Archive for 2010
Not really Great War related but I was very saddened to hear of the death of Brian Hanrahan at the age of 61 from cancer. I always thought him a quality journalist and well remember his reporting of the Falklands conflict. I met him in July 2007 when he led a BBC team that followed Harry Patch on one of his pilgrimages back to Ypres. Brian seemed a really nice guy, genuinely interested in Harry and the visit. You can tell with many journalists that it is ‘just a story’. On that 2007 trip it was clear that Brian certainly realised it was more than a story and acknowledged how lucky he was to have such unfettered access to Harry on his time in and around the Ypres Salient. He was a real gentleman, was never pushy with his requests and was quite happy to just follow us on our usual pilgrimage sites. The footage from his team’s visit is available on YouTube here but, sadly, this is the BBC West version so it doesn’t have Brian’s commentary.
Some photos of him interviewing Harry on the Passchendaele battlefield and then relaxing at John Vandewalle’s wonderful De Dreve café at Polygon Wood. It was during this interview, literally over a beer, that I saw Harry at his most relaxed. This was, in no small part, down to the skill of the interviewer. Great memories for us who were there and very sad to think that both men have now died.
I have been sent some photos of a trip to the Ypres battlefields made in 1984. I was still in the second year of secondary school at this point so didn’t go along – the two intrepid travellers were my father and eldest brother, Mark (http://www.mgbtours.com/). For the both of them this was their first trip to any Great War battlefield. I am glad to say that it was certainly not their last – my father regularly visits both Ypres and the Somme with the rest of the Banning family and also with the wonderful Genesta Battlefield Club. As for Mark, he now spends his time as a full-time battlefield guide (and highly recommended he is too) so it is clear that this 1984 pilgrimage was the first of many visits to the hallowed ground of the Ypres salient.
These pictures, taken in the pre-digital era, have been scanned and tidied up by me. Ignoring the questionable fashions on display they show fascinating details of many oft-visited places around the immortal salient – all without the coaches of visitors that often accompany some of these spots nowadays.
Of particular interest are the shots of the Advanced Dressing Station on the banks of the Ieper-Ijser canal at Essex Farm Cemetery which show the site before its restoration in the 1990s. Modern shots can be seen by visiting this site. Visitors to the area will know of its association with John McCrae, author of ‘In Flanders Fields’.
Also worth noting are the low trees at the Brooding Soldier Memorial at Vancouver Corner. It is amazing how the horticulture and the inexorable work of nature has such an effect on the way a particular spot looks. It was this site that held their main interest as they remembered my grandfather, Private Seymour Henry Banning, 13th Battalion, CEF (Royal Highlanders of Canada) who was gassed and taken POW very close to the spot on or around 22 April 1915 – one of the first men ever to have been gassed in warfare.
Click on the pictures to see them at full size.
Many thanks to my brother Mark Banning for these photos.
Now that I am back at my desk in Bristol I can reflect on a wonderful time spent in Arras from the 11-13 November with my colleague Peter Barton. The main reason for our visit was to do a talk (in French) to the locals and media. This was scheduled for 1830hrs on the 12th, ensuring we had sufficient time to meet up with Rachel Gray, great-niece of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment. Those who have the Arras panorama volume will know his name – we used extracts from his fantastic memoirs extensively, both for the pre-battle build up and 9 April attack and the disastrous 3 May attack between the villages of Monchy-le-Preux and Pelves. Rachel lives in Aylesbury and her local paper, the Bucks Herald covered the story in a piece entitled “Following in the footsteps of a hero”.
I had let Rachel know about our talk some time ago and she had agreed to travel out to Arras with her partner Brian so that we could give her a highly personalised tour of the battlefields – literally, as the newspaper article intimated, following in Percy’s footsteps. After meeting at the Hotel d’Angelterre and having a quick fifteen minutes explanation of the battle we set off along the Arras-Cambrai road to the starting position of the 7th East Surreys on the first day of battle, 9 April 1917. Such is the quality and details of Percy’s writing that we could almost stand on the exact spot where each event happened. This luxury was denied us by the British front line, No Man’s Land and first four lines of German trenches being covered by the industrial units that have grown eastwards along the Roman road. Still, this did not spoil the experience.
