Today is the Centenary of the start of the Second Battle of Ypres and a hundred years since the first use of poison gas on the battlefields of the Great War. Poison gas was a weapon outlawed under the Hague Convention but by 1915 the Germans viewed the conflict as a ‘Total War’ and that every weapon was justifiable for victory; there was also belief that the Allies had gas weapons too and it was just a matter of time before they were implemented.
After much preparations and a trial use of the gas, the poison cloud was released at 5pm on 22nd April 1915. More than 170 tons of chlorine gas was released over a 6.5km front, on positions held by French Colonial and Territorial troops. More than 6,000 of them quickly became casualties, having no protection against the gas. Most died within ten minutes as the chlorine gas irritated their lungs causing a ‘drowning’ effect. German assault troops came flooding through the French positions, protected by their own gas masks, and gradually the whole front, including the British lines, began to collapse. In the fighting that followed troops of the Canadian Expeditionary Force played a prominent role in the defence of Ypres; the 1st Canadian Division losing more than 2,000 men killed in action in the first days of the battle.
The photograph above is grainy and unfocussed but shows German soldiers in a captured French trench in the opening phase of the battle. Two dead Poilus are on the trench floor, victims of the gas attack which took place a hundred years ago.
Many thanks to German historian Rob Schäfer for the use of these images.
As 2014 comes to an end, it has been a good year for Great War Photos with a huge number of visitors but I am also pleased to have been able to supply photographs for a number of WW1 Centenary projects, exhibitions and publications.
But this is only just the start of the centenary and next year on the site there will be photos relating to Neuve-Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert, Gallipli, Loos and Ypres among many other locations connected with events in 1915.
This Christmas Card was sent by a German soldier from Flanders in December 1914 – a hundred years ago this week.
Meanwhile have a Happy Christmas and wonderful New Year – see you all in 2015.
A century ago today the cities, towns and villages that would fall in the path of war and the destruction of the Western Front went about their business as usual. The 1st August 1914 was a Saturday and no doubt the market seen in Ypres above was its usual busy self. In the fields near Mont St Eloi, on what would become the battlefields of Arras, the crops were getting ready to be harvested.
In Albert the basilica (below), only two years old, would soon be ringing its bells to summon the ‘Ceux de 1914’ – the generation who went to war in France in 1914 – to uniform and the road to the front. Four years later all these places stood in ruins, now part of the ‘Zone Rouge’ – the Red Zone, that long swathe of Europe smashed to oblivion by the Great War.
Ninety-nine years ago today the British government declared war on Germany and for Britain the Great War began. A year from today the Centenary of the Great War starts with a joint reconciliation service of remembrance at Mons with British and German heads of state present.
Many of those with a long-held interest in the Great War view the upcoming Centenary with some trepidation. There is a fear the war will be trivialised into convenient media soundbites, a concern there will be too much focus on the dead of the war and not enough on those who survived, and among many academics disgust that achievements on the battlefield which lead to victory will be forgotten.
All of these are legitimate concerns but it is clear the Centenary is also a time to educate and share knowledge. That is why I set up Great War Photos some eighteen months ago; a platform like a blog is an easy and accessible way for me to share the thousands of largely unseen images I’ve collected to be seen by a wider audience; and all it costs is some time and a few dollars for a web address. That such a project is of interest to others is clear; the site has so far been seen by more than 200,000 unique visitors from all over the world. People have requested to use images for private research, community projects and publications; all of which has been granted as it is precisely what I had hoped for when I set the site up.
I mention all this not to blow my own trumpet but to demonstrate how easy it is to take an active part in the Centenary. Blogs are free; adding images, artwork and sound or video files is easy. Many of those with years of collecting or researching WW1 have some sort of story to tell and surely the Centenary is the time to do that? Others have family stories to add, or names on a local memorial which once researched can be shared with others. All you need is the will and the ability to type.
The Centenary should be a time for collaboration and co-operation, as well as a time to publish books, enhance profiles and churn our programmes. Let us hope more and more take on that challenge.
