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.
These two images are postcards which are bent and tatty, the corners are curled up and they are pretty dirty. But they were once very important to one man: Joseph Kinna. Kinna was a family man who was conscripted in 1916 and joined the Gloucestershire Regiment. He fought with the 8th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment on the Somme and the reason why these postcards were important to him is shown on the reverse:
Joseph Kinna was wounded in that attack at Grandcourt, in the tail-end of the Somme battle, and posted home. Medically downgraded due to his wounds, he was eventually discharged from the army, aged 22, in 1917.
Two simple postcards, carried in a soldier’s pocket nearly a century ago; memories of his life back home to him, but today, as the nation pauses to remember, it is simple stories like this which transport us back to those days of the Great War when even a simple postcard meant something to one family at war.
By the 1930s the work on the war cemeteries was almost complete, but the final cemetery was not actually finished until September 1938; one year before the outbreak of the Second World War.
This image of Regina Trench Cemetery, right out in the fields close to the village of Courcelette, had been built on a site where heavy fighting had taken place involving men of the Canadian Corps in September-November 1916. It was subsequently enlarged post-war by concentrating graves in from the surrounding area.
The headstones here look new; the trees are young and the plants which would give them the appearance of the ‘English garden’ just beginning to take hold. Today it remains a place of tranquility and reflection just as it was in those early days, and one of many Silent Cities well off the tourist route and rarely visited.
The documentary Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars is about to start on BBC4 and promises to be a fascinating insight into the archaeology of the war underground on the Somme in 1916.
Part of the programme will apparently feature the Lochnagar Mine Crater, perhaps the most visited British mine crater today on the Western Front. But this was not always so.
In the inter-war period the Somme was visited by hundreds of thousands of battlefield pilgrims, many of whom came to La Boisselle and many of whom visited a mine crater there, but it wasn’t Lochnagar, but the Y Sap Mine Crater. This was a major ‘tourist location’ in the 1920s/30s as it was close to the Albert-Bapaume road and easily accessible from the main road, which Lochnagar was not. However by the 1970s the Y Sap crater was hardly visited and the owner filled it in; leading to Richard Dunning saving the Lochnagar Crater when that too was threatened with the site now preserved by the Friends of Lochnagar.
The role and experiences of female nurses in the German medical services during the Great War is something that seems to have slipped in our knowledge of the period. There appears to be very few, if any, memoirs of German nurses, compared to similar ones by British nursing staff. There also does not appear to be any form of official history of German nursing during this period and few mentions of them in German soldier memoirs.
So this photograph is as much a question as an answer. It shows German nurses in a building on the Eastern Front taken over as a hospital and dates from around 1916.
This aerial image dates from 1916 and shows the centre of Ypres around the ruins of the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral as it was at that point in the war – but in this case covered in a thick blanket of snow. The main square is in the centre of the photograph and towards the centre top is the road leading up to the Menin Gate and the Ypres Ramparts. It offers a very different and compelling image of Ypres, only half way through the conflict, but yet already very much in ruins.
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.
During the Great War the issue of cold weather gear for troops in the front line was limited. In the British Army soldiers had a leather jerkin and greatcoat but as the Northern French winters got colder – it dropped to more than -20 on the Somme during the winter of 1916/17 – a great deal of improvisation took place.
This photograph, dating from 1916, was taken in a French photographer’s studio in a back area on the Somme front. It shows a typical animal fur jacket worn by British troops; in this case with a separate over jacket and arm pieces. It was likely made from sheep or goat fur. While these were warm, they were also breeding grounds for body lice and while extensively used in the early war period, they were less common as the conflict progressed. The soldier also wears a British steel helmet, standard issue by this time, and the strap across his fur jacket is from the small haversack which contained his gas mask, likely to be a PH Helmet at this stage. His Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Rifle has a cover over the main working parts to protect it from the elements. Images like this are rare, especially those taken in studios, and it gives as an insight into what British troops wore during some of the winter periods.
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.
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 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 Somme front was taken over by British troops from the summer of 1915. The main town that became their staging post in this sector was Albert, a brick built small industrial town but with a huge basilica. The basilica of Notre Dame de Brebières had only been completed in 1895 but was already a centre of pilgrimage. It’s main tower had been struck by a shell in 1915 and the huge golden figure of the Virgin Mary with her outstretched arms holding the infant Jesus hung at a rather precarious angle. French Engineers wired it up to stopping it falling into the square below and the legend grew that ‘when the Virgin fell, the war would end’.
For British troops on the Somme, especially in the lead up to the 1916 Battle when thousands of men arrived, it became a major landmark. The men marched underneath it going to and from the trenches, and could see it from many of the front line positions. Postcard images of it could hardly be produced quickly enough, and were sent home in their sackfulls.
Most Tommies called it the ‘Leaning Virgin’ or the ‘Golden Virgin’. When the Australians arrived in July 1916 they had another name for it – Fanny Durack. Durack was an Australian female olympic swimmer who had won a gold medal in the 1912 Olympics. The Diggers thought it looked like Fanny diving into a swimming pool!
