Today on the centenary of the landings at Gallipoli much focus will be on the Australian and New Zealand troops who landed there in April 1915. One of the forgotten combatants of the campaign French soldiers who served alongside their British and Commonwealth comrades.
Some 80,000 French soldiers fought at Gallipoli as part of the Corps expéditionnaire d’Orient with almost 27,000 casualties. Many of the French troops were from Colonial units drawn from the far corners of the French Empire. This image comes from a French source and depicts a French Zouave in the trenches at Gallipoli in 1915 from the 17e division d’infanterie coloniale who took part in the fighting at Krithia.
Today is the Centenary of the start of the Second Battle of Ypres and a hundred years since the first use of poison gas on the battlefields of the Great War. Poison gas was a weapon outlawed under the Hague Convention but by 1915 the Germans viewed the conflict as a ‘Total War’ and that every weapon was justifiable for victory; there was also belief that the Allies had gas weapons too and it was just a matter of time before they were implemented.
After much preparations and a trial use of the gas, the poison cloud was released at 5pm on 22nd April 1915. More than 170 tons of chlorine gas was released over a 6.5km front, on positions held by French Colonial and Territorial troops. More than 6,000 of them quickly became casualties, having no protection against the gas. Most died within ten minutes as the chlorine gas irritated their lungs causing a ‘drowning’ effect. German assault troops came flooding through the French positions, protected by their own gas masks, and gradually the whole front, including the British lines, began to collapse. In the fighting that followed troops of the Canadian Expeditionary Force played a prominent role in the defence of Ypres; the 1st Canadian Division losing more than 2,000 men killed in action in the first days of the battle.
The photograph above is grainy and unfocussed but shows German soldiers in a captured French trench in the opening phase of the battle. Two dead Poilus are on the trench floor, victims of the gas attack which took place a hundred years ago.
Many thanks to German historian Rob Schäfer for the use of these images.
This extraordinary image shows an early war German position on the Western Front during the winter of 1914/15 – so exactly a hundred years ago. Little damage from shell fire is visible, but on the left in the trees the head of a German soldier peaks out from above his trench and to his right there also appears to be a periscope. This would mean the image would have to have been taken in No Man’s Land, which makes it even more unusual as the enemy would have to have been to the rear of the photographer.
A close inspection of the barbed wire shows it covered with snow; glistening in the winter sunshine. The old world had ended; man had made a new world on the Western Front which grow even more terribly as the next twelve months evolved.
As the depths of winter approach the Western Front turns one hundred; it was created a century ago following the First Battle of Ypres and the fighting in France when the German forces had been stopped. Germany now faced a war on two fronts; facing Allies in the west and the Russians in the East. In response German troops dug in, and those opposite soon did likewise; these were not the first trenches, however. Those had been dug on the Aisne in September 1914 when the Germans haven been defeated on the Marne, pulled back to the Aisne heights. Here small systems of trenches were dug and the first signs of static warfare appeared in images of the period. By December 1914 the system of trenches were no longer posts laid out in isolation. Both sides were joining them up creating whole networks of trenches which by early 1915 would result in 450 miles of continuous trenches running from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Border: and thus the Western Front was born.
The images seen here come from a contemporary photographic history of the German 26th (Reserve) Division and show some of the first trenches they had dug on the Somme front around Thiepval. The trenches were basic, often straight, and gave only rudimentary protection from artillery fire, which at this stage of the conflict was nothing like it would later become of course. The top photograph shows men in the wooded area below Thiepval chateau and the image above shows a strongpoint on the ridge. It is hard to think of the Somme outside the context of 1916 but these images clearly show that the development of the system of defences that would play a role in the battle here eighteen months later would require time to build up, time the Germans would subsequently have in this sector. For now they would doomed to spend the first winter on the Somme in muddy ditches (below) which would soon be filled with snow, while they faced the French troops beyond.
A century ago this week the Battle of the Marne was raging close to Paris as the outcome of the German invasion of French hung in the balance. The ‘miracle of the Marne’ saw an Allied force of British and French troops halt the German Army at the very gates of Paris and it was not only the largest battle of 1914 – with nearly 2.5 million troops involved – but arguably the most decisives of the campaign.
While the French Army had demonstrated in the Battles of the Frontier that it fought in an outdated way, resulting in heavy losses, battles like the Marne showed that the French often had an edge in technology and the ability to adapt. The famous French 75mm field gun seen here was one such example; certainly the best field gun that went to war in 1914 and arguably one of the best of the whole war. It’s rapid rate of fire and accuracy meant that it increasingly gave French gunners an edge on the battlefield, something they would carry through the entire conflict.
