This image, which makes you cold just by looking at it, is perhaps more reminiscent of the Eastern Front in WW2, but in fact it was taken in early 1917. It shows a German machine-gun position in a forward trench close to the village of Le Transloy on the Somme front during the winter of 1916/17. This was the coldest winter of the war on the Western Front, when temperatures dropped to minus twenty on the Somme. This area of the battlefields is open and exposed, even in the summer, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to survive during that winter nearly a hundred years ago.
The photograph comes from the photo history of the 26th Division, a Wurttemberg division, who fought in Russia and on the Western Front.
This extraordinary image shows an early war German position on the Western Front during the winter of 1914/15 – so exactly a hundred years ago. Little damage from shell fire is visible, but on the left in the trees the head of a German soldier peaks out from above his trench and to his right there also appears to be a periscope. This would mean the image would have to have been taken in No Man’s Land, which makes it even more unusual as the enemy would have to have been to the rear of the photographer.
A close inspection of the barbed wire shows it covered with snow; glistening in the winter sunshine. The old world had ended; man had made a new world on the Western Front which grow even more terribly as the next twelve months evolved.
It is that time of year again and thoughts of the Old Front Line during the winter months of the Great War come to mind.
This image is from a German source and shows a well constructed trench in Eastern France, possibly the Vosges during the early period of the war. There are little signs of damage, which would indicate a second or third line position and while there is a man on sentry duty in the background, it is unlikely the enemy is very close. What is always amazing when viewing images like this is the thought that men lived in positions like this on a daily basis come sun, rain, or as in this case – snow.
As the depths of winter approach the Western Front turns one hundred; it was created a century ago following the First Battle of Ypres and the fighting in France when the German forces had been stopped. Germany now faced a war on two fronts; facing Allies in the west and the Russians in the East. In response German troops dug in, and those opposite soon did likewise; these were not the first trenches, however. Those had been dug on the Aisne in September 1914 when the Germans haven been defeated on the Marne, pulled back to the Aisne heights. Here small systems of trenches were dug and the first signs of static warfare appeared in images of the period. By December 1914 the system of trenches were no longer posts laid out in isolation. Both sides were joining them up creating whole networks of trenches which by early 1915 would result in 450 miles of continuous trenches running from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Border: and thus the Western Front was born.
The images seen here come from a contemporary photographic history of the German 26th (Reserve) Division and show some of the first trenches they had dug on the Somme front around Thiepval. The trenches were basic, often straight, and gave only rudimentary protection from artillery fire, which at this stage of the conflict was nothing like it would later become of course. The top photograph shows men in the wooded area below Thiepval chateau and the image above shows a strongpoint on the ridge. It is hard to think of the Somme outside the context of 1916 but these images clearly show that the development of the system of defences that would play a role in the battle here eighteen months later would require time to build up, time the Germans would subsequently have in this sector. For now they would doomed to spend the first winter on the Somme in muddy ditches (below) which would soon be filled with snow, while they faced the French troops beyond.
This image dates from 1915 and shows German troops at their winter billet ‘somewhere in France’ well prepared for their Christmas away from home. The tree is decorated, one soldier plays on the piano and Christmas gifts are laid out on the table. A snapshot of some normality in what for them was no doubt usually far from normal circumstances.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Great War Photos.
As Christmas approaches thoughts turn to trench life on the Western Front during the Great War. This image dates from a small private collection relating to the 1/13th Battalion London Regiment (Kensingtons) and was taken in France near Fleurbaix during the winter of 1914/15. The men are dressed informally as was typical of that early period of the conflict and aside from a great deal of personal kit being worn to keep the cold out, the man on the left has a typical goat/sheep-skin jerkin of this first winter. At least the rum ration is close at hand! The fact that the men are standing up and the parapet of the positions behind is low, would indicate this was in a reserve trench some distance from the actual front line.
This unusual image from the early 1920s shows a British party from one of the Graves Registration units involved in clearing the dead from the Great War battlefields.
Few photos of this work survive, and the caption for this says it is at ‘Nieuport’ but that seems unlikely given the nature of the ground and the fact that British soldiers were only there a short period.
A Sergeant sits on the edge of a trench while people work in the background and another civilian helping stands in the remains of a Great War defence work. There are no evidence of any bodies but it does demonstrate to some degree the sort of work that went on under the watchful eyes of an NCO in charge of such a unit. The work continued for some years after the war and many thousands of soldiers were found and reburied, albeit it often as unknown soldiers. What the work must have been like for those carrying it out we can only imagine.
Today is the 96th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, the first British offensive against the Hindenburg Line and something of a forgotten battle. It was very much a British and Commonwealth battle, with Canadians attacking to the North at Vimy Ridge, New Zealand tunnellers working beneath Arras and Australians on the flank at Bullecourt. Amongst the British divisions were all three Scottish formations: 9th (Scottish), 15th (Scottish) and 51st (Highland), so like Loos in 1915 it was also something of a ‘Scottish battle’ too. Arras turned into a bloody struggle, despite early success on this day in 1917 but aside from the success of the Canadians at Vimy and the terrible loss of Australians at Bullecourt – often wrongly seen as separate battles by some – it is little remembered and aside from books like my Walking Arras, Jeremy Banning & Peter Barton’s Arras 1917 and Jon Nicholl’s Cheerful Sacrifice it has rarely attracted the attention of Great War historians in print. As we move towards the WW1 centenary, hopefully that will change.
