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.
I had an excellent few days at the remarkable War & Peace show last week. It’s always a good place to catch up with friends interested in Military History and also pick up some images for the archives from some of the many military stalls at the show.
This was one of my finds last week; a nice photograph of men of the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers operating a steam train on the Somme in March 1918. The caption on the reverse indicates this train was being used to evacuate French civilians feeling from the German advance on the Somme at that time. Civilians running from a German attack is something we more associate with WW2, but it happened many times in WW1 as well, especially in the spring of 1918 as the German Army almost broke through on several parts of the Western Front.
Great War Photos shuts down for the summer now; it’s been an amazing year with more than 70,000 unique visitors since we started in January. Thanks for all your support and see you in the autumn!
With the Somme anniversary taking place last weekend, the Somme theme continues this week with an unusual post on Great War Photos; an image and an audio clip of a Great War veteran talking about the Somme.
The Liverpool Pals were formed in Liverpool in September 1914 as Lord Derby’s own ‘private army’ until they were taken over by the War Office. They recruited widely across the city reflecting it’s varied social nature in a way that no other formation did between 1914 and 1918. The battalions wore their own special badge, seen in this photo of them in training in 1915, which following the Derby family’s coat of arms – officially they were part of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The Pals crossed to France in 1915 and served with the 30th Division in the quiet months on the Somme front before going into action on 1st July 1916 in the attack on Montauban. One of their battalions was on the extreme right flank of the British Army on the Somme and went over linking arms with their French comrades. The battalions achieved all their objectives on the first – some of the few who did – but a few weeks later lost heavily in the fighting for Guillemont. While the number of original Pals dwindled with each passing month, the battalions continued to serve until the end of the war.
One of the original Liverpool Pals was E.G. Williams. A student interested in art and watercolour painting, Williams joined the Pals in 1914 and fought with them on the Somme, later being taken prisoner in 1918. He was one of several hundred Great War veterans I interviewed in the 1980s and this recording dates from that period, here talking about the 1st July 1916. In the clip he refers to a painting, one for more than 20 he did during the war, which he later donated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
By the end of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916 nearly 150,000 British and Commonwealth troops had died in the fighting. Behind such a stark number are a multitude of human stories; the true cost of the Somme, which British families bore in 1916.
This photograph was taken at Hawthorn Ridge No 1 Cemetery, near Beaumont-Hamel, in 1919. It shows the parents and sister of Eric Rupert Heaton by his grave, a simple wooden cross. The photo was taken by his brother, an army chaplain. Eric had died on 1st July 1916 leading his platoon up the slopes of Hawthorn Ridge; his body had not been found until the November placing him among the ‘missing’ and giving the family some faint hope he might have survived.
On this 96th Anniversary of the Somme we should remember the sacrifice and the often forgotten achievements of the British Army in the Great War, but achievements always come at a cost – and this photo gives us a rare glimpse into what that cost really was for some families.
Mametz Wood was a large area of woodland close to the villages of Mametz and Contalmaison reached by British troops within the first week of the Somme offensive. In a weeks worth of fighting it cost the Pals battalions of the 38th (Welsh) Division – “Lloyd George’s Army” – more than 5,000 casualties as they attempted to cross what became known as ‘Death Valley’ and fought their way from tree to tree, pushing the German defenders back. Today a large red dragon looks over the regrown wood, in memory of the sacrifice here in July 1916.
This incredible photo is part of a collection taken by an officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers who became a professional photographer after the war. The image was taken up a tree near Caterpillar Valley just before the first attack and is simply entitled “looking towards Mametz Wood”. It is arguably the only known image taken in combat during the fight for Mametz Wood and the circumstances of taking it are unbelievable to say the least! When we think of the Somme, we think of smashed ground and crater zones; in July 1916 it was full summer and much of the Somme was still untouched, as this photo clearly shows.
