Talbot House is a Belgian town house located in the town of Poperinghe in rural Flanders. Here in December 1915 two army chaplains, Rev. P.S.B. ‘Tubby’ Clayton and Rev. Neville Talbot, opened the house in memory of Neville’s brother, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, who had been killed at Hooge in July 1915. The idea was to create a place soldiers could come to, to escape the war. There was a quiet room, a library, a theatre, a place to get tea and in the loft a chapel where men could attend religious services. During the war thousands of British troops knew Talbot House, but in 1919 its former owner claimed it back until the house was acquired for the Talbot House Association in the 1920s. Talbot House was where the Toc H movement was started: Toc H is army signalling phonetic for the initials T.H. = Talbot House.
This image comes from a postcard soldiers could buy at the house during the war to help raise money for the house so that everything could be free for ordinary soldiers. It shows the ‘upper room’ where the services took place. A century after Talbot House first opened this view, and this chapel, is almost unchanged. It is one of the places on the Western Front where you can reach out and almost touch the Great War.
Today is the Centenary of the start of the Second Battle of Ypres and a hundred years since the first use of poison gas on the battlefields of the Great War. Poison gas was a weapon outlawed under the Hague Convention but by 1915 the Germans viewed the conflict as a ‘Total War’ and that every weapon was justifiable for victory; there was also belief that the Allies had gas weapons too and it was just a matter of time before they were implemented.
After much preparations and a trial use of the gas, the poison cloud was released at 5pm on 22nd April 1915. More than 170 tons of chlorine gas was released over a 6.5km front, on positions held by French Colonial and Territorial troops. More than 6,000 of them quickly became casualties, having no protection against the gas. Most died within ten minutes as the chlorine gas irritated their lungs causing a ‘drowning’ effect. German assault troops came flooding through the French positions, protected by their own gas masks, and gradually the whole front, including the British lines, began to collapse. In the fighting that followed troops of the Canadian Expeditionary Force played a prominent role in the defence of Ypres; the 1st Canadian Division losing more than 2,000 men killed in action in the first days of the battle.
The photograph above is grainy and unfocussed but shows German soldiers in a captured French trench in the opening phase of the battle. Two dead Poilus are on the trench floor, victims of the gas attack which took place a hundred years ago.
Many thanks to German historian Rob Schäfer for the use of these images.
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.
The Crimson Field is a new BBC drama which has been received with what can be best described as mixed feelings by Great War enthusiasts on Twitter. It depicts a ‘Field Hospital’ close to the battlefield and while its accuracy may be questionable there is no doubt it will bring many who want to know more to the subject of WW1 medicine.
By way of contrast this image is from a small German collection that may well have belonged to a German nurse or doctor serving in Russia and in France during the Great War. This particular ‘crimson field’ is likely to be in Germany and visible are the nurses, left, and the doctors and orderlies as well as the patients at the window and on the balcony. The image gives an insight into the sophistication of Great War medical arrangements, something very lacking in the current BBC drama.
By the late 1920s the work on making the cemeteries along the old Western Front was in full swing and while a large number of cemeteries had been completed, many had not.
This image from the late 1920s shows White House Cemetery, close to Ypres and in the neighbouring village of St Jan, serves as a typical example. The cemetery wall has been built, the Stone of Remembrance and Cross of Sacrifice are in place, but the graves all have the original wooden crosses. The wide scope and variety of the crosses is evident as is the rural nature of the ground around Ypres, now in total contrast to what it looks like today.
On a weekend where Remembrance is on many peoples minds, this image for once needs little description; two old soldiers, still serving, visiting a comrade’s grave at Bethune Town Cemetery in 1919.
Lest We Forget.
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.
Conflict had revolved in and around the Flemish city of Ypres for centuries. During the Great War it was laid-waste by four years of bombardments and this once ‘medieval gem’ was reduced to rubble. Rebuilt using the original plans in the 1920s and 30s, the city had literally risen from the dust. Life had returned to normal and the beauty of the city had been restored, although some buildings like the Cloth Hall had not entirely been finished by 1939.
