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.
With recent interest in Birdsong and the fascination with the war underground, there is a tendency to forget that mine warfare was not just restricted to Flanders and the Somme. It took place on many other parts of the Western Front and some of the Great War battlefield’s most impressive mine craters are in the French sector, not where the British Army fought.
This image shows a mine crater in the Champagne battlefields near Reims. The chalk of the Champagne was similar to Picardy, so it proved to be well suited to tunnelling operations, especially as the front here was static for so long. The Germans are wearing Stahlhelms so this image likely dates from 1917 or 1918; perhaps during the German offensive here in 1918 when much of the area was overrun until the final French offensive broke the German defences in the autumn of 1918.
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.
During the Great War the Germans produced a vast amount of images depicting the conflict; unlike in the British Army, German soldiers were not punished if they had cameras and every German division appears to have had a photography unit that took images which were put onto postcard as souvenirs for the soldiers. In addition, many German units published photo books while the war was still on and these give us a valuable insight into the battlefields as they were at this time.
An example of this is Die Schlacht bei Arras which was published in Munich in 1918. It contains 350 printed images of the German Army in the Arras sector. Some of the photos date from 1916 but many were taken during the 1917 operations. They show the villages in a varying state of destruction, trench life for the Germans, British prisoners, shot down aircraft and numerous other scenes.
The above image shows British prisoners taken during the fighting in May 1917 being marched to the rear. The worst day at Arras was 3rd May when there were huge casualties with many prisoners of war; it is likely these men were captured at this time. The image is taken at one of the villages in the rear area close to Douai, which was the main logistics and supply centre for the German Army at Arras.
The village of Fins was captured in early 1917 as the German Army withdrew to the Hindenburg Line and remained in British hands until the German Offensive of March 1918 retook the ground.
This photograph comes from a German source and shows a captured British Theatre in what had been a ‘behind the lines’ location until March 1918. The infrastructure behind the front is often forgotten and the existence of Theatres like this close to the battlefield for troops out on rest largely unknown.
This particular ‘Theatre’ is nothing more than three walls of an old French barn and it appears whatever facilities were on-site for the ‘talent’ are found in the tent!
The Germans were obviously amused to find this particular facility when they retook Fins but probably more concerned with the well stocked supply depots also to be found in the village.
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.
This image is taken in the Argonne region of France and shows an unnamed German cemetery set on the slope of a hill or a small ravine. A group of German soldiers are burying a comrade who has recently fallen on the field of battle. The men stand round the grave while an officer uses an entrenching tool to cast in some earth. It is an unusual photograph in many ways and one wonders who the fallen soldier was?
I once had a comrade,
you won’t find a better one.
The drum was rolling for battle,
he was marching by my side
in the same pace and stride.
A bullet flew towards us
meant for you or for me?
It did tear him away,
he lies at my feet
like he was a part of me.
He wants to reach his hand to me,
while I’m just reloading my gun.
“Can’t give you my hand for now,
you rest in eternal life
My good comrade!”
An image from the collection of German Gunner Leo Rosenthal was published yesterday. This image also comes from his album and shows Russian peasants in an unknown village on the Eastern Front in 1916. Germans like Leo, who came from Cologne, had never seen the sort of poverty they encountered in Russia. There is no evidence that the sort of atrocities committed in WW2 happened in WW1, and although Leo’s album shows him and his comrades engaging with the locals and playing with children, the looks on the faces of those in this image says it all. Leo noted that this was one family; the mother on the left and all her children, some of whom would no doubt have encountered men in field grey a generation later.
By the close of 1914 the German Army found itself facing it’s worst nightmare – a war on two fronts; facing the Allies in the West and the Russians in the East. The Eastern Front during the Great War tied up millions of German troops between 1914 and 1918 and a huge amount of resources that would have clearly given Germany an advantage if it had been available in France and Flanders. Although combat was not as brutal as it would be a generation later, but by the close of fighting there was an estimated 2 million battlefield casualties.
From an album owned by a German Gunner this photograph shows the album’s owner, Leo Rosenthal (left, with binoculars), in a forward Observation Post close to the Russian lines. The soldier with the optics is a fellow German, but the other two are members of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Their involvement in the campaign in Russia is almost forgotten. Leo served with an Field Artillery Regiment in the 48th (Reserve) Division. He joined them from his home in Cologne in 1915 and served for three years in Russia before he was killed in France in 1918.
The photo gives a good insight into the trenches used by the Germans in Russia, almost identical to those on the Western Front.