WW1 Photos Centenary Website: 2014-2018 By Paul Reed

Hindenburg Line

Aftermath: Gouzeaucourt Cemterey 1920

Continuing with the images from the collection of post-war stereo-cards today’s photograph shows ‘Gouzeaucourt Cemetery’.

Gouzeaucourt is a large village on the Hindenburg Line battlefields reached by the British in early 1917 and fought over in the Battle of Cambrai that year and in much of the fighting of 1918. There are a number of cemeteries in the area but a good clue here is the grave visible towards the front, where a name is clearly visible. Research shows this is the grave of L/Cpl B.S. Allen of the 2nd Lincolnshire Regiment who died here on 2nd April 1917 and is buried in what is now Gouzeaucourt New British Cemetery.

The cemeteries remained in this original state well into the mid-1920s and in some cases well into the 30s. The majority of the original crosses were burned when replaced with headstones but some families came to claim them and others did so by post; many exist as war memorials in parish churches around Great Britain.


War Horses: A British Lancer

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.


2nd Queen’s in Billets: Berles au Bois 1917

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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.


Unicorn Cemetery, Vendhuile: A Family Returns 1920s

Unicorn Cemetery close to the village of Vendhuile is on the Hindenburg Line battlefields which saw fighting in 1917/18. It gets its name as some original burials were made by the burial officer of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division whose insignia was the head of a Unicorn. It contains the graves of nearly 600 British and Commonwealth casualties of the Great War who fell here in the last two years of the war.

This photograph shows the family of one of these casualties visiting the cemetery in the early 1920s. The cemetery has not been made permanant and a wooden signboard bears the cemetery name and map reference. The plots have already been laid out and a little fence placed round with a gate; at the time this image was taken, the decisions about how to make these cemeteries permanant were in fact still being made.

Who these early battlefield pilgrims were is sadly not noted on the photograph; it would appear perhaps to be a sister on the left and mother on the right – perhaps father took the photograph? Given the cost and difficulty in getting to these places at that time for many families like this it was a once in a lifetime visit; that this photograph was special to those in it is clear from the fact that it remains mint; well hidden and well stored for decades until I found it in a Sussex junk shop in the 1980s.


‘The Major’: A Siege Battery Commander in France

This photograph is from the same gunners photo album that yesterdays came from; the owner was an officer in the 218th Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery on the Hindenburg Line in 1918.

The image of ‘The Major’ who is not named, gives a good insight into the way officers dressed in the last phase of the war. The old ‘cuff-rank tunic‘ with the officer’s rank on the cuff, which had cost some many young officers their lives in 1914 and 1915 had seen a resurgence and the Major is wearing his here. He has a sandbag covered helmet to reduce the shine in bright conditions, and straps indicate a map case on one side. Nearest the camera the Major has the container tin of a French gas mask held in a leather sling, with a first field dressing attached to it. The British gas mask could not fit in this tin, so we can only speculate what might be in it – perhaps a whisky flask?!


A Bosche Machine-Gun on The Hindenberg Line

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.


Officer’s Batmen at Ecoust 1917

This image games from the same source as one of the first I posted here; it was taken by Lieutenant Ron Short MC of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Regiment, who had an illicit camera with him on the Western Front in 1917.

The village of Ecoust St Mein was captured by the 7th Division in the Advance to the Hindenburg Line in the Spring of 1917. It then remained in British hands until the following March, and became a staging post for the fighting in front of Bullecourt. By war’s end it was completely destroyed; an insight into that destruction can be seen here.

The two officer’s servants – batmen – are standing at the entrance to one of the officer’s dugouts; in this case the cellar of a partially destroyed house. While they are relaxed and out of view of the Germans here, the presence of war is not far away and both men are carrying their Small Box Respirator; the latest bit of kit at the time the photo was taken in early 1917 that helped to protect the British Tommy against gas attacks. The soldier on the right is wearing a Leather Jerkin, issued in cold periods as a piece of cold weather gear and often all that soldiers had to protect themselves from the extreme temperatures in Northern France.