Archive for April, 2011
I had a few much-needed days rest with the family at a cottage in Devon last week. We were blessed with beautiful weather and a good time was had by all. Most importantly I came back rested and restored after a busy time over the past few months.
I had wanted to visit Plymouth, my old university city, for some time, not only to see how it looked nowadays but to go to The Hoe and visit the Plymouth Naval War Memorial. I can well remember the memorial from my student days but gave it little thought back then. Twenty years older and perhaps a little wiser I wanted to pay my respects at the name of one man whose story I had looked into – Able Seaman Daniel Collins. Daniel was the younger brother of Thomas Collins, the man Sapper William Hackett refused to leave 40 feet below the fields of Givenchy – an act for which Hackett was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. He was the only tunneller ever to receive the award and he and Thomas Collins lie there still.
Able Seaman Daniel Collins, RNVR was killed on 26 February 1918 on “SS Greavesash”, a merchant steamer which was torpedoed without warning by German submarine UB-74 and sunk off the Normandy coast. Daniel was one of eight crew who were killed that day. Whilst visiting Thomas and Daniel’s nephew, John Abraham back in March 2010 I had been struck by the loss of the two eldest Collins boys in the war and could only imagine the effect that this had on the family.
The memorial is very imposing and is situated centrally on The Hoe overlooking Plymouth Sound. It commemorates 7,251 sailors of the First World War and 15,933 of the Second World War. The panels bearing the rank and names of sailors who were lost at sea are organized by date so I had to walk around the entire memorial from 1914 through to 1918 until I came to Panel 29 which contained the names of officers and men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. The names, as per the various Memorials to the Missing on the Western Front are organised by rank and it was to the bottom right of the panel that I spotted the men who had the rank of Able Seaman; the third name down was “COLLINS D.”
Able Seaman Daniel Collins, RNVR – like your brother Thomas, gone but not forgotten.
I was pleased to receive some photos of Railway Chateau Cemetery near Ypres from my brother, Mark Banning of MGB Tours. This was one of the cemeteries that the CWGC chose to conduct their climate charge trial on. Sadly this meant that for a period of eighteen months the cemetery lost its turf which was replaced with a most unsatisfactotry form of hard standing. It was telling how the difference in ground surface had such an effect on the architects vision of the cemetery – no longer a peaceful English garden but a messy patch of neglected ground. Even the plants seemed to suffer.
I wrote back in February that the cemetery was to be returned to tuft and can now post some images from last week.
Thank goodness this experiment has ended. Whilst I completely understand the need for the CWGC to be at the vanguard of horticulture with regard to climate change, it was pretty clear at the outset that this experiment was not well regarded. The work seemed to have been done in such a slapdash way – quite unlike the usual CGWC gardening and landscaping.
Some other images below including how the cemetery looked during its experiment.
Over the past few days Channel 4 have been showing trails for Thursday’s Time Team Special entitled ‘The Somme’s Secret Weapon’ and I have seen hits on the various articles on my website rocketing. I am heartened by the interest, and having seen the longer two-hour version of the film at a special event on Monday night at the Royal School of Military Engineering at Chatham I am confident that the visual impact of the film will attract plenty more interest. It is surely one of the most intriguing – indeed almost unbelievable – stories of the war. I have noted that many people are searching for the location of the dig site and I thought it appropriate that interested parties should be aware of the birth, the evolution and the structure of the project.
The idea of searching for the flamethrower was first mooted in 2005 when Peter Barton and I were working on our Somme panorama book. The book, now revised and back in the shops, covers the battle in its entirety but includes a lengthy section on the extraordinary story of the use, mis-use and lack of use of a considerable network on shallow tunnels dug under No Man’s Land by Royal Engineer Tunnellers in preparation for the opening of the battle. They were known as Russian Saps.
In certain sectors on 1 July 1916 they were not used to their full potential whilst in the southern part of the British line the tunnels, terminating close to the German front line and integral dugouts, contained a variety of schemes to neutralise the enemy. These included substantial mines to destroy strongpoints, smaller bored charges to blow in dugouts, manholes close to the German trenches for the swift deployment of attacking forces into the line, trench mortar positions and machine gun emplacements emanating from tunnels in the middle of No Man’s Land, and perhaps most amazingly, huge flamethrowers for firing 100-metre jets of burning oil across and along German positions. The idea was to create a complex mixture of surprise and terror that would materially assist the British infantry to cross No Man’s Land and capture the enemy front line in a less molested manner than normal. It was the flame-throwers, however – the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector – that seized the imagination, especially as they have received such scant attention in the mountain of literature associated with the Somme.