A century ago today the Old Contemptibles of the British Expeditionary Force were a week into the Retreat From Mons and it is easy to think there was some sort of pause in the war at this stage, but the fighting went on as the Belgian and French forces continued to face the German advance.
The town of Rethel in the French Ardennes had seen heavy fighting and more than 5100 townsfolk had fled the area. On this day in 1914 the town was set alight with more than 70% of its buildings being destroyed, as seen in this German field postcard. Rebuilt postwar, the town was once again very badly damaged in the Battle of France in 1940.
On this day a hundred years ago France was going to war. The German invasion of France had begun as part of the Schlieffen Plan and France would soon declare war on Germany. Mobilisation notices went up all over France recalling Reservists and Territorials to the Army and within two weeks more than 2.8 million French soldiers had been mobilised into the army.
Also on this day the first clashes between the French and Germans occurred in Eastern France when the 44th Regiment of Infantry encountered German cavalry and Corporal Jules-André Peugeot was killed; the first French Poilu to die in the war.
This photograph dated August 1914 shows men of the 113th Regiment of Infantry preparing for war. From Blois in the Loire, they were action a few weeks later and in their first battle suffered more than 1,200 casualties; typical of the huge French losses of this period.
On this day 99 years ago the Gallipoli landings began at Cape Helles and what would later be described as ANZAC Cove. Across Australia and New Zealand today many families will be remembering, and there will be dawn services in Gallipoli itself and at Villers-Bretonneux in France. Thousands of ANZAC descendants will be there on this, ANZAC Day.
In Britain Gallipoli is not seen as significant compared to how it is viewed down under, and even less remembered in France, although more French troops fought in the campaign than Australians.
Gallipoli will always be personal to me as my paternal grandfather took part in the landings at W Beach – ‘Lancashire Landing‘ – two great uncles were in the campaign, one of them being killed at Krithia, and my maternal grandfather worked on the cemeteries there with the British Army in the 1920s.
While war poetry is not for everyone, this is what I shall be thinking of today, as well as the times I too have slept by that shore and walked those bluffs above the beaches.
The guns were silent, and the silent hills
had bowed their grasses to a gentle breeze
I gazed upon the vales and on the rills,
And whispered, “What of these?’ and “What of these?
These long forgotten dead with sunken graves,
Some crossless, with unwritten memories
Their only mourners are the moaning waves,
Their only minstrels are the singing trees
And thus I mused and sorrowed wistfully
I watched the place where they had scaled the height,
The height whereon they bled so bitterly
Throughout each day and through each blistered night
I sat there long, and listened – all things listened too
I heard the epics of a thousand trees,
A thousand waves I heard; and then I knew
The waves were very old, the trees were wise:
The dead would be remembered evermore-
The valiant dead that gazed upon the skies,
And slept in great battalions by the shore.
The Last to Leave by Leon Gellert
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.
This image was taken in the Vosges area, a region known for its severe weather and deep snow in the winter, and a sector of the Western Front in Eastern France where the fighting revolved around mountainous terrain. Here a group of French Alpine Troops are using skis are ‘on patrol’ although the front here was never really that fluid to allow such patrols to take place in the face of enemy positions and this is likely to be a posed image taken behind the French lines. However, it does give an insight into winter conditions in the Vosges in 1915.
This contemporary illustration from La Guerre Documentee shows a typical French Poilu in a front line trench in winter garb. The French soldier was issued with a substantial greatcoat worn over his tunic which did offer some protection from the cold, but as this illustration demonstrates they also had to result to make do and he has a pair of woollen gloves and a scarf to help make long periods in the front line during the winter at least bearable. The artist, Guy Arnoux, was a well known French illustrator of the period whose work appeared in many magazines and children’s books
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 French Army of the Great War was a huge conscript army which proved capable of more than doubling in size in the first few weeks of the war. As the Germans crossed the borders of Alsace-Lorraine the Battle of the Frontiers began and more and more troops needed to be shipped to the front.
This image from a French source shows soldiers in a railway carriage cheering as they begin their journey to the battlefield. France’s response to war in 1914 was rapid and successful, but costly – more than 300,000 French soldiers would be killed before the year was out in just a few months fighting.
The railway carriage they are sitting in was the standard used by French railways; it bears a famous inscription which would become well known to British troops ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8’; 40 men or 8 horses. It was painted on all these wagons and troops remembered it as a lot more than 40 British soldiers were usually packed inside!
