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.
It is that time of year again and thoughts of the Old Front Line during the winter months of the Great War come to mind.
This image is from a German source and shows a well constructed trench in Eastern France, possibly the Vosges during the early period of the war. There are little signs of damage, which would indicate a second or third line position and while there is a man on sentry duty in the background, it is unlikely the enemy is very close. What is always amazing when viewing images like this is the thought that men lived in positions like this on a daily basis come sun, rain, or as in this case – snow.
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While the French Army had demonstrated in the Battles of the Frontier that it fought in an outdated way, resulting in heavy losses, battles like the Marne showed that the French often had an edge in technology and the ability to adapt.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.
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.