So what has Great War Photos got planned for 2014? In the lead-up to the Centenary I plan to publish a number of images showing places on what would become the Western Front, showing how they looked on the eve of war; sleepy villages and flourishing communities. From August 2014 onwards I aim to focus on images connected with 1914: the fighting overseas as well as events on the home front.
I am trying to think positively about the Great War Centenary and I hope others will do so as well; it is an important period that should not be wasted by anyone with an interest in the subject.
By the late 1920s the work on making the cemeteries along the old Western Front was in full swing and while a large number of cemeteries had been completed, many had not.
This image from the late 1920s shows White House Cemetery, close to Ypres and in the neighbouring village of St Jan, serves as a typical example. The cemetery wall has been built, the Stone of Remembrance and Cross of Sacrifice are in place, but the graves all have the original wooden crosses. The wide scope and variety of the crosses is evident as is the rural nature of the ground around Ypres, now in total contrast to what it looks like today.
In the years following the end of the Great War the civilian population that had once lived in the towns and villages on the former battlegrounds began to return. In the immediate area around Ypres the villages were uninhabitable for the first couple of years, so people lived in Ypres at night and went to work on their former homes during the day; clearing detritus and rubble in preparation for a rebuild.
This image shows one of the temporary communities for such people. The provisional wooden housing was put in place until permanent residences could be rebuilt, in most cases at least 3-4 years after the war was over.
During the Third Battle of Ypres tanks from the recently formed Tank Corps operated in Flanders, but usually with limited success. The nature of the ground meant that many bogged down and were either damaged or destroyed by artillery fire. Many infantry soldiers referred to them as ‘shell magnets’ on the open battlefields leading up to Passchendaele.
These tank wrecks were still very visible in the 1920s and many became tourist attractions, most notably close to the Menin Road at the so-called ‘Tank Cemetery’.
This particular Mark IV tank was lost ‘near Langemarck‘ according to the caption and appears to be a partner of another Langemarck Tank previously featured on the website. There are no distinguishing marks on this vehicle so it is impossible to speculate when and how it was lost. However, research indicates it may be a tank from B Battalion Tank Corps, who were action here in August 1917.
This unusual image from the early 1920s shows a British party from one of the Graves Registration units involved in clearing the dead from the Great War battlefields.
Few photos of this work survive, and the caption for this says it is at ‘Nieuport’ but that seems unlikely given the nature of the ground and the fact that British soldiers were only there a short period.
A Sergeant sits on the edge of a trench while people work in the background and another civilian helping stands in the remains of a Great War defence work. There are no evidence of any bodies but it does demonstrate to some degree the sort of work that went on under the watchful eyes of an NCO in charge of such a unit. The work continued for some years after the war and many thousands of soldiers were found and reburied, albeit it often as unknown soldiers. What the work must have been like for those carrying it out we can only imagine.
The Aftermath period of the Great War is an intriguing one as we know when the war ended, we know that people came back, we know that communities were rebuilt and cemeteries and memorials constructed. But actually it is probably the least documented period connected with the war and one that many find fascinating, so it is always good to find some images connected with it and this is part of a small collection recently acquired for the Great War Photos archives, and a new image will be appearing every Friday this month.
This image shows the community that the village of Hooge had become after the war. Hooge was just a hamlet on the Menin Road, east of Ypres, but it had become a pivotal site during the Battles of Ypres and had literally been blown off the map by 1918. A large Hooge Cemetery was constructed close to the site of these buildings, most of which are either recovered Nissen huts from army camps near Ypres or the type of provisional housing that was provided in 1919; all that most Belgians had to live in when they came back after the war. In most cases Belgian families lived in these until the 1922/23/24 period when the main rebuilding took place; hard for us to imagine now.
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 ground around Ypres became a battlefield once more in May 1940 as the German Blitzkrieg pushed the British Expeditionary Force back towards the French coast around Dunkirk. Many German units passed through Ypres and these photographs show men from a German Field Artillery unit which had just been in action near Ypres visiting the Menin Gate just after the fighting in 1940. The number of photos of Germans visiting the Menin Gate in 1940 are quite staggering, and there must have been an awareness of not just what it was but what it stood for.
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!
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.
My new television series, WW1 Tunnels of Death: The Big Dig, starts this evening on Channel 5 and today there will some posts connected with the programme and the dig we followed for more than six months in Flanders.
