Archive for 2012


It has been another busy year on the battlefields. The year started with the BBC’s broadcast of Sebastian Faulks’ WW1 novel, Birdsong which acted as a catalyst for generating people’s interest in tunnelling and underground warfare. Back in June 2011, prior to filming we had taken actors, Eddie Redmayne and Joseph Mawle underground at La Boisselle to show them the real environment of a WW1 tunneller. Most of the year has been spent in organising and running our current archaeological project at La Boisselle. In total we worked five weeks on site, ranging from a few days in March to an entire fortnight of work in May and October.  Details of the work can be found on http://www.laboisselleproject.com/ and our BBC Four documentary will be broadcast sometime in January.  A personal highlight was our time filming underground in October. Descending a 50ft shaft down to the labyrinthine galleries at the 80ft level and exploring 700ft of tunnels, the first people to do so in over 96 years, was an incredible privilege and one which I will certainly never forget.

We opened the site from 30 June – 2 July, welcoming over a thousand visitors who were on the Somme for the 1 July commemorations. In the past I had always kept away from the Somme for this period and so had not experienced the crowds but found it hugely satisfying to see the public reaction.  Best of all was the opportunity to fly over the battlefield in a friend’s helicopter which was infinitely safer than the microlight I had been up in during May’s dig!

July's helicopter flight gave the opportunity to see the battlefield from an entirely different perspective - here is Caterpillar Valley Cemetery looking east to Longueval and Guillemont

I have spoken to many groups about La Boisselle this year; at schools, various WFA branches, Great War societies, private dinners and at Eastbourne Redoubt (as part of their Great War lecture series). Most recently, it was a thrill to speak in the Officer’s Mess at Sandhurst to ninety guests who had joined us for a fundraising dinner.  However, my hardest lecture to give was in Arras in April, almost ninety five years to the day that battle had commenced, when I spoke about the April- May 1917 offensive for an hour….in French.

As a result of these other commitments I spent little time on the rest of the battlefields, taking only a few guided tours – trips to Arras and the Somme in the spring and autumn were a particular highlight.  In October I spoke on BBC News and the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 on the Government’s First World War Centenary plans for 2014-18. Over £50m has been allocated to commemorate the centenary but as much of this is designated for the IWM’s revised WW1 Gallery, financially it really is a drop in the ocean. It will be interesting to see the effect of this governmental effort on battlefield visitors and a greater understanding of the war, both at home and abroad.

My work with schools continues to grow and the autumn saw me providing talks and workshops for a number of classes. I am now part of Bristol’s ‘Heritage Schools’ programme provided by English Heritage and have a number of workshops already booked for the coming year.

Filming with Hugh Dennis at Neuville Vitasse Road Cemetery for ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

In January I spent three days filming with actor and comedian Hugh Dennis for the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, following Hugh’s grandfather from Arras up to Ypres and Wytschaete. The resulting episode was broadcast in September. The following month I worked with Yellow Duck Productions on their BBC Wales’ ‘Coming Home’ programme with actor Robert Glenister, explaining his relative’s service in the AIF and part in the disastrous attack at Fromelles in July 1916. I was also interviewed for a programme on gas and flamethrowers for History Channel USA to be broadcast in 2014.

The coming year is already looking busy with a number of bespoke battlefield trips booked, plenty of research projects agreed for clients, and research work beginning on a new BBC television commission.  I am also planning on spending time over the winter months on recces and battlefield walking and, as ever, will post images and updates on my Twitter account. Please check out 2012’s blog entries for more information on some of the events mentioned.

Serre Road Cemetery No.2 in autumnal sunshine from October's battlefield trip with writers

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In October I was approached by Yellow Duck Productions to help with an episode of their BBC Wales series ‘Coming Home’.  I was to conduct research into the wartime service of William Fry, a miner from Penclawdd in the north of the Gower Peninsula outside Swansea. William Fry was a relative of Spooks and Hustle actor Robert Glenister.

Talking through William Fry's wartime service with Robert Glenister in St Gwynour's Church, Penclawdd

William Fry left Wales in 1914, en route to a new life in Australia. At sea when war was declared, he arrived in Sydney in late August 1914. By the end of July 1915 William had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and sailed from Sydney on 8 October 1915 bound for Egypt. Whilst at Tel el-Kebir in February 1916 he transferred to the 53rd Battalion, a strange mix of Gallipoli veterans from the 1st Battalion and new, inexperienced reinforcements from Australia. The battalion, along with the 54th, 55th and 56th formed the 14th Infantry Brigade, part of the Fifth Australian Division.

