Tonight a new WW1 Centenary drama series, The Crimson Field, will start on BBC1 no doubt sparking a fresh wave of interest in the Nurses of the Great War.
This image was taken in Northern France in 1918 and shows Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and also Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) personnel with the Royal Army Medical Corps medical officers from a Northumbrian Casualty Clearing Station.
When the Great War came to an end it was not just soldiers on the battlefields who celebrated the close of hostilities; hundreds of thousands of families back home could begin to hope that finally their loved one would be coming home.
This image dates from the time of 11th November 1918 and shows a trio of young children, patriotic flags in their hands, rejoicing of the thought that daddy was on his way home. The little one looks pensive, apprehensive – perhaps she knows only daddy by name and can remember little of him in her short life. The survivors and their families like this were told the men of that generation were returning to ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ but the reality was that economic depression and streets with medal wearing veterans selling matches was what really lay ahead. The hope in these faces was betrayed, and the children depicted in images like this were fighting another war just a couple of decades later.
The Armistice came into effect at 11.00am on 11th November 1918 and effectively brought the fighting on the Western Front to a close. In more than four years of war Britain and the Empire had lost more than 750,000 dead in France and Flanders, with many times that wounded and sick. Just after 11am across the old battlefields British units gathered to commemorate the end of the conflict for them; all did it in different ways and some went to great lengths to record the event with a photograph. Here a group of men from the Ordnance Base Depot of the Army Ordnance Corps (AOC) were photographed together on that fateful day.
Others marked the day in a more robust way. Below a veteran of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers remembers 11th November 1918 near Courtrai in Belgium; the interview is taken from a recording made in 1982.
A week long Remembrance theme starts on Great War Photos today and will include over the period leading up to and including 11th November a whole host of posts, with some days having several posts; reaching a peak around 11am on the 11th November. On 8th November the site will also host some images relating to my new TV Series on Messines – WW1 Tunnels of Death.
We start with an image relating to an event which took place 94 years ago today; the last great battle of the First World War, the Battle of the Sambre. By November 1918 the old trench system on the Western Front had collapsed and it was now open warfare. The Germans resorted to using geographical features to defend and on 4th November 1918 it was the Sambre-Oise Canal. More men went into battle that day than on the First Day of the Somme in 1916 but it was a very different battle, with minimal losses and mostly success; but not without some casualties; among them the war poet, Wilfred Owen.
This image was owned by a Great War veteran I knew, Josh Grover MM. It shows Lock No 1 on the Sambre canal where the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment crossed, supported by Royal Engineers. Two Victoria Crosses were awarded here, one to the commander of Josh’s battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Graham Johnson DSO. His citation reads,
“Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Johnson D.S.O., M.C., South Wales Borderers, attached 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex, for most conspicuous bravery and leadership during the forcing of the Sambre Canal on November 4th, 1918. The 2nd Infantry Brigade, of which 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex formed part, was ordered to cross the lock south of Catellon. The position was strong and before the bridge could be thrown, a steep bank leading up to the lock and a waterway about 100 yards short of the canal had to be crossed. The assaulting platoons and bridging parties Royal Engineers, on their arrival at the waterway were thrown into confusion by a heavy barrage and machine gun fire and heavy casualties were caused. At this moment Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson arrived and realising the situation at once collected men to man the bridges and assist the Royal Engineers and personally led the assault. In spite of his efforts heavy fire again broke up the assaulting and bridging parties. Without any hesitation he again organised the platoons and bridging parties and led them at the lock, this time succeeding in effecting a crossing after which all went well. During all this time Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson was under heavy fire, which, though it nearly decimated the assaulting columns, left him untouched. His conduct was a fine example of great valour, coolness and intrepidity, which, added to his splendid leadership and offensive spirit that he had inspired in his Battalion, were entirely responsible for the successful crossing.”
The Sussex crossed here successfully and Josh, a Lewis Gunner, survived when hit by machine-gun fire from the building shown in this photo; the bullets struck the machine-gun and not him. Josh lived a long life, and regularly returned to the battlefields in the 1980s; a memorial to him exists on the site where this action took place in 1918.
Italy entered the Allied cause in 1915 and for the next two years the fighting took place between Italian troops and units from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the Battle of Caporetto the entire course of the war in Italy changed and it look as if the Italian Army might collapse. British troops were transferred from the Western Front from October 1917 and found themselves in some cases moving from the mud and slime of Passchendaele to an Italian winter, which several veterans I interviewed who fought there thought was much more preferable! The British units found themselves in Northern Italian, principally in the area around Asiago. They would remain here, later joined by both French and American units, until the Austro-Hungarian forces collapsed in October 1918. By this time more than 1,000 British soldiers had died in Italy, with more than 5,000 wounded or sick.
This photograph shows British and Italian troops at a railway siding. The British soldiers are Royal Engineers and may well be from the Railway Operating Division running the railway system that supported the British forces here.
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.
Following the fighting on the Western Front in 1914 the war became stalemate and both sides dug in. The Indian Corps spent that first winter in cold and wet conditions that they struggled to cope with and many men became casualties of the elements as much as of the enemy. Although the Indian Corps took a leading role at Neuve-Chapelle and also the diversion for the Battle of Loos in 1915, another bad winter was feared and so gradually the Indian units were pulled out and moved to Mesopotamia or Palestine. A few cavalry units stayed behind but by 1917 Indians returned in large numbers with the formation of the Indian Labour Corps. By this stage of the war Britain had realised that infrastructure and a large available labour force was a key to victory, and so recruited foreign labour from every corner of the Empire, including India.
This image shows men of the Indian Labour Corps on the battlefield sometime in 1918. Trenches cut in chalk are visible behind the group, probably placing this near Arras or on the Somme. The presence of a bell tent would indicate this is some distance from the fighting, however. The white British soldiers are likely to be the NCOs in charge of the unit, as was common practice with all foreign labour units. The Indian Labour Corps was very active on the Somme front in 1918, their men assisting in the post-war clear up as much as the more famous Chinese Labour Corps.