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.