The Battle of the Somme fought in the Picardy region of Northern France between 1st July and 18th November 1916 was one of the largest British battles of the Great War and nearly a century later is one of the great symbols of that conflict, right or wrong. The battle cost the British Army more than 450,000 casualties and while historians still argue over whether the Somme was a victory or not, pressure on Verdun was relieved by the Somme offensive, the German line was broken and pushed back some way, and the last of the German ‘field army’ died in the trenches of Picardy; a battle that cost them even more men than the British.
During the ‘Big Push’ every regiment of the British Army and all of the major Commonwealth nations fought on the Somme, among them the men of the Royal Fusiliers pictured here. This image is dated June 1916 and was taken in a back area on the Somme while waiting to move forward. There is every reason to believe that these men are from the battalions of the regiment which attacked Ovillers on 7th July 1916 and suffered heavy losses in doing so, but this cannot be confirmed. They remain annoymous ‘Somme men’ who marched down the dusty lanes of France to an unknown fate and a pyrrhic victory in 1916.
The village of Thiepval was one of the largest on the Somme prior to 1914. Dominated by a chateau, the family who owned it employed a large number of estate workers and owned local farms in the days when agriculture involved large numbers of people. In September 1914 it was captured by the Germans and turned into a bastion in their line of defence on the Somme, sitting on high ground that became known as the Thiepval Ridge. On 1st July 1916 the village was directly attacked by Pals Battalions of the 32nd Division, who were mown down in No Man’s Land by well entrenched German machine-gunners unaffected by the preliminary bombardment. The battle for Thiepval would continue for another two and a half months until it was finally taken by the 18th (Eastern) Division in a brilliant operation using tanks and clearly demonstrating the ‘learning curve’ on the Somme in 1916. Today it is the site of the main memorial to the missing on the Somme.
This aerial photograph is from an original taken before the 1st July and shows the German trench system from Thiepval Wood (on the left of the image) across to the village. The intricate nature of the German defences and their obvious strength and depth are quite apparent from this photo; at least from the benefit of more than ninety years. In 1916 as good as this aerial intelligence was, it was believed that artillery alone could destroy positions like this on the Somme front; something that 1st July 1916 would prove otherwise.
Nearly a century after the Great War it is hard for modern battlefield visitors to imagine what a desolate wasteland the battlefields were immediately after the war. In areas like Flanders and the Somme nothing was left after four years of war; buildings were dust, ground was polluted by gas and the battlefields overgrown with war detritus scattered everywhere.
The journey made by the unknown photographer who took these stereo card images featured over the past couple of weeks was quite something in 1920 and this image shows the sort of landscape he had to deal with. His car has paused on an old battlefield trackway. These paths were created by men of the Labour Corps to allow movement across the devastated zone and were usually made of wood planking or railway sleepers. The sleeps were often covered with hessian material so that those using it had some degree of traction. By 1920 many were still in use as the only ways to cross areas where the fighting had been at its greatest.
The caption for this image reads ‘Mametz Wood‘ – one of the key areas of fighting on the Somme in both 1916 and 1918 and where in July 1916 the 38th (Welsh) Division suffered heavy casualties in their first major battle of the Great War.
Pozieres British Cemetery was started when a Dressing Station was established close to here in 1917. After the war the site was chosen to make a permanent cemetery and graves from the 1916 fighting for the village were moved in here. The Pozieres Memorial – the walls visible to the rear of the graves – was added later to commemorate those who fell in the March-April 1918 operations and had no known grave.
This image dates from the 1930s and shows the completed cemetery but with some of the original features still in evidence. Of particular interest are the wooden crosses crowded into one area; these are the original grave markers and there was no-one buried under them at this stage; headstones had already replaced them. Families visiting the battlefields at this time could claim original crosses and even apply for them by post.
The larger cross was a memorial to the 1st Australian Division which had been unveiled here on 8th July 1917. The Division had suffered over 7,700 casualties in the Pozieres fighting. The cross was later replaced with a permanent memorial and was taken back to Australia.
