In the summer of 1914 Britain’s armies were on the move. Not the regular forces but the men of the Territorial Force, Britain’s ‘Saturday Night Soldiers’ who were departing all over the country for their annual summer camp.
This image from a century ago shows men of the the 15th Battalion London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles) at their annual camp on Salisbury Plain. But this camp was not to last. As July moved into August the road to war now looked almost inevitable as the battalion returned to London and most convinced they would be moving to War Stations in only a matter of days; and they would indeed be proved right.
A century ago the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne in the streets of Sarajevo would take Great Britain on path of thirty-seven days to war, leading to the declaration of war against Germany on 4th August 1914. The plan to mobilise a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and take it to France was then implemented, with the first troops arriving as early as the next day, 5th August.
While the diplomacy was in operation, in the countryside of Great Britain a century ago the Territorials were heading off to the annual camps as the summer holiday period approached. Men who met regularly in local drill halls looked forward to the annual camp where all the localised companies came together as one unit. With the faint wisp of war in the air, Britain in the summer of 1914 was already becoming a land where the sight of khaki was commonplace, as with these men of the Royal Sussex Regiment (above) at their annual camp in Arundel in 1914. Few knew that this was just the start of it.
The Musée de la Grande Guerre opened in the French town of Meaux – in the heart of the 1914 Marne battlefields – in late 2011. While this is its second year and has had good visitor numbers, I do not think it has quite reached the radar of English speaking visitors as yet and I myself have only just had a chance to pay the museum a visit.
I must confess that I did approach the visit with some trepidation; modern museums can often have themes which at times seem remote from the core subjects of the Great War and occasionally go for audio-visual over objects. In the case of this superb museum my fears were unfounded as it proved to be one of the best museums I have visited in a long time and now is in my top five WW1 museums in the world!
The visit at the Musée de la Grande Guerre starts with a short film taking you back to the origins of the Great War and the Franco-Prussian War. You then proceed into the pre-war galleries which emerge into a display of soldiers marching to war in 1914 and the main hall. This hall is packed with a Marne Taxi, pigeon loft, WW1 aircraft a FT17 tank, artillery and two large trench displays. Off of it are other rooms which follows themes or the timeframe of the war, equally packed with fascinating objects, imagery and artwork. Two and a half hours here just flew by and it is one of those great museum where I know I shall return each time and see something I missed previously.
The trench displays were particularly effective; a trench ends on a wall where the movement and activity in the trench is cleverly blended with archive film from WW1 – see below.
The museum has a well stocked bookshop at the end, good, clean toilets, safe and plentiful parking, and a nice little cafe which does drinks and light snacks. You cannot take bags inside but there are lockers to leave them in. It has good disabled access for a French museum and the staff are all very friendly.
I cannot recommend the Musée de la Grande Guerre enough and combined with a visit to some Marne battlefield sites close by, this makes the Marne an exciting battlefield to visit.
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.
Today was an exciting day for anyone with an interest in the Great War as the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the plans for the National Commemoration of the centenary period between 2014 and 2018. Unsurprisingly key dates like the outbreak of war, the First Day on the Somme and the Armistice, but plans were also outlined to remember Gallipoli, Jutland and Passchendaele, too. Cameron, who I thought spoke with some passion about the war, made it clear that the plans were a work in progress and actively sought input from interested parties to help shape what the period would become, and that is to be welcomed. The budget of £50 million sounds huge, but £35 million of that is for the revamp of the Imperial War Museum. Yet money will be made available for educating the next generation – funding for school visits to the battlefields was promised – and National Lottery funding would be allocated for local projects and heritage initiatives, which could potentially help save many crumbling memorials.
The Great War was an event that defined this nation and its population, and that of the Commonwealth. That the government is taking a serious and seemingly mature approach to commemorating the centenary of it is to be welcomed by all. No commemoration can ever hope to cover everything, but the funding of local projects should help ensure that some of the lesser known aspects of the conflict are brought into sharp focus.
Great War Photos is doing its bit for the centenary, too. Not only will the posting of previously unseen WW1 images continue here but I’m pleased that the Great War Photos archive will be used as part of a major centenary initiative and no doubt the site will post more about that in the future.
Thirty years ago when I first visited the Western Front, the battlefields were empty and forgotten; the hundreds of veterans I interviewed as a young history student earnestly thought that when they all faded away their war would slip into obscurity and never be remembered. These new plans ensure that 1914-18 will not slip from our conciousness and that the voices of that conflict will still be as vivid and important a hundred years later.