This image comes from a special collection of Canadian images from the fighting at Arras that belonged to a CEF staff officer and shows Canadian troops on the slopes of Hill 145 looking down in the Douai Plain; it certainly emphasises how important a terrain feature was to both sides.
The Western Front at its peak was over 450 miles long, stretching from the Belgian coast at Nieuport to the Swiss border near the village of Pfetterhouse. The terrain along that front varied widely from the flat plains of Flanders to the rolling downland of the Somme, through forests like the Argonne and into mountains when it reached the Vosges.
On the Belgian end of the front, at Nieuport, the trench system ran right up to the beach, with that end of the Western Front literally petering out in the sand. For most of the war it was held by the Belgian Army but in 1917 British troops took over the sector in the lead-up to what was eventually an abandoned plan to make seaborne landings further up the coast. However, in July 1917 the Germans went on the offensive here and attacked the forward positions held by British units around the town of Nieuport.
This photograph, from a German source, dates from that period and shows an overrun British trench following the fighting in July 1917. The bunker was in the extreme northern positions on the Western Front and directly overlooked the beach and indeed the sea; both of which are visible in the background on this image. It is probably not how most people think the Western Front came to an end on this Northern end of the battlefield!
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 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 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.
The second part of ‘WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig‘ will be broadcast on Channel 5 tonight at 8pm. This week the programme really goes underground as it looks at the dugouts, tunnels and mining system which was part of the Messines battlefield. These were all in an incredible state of good repair, as the photographs below show.
This image dates from January 1917 and shows a German materials dump in the centre of the village. Behind the Germans in the main square of Messines and the photo shows that even only a few months before the June 1917 Battle of Messines, much of the town was still standing. Looking at the equipment dumped here, one wonders how much of it was unearthed by the archaeologists!
The village of Messines was heavily defended by the Germans and the sizeable trench seen in the above image dating from early 1917 shows part of their defence network on the outskirts of the village.
In the next episode of WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig the team explore the underground war at Messines and during the dig Simon Verdegem and his team of archaeologists uncovered a previously unknown German tunnel network. It was quite something accessing tunnels that no-one had been down since 1918. The timber which lined the tunnels was in exceptional condition and it is hoped that some of the tunnel system will be reconstructed in a future Messines museum, due to open in 2014.
The German army occupied Messines at the end of the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914 and remained in possession of the village until the Battle of Messines in June 1917. The village stayed in good condition, but with every building damaged or partially destroyed, until June 1917 when the preliminary bombardment for the attack of the New Zealand Division destroyed everything. This image dates from the Spring of 1917 and shows a German communications centre in Messines, just off the main square.
The archaeology feature in tonight’s programme very much reflects this German occupation; from the artifacts found in the trenches through the uncovering of German dugouts and tunnels; the ‘Last Witness’ of the Great War, the landscape, had much to tell us on this dig and some genuinely new discoveries were made.
My new television series, WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig, starts this evening on Channel 5 and today there will some posts connected with the programme and the dig we followed for more than six months in Flanders.
As part of the research for the series I was able to source a number of original images showing the village of Messines during the German occupation before everything was destroyed and also showing some of the trenches. This image was one from a small collection showing the typical trench construction in the front line area of the battlefield west of Messines. This particular trench is Weißergraben and lead to the front line area close to where the New Zealand Memorial is now located. The steel door seen in the trench may well be a kiln door from the brick factory that was on the edge of the village.
The trench design and construction is particularly noteworthy as it pretty much reflected what the archaeologists found during the dig; this style of trench support, trench wall and trench floor were all found. This will all be seen in tonights episode, starting on Channel 5 at 20.00.
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 arrival of thousands of Canadian troops in 1914 was a welcome addition to the forces of Great Britain and the Empire, but with the expansion of the British Army at the same time, there were accommodation issues when the Canadians first arrived. Sent to Salisbury Plain, some of the original billets were quite simple, but as the size of the CEF expanded, their camp did as well.
Training continued at a high pace and while many original CEF men were ex-regular soldiers or former members of the Canadian Militia, one thing they rapidly had to learn more about, as the war on the Western Front went static during the winter of 1914/15, was digging in. Here a group of Canadians are practicing trench digging in quite good ground. Within months they would be in the mud of Flanders, a very different experience from trench digging on Salisbury Plain during that first winter of the war.
This image is from the autumn of 1915 and shows men of the 2/4th Battalion London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), then part of the Royal Naval Division, in the front line trenches at Gallipoli. This weapon these Territorial soldiers are employing is typical of the makeshift weapons being used not only in the trenches of Gallipoli but the whole Western Front in France and Flanders.
Catapult guns were employed from 1915 to allow soldiers to fire hand grenades or small explosive charges (often contained in jam tins) over much greater distances than they could throw them, or more often fire them from positions of safety as seen here. The weapon could be set up and loaded, then fired at the enemy positions. In most cases the sort of distance they were firing projectiles was only measured in tens of yards, which was also typical of conditions on the battlefield in 1915 when both sides often lived almost on top of each other. In this photo the officer on the left has a grenade in his right hand about to load it while the Private on the right has the contraption used to tighten the catapult. In his other hand is a box periscope, no doubt used to observe the enemy targets safely before firing.
The 2/4th Londons stayed at Gallipoli until evacuated in late 1915 and then went to Egypt where they were disbanded, most personnel going to France to join a re-formed 1/4th Battalion which would go on to fight on the Somme.