little did he realise it would morph from a child’s book to a play seen mainly by adults to now a Hollywood film. While some websites are arguing about whether the right uniforms and equipment will be shown, or whether it will be an exaggerated North American view of a war that it barely known of in the US, it seems likely it will bring many with only a passing interest in the subject to ask more, and perhaps remember a few stories of war horses passed down in their own family.
Horses in the Great War are as much a symbol of that conflict as the mud of Passchedaele or the gas mask. Veterans I interviewed in the 1980s had harrowing, often terribly sad memories of animals they had cared for at the front, and in my Great War photo archive I have literally hundreds of images showing a beloved horse, special to a particular soldier who brought them home.
An Army Service Corps Horse Transport limber in France 1918.
The sheer scale of animals used is incredible. The British Official History shows that in August 1914 the army had 165,000 horses on the establishment; doing everything from pulling wagons and ambulances, to serving in mounted regiments or serving as Sir John French’s charger. The same establishment four years later numbered more than 828,000 horses and in those four years millions of animals had been brought into use by the British alone. For the British effort horses were brought from a wide area; 428,00 from North America, 6,000 from South America and some were even sourced in Spain and Portugal. At war’s ending many were sold locally but nearly 95,000 were brought back to Britain for sale, sometimes to their original owners. The cost to the horses was great; more than 225,000 of them died in British service on the Western Front and more than 376,000 died in service with the French Army; figures for the German war effort seem unavailable.
Germans shelter in a dugout with their horse, 1916.
One of the sad facts when I lived on the Great War battlefields was that when a field was ploughed the most common bones found were not human but horse or mule. How these animals were loved can be expressed that many officers wanted to be buried with their horses if they fell; and I know of at least one war grave where that indeed happened.
A French Poilu with his horse, 1915.
War Horse the film will make thousands of people think about the Great War and remember the often forgotten sacrifice of those beautiful animals who marched under the thunder of the guns just like their human masters.
The French 75mm Field Gun has often been called the artillery piece of the Great War. Brought into service in the last years of the nineteenth century, it had a unique recoil mechanism which meant that it could fire between 15 and 30 rounds a minute without the gun moving. Normally a field gun had be re-positioned to fire after every shot; the 75mm could deliver a huge rain of shells precisely in a short space of time, which gave the French Army the upper hand when the war turned to stalemate and artillery dominated the battlefield. In 1914 more than 4,000 were in service and by the end of the war more than 12,000 had been produced.
This image shows men of the 44th Regiment d’Artillerie of the French Army either just before the war on manoeuvres or at the time of mobilisation in August as it is dated 1914 on the reverse in pencil. The 44th was from Le Mans in France and weeks after this photo was taken, the unit was in action during the Battle of the Marne, where the German Army was stopped in its tracks at the very gates of Paris. It spent the winter of 1914/15 near Reims getting used to being dug in as Trench Warfare developed, and in 1915 took part in Operations in the Champagne. In 1916 it fought at Verdun, and in 1917 was back on the Marne before returning to the Champagne in 1918.
The men in the photograph are officers of the 44th; they are wearing the pre-war uniforms of blue serge and in field service attire with the equipment needed to do their job as gunner officers; map cases and binoculars. The officer second from right is likely to be either the 44th’s commander or a Brigade commander within the 44th; he is wearing the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration which could be awarded for general duties as well as for gallantry in the field and may just indicate he had some service in the army. Sadly no names are appended, but one wonders what sights and sounds these men experienced only weeks after this image was taken, and how many of them survived that long journey from the Marne back home.