We end this month’s Winter War series with a photograph from Christmas Day 1914. It shows men of the 11th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (1st Southdowns Battalion) having Christmas Lunch in their wooden hut at Cooden Camp, just outside Bexhill-on-Sea. The lunch was paid for by the man who had raised the Southdowns, the county of Sussex’s equivalent of ‘Pals’ battalions, Lieutenant Colonel Claude Lowther MP. The men are still in their ‘Kitchener’s Blues‘ uniforms; enough khaki not having yet arrived to equip more than handful of recruits.
The 11th would last the longest of all the wartime raised battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment. It’s war would take it finally to France in 1916, and then in almost every major engagement up to the end of the conflict on the Western Front and in late 1918 to Russia where it would stay well into 1919 fighting against the Bolsheviks.
For these Sussex worthies it was the first Christmas of a long war; how many of them in this photo would come home when the battalion was finally disbanded?
The Belgian Army in some ways is often a forgotten force in the Great War. Their men fired some of the earliest shots when the Germans crossed the border during the Schlieffen Plan and by the end of 1914 they were holding the Yser Front from north of Ypres to the Belgian coast at Nieuport; positions largely along the Yser Canal. By 1918 more than 30,000 Belgian soldiers had died in the war.
This image from the winter of 1917 shows two Belgian soldiers equipped for the cold, dressed in their greatcoats. After 1914 much of the Belgian Army equipment was supplied by Britain and the Belgians began to wear a uniform that was a variation of the some of the British designs as all their factories had been overrun by the Germans. But their headgear was always distinctive, as seen here.
This image comes from a small collection relating to the 11th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, the second Pals battalion raised in Hull in 1914 and otherwise known as the Hull Tradesmen’s battalion as it drew many of it’s original recruits from those who worked in various trades across Hull. As part of the 31st Division the battalion had moved from England to Egypt in December 1915, where it occupied defences along the Suez Canal which was then threatened by the Turkish Army. In March 1916 the battalion moved to the Western Front where it spent the next year on the Somme, aside from a short period in Northern France, taking part in the fighting for Serre in November 1916.
This photograph was taken in December 1916 after the first major snowfall on the Somme had melted, flooding the trenches. This particular trench was close to the village of Hébuterne and on the left of the image flexible tubing is visible which was part of a British trench pump system. The problem with alleviating this flooding is evident here. The soldier from the 11th East Yorks has a woollen cap comforter on under his steel helmet, a common practice during the winter months on the Western Front.
Working in the snowy conditions of winter on the Western Front was a hard task for all soldiers. While the work kept you warm, the frozen conditions on the battlefield often made such work near impossible in the first place.
This French image from La Guerre Documentee shows a group of French Poilus working on their trenches in a wooded area with picks; so hard is the ground it seems that shovels are not enough. There has been a heavy snow fall and one man keeps watch over the far parapet, but this is likely to be a reserve position away from direct observation otherwise the soldiers would not risk getting up in the open like that. The soldiers are all wearing their great coats, have gloves and scarves, and the image gives us a good insight into how difficult life was on the Western Front during the winter months.
This contemporary illustration from La Guerre Documentee shows a typical French Poilu in a front line trench in winter garb. The French soldier was issued with a substantial greatcoat worn over his tunic which did offer some protection from the cold, but as this illustration demonstrates they also had to result to make do and he has a pair of woollen gloves and a scarf to help make long periods in the front line during the winter at least bearable. The artist, Guy Arnoux, was a well known French illustrator of the period whose work appeared in many magazines and children’s books
The Argonne Forest lies between the battlefields of the Champagne east of Reims and the ground at Verdun. The fighting here in 1914 established the lines around the forested area of the Argonne, where it would remain for much of the rest of the war. Still a forested area, it contains to this day much evidence of the war with trench lines still visible in many places.
This German image dates from the winter of 1915/16 and shows a well constructed trench in the Argonne Forest, where a lone German officer looks out across the snow. The lack of damage and the fact that he has no problem about popping his head above the parapet would indicate this was a reserve trench line, some distance back from the actual battlefield. Much of these reserve lines in the Argonne were finally taken by American troops in the final battles of the autumn of 1918.
The Yser front north of Ypres is a forgotten sector of the Western Front. It linked the Ypres Salient with the Belgian coast and for most of its length the front lines straddled the Yser Canal; with the Belgian Army dug in on the west bank and the Germans on the opposite bank. Nearly 30,000 Belgian soldiers were killed on this front which remained pretty static for most of the Great War until the final offensives of 1918.
