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 image, which makes you cold just by looking at it, is perhaps more reminiscent of the Eastern Front in WW2, but in fact it was taken in early 1917. It shows a German machine-gun position in a forward trench close to the village of Le Transloy on the Somme front during the winter of 1916/17. This was the coldest winter of the war on the Western Front, when temperatures dropped to minus twenty on the Somme. This area of the battlefields is open and exposed, even in the summer, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to survive during that winter nearly a hundred years ago.
The photograph comes from the photo history of the 26th Division, a Wurttemberg division, who fought in Russia and on the Western Front.
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.
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 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 in 1914 the German Army advanced through the Belgium village of Philippeville en-route to take part in the fighting around Charleroi and later in the Battle of Mons. Five days later the town was the scene of a massacre of more than 130 Belgian civilians, which will be commemorated in a centenary event.
This undated photograph seems to have been taken sometime during this period and shows a column of German soldiers on the march.
The Crimson Field is a new BBC drama which has been received with what can be best described as mixed feelings by Great War enthusiasts on Twitter. It depicts a ‘Field Hospital’ close to the battlefield and while its accuracy may be questionable there is no doubt it will bring many who want to know more to the subject of WW1 medicine.
By way of contrast this image is from a small German collection that may well have belonged to a German nurse or doctor serving in Russia and in France during the Great War. This particular ‘crimson field’ is likely to be in Germany and visible are the nurses, left, and the doctors and orderlies as well as the patients at the window and on the balcony. The image gives an insight into the sophistication of Great War medical arrangements, something very lacking in the current BBC drama.
This image dates from 1915 and shows German troops at their winter billet ‘somewhere in France’ well prepared for their Christmas away from home. The tree is decorated, one soldier plays on the piano and Christmas gifts are laid out on the table. A snapshot of some normality in what for them was no doubt usually far from normal circumstances.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Great War Photos.
While the work on British cemeteries was going on the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge had begun to make German burial sites manageable and more permanent. Today modern visitors to the Western Front are used to mass commemoration at German war cemeteries and few perhaps realise that once every grave was individually marked, often with unique and impressive headstones.
This image of the German graves at Rancourt, on the Somme battlefields, is a typical example; it shows rows and rows of individual crosses each to an individual soldier: today the same cemetery has grey stone crosses, each one commemorating a minimum of four soldiers.
The role and experiences of female nurses in the German medical services during the Great War is something that seems to have slipped in our knowledge of the period. There appears to be very few, if any, memoirs of German nurses, compared to similar ones by British nursing staff. There also does not appear to be any form of official history of German nursing during this period and few mentions of them in German soldier memoirs.
So this photograph is as much a question as an answer. It shows German nurses in a building on the Eastern Front taken over as a hospital and dates from around 1916.
The Argonne Forest lies between the battlefields of the Champagne east of Reims and the ground at Verdun. The fighting here in 1914 established the lines around the forested area of the Argonne, where it would remain for much of the rest of the war. Still a forested area, it contains to this day much evidence of the war with trench lines still visible in many places.
This German image dates from the winter of 1915/16 and shows a well constructed trench in the Argonne Forest, where a lone German officer looks out across the snow. The lack of damage and the fact that he has no problem about popping his head above the parapet would indicate this was a reserve trench line, some distance back from the actual battlefield. Much of these reserve lines in the Argonne were finally taken by American troops in the final battles of the autumn of 1918.
The Winter War post yesterday looked at the uniform and kit worn by British troops during winter periods on the Western Front.
This image, dating from 1915, shows a group of German soldiers dressed in their version of the make-do gear to keep them warm during a winter in the trenches. The sturdy coats are leather with a fur liner, again likely to be sheep or goat fur like the British version but a more complex garment and perhaps a little better? The coats have a fur collar and two of the German soldiers have beards, something British soldiers were not allowed to have, even during the winter. It certainly makes an interesting comparison to the sort of kit available to those on the other side of No Man’s Land.
This German image shows an officer and men from the ’12 Sachsen’ in a snow covered dugout in Northern France during the winter of 1914/15. This unit was in fact the Königlich Sächsisches Feldartillerie-Regiment Nr. 12, part of the German 23rd Division. It had fought in Belgium in 1914 and also in the Battle of the Marne and then had been in action on the Aisne. During the winter of 1914/15 it was north-west of Reims, where this photo was taken. Equipped with 77mm Field Guns, the regiment was based some way from the front line as this type of dugout even in the early period of the war would have been quite a target directly on the battlefield. In 1915 the regiment would go on to fight in the Champagne and later in 1916 on the Somme.
Today is Cambrai Day: the anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 when a force of more than 400 Mark IV Tanks broke the defences of the German Hindenburg Line and finally showed what tanks were capable of. Cambrai turned from a battle of great success to failure, but it heralded a new type of warfare and changed the nature of the battlefield forever.
This photograph was taken after the conclusion of the battle in December 1917 at the railway marshalling yard at Cambrai. When the battle had turned to disaster for the British, a large number of Mark IV Tanks were captured and taken away by the Germans for analysis and eventual incorporation into their own tank force. Many of these tanks were used against the British in the German Offensives of the Spring of 1918, and against the French near Reims.
