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.
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.
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!
While the 11th November 1918 was an end to the fighting for Great Britain and became the focal point for remembrance in the post-war world, it marked a day of defeat for Germany. It always seems fitting at this time of year that we should recall Germany’s losses as well as our own; the many Great War veterans I interviewed had much respect for ‘Fritz’ and knew that as front line soldiers, they all shared the same privations and conditions. By the end of the conflict Germany had suffered in excess of two million battlefield related deaths and this image from a German artilleryman’s scrap book gives us just one small insight into those huge losses, showing German graves on the Western Front in late 1917.
The German Army did not play an equivalent of the Last Post at the grave of a fallen comrades; instead they sang Ich Hatt Einen Kameraden. The English translation reads:
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!”
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.
This rather unusual image was taken on the steps looking down into the main archway of the Menin Gate and dates from the early 1930s. The Menin Gate had been unveiled in July 1927 and within a year was the focus of Remembrance in the area with the nightly playing of the Last Post – something that continues to this day and was only interrupted by the Second World War. A small group of battlefield pilgrims can be seen looking around at the names; same no doubt veterans, perhaps others with a special name to see? A private, personal pilgrimage frozen in time.
It is often forgotten how many families went to France and Flanders during the inter-war period; by the 1930s Ypres alone was receiving more than a quarter of a million visitors from Britain and the Empire. Most such pilgrimages were subsidised in some way as the cost for the average family was prohibitive, but the desire to make that journey was a strong one.
This image is from a small collection taken during one such pilgrimage in the 1920s. There are no captions on any of the pictures but evidence seems to suggest this is Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, near Poperinghe; at that time it was the largest British cemetery on the Western Front with nearly 10,000 graves; Tyne Cot, today the largest, had as yet not been finished.
And when you focus in on this image, among the sea of wooden crosses, there she is – a women looking back at the photographer. Was she a mother, a sister, a wife, a lover, a friend? The half-seen face with the smart dress, arms at her side almost as if at attention by the grave – what must have crossed her mind, and the thousands and thousands of other women like her who visited the Old Front Line to make some sense of loss, some sense of the cost of that war? Looking at the name on the cross would she have echoed the words of Vera Brittain, following her own visit to her brother’s grave?
“At every turn of every future road I shall want to ask him questions, to recall to him memories, and he will not be there… How trivial my life has been since the War ! I thought, as I smoothed the earth over the fern. ‘How mean they are, these little strivings, these petty ambitions of us who are left, now that all of you are gone! How can the future achieve, through us, the somber majesty of the past?’ ” (Testament Of Youth)
As the Germans were pushed back across Northern France in September 1944, they withdrew across the Belgian border but made little attempt to defend most of Belgium. Ypres was liberated by Polish Troops, part of 21st Army Group, on 6th September 1944 and that evening the Last Post was played at the Menin Gate; the great memorial to the missing which had remained silent to the sound of bugles since May 1940. From that evening when a new generation in khaki gathered round the buglers, the Last Post has been played every evening ever since; it recently celebrated the 29,000th playing.
British units from 21st Army Group used Ypres as a base as Operation Market Garden took them into Holland, and this image shows men from a Royal Artillery unit gathering in front of the damaged Menin Gate in September 1944. The Gate had come under fire in May 1940 and been damaged when the road bridge in front had been blown by a Royal Engineers officer. The damage to it, repaired in the 1950s, is visible when the image is enlarged. This iconic symbol of the Great War battlefields was among the last major monuments to be liberated, as the old battlefields returned to the silence of peace that been theirs for the two decades before 1939.
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.
Several Great War battlefields were fought over once again in May and June 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg broke in the West and the Nazi war machine overwhelmed country after country ending with the Battle of France. Flanders became a battlefield once more when German troops engaged British units around the city in May 1940, as they pulled back to the coast and Dunkirk.
During WW2 many German soldiers carried their own cameras off to war. Camera ownership was very high in Germany in the 1930s and many German soldiers had grown up with photography. During the conflict they took millions of images, often right on the ground where the fighting was taking place.
This photo shows a crew from a German Pak 36 anti-tank gun set up on the Menin Road in May 1940 at what during the Great War had been called ‘Clapham Junction‘. Beyond the hedge just behind the crew was ‘Stirling Castle’. Just over twenty years before this whole area had been a moonscape, resounding to the sound of shell-fire. Once more guns roared on the Menin Road and one of the German crew had a minute to stop and photograph the 18th (Eastern) Division Memorial that was close to the same junction (below).
As some readers of my work will know I lived on the Somme for a decade. Aside from being surrounded by a wealth of history and battlefields, during that time the Old Front Line was literally on my doorstep as every time I tilled the kitchen garden shrapnel balls and bullets came up. In the village people brought us items unearthed by their ploughs and one day someone turned up with the remains of a Canadian soldier who had been found in the sunken lane behind our house. The archaeology of Great War was very vivid during that time and for six months of this year I found myself reliving some of that as I once again explored beneath the battlefields of the Western Front with my old friend, television producer John Hayes-Fisher.
This time our work brought us to Messines in Flanders, part of the Ypres Salient. Here for four years the front went from a war of movement to static trenches, gas, tanks and mine warfare: Messines was almost a microcosm of the whole Great War. Here we followed a project being undertaken by a group of professional archaeologists from Belgian Ordnance Clearance Company ADeDe. Headed up by Simon Verdegem, a young archaeologists with a passion for the Great War who had previously worked on digs such as the A19 Project, his team planned to work one step ahead of a major development: the placement of a massive water pipe and drainage system around the village of Messines. This would take them across several square kilometres of battlefield, making it the biggest professional dig on the Western Front in many years, perhaps ever.