The projectors were almost 20 metres long, weighed 2.5 tonnes, and required a 7-man crew. Their placement in a tunnel beneath No Man’s Land was to attain an effective firing pattern some 50 or 60 metres from the German lines, and of course to keep their existence secret until the very moment of firing.
We knew that four had been planned for use on Z-Day. Two were deployed successfully from tunnels just to the west of the Carnoy-Montauban road whilst another was damaged and unused. The machine that really caught our attention was the one that was to have been fired from Sap 14 at a position in the British line between Bois Francais and Mansel Copse on the 7th Division frontage.
The Special Brigade war diary showed that on 28 June the machine had been brought up to the front line along a communication trench called 71st Street by a party of around 250 R.E. and Devons (8th or 9th Battalion) but that heavy shelling of the area meant the parts had to be dropped whilst the men took cover. The most important parts were then picked up by the R.E. and placed in the entrance to Sap 14 for safety. However, this inclined entrance tunnel was then hit by a heavy shell which sealed up the end of the sap for 20 feet, ‘burying vital parts of the flammenwerfer beyond recall’. [Special Sections RE War Diary – ref: WO95/122]
It was this tenuous but enticing line in the war diary that was the catalyst for the project. Peter Barton’s knowledge of how the R.E. worked and the sequence of events subsequent to 1st July, combined with our archival research persuaded him that some of those parts would not have been recovered. His relationship with Canadian television producers Cream Productions was already established as a result of previous documentary work and Cream agreed to take on this ambitious and indeed risky project. Peter then spent weeks travelling between the UK and the Somme for myriad meetings for permissions and logistics – far too much to catalogue here but his workload was prodigious and the entire project would not have been possible without this necessary but unglamorous work. On one of our first recces to the projector site we had a chance encounter with farmer Eric Delporte on whose land the old trenches and sap run through. After some initial scepticism he soon willingly gave use of his field free of charge, refusing any payment for ground rental or for lost crop yield on the basis that he owed it to the young British soldiers lying in the several nearby cemeteries. M. Delporte been the perfect host thereafter – a true gentleman and friend to us all.
To cut a very long story short, by spring 2010 the dates for the dig had been fixed – it would be the final three weeks of May. The project brief was to study Sap 14 and the nearby trenches, enter and survey the saps if possible, and to locate and recover parts of the 1916 Flame Projector if still in situ.
The excavation was officially authorised by the French authorities and was under the archaeological control of Dr Tony Pollard and Dr Iain Banks of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, Glasgow University. We received enormous and invaluable assistance from the Historial de la Grande Guerre, the Préfecture de la Région Picardie, the Conseil Générale de la Somme, M. Stéphane Brunel and the Mairie of Mametz, Mines Rescue, Bactec International and the Corps of Royal Engineers. Most touching was the response of local businesses. As a result of visits by Peter with Francois Bergez (at present the acting Director of the Historial) they sponsored fencing, portakabins, water bowsers, digging machines, portable toilets, etc – all free of charge.
I had carried out extensive archival work in the year before the dig, not only investigating as many files as possible with regard to the production, testing and deployment of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors for the start of the Somme offensive but also the use of Russian Saps along the entire British battle front. Our colleague Simon Jones added further invaluable information to the database. I also looked into the subsequent use of the flame projector in September 1916 at High Wood and in front of Guillemont. The object of this intensive work was to gain a detailed understanding of the use of the machine but also to try and unravel how and why decisions were made on the use of the saps. I compiled a 65-page report including any mention of the potential use of flame projectors and saps from war diaries ranging from Army level down through Corps, Division, Brigade and Battalion and, of course the Tunnelling and Field Companies of the RE. Between Peter and I we spent months getting as well-versed in all matters subterranean as possible. Only by having this level of preparation did we feel prepared to start.
The dig – May 2010
The dig ran throughout May and was attended by hundreds of people – locals and battlefield visitors alike. The team adopted an ‘open house’ policy, and many people came to the site every day to watch our progress. On the second Saturday of the dig we had an official open day which was attended by several hundred people. Detailed presentations were given in French and English and we displayed many of the artefacts we had recovered. The results of the dig were spectacular and after three weeks solid work it was a tremendous feeling of privilege for us all to have worked on such a project and to have developed such close and ongoing links with many of the local people.