This photograph, from a series of stereocards, shows Belgian troops in a typical trench on the Yser front in early 1917. It is a fairly basic straight trench, not zig-zagged for extra protection, and with a basic duckboard floor. The trench is also more of a breastwork than a trench dug in the ground, as this pretty much reflected the flood conditions that prevailed on this part of the front where digging in on the surface was impossible. High sandbag walls protect the trench occupants, two of whom are seen here in typical Belgian uniforms of the period.
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.
The second part of ‘WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig‘ will be broadcast on Channel 5 tonight at 8pm. This week the programme really goes underground as it looks at the dugouts, tunnels and mining system which was part of the Messines battlefield. These were all in an incredible state of good repair, as the photographs below show.
This image dates from January 1917 and shows a German materials dump in the centre of the village. Behind the Germans in the main square of Messines and the photo shows that even only a few months before the June 1917 Battle of Messines, much of the town was still standing. Looking at the equipment dumped here, one wonders how much of it was unearthed by the archaeologists!
In early 1919 the British forces began the period of demobilisation and millions of men under arms exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes and went home. Before them thousands of men wounded, gassed and made sick by war service had been discharged. While the loss of three quarters of million men from Great Britain created the feeling of a ‘Lost Generation‘ the truth was most of that generation came home. Home to a decade of economic collapse and tough times for those with a family, trying to survive in the depression. Others with wounds struggled on in the aftermath of the war, lungs corrupted by gas and mind and body never quite the same. Even those physically untouched by the trenches still had the mental scars of the war and while they were a tough generation with no counselling the memories of their war lingered and all too often surfaced; one veteran I knew, for example, had been gassed in 1916 and the smell of the gas was like pineapples. He could not stand that smell for the rest of his life; it sent him into a blind panic. From a wealthy family, they lost everything in the Wall Street Crash and he found himself working in Joe Lyons tea shop, opening tins of pineapple chunks. But it kept his family from poverty so he stuck it, like he stuck three years on the Western Front.
We end this series of posts on Remembrance with an image of an unknown soldier. He wears no uniform, just typical clothes of a young man of the 1920s. But on his lapel is a badge which gives us a clue to what he once had been – the Silver War Badge. Issued to all those discharged due to wounds and sickness caused by active service it was worn as a badge of pride among Great War veterans. In some ways men like this are part of a huge anonymous Great War army – those who survived, the forgotten wounded, the majority. A hundred years after the Great War it is easy to remember the dead, and on Remembrance Sunday we should do that – but we should also recall the survivors: men who saw the best and the worst of the war, achieved it’s ultimate now forgotten victory and came home to a life that must have seemed unreal compared to the experience of World War One. The debt we owe that generation is not to see them as victims, but to recognise what they did, what they saw and suffered and how it changed Britain forever. We Will Remember Them… Them All.
When the Great War came to an end it was not just soldiers on the battlefields who celebrated the close of hostilities; hundreds of thousands of families back home could begin to hope that finally their loved one would be coming home.
This image dates from the time of 11th November 1918 and shows a trio of young children, patriotic flags in their hands, rejoicing of the thought that daddy was on his way home. The little one looks pensive, apprehensive – perhaps she knows only daddy by name and can remember little of him in her short life. The survivors and their families like this were told the men of that generation were returning to ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ but the reality was that economic depression and streets with medal wearing veterans selling matches was what really lay ahead. The hope in these faces was betrayed, and the children depicted in images like this were fighting another war just a couple of decades later.
The Armistice came into effect at 11.00am on 11th November 1918 and effectively brought the fighting on the Western Front to a close. In more than four years of war Britain and the Empire had lost more than 750,000 dead in France and Flanders, with many times that wounded and sick. Just after 11am across the old battlefields British units gathered to commemorate the end of the conflict for them; all did it in different ways and some went to great lengths to record the event with a photograph. Here a group of men from the Ordnance Base Depot of the Army Ordnance Corps (AOC) were photographed together on that fateful day.
Others marked the day in a more robust way. Below a veteran of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers remembers 11th November 1918 near Courtrai in Belgium; the interview is taken from a recording made in 1982.
On this special day, his words still resonate.
On a weekend where Remembrance is on many peoples minds, this image for once needs little description; two old soldiers, still serving, visiting a comrade’s grave at Bethune Town Cemetery in 1919.
Lest We Forget.
While the 11th November 1918 was an end to the fighting for Great Britain and became the focal point for remembrance in the post-war world, it marked a day of defeat for Germany. It always seems fitting at this time of year that we should recall Germany’s losses as well as our own; the many Great War veterans I interviewed had much respect for ‘Fritz’ and knew that as front line soldiers, they all shared the same privations and conditions. By the end of the conflict Germany had suffered in excess of two million battlefield related deaths and this image from a German artilleryman’s scrap book gives us just one small insight into those huge losses, showing German graves on the Western Front in late 1917.