As part of the research for the series I was able to source a number of original images showing the village of Messines during the German occupation before everything was destroyed and also showing some of the trenches. This image was one from a small collection showing the typical trench construction in the front line area of the battlefield west of Messines. This particular trench is Weißergraben and lead to the front line area close to where the New Zealand Memorial is now located. The steel door seen in the trench may well be a kiln door from the brick factory that was on the edge of the village.
The trench design and construction is particularly noteworthy as it pretty much reflected what the archaeologists found during the dig; this style of trench support, trench wall and trench floor were all found. This will all be seen in tonights episode, starting on Channel 5 at 20.00.
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)
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.
Conflict had revolved in and around the Flemish city of Ypres for centuries. During the Great War it was laid-waste by four years of bombardments and this once ‘medieval gem’ was reduced to rubble. Rebuilt using the original plans in the 1920s and 30s, the city had literally risen from the dust. Life had returned to normal and the beauty of the city had been restored, although some buildings like the Cloth Hall had not entirely been finished by 1939.
It is hard for us to imagine what the people of Ypres must have felt therefore when war ravaged the city once more in May 1940. As fighting took place around Ypres between British and German forces, shells landed in the city centre. Buildings were not being particularly targeted but troop movements drew shell-fire, just as they had done in the Great War. And as such shells struck the buildings where those movements were taking place.
This image was taken by a German soldier just after his unit entered Ypres in May 1940. It shows the north side of the main square with the Hotel t’Zweerd on the right and a building that today is a bank. It is typical of some of the punishment meted out to Ypres at this time. Below the same German soldier photographed the exit from Ypres towards Poperinghe, which in WW1 had been ‘Bridge Number 10’. The moat bridge over the Ypres-Comines canal had been blown by British engineers, leaving quite a mess.
Several Great War battlefields were fought over once again in May and June 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg broke in the West and the Nazi war machine overwhelmed country after country ending with the Battle of France. Flanders became a battlefield once more when German troops engaged British units around the city in May 1940, as they pulled back to the coast and Dunkirk.
During WW2 many German soldiers carried their own cameras off to war. Camera ownership was very high in Germany in the 1930s and many German soldiers had grown up with photography. During the conflict they took millions of images, often right on the ground where the fighting was taking place.
This photo shows a crew from a German Pak 36 anti-tank gun set up on the Menin Road in May 1940 at what during the Great War had been called ‘Clapham Junction‘. Beyond the hedge just behind the crew was ‘Stirling Castle’. Just over twenty years before this whole area had been a moonscape, resounding to the sound of shell-fire. Once more guns roared on the Menin Road and one of the German crew had a minute to stop and photograph the 18th (Eastern) Division Memorial that was close to the same junction (below).
As some readers of my work will know I lived on the Somme for a decade. Aside from being surrounded by a wealth of history and battlefields, during that time the Old Front Line was literally on my doorstep as every time I tilled the kitchen garden shrapnel balls and bullets came up. In the village people brought us items unearthed by their ploughs and one day someone turned up with the remains of a Canadian soldier who had been found in the sunken lane behind our house. The archaeology of Great War was very vivid during that time and for six months of this year I found myself reliving some of that as I once again explored beneath the battlefields of the Western Front with my old friend, television producer John Hayes-Fisher.
This time our work brought us to Messines in Flanders, part of the Ypres Salient. Here for four years the front went from a war of movement to static trenches, gas, tanks and mine warfare: Messines was almost a microcosm of the whole Great War. Here we followed a project being undertaken by a group of professional archaeologists from Belgian Ordnance Clearance Company ADeDe. Headed up by Simon Verdegem, a young archaeologists with a passion for the Great War who had previously worked on digs such as the A19 Project, his team planned to work one step ahead of a major development: the placement of a massive water pipe and drainage system around the village of Messines. This would take them across several square kilometres of battlefield, making it the biggest professional dig on the Western Front in many years, perhaps ever.