Le Crapouillot – no, this is not a French swear word or a turn of phrase the British Tommy secretly used to describe the French Poilu, but the name given to French Trench Mortar weapons in the Great War. As we saw from the post on Wednesday the French Army was quick to react to the situation of trench warfare and realised that essentially WW1 was a huge siege war – and that in previous siege wars mortars had been used to propel projectiles towards the enemy positions and try and break that siege.
The name Le Crapouillot was one used in the trenches; the mortars were described as ‘little toads’ and a toad is ‘crapaud’ in French. In fact far from being the centre of humour the Crapouillot units of the French army were elite troops with specialist kit. The sort of mortars shown in this illustration from 1915 could fire substantial projectiles hundreds of metres across the battlefield and cave in trenches, dugouts and strong-points. Various examples existed and their role on the battlefield from 1915 was vital giving the French Army a good weapon to counter the German Minenwerfer and other types of trench artillery being used at that time.
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 French Army of 1914 was a truly massive one; the infantry alone numbered 173 separate regiments each made up of 3000-4000 men. It was armed with one of the best field guns in Europe – the 75mm – and it’s soldiers carried a powerful 8mm Lebel rifle. The soldiers – who would quickly become known as the Poilu – were all conscripts who would spend most of their adult life committed to French military service; first as full-time regulars, then reservists and finally as territorials.
While the Poilus weapons were modern, his tactics and uniforms were not. As can be seen in this contemporary image from 1914, showing a French infantry regiment marching to war, the men are wearing uniforms that have changed little since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The men wear bright red, somewhat conspicuous, trousers and blue serge tunics. They advance en-masse with their officer at the front and the flag flying. While this is obviously an illustration the facts reflect the awful truth; that while France was prepared for war in 1914, it was not prepared for the Great War. By the 31st December 1914, just five months of conflict, France had lost more than 300,000 men killed on the battlefield; nearly a fifth of their loss for the entire war. Troops in column easily visible to an enemy with powerful artillery and a large number of machine-guns stood little chance, something the casualty figures reflect.
But as will be seen on Wednesday, despite or perhaps because of these losses, France was one of the first combatant nations to truly adapt to the conditions of trench warfare.
Battlefields of the Great War were often littered with unburied dead killed on patrols in No Man’s Land or in the last attack. The recovery of such bodies was often too dangerous to be attempted or if the body was of an enemy soldier the inclination to do it may not have been there. Such sights therefore became quite standard to the average front line soldier.
The French Camouflage Service used this fact and constructed their own dead soldiers from papermache and other material. This illustration from La Guerre Documentée shows the dummy body of a German soldier having replaced an actual one on the front line wire close to a French trench. The dummy body is hollow to allow a soldier to gain access to it’s interior and observe from within. Obviously a papermache dummy offered little protection from bullets or shell fire so armoured sheeting was often placed inside or the soldier wore trench armour to protect him. There are images in the archives of the Imperial War Museum showing similar dummies constructed by the Royal Engineers, so it is likely to have been a device used by all sides on the cluttered battlefields of the Great War.
Another task of the French Camouflage Service was deception; to trick the enemy into believing that something was happening when it wasn’t or troops were in a specific area when in fact they were in another. One ruse was the so-called ‘Chinese Attack‘ where dummy soldiers would be used with real covering fire to simulate an attack taking place. This would prompt a response from the enemy who would reply often revealing positions that could be spotted and then dealt with by artillery fire, or it might draw enemy troops into a forward position in great number which could also be dispersed with shell-fire.
This illustration from La Guerre Documentée shows one such Chinese Attack taking place. A series of life-time wooden cut-outs of soldiers have been made and painted and been placed in front of a trench, and can be raised and dropped using a pulley system. This example is quite a sophisticated one; some British examples I have come across indicate that sandbags stuffed with straw with a tin helmet pushed on top were used; how effective that was is difficult to say.
The use of camouflage in the Great War is something not widely appreciated or even known about. This week the site will feature a series of images from La Guerre Documentée a little known French publication printed in 50-odd parts in 1919/20. Unusually for contemporary publications it used colour illustrations widely, the majority of which were specially commissioned and have never appeared in any other source.
The image above shows the preparation of a steel observation of a type commonly used in many front line positions. These bunkers would be manufactured behind the lines and then brought up at night and installed in a forward position with a good field of vision. If just put in place without any attempts to disguise them the bunker would be highly conspicuous and likely to be destroyed by artillery fire very quickly. The French Army camouflage service therefore painted on camouflage before they were taken up the line, and often created a covering that would blend in with the battlefield they were going to be placed on. In many cases such devices were never spotted and allowed the user to get clear observation of key points on the battlefield.
This week the #Arras95 project has been commemorating the 95th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, fought in Northern France. But Arras is not the only major battle fought during this week 95 years ago; at the same time General Robert Nivelle was commanding the French Army into action on the Chemin des Dames.