We then drove up over Observation Ridge and I pointed out the site of Sergeant Cator’s VC action and the site near Orange Hill where the battalion spent a freezing cold night on 11/12 April 1917. Percy Clare later wrote; ‘Of all the bad nights I spent in France, this one was easily the worst’. We then headed up to the fields between the villages of Monchy-le-Preux and Pelves where, by driving across the farm tracks (thank goodness for Peter’s Range Rover), we followed the disastrous attack of the battalion on 3 May 1917. It was possible to see the ‘dead ground’ which Percy described as sheltering him and his colleagues from German machine gun fire from the direction of Keeling Copse and Bois des Aubepines. We drove up a track to Bois des Aubepines to have a view of the entire battlefield and appreciate the commanding position the Germans held. As we looked back towards the British start positions in the direction of Bayonet Trench we knew that that this benign ground in front of us was the ground in which Percy Clare and his pal, Edward Gunnett had rolled back to safety whilst under continual German machine gun and rifle fire.
After spending some time here we went back into Arras and visited the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery and British Memorial to the Missing. The East Surrey’s panels bore names we recognised – one being Captain Thomas King, commanding ‘A’ Company whose compassion shone through when he had removed his coat, placing it over his sleeping servant in the bitter cold of the 11 April night. Captain King was then killed by a German grenade exploding on his chest in the 3 May attack. Another was Lance Corporal Christmas James Steele, a friend of Percy’s who had been killed when running into the British barrage on the German front line on 9 April and Private George Bean who Percy had discovered in No Man’s Land on 3 May, dead but with no trace of a wound on his body. We then headed back into Arras to drop Rachel and Brian off for a well-deserved lunch.
The Talk at the Wellington Quarry
Peter and I then spent a couple of hours putting up panoramas, aerials and maps on the walls in the Thompson’s Room at the Wellington Quarry – our talk venue. The talk began at 1830hrs and we were delighted with the number who came along on a wet, cold night – over 100 people meant standing room only at the back. Peter’s talk was entitled ‘The Battlefields of Arras – the Past, the Present and the Future’. It started with the Battle of Arras and focussed not on specific actions but more on general tactics as well as an emphasis on the importance of the quality of the battlefield archaeological work undertaken in Artois. I then spoke for about ten minutes (apparently my French was understood!) about Percy Clare and his role in the battle as an illustration of one man’s battle. My aim was to use his story to show the importance that the fields around Arras had for not only his family but thousands of others. Peter then talked about the mass grave excavations at Fromelles and our work near Mametz (Somme) in May this year on the search for remaining pieces of a Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector.
The talk was followed by a book signing and the event judged a great success. We were treated to a lovely meal out in a restaurant in the Petit Place by M. Prestaux, head of the Arras Tourist Board. My thanks to Isabelle Pilarowski and the staff at the Wellington Quarry, Alain Jacques and M. Prestaux. Lovely also to see Philippe Gorczynski there. Overall, it was a real success and an honour to find out that we were the first two English historians to speak in French to a French audience in Arras.
Wellington Quarry website is http://www.carriere-wellington.com/
I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of the new Victoria Cross Gallery at the Royal Engineers Museum on 11 November. The exhibition opened to the public on 12 November but, along with about a hundred others, got a sneak preview. The exhibition celebrates the twenty five Victoria Crosses that the Museum holds as well as giving details for a further thirty RE VCs not in the museum collection. BBC Kent covered this story HERE.
Prior to the opening we were all lucky enough to see the ORIGINAL Victoria Crosses in a display box – I was informed that a cost estimate for the box was about £10 million.
It was terrific to see medals – from some of the earliest medal from the Crimean War, Boer War (Lieutenant Digby Jones who was the first man to be awarded the VC posthumously) through to the Second World War and that of Sergeant Thomas Durrant, awarded posthumously following his actions in the St Nazaire raid of 1942; his bravery was so great his captors insisted he receive a bravery award.