The battalion arrived in Marseille at the end of June and after a journey north through France entered front line trenches opposite Fromelles on 10 July. It was customary practice to provide new units with time to ‘bed in’ in a quiet, nursery sector in order to get used to the routines and peculiarities of trench life. No such luxury was afforded William’s 53rd Battalion as, within a week, they were selected to be at the vanguard of a strong attack against German trenches at Fromelles. After a day’s rest in billets the 53rd Battalion were back in the front line on 17 July.

Map showing frontage for the Fromelles attack. The position of William Fry’s 53rd Battalion AIF is circled.

The plan required an initial softening of German defences by artillery bombardment and the attacking infantry to advance at 1800hrs in broad daylight, capturing and seizing two lines of trenches. At 1743hrs the first wave moved out into No Man’s Land, followed 100 yards later by the next wave. At Zero Hour (1800hrs) the Battalion charged and  captured the first two lines of trenches as planned but then, contrary to the agreed plan, pushed on ‘200 yds further to hold back enemy’s bomber who were counter-attacking’.

Members of William Fry’s 53rd Battalion prior to ‘hopping the bags’ on 19 July 1916. Reproduced courtesy Australian War Memorial (ID Number A03042).

The positions were held through the night but determined German counter attacks coupled with an exposed right flank forced the 53rd back across No Man’s Land to their starting position at 0930hrs on the 20th. Casualties for the operation totalled 625, an extraordinarily high figure which included the commanding officer. The attack at Fromelles was a complete disaster; losses for the Fifth Australian Division were over 5500 men. At some point on the 19th July William Fry was badly wounded; his medical records show he received GSW (Gun Shot Wounds) to both legs. He was evacuated along the casualty clearance chain, ending up at No.14 General Hospital at Wimereux on the channel coast. Sadly, William Fry died of his wounds at 4.15pm on 26 July 1916 and is buried at Wimereux Communal Cemetery.

Extract from William Fry’s service record showing his movements from leaving Sydney in October 1915 to his wounding on 19 July and death at No.14 General Hospital, Wimereux.

Wimereux Communal Cemetery

Prior to the day’s filming at St Gwynour’s Church in Penclawdd Robert was completely unaware of this part of his family’s history. Using the Battalion war diary and maps I was able to talk through William’s service and the 53rd Battalion’s attack on Fromelles. In many ways it was a typical example of the global scale of the war. A miner, all 5ft 2 ¼ inches of him, seeking a new life in Australia but enlisting for King and Country and travelling all the way back to Europe to do ‘his bit’. Fromelles was an ill-conceived diversion against tactically superior German forces but this should not detract from the endeavour, patriotism or simply a longing for involvement in the war of William Fry and his mates in the 53rd Battalion AIF. It was especially poignant leaving the church and walking up the path to my car. It is lined with lime trees – replacements for the original trees planted in the 1920s to commemorate local men lost in the war.

Robert Glenister gave an interview to Wales Online about his participation in ‘Coming Home’: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/showbiz-and-lifestyle/television-in-wales/2012/12/08/hustle-star-robert-glenister-on-his-welsh-ancestor-s-wartime-heroism-91466-32377072/

The tree-lined entrance path to St Gwynour's Church, Penclawdd. Each tree represents a local men killed during the war.

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On 22 November I gave a workshop at Putney Park School in south west London. It was a fascinating day speaking to children ranging in age from six to fourteen. The morning was devoted to Juniors who had got into the swing of things by dressing in Great War era clothes for the day. One girl was wearing a genuine nurse’s outfit from the time. The day started with an hour’s talk on what it was like to be an infantry soldier, why men enlisted and how they did so, information on their training and then an hour-by-hour breakdown of a typical 24 hour period spent in the trenches.

Staff and children at the Richardson Evans Memorial Playing Fields War Memorial

After a tea break we boarded a coach that took us to the nearby Richardson Evans Memorial Playing Fields War Memorial, situated in a five-acre area of landscaped ground. It commemorates men with Putney and Wimbledon connections; in consequence the memorial has many names. The children looked at these and I pointed out men with decorations (three Victoria Cross recipients alone) and those with the same surname; sadly the memorial contains many sets of brothers. The trip was based on trying to encourage the children to see not just a list of names but that every individual had a story whose death had left a loved one heartbroken and bereft. After laying a specially (and rather lovingly) crafted wreath followed by a minutes silence and the Exhortation we returned to school.