We spent our six months in Flanders Fields following Simon and his team unearth a whole array of different trench systems: from communication trenches, to fighting trenches to infantry shelters and even concrete bunkers. This included one of the deepest intact trenches ever found in Flanders and along with it an amazing array of personal artefacts. The work was not without its dangers and a team of bomb disposal experts were continually on-hand to remove dangerous ordnance prior to its recovery.
The upcoming series on Channel 5 entitled ‘WW1 Tunnels of Death’ will give people an insight into what this fascinating and unique project has uncovered, and the story is assisted by numerous Great War experts such as Alex Churchill, Professor Peter Doyle, Josh Levine, Major Alexander Turner and David Whithorn. Two other versions have been made for BBC Worldwide and Arte, and there is also a US Version for the PBS Channel. The Channel 5 version will be shown at 20.00 on 8th and 15th November 2012.
It was a fascinating year back on and beneath the Old Front Line; we found ourselves in trenches, dugouts and tunnels, and looking at items that had not seen the light of day for nearly a century. But it wasn’t just about artefacts; during the dig the remains of a Commonwealth soldier was found and he will later be buried in one of the nearby cemeteries. He was one of thousands who lived and died in those trenches and dugouts we explored; voices now silent, and it is only the landscape and what lies beneath which can still bear fresh testimony to the story that was the First World War.
Made rich on the proceeds of the Cloth Trade, the city of Ypres fortified itself in the seventeenth century by engaging the military architect Vauban to build a huge star-shaped defensive wall around the city. The exits from the city were all so-called ‘gates’; gaps in the wall on roads leading to particular towns elsewhere in Flanders.
On the eastern side of Ypres was the Menin Gate, which lead to the town of Menin. Guarded by two lions, symbols of Flanders, by 1914 there was a pub built into the walls here much frequented by the locals. There was no physical gate or barrier, just a bridge across the moat.
In 1914 British troops came to Ypres and marched through the gate and up to the Menin Road to take part in the First Battle of Ypres. It became a main thoroughfare throughout much of the next four years and like the Cloth Hall, for men who served in Flanders it was one of their landmarks.
The Menin Gate’s landmark status continues to this day as post-war it was selected as the site for the Menin Gate Memorial, which originally commemorated nearly 55,000 soldiers who have no known grave. Unveiled in 1927 the memorial became a focus of remembrance as each night from the summer of 1928 the Last Post was played here; and it is still played here today at 8pm each night by the Last Post Association.
The Cloth Hall was, as one guidebook described it, ‘one of the medieval gems of Europe’. Located in the centre of the city of Ypres, as a building it echoed back to the period when Ypres was the centre of the European cloth trade and merchants from all over the continent came here to buy and sell their goods. By 1914 Ypres was a city in decline, located in a quiet backwater.
War came to Flanders in October 1914 when a German cavalry patrol entered the city of Ypres as the advance of the German Army that was making it’s ‘race to the sea‘. Stopped outside of Ypres but Belgian, British and French troops, the city found itself on the frontline for the next four years.
The Cloth Hall was never deliberately targeted but shells struck it during the First Battle of Ypres and in November 1914 it caught fire. As the war moved on gradually more and more of it was reduced to ruins or collapsed, so that by the end of the war this magnificent building was a shell of its former self. A landmark to the troops who served in Flanders, the Cloth Hall became a great symbol both during and after the war of the destructive hand that had swept across the crater zone of the Western Front. Rebuilt in the 1920s and 30s, it was not complete when another war came and the reconstruction was only finished in 1962.
The Indian Army of 1914 marched into battle on the Western Front with a long history of service and representing a wide range of proud Indian regiments, and all the social and religious backgrounds in the India of that period.
This image from a French source shows “Hindoo troops” (a common phrase they use for all Indians) and was part of a series of postcards produced in 1914 as the French were equally as fascinated with the arrival of Indian Army Troops in France, as Britain was in her own homeland.
What it does show is that when the men of the Indian Corps began to assemble in France in 1914, they had come straight from India wearing their thin Khaki Drill uniforms. These were fit for purpose in the hot climates of India but would prove unsuitable for a European autumn and winter, resulting in large numbers of Indian casualties from sickness. Within a few weeks of this photograph being taken these men were in action during the First Battle of Ypres.
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.