The German Army did not play an equivalent of the Last Post at the grave of a fallen comrades; instead they sang Ich Hatt Einen Kameraden. The English translation reads:
I once had a comrade,
you won’t find a better one.
The drum was rolling for battle,
he was marching by my side
in the same pace and stride.
A bullet flew towards us
meant for you or for me?
It did tear him away,
he lies at my feet
like he was a part of me.
He wants to reach his hand to me,
while I’m just reloading my gun.
“Can’t give you my hand for now,
you rest in eternal life
My good comrade!”
The village of Messines was heavily defended by the Germans and the sizeable trench seen in the above image dating from early 1917 shows part of their defence network on the outskirts of the village.
In the next episode of WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig the team explore the underground war at Messines and during the dig Simon Verdegem and his team of archaeologists uncovered a previously unknown German tunnel network. It was quite something accessing tunnels that no-one had been down since 1918. The timber which lined the tunnels was in exceptional condition and it is hoped that some of the tunnel system will be reconstructed in a future Messines museum, due to open in 2014.
The German army occupied Messines at the end of the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914 and remained in possession of the village until the Battle of Messines in June 1917. The village stayed in good condition, but with every building damaged or partially destroyed, until June 1917 when the preliminary bombardment for the attack of the New Zealand Division destroyed everything. This image dates from the Spring of 1917 and shows a German communications centre in Messines, just off the main square.
The archaeology feature in tonight’s programme very much reflects this German occupation; from the artifacts found in the trenches through the uncovering of German dugouts and tunnels; the ‘Last Witness’ of the Great War, the landscape, had much to tell us on this dig and some genuinely new discoveries were made.
This rather unusual image was taken on the steps looking down into the main archway of the Menin Gate and dates from the early 1930s. The Menin Gate had been unveiled in July 1927 and within a year was the focus of Remembrance in the area with the nightly playing of the Last Post – something that continues to this day and was only interrupted by the Second World War. A small group of battlefield pilgrims can be seen looking around at the names; same no doubt veterans, perhaps others with a special name to see? A private, personal pilgrimage frozen in time.
It is often forgotten how many families went to France and Flanders during the inter-war period; by the 1930s Ypres alone was receiving more than a quarter of a million visitors from Britain and the Empire. Most such pilgrimages were subsidised in some way as the cost for the average family was prohibitive, but the desire to make that journey was a strong one.
This image is from a small collection taken during one such pilgrimage in the 1920s. There are no captions on any of the pictures but evidence seems to suggest this is Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, near Poperinghe; at that time it was the largest British cemetery on the Western Front with nearly 10,000 graves; Tyne Cot, today the largest, had as yet not been finished.
And when you focus in on this image, among the sea of wooden crosses, there she is – a women looking back at the photographer. Was she a mother, a sister, a wife, a lover, a friend? The half-seen face with the smart dress, arms at her side almost as if at attention by the grave – what must have crossed her mind, and the thousands and thousands of other women like her who visited the Old Front Line to make some sense of loss, some sense of the cost of that war? Looking at the name on the cross would she have echoed the words of Vera Brittain, following her own visit to her brother’s grave?
“At every turn of every future road I shall want to ask him questions, to recall to him memories, and he will not be there… How trivial my life has been since the War ! I thought, as I smoothed the earth over the fern. ‘How mean they are, these little strivings, these petty ambitions of us who are left, now that all of you are gone! How can the future achieve, through us, the somber majesty of the past?’ ” (Testament Of Youth)
The Great War poets need little introduction here; the work of Graves, Owen and Sassoon among others has come – rightly or wrongly – to symbolise the war. But there are many lesser known poetical voices often highlighting areas not covered in the mainstream work. A fine piece of poetry by two such poets – Bernard Newman and Harold Arpthorp – is just one example.
The Road To La Bassée was written in 1934 following a visit by these two Great War veterans to the battlefields where they were amazed to find the fields they had once known, touched then by the cruel hand of war, had returned to normality – and life continued. It is a poem with hope – that the war had been fought to return the world back to normality and that long may that normality continue – and then the sacrifice had not been in vain.
The image above shows the shattered La Bassée in 1920, looking as it did when the war ended. Few buildings are left standing and the tower seen in the background was a concrete German observation tower built into a former grain tower. By then it was part of the Zone Rouge – the devastated area of France where the fighting had taken place.
Newman and Arpthorp’s work deserves to be better known.
I went across to France again, and walked about the line,
The trenches have been all filled in – the country’s looking fine.
The folks gave me a welcome, and lots to eat and drink,
Saying, ‘Allo, Tommee, back again? ‘Ow do you do? In ze pink?’
And then I walked about again, and mooched about the line;
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine.
But the one thing that amazed me most shocked me, I should say
– There’s buses running now from Bethune to La Bassée!