The wreath laying ceremony at the memorial

I was then able to provide details on some of the men listed on the memorial including Zeebrugge Raid hero, Lt Commander Arthur Harrison VC. I had found one local family, the Nottingham’s,  who had lost three brothers in the space of a year. Interestingly, each brother had fought in a different unit or service. I traced the family back to the 1881 census and was able to show how the family moved around and grew – there were seven children in total – before the war claimed the lives of three. The first to be killed was Leslie, a Gunner in the Royal Marine Artillery who was serving on HMS Queen Mary when it was lost at Jutland on 31 May 1916. The next boy lost was Arthur, a Sergeant in the 3rd Battalion Canadian Infantry. He had emigrated to Canada before the war in search of work and, like so many other British in Canada at the start of war, had enlisted in the Canadian Army. He was badly wounded on the Somme on 9 September and two weeks later succumbed to his wounds, being buried in Wandsworth (Earlsfield) Cemetery.   The final boy to die was Ernest, the eldest of the family and a decorated sergeant in the Civil Service Rifles. He was killed on 10 June 1917. Using archival material I was able to show details of the brother’s service and, where possible, mention of them by name in battalion war diaries.

I finished my talk by speaking about Private Alfred Whittle, 10th Battalion Sherwood Foresters who was killed outside Ypres just after Christmas 1915. What made him special to the children was the fact that the CWGC recorded his daughter Alice lived at 7, Woodborough Road in Putney – part of what is now the school complex. I hoped that by picking specific names and elaborating on their story the children would realise that the list of names were once living, breathing human beings with families that loved them and mourned their passing.

The three 'Nottingham' brothers on the Richardson Evans Memorial Playing Fields War Memorial. Arthur, Ernest & Leslie all died within a year of each other.

After lunch I spoke to Year 1 children about the census and what sort of things are recorded before finishing off with an hour’s lecture to Year 9 students on the life of an infantry soldier. My thanks to Mrs Wright for arranging the day, staff members for their welcome and the children for their enthusiasm and interest.

“Jeremy’s knowledge, professionalism, charisma and palpable enthusiasm for everything to do with World War 1 not only brought the topic alive for my students but changed the lives of many of us. In such a short time we fully understood trench warfare and the impact on families and nations. From the first time I made contact with Jeremy he responded quickly to my queries, offered fantastic ideas and prepared very well for the day. I simply would not teach the topic again without him.

In addition, after his visit I had enough material for the next four weeks for class work. The children steered their parents to find out more about their relatives using the strategies Jeremy taught. One has since visited the National Archives, read about her great grandfather in the war diaries and then researched the three battles he fought in, all of which Jeremy had mentioned. Another pupil researched her great grandfather by emailing relatives and was proud to bring in a number of items from his uniform and life. Jeremy’s idea of visiting a memorial and researching some of the names on there really brought it home to the children and I know that on Armistice Day, and probably every day, my children will really be remembering our men. Jeremy spent the morning with our year 5s and 6s and then did two wonderful presentations to year one and nine. I cannot recommend him highly enough.”

Mrs J. Wright, Head of Junior School, Putney Park School

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Earlier this month I finished an extraordinary week’s work at La Boisselle followed by four days guiding a group of writers around the Somme and Arras battlefields. Last year I had taken Vanessa Gebbie on a bespoke tour following in the footsteps of the 14th Battalion Welsh Regiment (Swansea Pals). She had been extolling the virtues of the battlefields ever since and had cajoled other writers to join her for a few days away.

Somme

After picking up my passengers and hire car in Lille we headed south to the Somme. Our first port of call was to the Glory Hole at La Boisselle where I was able to take my group underground. BBC News were covering our work on site that day and it was exciting to stand at the top of W Shaft and hear the filming taking place below for that night’s Six O’Clock News. Vanessa has written about this on her blog here. After a visit to the Lochnagar Crater we stopped at Becourt Military Cemetery and Norfolk Cemetery en route to our comfortable accommodation at Chavasse Farm, Hardecourt-aux-Bois.