However, it was the Great War VCs that I had really come to see and I was not disappointed. Amongst those on display along with unseen archival material, personal items, and weaponry were the three Royal Engineers whose VC action was on the same day – 4 November 1918 when crossing the Sambre-Oise canal; Sapper Adam Archibald VC, 218 Field Company, Major George de Cardonnel Elmsall Findlay VC, MC & Bar, 409 (Lowland) Field Company and Major Arnold Horace Santo Waters VC, 218 Field Company.
Major James McCudden, Gillingham’s own VC recipient, whose medals are on display alongside those of his two brothers (who sadly both also died in WW1) and his father’s (who died shortly after WW1).
My main interest was to see an addition to the museum’s collection of the story of Sapper William Hackett. I had tracked down descendants of Thomas Collins, the man Willam Hackett refused to leave under the fields of Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée in June 1916. This BBC Wales news item shows the picture of Thomas that hung over his mother’s fireplace until her death. It had been arranged between the family descendants and the RE Museum that this picture would go to the museum – after all, Collins is instrumental to the Hackett’s VC action. I was delighted to see Terry Carroll there, nephew of Thomas Collins, who I had met at the Tunnellers Memorial unveiling in June. He was delighted and understandably moved to see the picture of Uncle Tommy, a picture he knew so well from his childhood, restored, cleaned and hanging in such illustrious company in the RE Museum.
There is a Remembrance book in the Medals room, specifically for people to record their memories of members of their family who have served in the armed forces. The exhibition is now open to all visitors – it is highly recommended. Well done to the museum staff who have done such a fine job with this exhibition. The braveryof the men who earned these awards is, as ever, staggering.
The museum can be found on Prince Arthur Road, Gillingham, Kent, ME4 4UG. Telephone 01634 822839 or website www.remuseum.org.uk
A few lines to discuss the upcoming “The First World War From Above” to be broadcast on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 7th November. I have seen some of the footage they are using – it was shot by the French from an airship which followed the destruction along the length of the western front – and it is absolutely spectacular. The programme promises to be fascinating. I know that both Peter Barton and Nigel Steel feature. I did a bit of research for them for the programme as well as getting maps/plans etc. of the tunnelling and underground systems at La Boisselle. I really am glad after the reduction in budgets over the years to see the BBC putting a big effort into First World War documentaries. BBC link can be found by clicking HERE and a blog on the making of the programme from Mark Radice, the Producer/Director is HERE.
Tonight’s 6 o’clock news contained this news piece with over two minutes of footage from Sunday’s programme: CLICK HERE FOR BBC NEWS PIECE
The past week has been very busy with preparations for the talk in Arras at the Wellington Quarry that Peter Barton and I are doing on 12 November in French to local media & invited guests. Peter is doing 40 minutes and I am doing 5 minutes but he can speak French and mine is very GSCE-level so I thought it a fair trade off!
We are meeting Rachel Gray, great-niece of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment whose hitherto unused memoir was used extensively in the Arras panorama volume. It will be a tremendous opportunity to show Rachel the battlefield where Percy fought in April & May 1917 and I should imagine it will be an emotional day all round. In my experience his memoir is unsurpassed in detail and we will literally be able to ‘walk in his footsteps’. The Bucks Herald are running this story for us as Rachel lives in their readership area. Many thanks to Nicholas Moore for his help with this. Link to be included when it goes online.
I have also been in touch with the Bristol Evening Post who are coming around on Thursday. Whilst on the archaeological dig on the Somme in May looking for parts of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector with Peter Barton & Tony Pollard (Centre for Battlefield Archaeology) we explored some caves under one of the churches in a nearby village. These caves were used as a refuge from German shelling by British soldiers – a safe and dry place to sleep. The walls are literally festooned with graffiti – names of the men who were billeted in these caves. One of the names particularly caught my eye – that of a man from just outside Bristol who had written his name, unit and home village as well as the date – 30 November 1916. I did a bit of research and found that, sadly, he was killed in March 1918. I will post more details on this plus the picture when the story is published.