The small Somme village of Courcelette was captured by the Germans in September 1914 and would remain in their hands until it was liberated by Canadian troops in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, when Tanks were used for the first time, on 15th September 1916. The Germans turned one of the village chateaux into a field hospital, built a substantial cemetery which eventually had more than 2000 burials and utilised the Sugar Factory close to the main Albert-Bapaume road as a strong point.
This image of the Sugar Factory is one of a small collection taken by a Canadian veteran when he toured some of the sites where he had fought in 1919.
Sugar Factories were commonplace in France at the time of the Great War; sugar beet was a major crop and almost every village processed them as part of the sugar trade. Today such factories are rare and the rebuilt Courcelette Sugar Factory has been a garden centre for many years.
One of the most famous musical hall performers of the Great War period was Basil Hallam Radford. Otherwise known as ‘Gilbert The Filbert – The Nut with a K’ or the ‘KNut’. This humour seems very dated now but it was a phrase in common usage by that generation and appears on captions and sign-boards in many WW1 images. The ‘K’ was also often linked to Lord Kitchener during the war and in photos of Kitchener’s Army men they often refer to themselves as ‘KNuts’.
These Somme KNuts are from the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. They arrived on the Somme in July 1916 and took part in the fighting near Pozieres and later at High Wood where they took heavy casualties. While the 2nd was a regular battalion the majority of men in it by 1916 were wartime volunteers, which again here could explain the ‘KNut’ reference.
Many photos like this we taken in villages close to Albert on the Somme; in houses turned into studios or in back-gardens and even in the street. They show soldiers in an ‘Active Service’ look very different to photographs taken in training.
Continuing with the Somme theme, this is a German snap-shot taken by a soldier in the 26th (Reserve) Division showing British soldiers captured on the Somme in July 1916. It is believed the photograph was taken in the village of Miraumont, which appears to have been a processing area for POWs, and that these were men captured between Thiepval, Beaumont-Hamel and Serre. The Scottish Sergeant with his back to the camera seems to be marshalling the men and one man has a shell dressing on his face indicating a battle wound from the recent fighting in which these men were captured. In the early stages of the Somme many soldiers were captured in the German trenches when attacks went wrong, or got cut off in No Man’s Land and were unable to return to their own lines. The 26th (Reserve) Division was a Wurtemburg formation which had been on the Somme front since late 1914.
There is something haunting about the face of this soldier; the image was taken while he was serving in the Loos sector, wearing his uniform slightly stained with gun lubes. This photo was possibly shot in one of the photographic studios at Bethune. It shows Sergeant William George Clive, a 26 year old from Tooting in London. Clive joined the 1/15th Battalion London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles) in 1914 and by the time he went to France in March 1915 he was a Corporal. Before the Somme he was promoted to Sergeant and was killed on 15th September 1916 when his battalion took part in the attack on High Wood, suffering heavy casualties. Originally buried on the battlefield with other members of the unit, his grave was moved to Caterpillar Valley Cemetery after the war.
As I’m off to the Somme to make a documentary with Dan Snow this week, it will be a Somme-themed week on Great War Photos.
This image shows a group of men from a Divisional Signal Company of the Royal Engineers. There was no Royal Signals in WW1 and signalling work was done at battalion level by infantry signallers and for larger formations by the REs. Photographed amid the ruins of a typical Somme building – possibly a church or town hall by the large chalk blocks – these men have all the kit they need to carry out their signalling work. Rolls of cable allowed field telephone to be connected; some men have the tools needed to cut and trim the cable; examples of field telephones in their leather bags can be seen and the man on the front right holds an example of a British phone in his hand. Signallers wore a white and blue armband and although it is not clear on every man in this image, the armband is being worn here.
The men have obviously recently been in action and some trophies of war can be seen amongst their kit; two German Picklehaubes are visible, as is an example of a German Luger. The meaning of the caption on the board – ‘The Cherry Stickers’ – sadly appears to be lost in time.