The Chemin des Dames – or ‘Ladies’ Way’ – was a road than ran across an area of high ground north-west of Reims. It had been taken by the Germans in 1914 during the Battle of the Aisne and the offensive was a combined operation with the British attacks at Arras. Nivelle’s objective was to crush the German defences on the Chemin des Dames and destroy their dominance of the battlefield – all within a time frame of 24-48 hours. Sadly from the start things went badly; in the opening of the attack on 16th April 1917 French armoured forces took heavy losses on the right flank losing more than 150 tanks and the bombardment proved ineffective with substantial casualties among the infantry; 40,000 casualties alone in the first day of operations. The battle continued beyond the planned 48 hours into early May as gradually the French forces made some gains on the high ground but at huge cost. The offensive partially led to the mutinies in the French Army and ended Nivelle’s career as a commander.
This aerial image is from a small collection showing the battlefield across the Chemin des Dames around Fort de Malmaison in April 1917. WW1 French aerial images are very large – almost A3 size – and of a very high quality; a huge amount of detail can be picked out on them. Fort de Malmaison was built in 1877 and was in fact abandoned by 1914. Captured by the Germans in 1914 they used it until the battle crept close in 1917 but the Nivelle Offensive failed to reach it and there was only serious fighting here in October 1917. After WW2 the area in front of the fort was chosen for a WW2 German Cemetery but the ruined remains of the fort were fenced off for many years; now a group of volunteers regularly conduct tours of the site.
A larger version of the aerial photo can be viewed here.
Another from the French stereo-cards series, this shows a Poilu in a smashed position on the Western Front using a Chauchat machine-gun in an anti-aircraft role. The strafing of trenches by aircraft was a rare occasion in the Great War and this is no doubt posed. In fact there is very little this soldier could do even if an aircraft appeared as he has failed to load a magazine into the gun!
The Chauchat was a very cheaply made and produced light machine-gun used by the French Army from 1915 and was brought in to give French platoons some automatic fire capability. However the weapon would easily jam if it got muddy and had a poor reputation; made worse when it was issued to American troops in 1917/18. By the end of the war more than 250,000 had been produced.
Today is the 96th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of Verdun. This defining Great War campaign cost France and German more than 700,000 casualties in 1916 and for the French Poilu it became the notorious ‘mincing machine’ as seemingly regiment after regiment was thrown into the fighting here to stem the German advance and make sure that ‘They Shall Not Pass‘.
This image from a wartime set of French stereo-cards shows French soldiers in the quarries near Verdun at the site of a ‘Poste de Secours‘ or Dressing Station. French stretcher-bearers are seen towards the rear in the area where sandbagged dugouts line the quarry. The men at the front do not look wounded but appear to have just been fed, so there could have been a supply point here or field kitchen as well.
Verdun remains the by-word for the Great War in France and today ceremonies will be taking place at various sites on the Verdun Battlefield.
Over the next week I will be publishing a number of images of the ‘French Front‘ on the site. It is often forgotten that the French Army held more than 300 miles of the Western Front and by the close of the war the French had lost more than 1.4 million dead; twice the number of dead suffered by Great Britain for example. These particular images come from a series of contemporary stereo-cards produced in France during the war.
This image shows a French Poilu in a front line position in what looks like the Champagne. Contemporary accounts of the Great War often record trenches in French sectors being full of half-buried dead soldiers, or the sides of them being the fields graves of men who had died defending those very positions. When old trenches were taken over again in the final battles of 1918 the ground fought over had often been a battlefield earlier in the war, the bones of the dead soon revealed the bitter nature of the previous fighting. Here this Poilu stares thoughtfully at the camera while the remains of a former occupant of the trench lie almost casually around him.
Following on from yesterday we again feature some images from the photo album of ‘D.Lauder’ a young British woman who may have worked as a Nurse attached to the French Army who visited the battlefields between Reims and Verdun 1925.
Navarin Farm was a position on the Champagne Battlefields of 1915 which saw heavy fighting in the fighting of September 1915. French troops assaulted and captured the German positions here at great loss and it soon became a household name throughout France.
After the war it was selected as one of the sites to build a French National Ossuary. The ‘pyramid’ memorial to the Armies of the Champagne was unveiled in 1924 and not only contains numerous memorials to those who fought here but underneath are the bones of more than 10,000 men who fell on the Champagne battlefields.
Today part of the desolated ground around the memorial is still preserved but the view in 1925 (below, taken from the Navarin Farm monument) gives an idea what the war had done to battlefields like the Champagne.