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.
We return to the Aftermath of the Great War this week with a photograph from the stereocards which contain images taken on the battlefields in 1920.
Peronne was a town which had been a German headquarters until it was abandoned in 1917. It was then used by the British until lost in the German Offensive of March 1918 and then finally liberated by Australian troops in September 1918. Although not raised to the ground like Ypres, none of its buildings escaped damage and it classified as part of the Zone Rouge post-war.
The Chateau in Peronne was actually an old French infantry barracks, which had seen brief fighting between Wellington’s Redcoats and French troops in the aftermath of Waterloo in 1815. The Germans had used it as an Army Headquarters as its walls were so thick; by the end of the war although badly damaged it was the only building which survived partially intact and it remains in the centre of Peronne to this day. For many years the Chateau was abandoned but in 1992 it re-opened as the local war museum, the Historial and it remains in use for that purpose to this day. Parts of the structure seen in this image are still visible in the Historial today.
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.
I recently acquired a small collection of stereo-cards from around 1920 which were images taken by a British photographer who toured the battlefields at this time. They give a fascinating insight into what the battlefields looked like in this aftermath period and some of them will feature on the blog this week.
This image is taken in the main square in the town of Péronne, a small town on the Somme used as a headquarters by the Germans from 1914-17, the British in 1917-18 and retaken by the Germans in March 1918 until captured later that September. The ruined building behind was the town hall used as a headquarters by the Australians after the capture of Péronne in September 1918 and they remained the street in front ‘Roo de Kanga’ – the local mayor officially renamed the street with that name in 1998 on the 80th anniversary of the liberation. Under German occupation before 1917 the town hall once bore a sign in German which read “Nicht argern nur wundern!” (“don’t be angry only marvel!”) and which is now in the Historial museum in the town. The tank is likely to be a MKIV or MKV, both used in the fighting around Peronne in 1918.
The young man in the image is likely to be the photographer’s son as he appears on other photographs that will appear this week.
The Royal Army Medical Corps was formed in 1898 to properly provide medical facilities for soldiers on the battlefields. Many useful lessons had been learnt from the Boer War and the advance in medicine in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods meant that by 1914 the RAMC provided among the best medical facilities of any combattant nation in Europe. As the army expanded the RAMC likewise had to grow too and the most common form of RAMC unit during WW1 was the Field Ambulance. These consisted of 10 officers and 224 men who operated close to the battlefield providing immediate medical treatment for casualties being brought in from the areas where the fighting was taking place. At a Field Ambulance a wounded soldier would be treated, stabilised and assessed and most likely moved on to the next level of medical facility – usually a Casualty Clearing Station – by ambulance; either horse drawn or motorised.
This image was taken on the Somme in late 1916 and shows three Stretcher Bearers of a Field Ambulance operating in the terrible conditions that prevailed during that period. The small haversacks they have are the bags containing their PH Helmet gas masks. The man on the left has a rain cover over his Service Dress cap – indicating how wet it was at the time – and all three have ‘trench waders‘. These were rubberised over trousers come boots which could be worn in flooded trenches. White Somme chalk is liberally plaster over the waders and one wonders what duties in the front line these men have just returned from? Carrying a stretcher was hard at the best of times but over wet ground and through flooded trenches was even harder and the smiles here no doubt bely some tough times during the hardest winter of the war on the British sector of the Western Front.
The use of horses and horse transport by the Chinese Labour Corps is not something widely considered but this image shows two types of such transport in use in 1919. On the left is an Army Service Corps Water Cart and on the right a General Service Wagon. In both cases the driver of the vehicle is from the Army Service Corps but they both have CLC in the cab with them.
One can only speculate on the circumstances of this photograph but it was taken in 1919 and in the rear background is a road sign which points to the village of Roisel. Roisel is on the Somme and was the scene of fighting in August 1918. At the time this image was taken the CLC were being employed in this area to bury the dead and clear the area of unexploded ordnance. It is therefore likely that these War Horses and their masters were being employed in such work and were part of a team roving the Somme battlefields at this time.
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.
The winter months on the Western Front, even for a tough generation like that of the Great War, could be a trying time. Temperatures on the Somme in 1916/17 dropped to below -20 and living in exposed muddy ditches in weather like this often caused more casualties than from enemy fire.
Private William Kelly Saunders is pictured here in France during the winter of 1915/16 wearing a lightweight rubberised waterproof cape to offer some protection against wet weather and some home-made ‘trench gloves’ fashioned from goat or sheep fleece to keep the cold off while working in the front line. Underneath he is wearing the standard uniform of his regiment, the London Scottish. While the fleece gloves may have been warm soldiers soon found they became breeding grounds for lice and often ended up throwing them away.
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.”
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing was unveiled on 1st August 1932; we saw a few weeks ago the Last Post being played as part of the ceremony; here is an image of the assembled crowd who had travelled to the Somme for the inauguration ceremony that day.
Such pilgrimages were not new – visitors had first been seen on the old battlefields in 1919 – and this was not even the first one to the Somme, yet it was the first large scale pilgrimage since the British Legion had organised their own in 1928. But this in many respects was a pilgrimage with a difference; here were not families who had come to see a grave. No wives or mothers or children could walk the rows of headstones to find one with ‘their’ name on. For these were the families of the legions of the missing; men who had ‘no known grave’. What to do with these missing? In previous wars such men had never been commemorated, but as this war had touched almost every family in the land, crossed every class and social barrier, and on some battlefields more than half the dead were missing, it was felt unfair for the loved ones of these men to have nothing to see, nothing to remember but a fading vision. The solution were the huge memorials to the missing, which in many places came to define the battlefields on which they stood.
Future generations would make much of these memorials like Thiepval, and wonder at the long lists of names. But on this day, and in this crowd, all minds were focussed on but a single thought; of that name, that face, that voice which had once been dear to them and was lost. There had always been that feint hope; alive somewhere, lost their memory, perhaps missing no more, but now nearly two decades after the Somme the final reckoning; a name in stone, a final acceptance, and all the grief and heartache that brought.
It is easy to believe that battlefield tourism is a modern phenomena but in terms of the Great War it began as early as 1919 with the publication of the first battlefield guide. Today the huge number of travellers who went to France and Flanders in the 1920s and 30s is forgotten; at one peak it was estimated than more than 300,000 people travelled to the battlefields in one year, for example.
This image comes from a small album owned by a veteran of the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment (Cambridgeshire). The Cambs battalion took heavy casualties at La Boisselle on 1st July 1916 – the First Day of the Battle of the Somme – and fought in many other engagements on the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Hindenburg Line. This veteran returned to the battlefields twice in the 30s and in 1936 went on a special pilgrimage with his old comrades of the 11th Suffolks to attend ceremonies on the Somme for 1st July 1936 – the 20th Anniversary.
Our image of Great War veterans is now of old men, but here they are middle-aged in their 40s. There are some decorated men among them; one has a Military Cross and another a Military Medal. The older man in the middle of the group has campaign medals going back to the Boer War. The white disk they are all wearing has a chequer-board in the middle; the insignia of the 34th Division whose memorial they are standing in front of and with whom the 11th Suffolks served.
It is a poignant reminder that when we visit the Somme, we travel in the footsteps of earlier pilgrims.
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.
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.