“I can’t tell you what an amazing time I had on our trip. You are a natural – to call you either a historian or a tour guide is to miss the point entirely, I think. You brought it alive for us, you animated the land, the people, the history, in a way I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. There wasn’t one minute when you were talking where I was bored, where I zoned out. You made me want to know everything. And more than that, you inspired me to think about identity, nationality, what I might be prepared to die for.” Tania Hershman

The next day was spent on the Somme starting in the southern sector at the junction of British & French forces between Maricourt & Montauban. Stops that morning included Suzanne Communal Cemetery Extension to visit the graves of 18th Manchester Regiment men killed in May 1916 when German mortar fire blocked their mine shaft at Maricourt, the Carnoy crater field where I explained about the use of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector on 1 July 1916, Devonshire Cemetery at Mametz and then down to the impressive Red Dragon of the 38th (Welsh) Division Memorial at Mametz Wood. Despite heavy rain most of us had a walk up the slope from Death Valley to look at positions occupied by the 11th South Wales Borders and 16th Welsh in their unsuccessful 7 July attack on the Hammerhead.  After a coffee and change of clothes we headed back out. Stops included Guillemont Road Cemetery, High Wood and the Nine Brave Men (82 Field Company RE) memorial in Bazentin-le-Petit before lunch at Old Blighty Tea Rooms, La Boisselle.

Aveluy Communal Cemetery Extension

The remains of the afternoon was spent at Aveluy Communal Cemetery Extension, Mash Valley and the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme before stopping at Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz on our way back.

Over dinner that night I learnt one of my party had a relative with the 3rd Coldstream Guards who had been killed in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916. Our first stop the next morning was on the road between Ginchy and Lesboeufs to look at the starting positions for the attack. Guardsman Ernest Saye is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial so there was a chance his remains were still lying in the fields before us.

Guards Memorial, Lesboeufs

We paid our respects at the Guards Division Memorial, Lesboeufs before a stop specifically requested by Vanessa at Morval British Cemetery. This quiet spot contains 38th (Welsh) Division casualties killed in the capture of Morval on 31 August/1 September 1918. After stops at the Cedric Dickens Cross and Delville Wood Cemetery & Memorial we headed north of the Roman Road to Thiepval to pick up where we had left off the previous day. Stops included the Ulster Tower Newfoundland Memorial Park, the Sunken Lane at Beaumont Hamel and then over the Redan Ridge for a picnic lunch in the majesty of at Serre Road Cemetery No.2 where the Somme part of our tour ended.

Serre Road Cemetery No.2 - our choice for a picnic lunch

Arras

En route north we stopped at Ayette Indian & Chinese Cemetery before arriving at Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery, Neuville-Vitasse where I set the scene for the Arras offensive. The elevated position offers a fine viewpoint from which to show the southern sector of the battlefield with Monchy-le-Preux, Henin Hill and the route of the Hindenburg Line clear to see.

Poring over maps of the Arras battlefield at Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery. Thanks to Vanessa Gebbie for her permission to use this image.

After a visit to Cojeul British Cemetery to pay our respects at the grave of two Victoria Cross winners, Private Horace Waller and Captain Arthur Henderson we headed up to the open windswept ground of Henin Hill where we had a good look around a surviving German ‘mebu’ concrete pillbox, part of the Hindenburg Line defences in the area. After repeatedly getting in and out of the car we were keen to stretch the legs and so took a walk to Heninel-Croisilles Road Cemetery where I read the poet Siegfried Sassoon’s account of being wounded nearby. We then walked down to Rookery Cemetery and Cuckoo Passage Cemetery.

Our next stop was on Wancourt Ridge outside Wancourt British Cemetery where I read John Glubb’s detailed account of the bridging work undertaken by 7 Field Company RE across the River Cojeul in the valley before us on 23-25 April 1917. The landscape is wonderfully easy to match up to Glubb’s descriptions and offers the chance to imagine the scene 95 years ago. Afterwards some of us walked up to the site of Wancourt Tower. Our final stop of the day was the rarely visited but rather beautiful Vis-en-Artois Memorial. One of our party Caroline had a relative commemorated on the panels. Percy Honeybill, 1st King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) was killed on 2 September 1918 attacking the Drocourt- Quéant defences.