We spent our six months in Flanders Fields following Simon and his team unearth a whole array of different trench systems: from communication trenches, to fighting trenches to infantry shelters and even concrete bunkers. This included one of the deepest intact trenches ever found in Flanders and along with it an amazing array of personal artefacts. The work was not without its dangers and a team of bomb disposal experts were continually on-hand to remove dangerous ordnance prior to its recovery.
The upcoming series on Channel 5 entitled ‘WW1 Tunnels of Death’ will give people an insight into what this fascinating and unique project has uncovered, and the story is assisted by numerous Great War experts such as Alex Churchill, Professor Peter Doyle, Josh Levine, Major Alexander Turner and David Whithorn. Two other versions have been made for BBC Worldwide and Arte, and there is also a US Version for the PBS Channel. The Channel 5 version will be shown at 20.00 on 8th and 15th November 2012.
It was a fascinating year back on and beneath the Old Front Line; we found ourselves in trenches, dugouts and tunnels, and looking at items that had not seen the light of day for nearly a century. But it wasn’t just about artefacts; during the dig the remains of a Commonwealth soldier was found and he will later be buried in one of the nearby cemeteries. He was one of thousands who lived and died in those trenches and dugouts we explored; voices now silent, and it is only the landscape and what lies beneath which can still bear fresh testimony to the story that was the First World War.
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.
Today was an exciting day for anyone with an interest in the Great War as the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the plans for the National Commemoration of the centenary period between 2014 and 2018. Unsurprisingly key dates like the outbreak of war, the First Day on the Somme and the Armistice, but plans were also outlined to remember Gallipoli, Jutland and Passchendaele, too. Cameron, who I thought spoke with some passion about the war, made it clear that the plans were a work in progress and actively sought input from interested parties to help shape what the period would become, and that is to be welcomed. The budget of £50 million sounds huge, but £35 million of that is for the revamp of the Imperial War Museum. Yet money will be made available for educating the next generation – funding for school visits to the battlefields was promised – and National Lottery funding would be allocated for local projects and heritage initiatives, which could potentially help save many crumbling memorials.
The Great War was an event that defined this nation and its population, and that of the Commonwealth. That the government is taking a serious and seemingly mature approach to commemorating the centenary of it is to be welcomed by all. No commemoration can ever hope to cover everything, but the funding of local projects should help ensure that some of the lesser known aspects of the conflict are brought into sharp focus.
Great War Photos is doing its bit for the centenary, too. Not only will the posting of previously unseen WW1 images continue here but I’m pleased that the Great War Photos archive will be used as part of a major centenary initiative and no doubt the site will post more about that in the future.
Thirty years ago when I first visited the Western Front, the battlefields were empty and forgotten; the hundreds of veterans I interviewed as a young history student earnestly thought that when they all faded away their war would slip into obscurity and never be remembered. These new plans ensure that 1914-18 will not slip from our conciousness and that the voices of that conflict will still be as vivid and important a hundred years later.
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.
The Cloth Hall was, as one guidebook described it, ‘one of the medieval gems of Europe’. Located in the centre of the city of Ypres, as a building it echoed back to the period when Ypres was the centre of the European cloth trade and merchants from all over the continent came here to buy and sell their goods. By 1914 Ypres was a city in decline, located in a quiet backwater.
War came to Flanders in October 1914 when a German cavalry patrol entered the city of Ypres as the advance of the German Army that was making it’s ‘race to the sea‘. Stopped outside of Ypres but Belgian, British and French troops, the city found itself on the frontline for the next four years.
The Cloth Hall was never deliberately targeted but shells struck it during the First Battle of Ypres and in November 1914 it caught fire. As the war moved on gradually more and more of it was reduced to ruins or collapsed, so that by the end of the war this magnificent building was a shell of its former self. A landmark to the troops who served in Flanders, the Cloth Hall became a great symbol both during and after the war of the destructive hand that had swept across the crater zone of the Western Front. Rebuilt in the 1920s and 30s, it was not complete when another war came and the reconstruction was only finished in 1962.
While for many Canadians the CEF attack at Vimy Ridge in April 1917 is Canada’s defining moment in the Great War, in many respects the more important period was the final Hundred Days from the Battle of Amiens on 8th August 1918 until the Armistice came into effect on 11th November 1918. During this time four Canadian Divisions fought more than 50 German divisions in the field, and were in action almost every day of that hundred day period, including the last moments of the war when the final British and Empire casualty was a Canadian; George Lawrence Price, who died at 10.58am. Commanded by Sir Arthur Currie the Canadians exemplify the changes in the whole British Expeditionary Force of which they were a part and showed that by 1918 commanders in the field were able to fight and win modern battles, using all arms of service working together in a modern and innovative approach. But while there was success on the battlefield casualties were high; more than 45,000 soldiers of the CEF were killed, wounded or missing at this time.
This image shows an 18-pounder field gun from the Canadian Field Artillery parading through Liege just after the end of the war. After the Canadian capture of Mons on 11th November their forces moved through several Belgian towns and cities and the local population, as this image shows, often came out to greet them.
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.
Following the dispatch of the 1st Canadian Division to Britain in 1914, thousands of men of military age living in Canada flocked to enlist in the opening months of the war. These recruits were used to form further battalions of the CEF and within a year three full infantry divisions were created, with room for more expansion as the war continued. In total more than 260 infantry battalions were formed by the end of the conflict.
Not every Canadian battalion could go overseas, however. These are men of the 76th Battalion Canadian Infantry. Formed at Niagara Camp in the summer of 1915, the unit trained for war service and then disbanded in 1916 when its personnel were absorbed by the 36th Battalion which was by then in Britain. The 36th did not serve outside of Britain, it’s personnel being posted to battalions of the CEF on the Western Front. It was therefore common for men in the CEF to serve in several units before they got to an ‘active’ one on the battlefield.
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.