At the time of Cambrai Britain’s tank force was known as the Tank Corps which later became the Royal Tank Regiment. On this Cambrai Day we recall their unofficial motto, inspired partially by the experience in 1917 and remember Tankies of all nations.
From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond.
While the 11th November 1918 was an end to the fighting for Great Britain and became the focal point for remembrance in the post-war world, it marked a day of defeat for Germany. It always seems fitting at this time of year that we should recall Germany’s losses as well as our own; the many Great War veterans I interviewed had much respect for ‘Fritz’ and knew that as front line soldiers, they all shared the same privations and conditions. By the end of the conflict Germany had suffered in excess of two million battlefield related deaths and this image from a German artilleryman’s scrap book gives us just one small insight into those huge losses, showing German graves on the Western Front in late 1917.
The German Army did not play an equivalent of the Last Post at the grave of a fallen comrades; instead they sang Ich Hatt Einen Kameraden. The English translation reads:
I once had a comrade,
you won’t find a better one.
The drum was rolling for battle,
he was marching by my side
in the same pace and stride.
A bullet flew towards us
meant for you or for me?
It did tear him away,
he lies at my feet
like he was a part of me.
He wants to reach his hand to me,
while I’m just reloading my gun.
“Can’t give you my hand for now,
you rest in eternal life
My good comrade!”
The Eastern Front in the Great War is something few are aware of; the Eastern Front of a generation later in Hitler’s war has eclipsed it and the fact that at any given time more than a million German soldiers faced potentially millions of Russian troops, both deadlocked in the East in the same way there was deadlock in the West. The Eastern Front became a mirror of France and Flanders in some ways; trenches, No Man’s Land, barbed wire, shelling and attrition. Joined by troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire more than 800,000 Germans died in the East along with 1.15 million Austro-Hungarians; opposite them more than 2.2 million Russians died before the Russian Revolution changed everything.
This photograph comes from a collection of a young German gunner who served on the Eastern Front between 1914 and 1917, before he moved to France where he died in 1918. Here two German war horses are pulling a transport wagon used to carry material, food and other equipment for the artillery regiment he served with. In both World Wars horses were the only reliable transport in the often awful conditions on the Eastern Front: extremities of cold and rain which turned the roads and battlefield into a quagmire, and often caused more casualties from the elements than the enemy. Thousands of horses died on the Eastern Front, forgotten animals on a forgotten front.
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.
Photographs of German war cemeteries always fascinate me as they not only dispel the myth that Germany never properly commemorated it’s battlefield fallen but that it gives us an insight into how revered their dead was in the same way we treated our own.
This photograph from 1915 shows a German cemetery just behind their front line in the Champagne sector. There are several villages called Fontaine in this area and it does not appear that a cemetery of this name exists today; it is likely the graves were moved into a larger cemetery post-war.
The quality of Great War images is so great that it is possible to enlarge areas of them to get out aspects that might not at first be so obvious. The enlargement of the section below captures a moving moment in time as a German soldier holds his cap in his hand with head bowed, remembering a friend and comrade who lies in the grave before him.
During the Great War the Germans produced a vast amount of images depicting the conflict; unlike in the British Army, German soldiers were not punished if they had cameras and every German division appears to have had a photography unit that took images which were put onto postcard as souvenirs for the soldiers. In addition, many German units published photo books while the war was still on and these give us a valuable insight into the battlefields as they were at this time.
An example of this is Die Schlacht bei Arras which was published in Munich in 1918. It contains 350 printed images of the German Army in the Arras sector. Some of the photos date from 1916 but many were taken during the 1917 operations. They show the villages in a varying state of destruction, trench life for the Germans, British prisoners, shot down aircraft and numerous other scenes.
The above image shows British prisoners taken during the fighting in May 1917 being marched to the rear. The worst day at Arras was 3rd May when there were huge casualties with many prisoners of war; it is likely these men were captured at this time. The image is taken at one of the villages in the rear area close to Douai, which was the main logistics and supply centre for the German Army at Arras.
This image comes from an album belonging to an officer who served in 218th Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. The pictures are all small, which may indicate a Kodak pocket camera which seem to have been fairly common in the late war period. The officer served with the unit in the final months of fighting on the Western Front and took a number of photos of battlefield areas on the Hindenberg Line.
This image shows a German MG08 on the lip of a sunken lane somewhere near the St Quentin canal area in October 1918. This was the standard heavy machine-gun of the German Army in the Great War capable of firing 400 rounds a minute. An ammunition tin is seen on the far left and next to it nearer the gun is the condenser tin; this was connected to the gun by a leather hose and condensed the steam in the guns water-cooling jacket back into the tin where it could be used to refill the jacket for the next shoot. The positioning of the gun suggests a good field of fire beyond the lane, but it’s less than permanent position is also typical of German defences in the last phase of the war as the Germans were being defeated and thrown back, and could not rely on the sort of entrenchments they had prepared earlier in the war.