Destroyed by 1918, the Virgin finally fell to British guns when the town was captured in March 1918. Rebuilt in the 1920s, it still dominates the Somme landscape to this day.
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.
With the Somme anniversary taking place last weekend, the Somme theme continues this week with an unusual post on Great War Photos; an image and an audio clip of a Great War veteran talking about the Somme.
The Liverpool Pals were formed in Liverpool in September 1914 as Lord Derby’s own ‘private army’ until they were taken over by the War Office. They recruited widely across the city reflecting it’s varied social nature in a way that no other formation did between 1914 and 1918. The battalions wore their own special badge, seen in this photo of them in training in 1915, which following the Derby family’s coat of arms – officially they were part of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The Pals crossed to France in 1915 and served with the 30th Division in the quiet months on the Somme front before going into action on 1st July 1916 in the attack on Montauban. One of their battalions was on the extreme right flank of the British Army on the Somme and went over linking arms with their French comrades. The battalions achieved all their objectives on the first – some of the few who did – but a few weeks later lost heavily in the fighting for Guillemont. While the number of original Pals dwindled with each passing month, the battalions continued to serve until the end of the war.
One of the original Liverpool Pals was E.G. Williams. A student interested in art and watercolour painting, Williams joined the Pals in 1914 and fought with them on the Somme, later being taken prisoner in 1918. He was one of several hundred Great War veterans I interviewed in the 1980s and this recording dates from that period, here talking about the 1st July 1916. In the clip he refers to a painting, one for more than 20 he did during the war, which he later donated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
By the end of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916 nearly 150,000 British and Commonwealth troops had died in the fighting. Behind such a stark number are a multitude of human stories; the true cost of the Somme, which British families bore in 1916.
This photograph was taken at Hawthorn Ridge No 1 Cemetery, near Beaumont-Hamel, in 1919. It shows the parents and sister of Eric Rupert Heaton by his grave, a simple wooden cross. The photo was taken by his brother, an army chaplain. Eric had died on 1st July 1916 leading his platoon up the slopes of Hawthorn Ridge; his body had not been found until the November placing him among the ‘missing’ and giving the family some faint hope he might have survived.
On this 96th Anniversary of the Somme we should remember the sacrifice and the often forgotten achievements of the British Army in the Great War, but achievements always come at a cost – and this photo gives us a rare glimpse into what that cost really was for some families.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but today is another anniversary – of a forgotten battle from the same year.
On 30th June 1916 the men of the 11th, 12th and 13th Battalions Royal Sussex Regiment (South Downs) fought a two and a half hour battle in the German lines close to the ‘Boar’s Head’ at Richebourg in Northern France. More than 360 South Downs men were killed and 1,100 wounded or missing. Veterans called it ‘The Day Sussex Died’.
The South Downs were unusual in Sussex as they were the nearest the county had to ‘Pals’ battalions; this photo shows men of the 1st South Downs at Cooden Camp near Bexhill on Sea, during their training there in September 1914. At this stage there were very few uniforms and most men slept under canvas. Morale in this unit was very high; something that continued well after the war as the Old Comrades Association continued to meet until 1979 and the last South Downer died in the early 1990s.
You can read more about the battle here:
Mametz Wood was a large area of woodland close to the villages of Mametz and Contalmaison reached by British troops within the first week of the Somme offensive. In a weeks worth of fighting it cost the Pals battalions of the 38th (Welsh) Division – “Lloyd George’s Army” – more than 5,000 casualties as they attempted to cross what became known as ‘Death Valley’ and fought their way from tree to tree, pushing the German defenders back. Today a large red dragon looks over the regrown wood, in memory of the sacrifice here in July 1916.
This incredible photo is part of a collection taken by an officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers who became a professional photographer after the war. The image was taken up a tree near Caterpillar Valley just before the first attack and is simply entitled “looking towards Mametz Wood”. It is arguably the only known image taken in combat during the fight for Mametz Wood and the circumstances of taking it are unbelievable to say the least! When we think of the Somme, we think of smashed ground and crater zones; in July 1916 it was full summer and much of the Somme was still untouched, as this photo clearly shows.
The Battle of the Somme fought in the Picardy region of Northern France between 1st July and 18th November 1916 was one of the largest British battles of the Great War and nearly a century later is one of the great symbols of that conflict, right or wrong. The battle cost the British Army more than 450,000 casualties and while historians still argue over whether the Somme was a victory or not, pressure on Verdun was relieved by the Somme offensive, the German line was broken and pushed back some way, and the last of the German ‘field army’ died in the trenches of Picardy; a battle that cost them even more men than the British.
During the ‘Big Push’ every regiment of the British Army and all of the major Commonwealth nations fought on the Somme, among them the men of the Royal Fusiliers pictured here. This image is dated June 1916 and was taken in a back area on the Somme while waiting to move forward. There is every reason to believe that these men are from the battalions of the regiment which attacked Ovillers on 7th July 1916 and suffered heavy losses in doing so, but this cannot be confirmed. They remain annoymous ‘Somme men’ who marched down the dusty lanes of France to an unknown fate and a pyrrhic victory in 1916.