Relief sculpture on the Vis-en-Artois Memorial

Our final day saw us head to Arras for a croissant and coffee breakfast in the Petite Place before a visit to the Arras Memorial to the Missing and Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery. We then headed out along the Arras-Cambrai road to find the spot between Guémappe and Cherisy where Third Army Panorama No.  556 was taken on 6 May 1917. Standing close to the spot where the image was taken it offers an ideal opportunity to visualise battlefield conditions in May 1917. Our next stop was at Kestrel Copse to see the new cross for Captain David Hirsch VC. We then headed north to Monchy-le-Preux where I explained the magnificent action which resulted in the capture of the village on 11 April 1917. One of our party’s grandfather had served in the Essex Yeomanry. I was able to show her Orange Hill and the fields which her grandfather would have galloped across on 11 April 1917. We then headed up Infantry Hill where I told of the disastrous Newfoundland and Essex Regiment attack on 14 April and the subsequent action by the “Men who saved Monchy”.

Captain Hirsch's replica cross at Kestrel Copse

Crossing the River Scarpe to Roeux, we visited the site of dreaded Chemical Works, now a benign Carrefour supermarket and garage. I always find it a pity that there is nothing on the site to show the ferocity of the fighting here in April and May 1917. Lunch was taken in Sunken Lane Cemetery at Fampoux (written about here by Vanessa Gebbie ). We discussed the terrible fighting for Roeux and the 11 April attack by the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers. After visiting Gavrelle we headed north to Vimy Ridge, visiting the trenches and Walter Allward’s masterpiece, the Vimy Memorial where we bumped into my brother Mark guiding a group. What a small place the battlefields are sometimes!  There followed an interesting journey back to Lille Europe station where the car was returned in a rather muddier state than it had been when picked up.

Vimy Memorial

My thanks to Vanessa, Tania, Zoe, Angela and Caroline for being such good company and making the trip such a delight. I am already planning the itinerary for 2013!

“Thank you is really an inadequate word to convey my feelings about the weekend. I still feel as if I’ve been to a different place and had my life changed. I’m not quite sure how you managed it but it felt as if you really took us back in time to 1914, 1916, 1917 and 1918 and that we were standing alongside the men waiting for the whistles to send them over the top and later dragging or rolling themselves back to the safety of their trenches. I thought I knew a bit about the First World War having done a history degree and having read the poetry. At an intellectual level I suppose I did know about the war but emotionally I had no idea what it was like for the men and that experience was what you gave us with the maps, the panoramas and all the stories. Over the last few days they lived and breathed again. It’s difficult to pick out my favourite moments as everything felt like a highlight. I can’t remember if it was Tania or Zoe who said they’d never before come across a guide who didn’t bore them for a second. Actually ‘guide’ isn’t the right word – the ‘expert’ comes closer but also the ‘enthusiast’ brimming over with things you wanted to share.” Caroline Davies

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I have just returned to my office from the studios at BBC Bristol where I spoke with Jeremy Vine on his BBC Radio 2 lunchtime show. I had been asked to speak about the Prime Minister’s announcement concerning the commemorations of the First World War for 2014-2018 and the need for school battlefield trips. I did not hear the introduction to the story and so missed (what I later found out) were tales from people who had visited the battlefields and the effects it had upon them. We had a good chat about the battlefields, the effect they have upon visitors and the need for children to see them first-hand. My interview can be listened to from 1 hour, 20 mins onward but the entire segment can be listened to from 1 hour, 10 mins in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n64f1

Over the last few days I have been asked how I think the commemorations will pan out. I cannot really answer this question but would imagine that the official ceremonies will be carried out with great dignity as they always are.  It is the lasting legacy that I am most concerned about – £50million is a huge headline figure but it will be interesting to see exactly how this figure is broken down.

Much of it will go to refurbish a new First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum. It is high time that this was updated and will undoubtedly serve well as a central hub for the commemorative period. The Imperial War Museum, or IWM as it now prefers to be called, is the perfect place for this. However, it is in the matter of battlefield visits and engaging with local people that I feel most work can be done.  The horrendous casualty figures from the Western Front invoke horror but it is only by bringing these down to an individual level that we can hope to engage fully with young children. The power of groups visiting CWGC cemeteries and seeing that there were 15 year old boys who joined up, fought and died for the British Empire cannot be overstressed. Similarly, much work can be done on encouraging schoolchildren to research the names of men on their local war memorial – to find out that a man who had lived on their street was killed suddenly brings the conflict that much closer, certainly much more than a list of endless casualty figures.

