Today is the 96th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, the first British offensive against the Hindenburg Line and something of a forgotten battle. It was very much a British and Commonwealth battle, with Canadians attacking to the North at Vimy Ridge, New Zealand tunnellers working beneath Arras and Australians on the flank at Bullecourt. Amongst the British divisions were all three Scottish formations: 9th (Scottish), 15th (Scottish) and 51st (Highland), so like Loos in 1915 it was also something of a ‘Scottish battle’ too. Arras turned into a bloody struggle, despite early success on this day in 1917 but aside from the success of the Canadians at Vimy and the terrible loss of Australians at Bullecourt – often wrongly seen as separate battles by some – it is little remembered and aside from books like my Walking Arras, Jeremy Banning & Peter Barton’s Arras 1917 and Jon Nicholl’s Cheerful Sacrifice it has rarely attracted the attention of Great War historians in print. As we move towards the WW1 centenary, hopefully that will change.
This image comes from a special collection of Canadian images from the fighting at Arras that belonged to a CEF staff officer and shows Canadian troops on the slopes of Hill 145 looking down in the Douai Plain; it certainly emphasises how important a terrain feature was to both sides.
This aerial image dates from 1916 and shows the centre of Ypres around the ruins of the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral as it was at that point in the war – but in this case covered in a thick blanket of snow. The main square is in the centre of the photograph and towards the centre top is the road leading up to the Menin Gate and the Ypres Ramparts. It offers a very different and compelling image of Ypres, only half way through the conflict, but yet already very much in ruins.
The Western Front at its peak was over 450 miles long, stretching from the Belgian coast at Nieuport to the Swiss border near the village of Pfetterhouse. The terrain along that front varied widely from the flat plains of Flanders to the rolling downland of the Somme, through forests like the Argonne and into mountains when it reached the Vosges.
On the Belgian end of the front, at Nieuport, the trench system ran right up to the beach, with that end of the Western Front literally petering out in the sand. For most of the war it was held by the Belgian Army but in 1917 British troops took over the sector in the lead-up to what was eventually an abandoned plan to make seaborne landings further up the coast. However, in July 1917 the Germans went on the offensive here and attacked the forward positions held by British units around the town of Nieuport.
This photograph, from a German source, dates from that period and shows an overrun British trench following the fighting in July 1917. The bunker was in the extreme northern positions on the Western Front and directly overlooked the beach and indeed the sea; both of which are visible in the background on this image. It is probably not how most people think the Western Front came to an end on this Northern end of the battlefield!
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.
As winter officially began this week it is an apt period to be looking at winter on the battlefields of the Great War and all this month the site will feature images relating to the winter period during WW1.
We start with a German image of the Vosges mountains in the snow sometime in 1915. The Vosges was the end of the Western Front, an area of occasionally heavy fighting but largely characterised by long periods of static attritional trench warfare. Being in Eastern France it was also the colder end of the front where during the winter temperatures regularly dropped substantially below zero. While the landscape in the snow might look attractive, and this also appears like a tourist photo, the reality is that men had to live in holes in the ground on battlefields like this during the winter period. The Great War generation was tough but even they struggled to cope in landscapes frozen solid and covered with deep snow.
With recent interest in Birdsong and the fascination with the war underground, there is a tendency to forget that mine warfare was not just restricted to Flanders and the Somme. It took place on many other parts of the Western Front and some of the Great War battlefield’s most impressive mine craters are in the French sector, not where the British Army fought.
This image shows a mine crater in the Champagne battlefields near Reims. The chalk of the Champagne was similar to Picardy, so it proved to be well suited to tunnelling operations, especially as the front here was static for so long. The Germans are wearing Stahlhelms so this image likely dates from 1917 or 1918; perhaps during the German offensive here in 1918 when much of the area was overrun until the final French offensive broke the German defences in the autumn of 1918.
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!
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.
This image of the Menin Gate in 1917 comes from an illustration done by an officer from the 9th (Scottish) Division in the summer of 1917. The division had been on the Western Front since 1915 and lost so heavily at Loos that one of its Brigade was replaced with South African troops. It had taken part in the bitter struggle for Delville Wood on the Somme in 1916 and in early 1917 made one of the longest advances in the opening phases at the Battle of Arras in April.
By the time it came to Ypres in the late summer of 1917 the rain had turned the battlefield into a quagmire, and for the men of the division this was their first encounter with the infamous city. By then the Menin Gate – a gap in the city walls and a main route out of Ypres to the front line – had become legendary and the wartime phrase, no doubt soon familiar to the Scots was ‘will the last man through please close the Menin Gate’.