Finding out more
This post has been deliberately sparse with information on the dig itself for two reasons. Firstly, the international version of the film will not be aired until the autumn and therefore would not want to pre-empt this programme. Secondly, a huge amount of material will be on display in the forthcoming exhibition entitled ‘Breathing Fire – Le Dragon de la Somme’ to be held at the Historial at Peronne. This exhibition, curated by Peter, will incorporate a great deal of extra information, display the salvaged flamethrower parts, and (most surprising of all, perhaps) include a full-scale replica of the Livens machine. This is at present in the process of being built by metalwork students in Amiens. The exhibition will run from 16 June – 11 December 2011. An academic report on the Mametz dig by Tony Pollard and Iain Banks will be available in the next edition of the Journal of Conflict Archaeology.
How the Royal Engineers were persuaded to build and fire a working full-size modern version the flame projector is another story….but we thank and salute them.
I attended the premiere of the Breathing Fire documentary on last May’s search for the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector at Mametz (Somme) last night at the home of the Royal Engineers – Brompton Barracks in Chatham. Many of the team involved came from all over the country and it was good to meet up again with them and to catch up with the officers, NCOs and sappers who had been such an integral part of the dig.
The Corps had excelled themselves once again and three marquees had been erected to provide appropriate cover from the rather unwelcome showers that greeted us on arrival. These also housed the bar, tables and a good deal of information on the dig site including photographs and biographical details of Captain WH Livens and his various weapons of war. To add an authentic note to proceedings there were several serving soldiers kitted out in Great War period uniforms. The most impressive element was a small scale replica of the flame projector (approximately 12 ft long) which had been constructed in the square. Apparently it had been tested and could fire flame 30ft but this was (perhaps wisely) considered a bit of a risk with so many civilians around and so remained benign all night.
After canapés and bubbly we all made our way (via the red carpet) to the auditorium and after welcoming speeches we sat down to watch the long, international version of the ‘Breathing Fire’ film. A break was provided halfway through with time for ice-cream and then afterwards a curry supper was provided.
As the film highlights the skills of the Royal Engineers – in 1914-18 and nowadays too – it was well received by all. The evening was held in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund and was a resounding success with approximately 250 people attending. My thanks to all of those personnel who were part of the project and yesterday evening – it has been a remarkable experience to have been involved.
A quick update from the remarkable story of the identification of Private Thomas Lawless, 49th Battalion CEF. One of the key pointers in identifying the human remains found at Avion as belonging to Thomas Lawless concerned the portrait facial construction undertaken by renowned sculptor Christian Corbet.
1 April saw the first official public unveiling of the portrait reconstruction to a full house at the local armoury. The event was hosted by a local museum and supported by the 2nd Newfoundland Regiment. The event commenced with several letters from parliamentarians and even one from the family itself.
This was then followed by a short Power Point lecture given by Christian Corbet on his role in the identification process which was well received.
There has been an enormous amount of interest generated by this story and it clearly shows the fascination with and the desire to honour the fallen of the Great War. As an addenda to this blog I have today (12 April) received a link to an excellent blog by sculptor Christian Corbet which details his part in the ID process. Please click on Identifying a WW1 Soldier to read it.
I was chuffed this morning to receive my invitation to the ANZAC Day services at Villers-Bretonneux and Bullecourt on 25 April. Sadly, I am unable to attend this year and have let the relevant authorities know but know that my brother, Mark Banning of MGB Battlefield Tours fame, is attending the service at VB and he always says it is a well run and attended event.
Further details about the event can be found by visiting the ANZAC France Somme official website. http://www.anzac-france.com/
Details on ANZAC Day and its history with interesting comments on the current relevance of the day to a new generation of Australians and New Zealanders can be found on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anzac_Day
Update – 13 April 2011.
A detailed blog on the birth, evolution, research & structure of the Livens Flamethrower project with maps, plans and images can now be read here:
After much delay and waiting I am pleased to finally announce that the Channel 4 Time Team Special on our archaeological dig for the Livens Flame Projector dig at Mametz, Somme is to be aired at 9pm on Thursday 14 April. The working title was ‘Breathing Fire’ but C4 appear to have retitled it ‘The Somme’s Secret Weapon’. Details can be found via this weblink:
It has been edited down to fill a one hour slot (9pm – 10pm) – a mere 48 minutes of actual programme. I have watched the rough cut of the 83 minute version (for History Television and the international audience) and I thought it moved at great pace. It will be interesting to see quite how the editing team have managed to keep the story whilst cutting so much footage.
I am looking forward to seeing the long version of the film at the premiere to be held at the Brompton Barracks, Chatham on the 11th April and will write my thoughts next week after the event.
As ever, television can only give a tiny piece of the information gleaned in the research process. A detailed explanation of the use of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector can be found at the exhibition to be held at the Historial, Peronne from 16 June – 11 December 2011. Details can also be found in the revised 2011 edition of our Somme panorama book.