Let us hope that the commemorations are just that; to commemorate, not to pity or talk of futility. After all, who are we to say that a man’s death was futile? What gives us that right? Would those men have thought the same?  I also hope that there is sufficient coverage of the silent majority – those who fought but came back to pick up the pieces of a country ravaged by war. The victors of 1918 were those who faced economic hardships in the 1920s & 30s and then faced up to German aggression once again. We should certainly remember them too.

I have seen disagreements already on Twitter and online forums as to the tone and content of this commemorative period but I hope that the coming few years can be a time when we pause, reflect, appraise and give an honest look at the forbearance and endeavours of that tremendous Great War generation.

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Last January I spent three days filming with Hugh Dennis for Wall to Wall’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ series. We were following in the footsteps of Hugh’s maternal grandfather, Godfrey Parker Hinnels. Godfrey served with the 1/4th Battalion Suffolk Regiment from Spring 1917 until his transfer to the 1st Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment in March 1918.  Despite having just over a year on active service Godfrey certainly saw his share of action, going ‘over the top’ at Arras and Ypres as well as fighting during the German Kaiserschlacht and the defence of Wytschaete in April 1918. This article is designed to provide more information on those units and their actions covered in tonight’s episode.

Battle of Arras

Godfrey’s Suffolk battalion formed part of 98th Brigade, 33rd Division. It did not participate in the initial advance on the morning of 9 April 1917 but was moved up close to the front line on 12 April, occupying a position on the road between Henin-sur-Cojeul and Neuville Vitasse, the scene of bitter fighting on the battle’s opening day.  The battalion war diary records ‘A great deal of burial and salvage work was done by the battalion in the vicinity of the trenches in front of the Hindenburg line’.  Godfrey’s initiation into active service can hardly have been harsher; searching through the blanket of snow carpeting the battlefield for men killed a few days earlier. There followed a move into the Hindenburg Line itself for a spell in the trenches before the battalion’s major effort in the Arras offensive.

Hugh Dennis and I go through the Suffolks attack at the sunken lane in the Sensée valley. Image copyright Paul Nathan & is reproduced with his permission.

At 4.45am on 23 April 1917 a huge British artillery onslaught fell on to the German trenches signalling the start of the Second Battle of the Scarpe. Godfrey’s battalion was tasked with bombing their way down 2,300 yards of both front and support trenches of the Hindenburg Line to the Sensée River. Despite the support of tanks and artillery this was still a highly ambitious task, being prosecuted down a strong system of trenches, specially designed for defence. A deep tunnel ran under the support trench offering accommodation, headquarters and stores. The initial advance was spectacular with the Suffolks reaching a sunken road between Croisilles and Fontaine-les-Croisilles within two hours. Just 200 yards short of their objective they then came under sustained German fire. Later that day a strong German counter-attack pushed them back in both trenches – they ended the day close to the morning’s starting position. Despite taking a remarkable 650 German prisoners in the initial advance the battalion suffered over 300 casualties (about 50% of the battalion strength). This bloody day’s fighting is chronicled in great detail in ‘From the Somme to the Armistice’, the memoirs of Captain Stormont Gibbs MC, an officer in the 1/4th Suffolks.

The village of Fontaine-les-Croisilles bathed in evening sunshine. Image copyright Paul Nathan & is reproduced with his permission.

Passchendaele

Following their mauling in the Hindenburg Line the battalion’s losses were made up with reinforcements.  Back to fighting strength they moved north to the coast before heading to Ypres to take part in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele).  The battle had commenced on 31 July but unexpectedly heavy rainfall in August coupled with the destruction of the delicate Flemish drainage system by millions of artillery shells had reduced the landscape to a shattered Stygian moonscape of overlapping shell holes. Any advance had been limited but September’s improvement in the weather gave the battlefield time to dry out. Ironically, considering the common perceptions of Passchendaele, dust became a problem with roads and tracks watered regularly to restrict dust clouds caused by passing troops and transport.

It was into this landscape that the Suffolks found themselves in September 1917. By 11.30pm on 25 September they were holding a line of trenches on the infamous Gheluvelt Plateau running between Fitzclarence Farm and Glencorse Wood, close to Polygon Wood.  The plan was for the battalion to leave their positions, advance towards Black Watch Corner where a line of shell holes marked the British front line and join in the general attack at Zero Hour, 5.50am on the 26th.