To the rear are the shattered remains of Ypres and the outline of the Cloth Hall; in ruins after three long years of war.
Le Crapouillot – no, this is not a French swear word or a turn of phrase the British Tommy secretly used to describe the French Poilu, but the name given to French Trench Mortar weapons in the Great War. As we saw from the post on Wednesday the French Army was quick to react to the situation of trench warfare and realised that essentially WW1 was a huge siege war – and that in previous siege wars mortars had been used to propel projectiles towards the enemy positions and try and break that siege.
The name Le Crapouillot was one used in the trenches; the mortars were described as ‘little toads’ and a toad is ‘crapaud’ in French. In fact far from being the centre of humour the Crapouillot units of the French army were elite troops with specialist kit. The sort of mortars shown in this illustration from 1915 could fire substantial projectiles hundreds of metres across the battlefield and cave in trenches, dugouts and strong-points. Various examples existed and their role on the battlefield from 1915 was vital giving the French Army a good weapon to counter the German Minenwerfer and other types of trench artillery being used at that time.
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.
We began this week’s look at French images of the Great War with horror, and we end with horror.
Nearly a century after the Great War, it is hard to imagine what a charnel-house the battlefields were during the conflict. Images that give an insight into the horror are rare. This one from the Verdun battlefields of 1916 was taken in the aptly named ‘Ravin de la Mort’ – the Ravine of Death. The caption states the skull was nick-named ‘The Crown Prince’ – after the Kaiser’s son who had commanded German forces at Verdun that year.
Today the skulls of Verdun are just as visible; under the ossuary at Douaumont are the bones of more than 120,000 soldiers who fell in the battle and could not be identified. The ossuary has purpose built glass windows so visitors can look in and see the piles of bones and skulls all positioned so they look at the inquisitive. It is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever visited.
Another from the French stereo-cards series, this shows a Poilu in a smashed position on the Western Front using a Chauchat machine-gun in an anti-aircraft role. The strafing of trenches by aircraft was a rare occasion in the Great War and this is no doubt posed. In fact there is very little this soldier could do even if an aircraft appeared as he has failed to load a magazine into the gun!
The Chauchat was a very cheaply made and produced light machine-gun used by the French Army from 1915 and was brought in to give French platoons some automatic fire capability. However the weapon would easily jam if it got muddy and had a poor reputation; made worse when it was issued to American troops in 1917/18. By the end of the war more than 250,000 had been produced.
This image came from a small collection taken by a soldier of the Army Service Corps in France in 1915 with a Kodak pocket camera. Most of the photographs show the vehicles in his unit but this one is captioned ‘Highland troops’. As such they are likely to be from a unit in the 51st (Highland) Division.
The men featured in the photograph are wearing the leather 1914 Pattern equipment; with the huge influx of volunteers in 1914 the army could not equip every soldier with the standard 1908 Pattern webbing so a leather set was produced instead; many units wore it in France well into the end of 1916; it was not popular with the troops as it did not balance the load well and gave soldier’s back-ache. I can remember many veterans I interviewed in the 1980s saying they would ditch it at the first opportunity for webbing.
The men in the photo also appear to be going into action as cotton bandoliers of .303 ammunition can be seen; normally only carried to the front line at the time of an impending attack. The 51st (Highland) Division took part in several major engagements on the Western Front in 1915, most notably at Festubert and Givenchy, before they moved down to the Somme in the summer of 1915 and took over the sector at La Boisselle from the French Army.
We saw the other day some men of the London Scottish on the steps of their regimental headquarters in Westminster. They were about to depart for Flanders and by the Spring of the following year a high percentage of the London Scottish ‘originals’ had either been killed or wounded at Ypres, or had been commissioned as officers. Back in England first a second battalion and then a third had been formed and gradually they began to send out replacements. By now the London Scottish were attached to a regular division – 1st Division – and had moved to positions around the La Bassee canal in Northern France.
When this photograph of a platoon of the London Scottish was taken in August 1915 the battalion was now getting ready to take over positions on what would become the Loos battlefield and a few weeks after these men were filmed in the summer sunshine of a back area near Bethune, they would go Over The Top in the Battle of Loos, suffering heavy casualties around The Lone Tree. The men are all wearing their Tam O’Shanters and equipped with the Short Magazine Lee Enfield; the previous year many men in this unit had experienced problems with the older ‘Long’ Lee Enfield at Messines when rounds had jammed in the breach. They look a tough bunch and nearly a year after their famous action at Messines were a well known and respected regiment.
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.