The village of Thiepval was one of the largest on the Somme prior to 1914. Dominated by a chateau, the family who owned it employed a large number of estate workers and owned local farms in the days when agriculture involved large numbers of people. In September 1914 it was captured by the Germans and turned into a bastion in their line of defence on the Somme, sitting on high ground that became known as the Thiepval Ridge. On 1st July 1916 the village was directly attacked by Pals Battalions of the 32nd Division, who were mown down in No Man’s Land by well entrenched German machine-gunners unaffected by the preliminary bombardment. The battle for Thiepval would continue for another two and a half months until it was finally taken by the 18th (Eastern) Division in a brilliant operation using tanks and clearly demonstrating the ‘learning curve’ on the Somme in 1916. Today it is the site of the main memorial to the missing on the Somme.
This aerial photograph is from an original taken before the 1st July and shows the German trench system from Thiepval Wood (on the left of the image) across to the village. The intricate nature of the German defences and their obvious strength and depth are quite apparent from this photo; at least from the benefit of more than ninety years. In 1916 as good as this aerial intelligence was, it was believed that artillery alone could destroy positions like this on the Somme front; something that 1st July 1916 would prove otherwise.
Aerial imagery of the Great War gives a fascinating insight into the battlefields of WW1 and this week on the site we will feature three German images showing different locations on the Western Front. While it is likely they were originally taken for intelligence purposes these images had been transferred to postcard as souvenirs for soldiers at the front. Some of these were later re-sold to British soldiers during the occupation of the Rhineland from 1919.
This image dates from 1915 and shows the city of Ypres from above. By this stage of the war Ypres had seen two major battles – First and Second Ypres – and the buildings come under a terrible hail of shells of every calibre up to 420mm: one account of a commander based at nearby Potijze in early 1915 recalled watching 420mm shells descend on the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral and take huge chunks out of these buildings: both part of what pre-war guidebooks called a ‘medieval gem’.
And it is indeed these two buildings that feature in the centre of this image; the Cloth Hall on the right, by this stage a shell, and St Martin’s Cathedral above it still recognisable but also a shell. Modern visitors find it incredible to gaze on these two buildings today and think that not only were they once in this state by they were almost just rubble by the end of the war. Post-war they were rebuilt using the original medieval plans along with the rest of the city, but to give some idea of how long it took – the Cloth Hall was not finished until 1962.
The experience of 1914 taught the French Army that to be conspicuous on the battlefield meant certain death; especially on the modern battlefield with massed machine-guns and artillery. In 1914 alone France had lost over 300,000 Poilus killed in action and despite going to war locked in the mentality of the Franco-Prussian the French Army proved remarkably quick to adapt to the war when it went into stalemate during the winter of 1914/15.
The French Army was the first to introduce a steel helmet; a first this was a light steel skull cap worn under the issue Kepi. Then an officer called August-Louis Adrian adapted the design of the Paris fire helmet to produce the M15 Adrain helmet, worn by the men in this illustration, which became the standard French helmet for the rest of the war. The French also discarded the dark blue serge and red trousers and adopted the Horizon Blue uniform, also seen here; it was felt the blue would blend in with the skyline when French soldiers attacked, rather than attempt to develop a uniform colour that would blend in with the shattered landscape.
New uniforms also meant new weapons and stuck in trenches unable to emerge and fire their weapons, both sides turned to using the periscope rifle, also seen in this illustration; in this case enabling the Poilu to fire his 8mm Lebel rifle remotely and safely using the periscope fitted to the frame. It was just the start of adapting old weapons to work in a new way, or re-introducing old weapons from earlier siege wars.
The Royal Army Medical Corps was formed in 1898 to properly provide medical facilities for soldiers on the battlefields. Many useful lessons had been learnt from the Boer War and the advance in medicine in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods meant that by 1914 the RAMC provided among the best medical facilities of any combattant nation in Europe. As the army expanded the RAMC likewise had to grow too and the most common form of RAMC unit during WW1 was the Field Ambulance. These consisted of 10 officers and 224 men who operated close to the battlefield providing immediate medical treatment for casualties being brought in from the areas where the fighting was taking place. At a Field Ambulance a wounded soldier would be treated, stabilised and assessed and most likely moved on to the next level of medical facility – usually a Casualty Clearing Station – by ambulance; either horse drawn or motorised.
This image was taken on the Somme in late 1916 and shows three Stretcher Bearers of a Field Ambulance operating in the terrible conditions that prevailed during that period. The small haversacks they have are the bags containing their PH Helmet gas masks. The man on the left has a rain cover over his Service Dress cap – indicating how wet it was at the time – and all three have ‘trench waders‘. These were rubberised over trousers come boots which could be worn in flooded trenches. White Somme chalk is liberally plaster over the waders and one wonders what duties in the front line these men have just returned from? Carrying a stretcher was hard at the best of times but over wet ground and through flooded trenches was even harder and the smiles here no doubt bely some tough times during the hardest winter of the war on the British sector of the Western Front.