The period around Armistice Day is always a busy time with the Great War in so many people’s minds through the Poppy Appeal. Coupled with upcoming research at Kew and the preview of the new ‘Valour’ Victoria Cross exhibition at the Royal Engineers Museum on 11 November as well as a battlefield trip this year is no exception. The strangest thing will be not being in Ypres (Ieper) on 11 November – I think I have only missed one year in the last ten.
Whilst at the National Archives last week I met up with Richard van Emden for a coffee and he gave me a copy of his latest book, Tommy’s Ark: Soldiers and Their Animals in the Great War. I had been eagerly waiting for this as I had done a good deal of research for Richard on this book about a year ago and wanted to see how this fitted into the finished product as well as look at the reams of material that Richard had found. I was delighted with what he and Bloomsbury have produced. The jacket cover is in the same style as that used for Richard’s recent books with the same publishers, The Last Fighting Tommy and The Soldier’s War and shows a small dog, Sammy, the mascot of the 1/4th Northumberland Fusiliers who travelled out to France with the battalion in April 1915, served at Ypres (where he was wounded and gassed), was buried by shellfire on a number of occasions and later served on the Somme. Just this description gives some idea of the strange and amazing stories that the book contains.
The publishers blurb desribes it thus:
“This book tells the story of all the creatures, great and small, that inhabited the strip of murdered earth that snaked hundreds of miles from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Alps. In all, 61 species are included here and within a few species, such as birds and butterflies, there are also a number of varieties: for example, 43 kinds of bird are noted. Some species are mentioned once, others on a number of occasions: these include spiders, maggots, canaries, chickens, owls, lions, turkeys, fish, horses, cats, ferrets, wasps and worms. However, just as importantly, this is not a book about wildlife in isolation from man. On the contrary, it is about the human condition in war, explored through the soldiers’ relationship with the natural world around them…”
Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, writes: “If ever you are in doubt about the devastation and universal suffering that war brings to us, and to all creatures, great and small, then read Tommy’s Ark”
I really cannot wait to get stuck into it as soon as my current read is finished. When Richard and I were discussing how the book would work we identified various potential pitfalls to overcome; the main one being to avoid repetition. Having found many thousands of words of quotes myself I know the variation there is regarding these animals. Subsequent conversations and a good look through the book has confirmed my thoughts – there are such a wide range of stories that the reader really won’t be disappointed. My favourites (from the ones I found) are the old lady keeping bees on the lower slopes of Vimy Ridge in 1916 and the officer who tried to smuggle his beloved dog ‘Teddie’ back to Blighty at the end of hostilities. The images are terrific too – monkeys, dogs and kittens in the trenches as well as a collection of exotic mascots including a full grown bear!
I am sure it will sell well, particularly in the UK, as we have such an affinity to animals. Witness recent news items with the reactions to any instances of animal cruelty – I have seen people get more upset over the welfare of animals than people! Even on battlefield visits the wonderfully moving 58th (London) Division Memorial at Chipilly with its depiction of a soldier comforting his wounded horse has reduced some visitors to tears.
A quick word about conducting research for the book. Richard asked me to help him in finding animal stories in letters, memoirs and diaries. When I worked on the IWM panorama books Somme, Passchendaele and Arras with Peter Barton research was relatively easy, albeit time consuming. I visited over twenty different regimental museums around the UK as well as the Liddle Archive and many countless days in the Department of Documents at the IWM. My research was always tailored to a battle so I could use the archive search facility (if they had one!) for e.g. Somme or Arras. I also had a good knowledge of battalions, brigades and divisions which had served in each battle so could focus my reading that way. However, searching for stories involved animals presented many challenges. Only the most obvious stories were included in any précis of a collection – these were secured straight away. Subsequent research was on a more ‘hit and miss’ nature. The IWM holds so much material but, from my time spent there, I knew that certain memoirs were better written than others or that the writer had a particularly inquisitive mind and keen eye. It was these that I began with and, more often than not, I was rewarded with an animal story. On occasions though I recall a hard afternoons speed reading of hundreds of pages of memoir, letters or diaries and nothing to show for it other than a headache and blurry eyes. I shudder to think how many words we read in order for Richard to get the requisite 100,000 words but it was all interesting stuff – the hardest part was not getting waylaid on other interesting stories that one came across.
