I had an excellent few days at the remarkable War & Peace show last week. It’s always a good place to catch up with friends interested in Military History and also pick up some images for the archives from some of the many military stalls at the show.
This was one of my finds last week; a nice photograph of men of the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers operating a steam train on the Somme in March 1918. The caption on the reverse indicates this train was being used to evacuate French civilians feeling from the German advance on the Somme at that time. Civilians running from a German attack is something we more associate with WW2, but it happened many times in WW1 as well, especially in the spring of 1918 as the German Army almost broke through on several parts of the Western Front.
Great War Photos shuts down for the summer now; it’s been an amazing year with more than 70,000 unique visitors since we started in January. Thanks for all your support and see you in the autumn!
The town of Armentières was in Northern France, just short of the Franco-Belgian border. It was reached by British troops in October 1914 and trench lines established east of the town which would hardly move until 1918 – in fact they only moved at the time this German aerial photograph was taken during the Battle of the Lys in April 1918. The Battle of the Lys was one of the final German offensives of the war and launched in Northern France and Flanders on 9th April. Armentières was assaulted with mustard gas and was abandoned, not re-taken until September 1918. By that stage it’s buildings, many of which survive as this photo from Spring 1918 shows, were now in ruins and it became part of the Zone Rouge – the devastated area of France.
Although the scene of heavy fighting, Armentières was much more famous for the Great War song Madamoiselle from Armentières. First recorded in 1915, it was arguably one of the greatest ‘hits’ of the war and a song forever associated with the generation of WW1.
Pozieres British Cemetery was started when a Dressing Station was established close to here in 1917. After the war the site was chosen to make a permanent cemetery and graves from the 1916 fighting for the village were moved in here. The Pozieres Memorial – the walls visible to the rear of the graves – was added later to commemorate those who fell in the March-April 1918 operations and had no known grave.
This image dates from the 1930s and shows the completed cemetery but with some of the original features still in evidence. Of particular interest are the wooden crosses crowded into one area; these are the original grave markers and there was no-one buried under them at this stage; headstones had already replaced them. Families visiting the battlefields at this time could claim original crosses and even apply for them by post.
The larger cross was a memorial to the 1st Australian Division which had been unveiled here on 8th July 1917. The Division had suffered over 7,700 casualties in the Pozieres fighting. The cross was later replaced with a permanent memorial and was taken back to Australia.
This week the site will feature a series of Great War portraits relating to different aspects of the war and different theatres.
This image of Private George Whiting of the 2nd Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was taken in Salonika in 1918. Salonika, Macedonia as it was known – often ‘Muckydonia’ by the troops – is very much a forgotten front of the Great War. British troops served there from 1915 and fought Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops in support of their Serbian allies. The campaign was charactised by periods of intense fighting, static warfare just as on the Western Front, and huge casualties from disease; malaria from mosquitoes being the biggest problem. By 1918 the British Army had suffered 162,517 from disease along and over half a million men in Salonika were treated for non-battle injuries or sickness.
George Whiting wears a typical uniform of the warmer periods spent in Salonika; light-weight Khaki Drill (KD) uniform rather than the thicker woollen Service Dress, although that was worn here during the winter months, and shorts. In his hand is a Solar Topee or Pith Helmet, again part of the warm weather uniform worn by British troops here. On the band, or pugree, round the helmet is the badge of his regiment. Sewn on his lower right sleeve are two Overseas Chevrons indicating George had served in Salonika since 1916.
Today we feature some more photos from the Lauder album, taken by a young women who travelled to the battlefields between Reims and Verdun in 1925.
These images show some knocked out tanks which were then visible close to Fort La Pompelle, just outside Reims. The fort had been on the front line for four years during the Great War but had never fallen. In June 1918 a German attacked was launched on the fort which included a large number of captured British Mark IV tanks (largely taken at Cambrai) being used by the German Army, painted in their own colours and given German names. The wrecks of the tanks knocked out here in June 1918 became tourist attractions post-war and remained here until they were scrapped by the Germans during the occupation of WW2.
The Lauders were some of thousands who visited these wrecks in the 1920s and 30s.
This evening BBC1 will be screening The Bomber Boys about the men of Bomber Command in the Second World War. It is often forgotten that there were bombers operated by the RAF in the Great War, used to bomb targets on or behind the battlefield or much deeper into enemy territory.
When the Great War broke out aircraft were un-armed and used in a reconnaissance role. German Zeppelins brought the first bombs onto targets away from the battlefield, and by 1917 the Germans had developed the Gotha bomber capable of making bombing runs on Britain from bases in Belgium. By 1918 the British used a number of aircraft to bomb Germany, the DH9 being one of the workhorses and used in combat by, for example, 99 Squadron RAF who bombed the city of Saarbrücken in Germany in July 1918.
This image comes from a small collection owned by a veteran of the RAF who flew in 1918 and shows one of his fellow pilots with two 500lb bombs; again the size of bombs used in WW1 is surprising considering the nature of the aircraft. The early pilots and crews of these bomber squadrons paved the way for the next generation of Bomber Boys, many of whom had read the adventures of Great War pilots while at school in the 20s and 30s.
Unicorn Cemetery close to the village of Vendhuile is on the Hindenburg Line battlefields which saw fighting in 1917/18. It gets its name as some original burials were made by the burial officer of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division whose insignia was the head of a Unicorn. It contains the graves of nearly 600 British and Commonwealth casualties of the Great War who fell here in the last two years of the war.
This photograph shows the family of one of these casualties visiting the cemetery in the early 1920s. The cemetery has not been made permanant and a wooden signboard bears the cemetery name and map reference. The plots have already been laid out and a little fence placed round with a gate; at the time this image was taken, the decisions about how to make these cemeteries permanant were in fact still being made.
Who these early battlefield pilgrims were is sadly not noted on the photograph; it would appear perhaps to be a sister on the left and mother on the right – perhaps father took the photograph? Given the cost and difficulty in getting to these places at that time for many families like this it was a once in a lifetime visit; that this photograph was special to those in it is clear from the fact that it remains mint; well hidden and well stored for decades until I found it in a Sussex junk shop in the 1980s.