I sat at Shrapnel Corner and I tried to take it in,
It all seemed much too quiet, I missed the war-time din.
I felt inclined to bob down quick – Jerry sniper in that trench!
A minnie coming over! God, what a hellish stench!
Then I pulled myself together, and walked on to La Folette –
And the cows were calmly grazing on the front line parapet.
And the kids were playing marbles by the old Estaminet –
Fancy kiddies playing marbles on the road to La Bassée!
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine –
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know,
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
But down by Tunnel Trench I saw a sight that made me start,
For there, at Tourbieres crossroads – a gaudy ice-cream cart!
It was hot, and I was dusty, but somehow I couldn’t stay –
Ices didn’t seem quite decent on the road to La Bassée.
Some of the sights seemed more than strange as I kept marching on.
The Somme’s a blooming garden, and there are roses in Peronne.
The sight of dear old Arras almost made me give three cheers;
And there’s kiddies now in Plugstreet, and mamselles in Armentiers.
But nothing that I saw out there so seemed to beat the band
As those buses running smoothly over what was No Man’s Land.
You’d just as soon expect them from the Bank to Mandalay
As to see those buses running from Bethune to La Bassée.
Then I got into a bus myself, and rode for all the way,
Yes, I rode inside a bus from Bethune to La Bassée.
Through Beuvry and through Annequin, and then by Cambrin Tower –
The journey used to take four years, but now it’s half an hour.
Four years to half an hour – the best speedup I’ve met.
Four years? Aye, longer still for some – they haven’t got there yet.
Then up came the conductor chap, ‘Vos billets s’il vous plait.’
Fancy asking for your tickets on the road to La Bassée.
And I wondered what they‘d think of it – those mates of mine who died –
They never got to La Bassée, though God knows how they tried.
I thought back to the moments when their number came around,
And now those buses rattling over sacred, holy ground,
Yes, I wondered what they’d think of it, those mates of mine who died.
Of those buses rattling over the old pave close beside.
‘Carry on! That’s why we died!’ I could almost hear them say,
To keep those buses always running from Bethune to La Bassée!’
As the Germans were pushed back across Northern France in September 1944, they withdrew across the Belgian border but made little attempt to defend most of Belgium. Ypres was liberated by Polish Troops, part of 21st Army Group, on 6th September 1944 and that evening the Last Post was played at the Menin Gate; the great memorial to the missing which had remained silent to the sound of bugles since May 1940. From that evening when a new generation in khaki gathered round the buglers, the Last Post has been played every evening ever since; it recently celebrated the 29,000th playing.
British units from 21st Army Group used Ypres as a base as Operation Market Garden took them into Holland, and this image shows men from a Royal Artillery unit gathering in front of the damaged Menin Gate in September 1944. The Gate had come under fire in May 1940 and been damaged when the road bridge in front had been blown by a Royal Engineers officer. The damage to it, repaired in the 1950s, is visible when the image is enlarged. This iconic symbol of the Great War battlefields was among the last major monuments to be liberated, as the old battlefields returned to the silence of peace that been theirs for the two decades before 1939.
Following the landings on D-Day and the subsequent breakout from Normandy, the British and Commonwealth troops from 21st Army Group found themselves crossing the Somme in early September 1944 and on the battlefields of their fathers’ war. One remarked that they crossed ground in hours that had consumed the previous generation for four years.
This photograph of the Thiepval Memorial was taken by a Royal Engineers officer in September 1944 who arrived in Thiepval and went to look at the memorial in the company of a couple of local French girls who appear in the image. The memorials looks sad and desolate, but undamaged. No flag poles, no flags or wreaths, but it was still there as the Somme beacon it had become following its construction in 1932.
The same officer also went up the nearby Ulster Tower and photographed the Thiepval battlefield from the viewing platform on the top. It gives a rare insight into what the Somme battlefields looked like at this time. Thiepval Wood and Connaught Cemetery are visible to the right, with the memorial on the skyline.
In the years that followed 1940 most of mainland Europe was occupying by German forces. Many of the German soldiers forming part of this occupying force stayed for years. On the battlefields of the old Western Front, German serviceman whose fathers had no doubt been veterans of the Great War often toured sites and with a pocket camera recorded their journeys in the same pilgrims past and present did.
This photograph was taken by a German soldier in 1943 and shows Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near Longueval on the Somme. Many wonder what the cemeteries looked like during the occupation and it is clear from this image that this was a site being well maintained; many Imperial War Graves Commission gardeners had stayed behind in 1940 and were still doing their pre-war work. In some cases local French people were carrying on with the task. The Germans appear to have let the work continue.
This cemetery took on another importance in 1944 when it became the selected rendezvous point for any air crew shot down in the Amiens Prison Raid in 1944.