The Suffolks were shelled prior to Zero Hour and heavy casualties sustained. The Battalion War Diary makes for depressing reading: ‘The heavy shelling, thick mist and darkness caused confusion and it was impossible for the men to keep touch but Platoon rushes were made and some Platoons made progress.’ Any great advance was impossible and by day’s end the battalion had only managed to advance to a line near Black Watch Corner. The battalion had achieved little and lost around 250 men in the process.

Extract from British trench map dated 14 September 1917 showing the Suffolks' battlefield - Fitzclarence Farm, Glencorse Wood and Black Watch Corner can be clearly seen.

The Passchendaele section was not broadcast but has been included as ‘unseen footage’ on the ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ magazine’s website here: http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/footage/13822.

Winter 1917/1918 & Talbot House

The battalion took no further part in offensive action but spent the next six months in and out of the line on the Passchendaele ridge. When not in trenches the Suffolks were at rest in camps close to the small town of Poperinghe. Whilst not documented, it is highly likely Godfrey would have visited Talbot House – the “Every Man’s Club” situated in the bustling town’s heart.  At our first meeting I had described Talbot House (also known as Toc H) to Mark Bates, the director of Hugh’s episode, and suggested a visit. It would be a good opportunity to show a typical soldier’s experiences when out of the line. We visited during our recce in December 2011 and, like so many before, I could tell Mark was taken with Talbot House. The house has a unique atmosphere rarely encountered in other buildings and I was delighted to see the Talbot House section so prominent in the final edit.

Spring 1918

On 1 March 1918 Godfrey headed south to the Somme where he joined the 1st Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment, part of the 21st Division, holding trenches near the village of Épehy, once again opposite the Hindenburg Line. The exact reason behind his transfer is not documented but coincides with the 1/4th Suffolks becoming a pioneer battalion. It may have been that Godfrey’s skills were required more in a frontline infantry battalion as opposed to a pioneer battalion. He was soon into action as the Germans launched their Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht) on 21 March. Deluged with gas shells the Lincolns were attacked under cover of ‘a heavy white mist’. A day of desperate fighting followed with positions held around Chapel Hill before relief and retirement across the 1916 Somme battlefield. On 1 April the Lincolns entrained north to Flanders but hopes for a rest were short lived.

On 9 April a German attack south of Armentières heralded the start of the Battle of the Lys. A huge hole was punched in the Allied line and with his southern flank crumbling General Plumer, commanding the Second Army, ordered a withdrawal from the Passchendaele Ridge back to positions close to Ypres and the Yser Canal. The situation was desperate.

Wytschaete (now renamed Wijtschate) under a heavy sky. This view is looking north-east towards Staenyzer Cabaret crossroads. Image copyright Paul Nathan & is reproduced with his permission.

On the evening of 12 April with the battalion at less than half strength the 1st Lincolns were sent to defend the village of Wytschaete (nicknamed Whitesheet by British soldiers), holding a line between Staenyzer Cabaret crossroads and Bogaert Farm. Messines, directly to the south, had fallen two days previously and with Wytschaete the next village along the ridge an attack was almost inevitable.  At 4.30 am on the morning of 16 April a heavy artillery bombardment pounded the British front line, the village and all approaches, lasting for 70 minutes. The official account of the operation details the subsequent events:

“Under cover of a dense fog the enemy attacked on the flanks of the battalion, and succeeded in breaking our line just North of the STANYZER CABARET Cross Roads, and at PECKHAM. Strong parties of the enemy then wheeled inwards and attacked both flanks of the battalion…Owing to the dense fog and bombardment it was impossible to get a clear idea of the situation and the Companies did not know they were attacked until the enemy appeared at close quarters. Fighting under every disadvantage, as the fog denied them the full use of Lewis Guns and rifles and made it impossible to locate the enemy, the battalion stood firm, and fought it out to the last. No officer, platoon post or individual surrendered and the fighting was prolonged until 6.30 am. Ample evidence of this is provided by the Commanding officer [Major Gush MC] and Battalion H.Q. who made a last stand at the Cross Roads, and did not leave there until 7 am. They, a mere handful of men, withdrew slowly, fighting all the way through WYTSCHAETE WOOD.” [National Archives Ref: WO95/2154]

The Lincolns had provided a magnificent display of defensive fighting in tremendously difficult conditions. During the action Godfrey was wounded in his index finger – a wound that prevented his return to frontline service. The following day a mere 5 officers and 82 other ranks were relieved to be joined by a further 21 stragglers who had become attached to other units during the fighting. Having gone into action with over 400 men, the Lincolns’ stubborn defence had been bought at a high price – the casualty rate was nearly 75%. The losses were not in vain as Brigadier General Cater commanding Godfrey’s Brigade noted how the ‘hard fighting left the enemy disorganised and unable to consolidate; and materially assisted the counter-attack delivered in the evening.’