It is hard for us to imagine what the people of Ypres must have felt therefore when war ravaged the city once more in May 1940. As fighting took place around Ypres between British and German forces, shells landed in the city centre. Buildings were not being particularly targeted but troop movements drew shell-fire, just as they had done in the Great War. And as such shells struck the buildings where those movements were taking place.
This image was taken by a German soldier just after his unit entered Ypres in May 1940. It shows the north side of the main square with the Hotel t’Zweerd on the right and a building that today is a bank. It is typical of some of the punishment meted out to Ypres at this time. Below the same German soldier photographed the exit from Ypres towards Poperinghe, which in WW1 had been ‘Bridge Number 10’. The moat bridge over the Ypres-Comines canal had been blown by British engineers, leaving quite a mess.
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 Salonika Front is arguably one of the most forgotten in terms of where British and Commonwealth troops served in the Great War. British troops were sent to the region in 1915 to help the Serbians, who were already beaten by the time the first soldier landed. However, a complex relationship with neighbouring Greece lead to thousands of British troops, later joined by French, Italians and Russians, facing the Bulgarian Army, an ally of the Central Powers, on the Salonika front. Again it mirrored the Western Front with an extensive trench system and while there were big battles here, especially in the final phase of operations in 1918, the greatest threat was from disease, especially malaria. By the end of the campaign more than 10,600 British soldiers had died in Salonika, many of disease rather than from bullets or shells.
The troops of the British Salonika Force, as it was officially known, had many names for this theatre of war, some unpublishable, but the commonplace ‘Muckydonia’ summed up how many of them felt about being here and was a play on the region’s other name, Macedonia.
This images shows two British soldiers of the 8th Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in Salonika in 1916, in a back area where street photographers took images of those out on ‘local leave’. They are wearing Khaki Drill uniforms, much lighter and cooler than the usual Khaki woollen tunics. The men are also issued with Wolseley Pattern Helmets, common attire in the the warmer theatres of war.
The Eastern Front in the Great War is something few are aware of; the Eastern Front of a generation later in Hitler’s war has eclipsed it and the fact that at any given time more than a million German soldiers faced potentially millions of Russian troops, both deadlocked in the East in the same way there was deadlock in the West. The Eastern Front became a mirror of France and Flanders in some ways; trenches, No Man’s Land, barbed wire, shelling and attrition. Joined by troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire more than 800,000 Germans died in the East along with 1.15 million Austro-Hungarians; opposite them more than 2.2 million Russians died before the Russian Revolution changed everything.
This photograph comes from a collection of a young German gunner who served on the Eastern Front between 1914 and 1917, before he moved to France where he died in 1918. Here two German war horses are pulling a transport wagon used to carry material, food and other equipment for the artillery regiment he served with. In both World Wars horses were the only reliable transport in the often awful conditions on the Eastern Front: extremities of cold and rain which turned the roads and battlefield into a quagmire, and often caused more casualties from the elements than the enemy. Thousands of horses died on the Eastern Front, forgotten animals on a forgotten front.
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.
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.
Made rich on the proceeds of the Cloth Trade, the city of Ypres fortified itself in the seventeenth century by engaging the military architect Vauban to build a huge star-shaped defensive wall around the city. The exits from the city were all so-called ‘gates’; gaps in the wall on roads leading to particular towns elsewhere in Flanders.
On the eastern side of Ypres was the Menin Gate, which lead to the town of Menin. Guarded by two lions, symbols of Flanders, by 1914 there was a pub built into the walls here much frequented by the locals. There was no physical gate or barrier, just a bridge across the moat.
In 1914 British troops came to Ypres and marched through the gate and up to the Menin Road to take part in the First Battle of Ypres. It became a main thoroughfare throughout much of the next four years and like the Cloth Hall, for men who served in Flanders it was one of their landmarks.
The Menin Gate’s landmark status continues to this day as post-war it was selected as the site for the Menin Gate Memorial, which originally commemorated nearly 55,000 soldiers who have no known grave. Unveiled in 1927 the memorial became a focus of remembrance as each night from the summer of 1928 the Last Post was played here; and it is still played here today at 8pm each night by the Last Post Association.
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.