This image comes from the same collection I featured when Great War Photos began a month ago; it was taken by an officer of the battalion, Ron Short, who served with the battalion in Belgium, France and Italy 1917-1919.
At a time of year when snow is imminent, this photograph of men of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Regiment, part of 7th Division, doing bayonet practice in the snow of the old Somme battlefields is particularly poignant. While the Somme front had been abandoned and British troops moved forward towards the Hindenburg Line, units out of rest would use the old Somme area and carry out training here, even in the cold and snow of winter. The late winter and early spring of 1917 was especially cold and snow fell well into April.
While bayonets caused less than 1% of the casualties in the Great War, bayonet fighting was something that was very much part of the British Army’s training of the period. One manual stated:
“The officers will take all proper opportunities to inculcate in the mens’ minds a reliance on the bayonet; men of their bodily strength and even a coward may be their match in firing. But the bayonet in the hands of the valiant is irresistible.”
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.
The use of trains in the Great War is a neglected subject; railways were the super-highways of the day used to transport everything from material to men and horses. In the British and Commonwealth forces trains were operated by the Railway Operating Division (ROD) of the Royal Engineers which recruited men who had worked on the railways in civilian life to operate the trains on active service.
Depicted here are trains of the ROD abandoned on the Somme during the March Offensive of 1918. They were photographed by a German soldier at this time just off the Albert-Bapaume road close to the village of Pozières. The British had put in a railway system here as a Casualty Clearing Station had been in operation at this point in 1917 and the wounded had been brought in by ambulance and then moved further back by train. The trains had also brought up artillery ammunition for a number of shell depots that had been established in the area. The barren nature of the Somme battlefields at this time is evident in the background.
This soldier of the Royal Sussex Regiment was photographed in Eastbourne sometime in 1916. He is wearing a style of uniform that became very symbolic of the Great War: Hospital Blues.
A form of hospital uniform had been introduced even before the Boer War but in the early years of the Great War the need to ensure that convalescing soldiers had a uniform they could wear in public became quite important; if they stepped out in civilian clothes there was always the risk they might attract the attention of zealous patriots who went round handing out white feathers to men not in uniform whom they suspected were not doing their ‘bit’ for King and Country.
The Hospital Blues uniform was therefore available for convalescing troops in Britain; some were issued for France, but the emphasis on issue was on the Home Front because of the problems of interaction with the public. It consisted of a white shirt, a bright red woven tie and a blue jacket; all of which can be seen in this image. As is visible here the soldier also wore his Service Dress cap with regimental insignia; where no cap was available, soldiers often wore their regimental badge on their lapel. The uniform was worn with pride as it showed that not only was the man in the armed services, he had served overseas and been wounded.
The fact that this photograph was taken in Eastbourne may also indicate the unknown soldier here may have been a patient in Summerdown Camp; constructed on the high ground above the town, it was one of the largest convalescent hospitals in Sussex during the Great War, and photographs of it will feature in a future posting.
Tonight the long awaited dramatisation of Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong will be broadcast on BBC1. The Great War is very much the focus of the story and in particular the war beneath the Western Front involving the men who served in Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers. As part of the research for the programme the actors visited the current archaeological work being undertaken at La Boisselle.
This rather tatty and crumpled image I found tucked in a book on WW1 tunnelling I rescued from a second-hand bookshop many years ago. Nothing is written on it, but the background is consistent with many photographs I have that I know were taken on the Somme. The men in the photograph are all Royal Engineers, who formed the Tunnellers, and some of them have the look of a hard, tough life on their faces. Who these men were we will probably never know but they look typical of the sort of men that fought that underground, subterranean war under the Somme; older, tougher, and used to hard physical labour. Were these beloved Sappers of a young officer who commanded them? Were they mates who shared that time in Picardy? The photograph, as do so many, offers more questions than it answers.
But whatever, these are the faces of the men of Birdsong, which following on the heels of War Horse, has certainly brought WW1 into the media spotlight and made many pause a thought for that generation of the Great War.
This photograph is from the same gunners photo album that yesterdays came from; the owner was an officer in the 218th Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery on the Hindenburg Line in 1918.
The image of ‘The Major’ who is not named, gives a good insight into the way officers dressed in the last phase of the war. The old ‘cuff-rank tunic‘ with the officer’s rank on the cuff, which had cost some many young officers their lives in 1914 and 1915 had seen a resurgence and the Major is wearing his here. He has a sandbag covered helmet to reduce the shine in bright conditions, and straps indicate a map case on one side. Nearest the camera the Major has the container tin of a French gas mask held in a leather sling, with a first field dressing attached to it. The British gas mask could not fit in this tin, so we can only speculate what might be in it – perhaps a whisky flask?!
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.
Following on from the first of the images from the Kensingtons published yesterday, today we have two images showing the reality of living in the trench system they were shown digging in the previous image. Above is a 1915-style dugout being used by men of the 13th London Regiment whose trenches these were. It shows how basic such constructions were in early 1915. Inside the men have an array of comforts – many ordinary soldiers in this battalion were from well off London families and one wonders how many treats from top London stores are among them! – and they are pretty informally dressed; the man on the right has Wellington boots on and they are all wearing Gor Blimey hats. A bucket with punched out holes serves as a make-shift brazier.
Below is a close up another dugout again showing its flimsy construction, with one wall being a propped up piece of wobbly tin or ‘elephant iron’ as it was known at the time. The Balaclava helmet being worn by the man in the dugout is a good example of another piece of cold-weather gear worn by troops at this time; many of these came from home knitted by mothers, wives or sisters.
This image is the first of a number that will appear on the site this week which are taken from a small collection of photographs taken by a soldier in the 1/13th Battalion London Regiment (Kensingtons). The Kensingtons were a pre-war Territorial Force battalion – Saturday Night Soldiers as they were popularly known – who had crossed to France in November 1914 where they served in the Neuve-Chapelle sector with the 8th Division.
This sector of the Western Front was very flat and dominated on the German side by the Aubers Ridge. The trenches here were a mixture of trenches and breastworks built above ground level, as seen here. Taken in early 1915 the photo shows that the trenches here were still very primitive at this stage and offered little protection from the elements let alone shell fire; both sides were still learning about the realities of static warfare at this stage in the conflict. Given that the men are pretty exposed in this photograph – as well as the photographer himself – it is likely to be a reserve position, away from the front and out of view of the enemy.