I am sure that Bloomsbury will soon be pulling out all stops to promote the book so they don’t need any PR from me. However, for those interested further details of the book along with a collection of interviews and ephemera from veterans can be found on Richard’s new website: http://www.richardvanemden.com/
Last weekend saw my colleague Peter Barton speaking to Dorset and South Wiltshire WFA group about his findings in the Red Cross Records in Geneva. Sadly, owing to family commitments I was unable to attend but heard that it went wonderfully well. Following Peter’s talk Victoria Burbidge gave a short presentation on Fromelles and its importance to the British. The new association named the British Memorial Association, Fromelles was then launched. It is hoped that the association, established as a charity, but offering annual membership will:
- create a Fromelles-based research archive (the basis of which already exists) in order to offer a research service;
- work, both independently and in conjunction with other organisations, to educate with regard to the battles fought in and around Fromelles during the Great War;
- ensure that sufficient funding is made available for any Fromelles-based commemorative service and related exhibition which it may arrange; and
- subject to approval being given by the local Commune de Fromelles, fund and inaugurate, somewhere within the vicinity of the old battlefield at Rouges Bancs, Fromelles, a memorial to the men of the British Army, and others, who fought there, during the period of the Great War.
The following information in italics is taken straight from the WFA website.
During the four years of the Great War, British division after division fought in that area of the Western Front which we now know as Fromelles and which forms part of what is now referred to as “The Forgotten Front”.
Prior to the discovery of the mass graves at Pheasant Wood, Fromelles was known only for being the place where the Australian Imperial Force had experienced its first, and disastrous, taste of action on the Western Front.
Whilst Fromelles hosts both the CWGC memorial to the AIF at VC Corner and the Australian Memorial Park, with the exception of a small private memorial to an officer of the Rifle Brigade, no memorial to the British casualties exists in this area. British losses were numbered in their many thousands in and along this line, but the majority of the men killed in action in this area between 1914 and 1918 are commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing in Belgium.
Having attended the inaugural ceremony on 9 May at Fromelles two years ago (and the one last year – see 9 May 2010 ceremony), I am all too aware of not only the knowledge of Victoria Burbidge and her colleagues but their passion for ensuring that British endeavours in the Aubers Ridge area are not completely overshadowed by the deeds of their Australian comrades in July 1916. Losses for the 9 May 1915 Aubers Ridge attack were just as catastrophic as any incurred over a year later on the First Day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. Sadly, their losses have been overshadowed in recent years. By educating people about the magnificent efforts of the British Army in this area of the ‘Forgotten Front’, the Association will endeavour to redress this balance and should be the first port of call for anyone, regardless of nationality, who is interested in Aubers Ridge and Fromelles throughout the Great War. Well done once again to all those involved in this excellent idea.
For further details please contact Victoria Burbidge on firstname.lastname@example.org
Just back from two days on the battlefields of Arras and the Somme – a top class trip. I thought it worth noting that I saw this new sign going up yesterday on the Pozieres-Thiepval road. As you come from Pozieres you will see a huge white barn on the left hand side – it is about 100 yards after the ‘Mouquet Farm 1km to go’ – the new banner is on the side of this barn. If you are coming from Thiepval, well, you won’t miss it…
I was at the Historial yesterday and am always impressed with the place. The Gas! Gas! Gas! Chemical Warfare exhibition is well worth a look and was very well done (it ends on 14 November). Let’s hope that the sign encourages some battlefield visitors to visit Peronne. I understand Thiepval Visitor Centre and the memorial gets about 150,000 visitors per annum and the Historial just over half of that. Those tens of thousands don’t know what they are missing – the museum really is top class and is only a hop and a skip from the British 1916 battle areas.
