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.