Click HERE for the Historial’s website.
On way back from family holiday in the Dordogne we stopped the final night at Le Touquet. Being so close to Etaples I couldn’t resist a visit to the huge military cemetery there, the largest in France with 11,479 casualties buried here. This is only marginally smaller than the number buried at Tyne Cot but I would venture it receives a fraction of the number – there were only a couple of other visitors whilst we were there. I have been a number of times before on battlefield trips and have always battled the rain and cold but was blessed with wonderful weather on Saturday. It looks like maintenance work is being carried out on the entrance structure and some areas were being resown with grass seed. It really is well worth a visit and is especially poignant that one can see the sea from the cemetery entrance. For so many men it was a case of so near and yet so far.
In fact, next time I am heading to the Somme I think I will take the A16 this way from Calais – via Wimereux and Etaples and then stopping at Montreuil to see where Sir Douglas Haig had his headquarters and then continue down to Amiens and into the battlefields that way. It is a fascinating route and surprisingly pretty too!
Whilst at Etaples I really wanted to pay my respects at the grave of Lt Colonel William Dawson, DSO & 3 Bars, 6th Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) who is buried in XLV. A.10. Dawson was quite a man – I understand that he refused promotion above the level of battalion command and was entitled to wear seven wound stripes. He is mentioned in Alan Thomas’ wonderful book, ‘A Life Apart’. The one bit of that book that always struck me was when Thomas referred to Dawson’s bravery and reaction to shellfire. Sadly Dawson was hit by shellfire in October and died in December 1918. Truly a brave man.
Alan Thomas wrote:
I never believed in a man bearing ‘a charmed life’. If I had, I should have put Dawson high on the list. So, I think, would most of the battalion. For when you were with Dawson you felt safe. Often I walked by his side along the stickiest of roads and through the unhealthiest of trenches, and because he was with me I did not feel afraid. Had I been alone, I could scarcely have dared to creep along even on all fours. But he would stride ahead, with his pipe in his mouth, as confidently as if he had been walking down Bond Street. (As a matter of fact, he would never have been seen in Bond Street with a pipe on: his ‘West End’ standards would have seen to that.) Did he know what fear was? I often wondered. Then one day, in 1917, I came across him alone. Our lines were being heavily bombarded and I was going along my sector to see if the men were all right. Turning into one of the bays, I ran into Dawson. He was standing in an odd position: instead of leaning with his back to the side of the trench, he was standing facing it, gripping the mud wall with crooked fingers. His expression was drawn, as though he were in pain. On seeing me, he relaxed and tried to laugh. It was the laugh of a nervous, frightened man. I gazed at him, wondering what had happened. For a moment I thought he might have been wounded.
‘Are you hit, sir?’ I asked.
‘Hit?’ He repeated the word as though he did not know what I meant. Then he went on: ‘I suppose it’s never occurred to you that I could be frightened?’ He was looking at me squarely and had got possession of himself again. I said the idea had never occurred to me.
‘Do you think I like these bloody bombardments,’ he went on. I told him that I didn’t think that, either, but that I had never seen him afraid.
‘Well, you have now,’ he observed. ‘It was because I was afraid that I was clinging to this bloody trench.’
‘I don’t blame you,’ I said. ‘I’m frightened myself.’
‘But when I’m with other people,’ he said, ‘I don’t show the fear I feel, that’s all. Nor do you have to, either.’
‘No, sir,’ I said, feeling proud that he should seem to place me in the same category as himself: that is, the category of the really brave who feel afraid but do not show it.
‘But I don’t mind telling you now –’ he added, but evidently thought better of it, for he broke off and with a gruff, ‘Come on’, led the way along the trench in his usual confident way. And, walking behind him, I felt safe.
Well, that was Dawson – or some idea of him, at least.
Copyright: Alan Thomas, A Life Apart, Victor Gollancz, London, 1968.