At Wytschaete reading the account of the 1st Lincolns stand on 16 April 1918. Image copyright Paul Nathan & is reproduced with his permission.

Matching soldier’s reminiscences to actual actions can often be problematic but by studying Godfrey’s  war service it soon became clear his story of fighting Germans on a hilltop must have related to the defence of Wytschaete. It was a remarkably satisfying conclusion to stand with Hugh Dennis on the same ground where his grandfather fought so gallantly ninety four years earlier.

My thanks to Paul Nathan for his agreement to use his photographs from filming, Mark Bates, Mike Robinson and all at Wall to Wall for their help plus Peter Barton for various maps & documents.

If you would like to read more about these battles and places then a very short suggested reading list is included below:

  • Peter Barton with Jeremy Banning, Arras – The Spring 1917 Offensive in Panoramas including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt (Constable, 2010)
  • Jonathan Nicholls, Cheerful Sacrifice: The Battle of Arras 1917 (Leo Cooper, 2005)
  • Peter Barton, Passchendaele – Unseen Panoramas of the Third Battle of Ypres (Constable, 2007)
  • Paul Chapman, A Haven from Hell – Talbot House, Poperinghe (Cameos of the Western Front) (Pen & Sword, 2000)
  • Chris Baker, The Battle for Flanders: German Defeat on the Lys 1918 (Pen & Sword, 2011)

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Last January I spent three days filming with Hugh Dennis for Wall to Wall’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ series. I see that the BBC have just added a preview on their website with Hugh explaining his interest in his family’s Great War service.

The episode is to be shown at 9pm on BBC One on Wednesday 12 September. N.B. A full write up of Godfrey Hinnels and his Great War service can now be read here: http://jeremybanning.co.uk/2012/09/12/following-in-the-footsteps-of-godfrey-hinnels-with-hugh-dennis-for-who-do-you-think-you-are/

Hugh Dennis on 'Who Do You Think You Are?'

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I am back in Bristol after a delightful weekend spent in Sussex. On Saturday I gave a lecture entitled Somme Archaeology: The Glory Hole and the work of the La Boisselle Study Group at Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum. Despite it being a boiling hot day and the lure of the sea only a few yards away it was standing room only by the time I began speaking in one of the Redoubt’s (thankfully cool) casemates.  My talk focussed on the La Boisselle Study Group’s work since June 2011, showing images from the British tunnel system as well as images of surface archaeology and artifacts. I spoke about the actions of the French in autumn 1914 with focus on the capture of the Granathof by the 118th Infantry Regiment on Christmas Eve 1914. British occupation of the ‘Glory Hole’ was also covered with especial mention of underground action by 179 and 185 Tunnelling Companies, RE. I was able to show the current state of excavation and explain the plans for the next tranche of work in September/October.  This includes potential exploration of the British tunnel system at the 80ft level.

After an hour’s lecture there was a tea break which was followed by a further 25 minute Q&A session. It was good to see friends there, especially Richard Dunning, owner of the Lochnagar Crater. My grateful thanks to Ryan Gearing for organising the series of lectures, Keith Ross (ex-Royal Sussex Regiment) for his kind introduction and the Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum for providing such an inspiring venue.

September’s lecture is to be given by Richard van Emden who, utilising his research material gathered for his book ‘The Quick and the Dead’ will be speaking about loss, grief and the families who are often forgotten when the fallen are remembered. Further details can be found here: http://www.eastbournemuseums.co.uk/Events.htm

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On Saturday 18 August I will be the first speaker of the Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum Great War lecture series. My lecture “Somme Archaeology: The Glory Hole and the work of the La Boisselle Study Group” begins at 2.30pm. Ticket prices are £12.50 (Adult) with a concession price of £10 for Senior Citizens, Students and Under 16s.

Further details can be found here: http://www.eastbournemuseums.co.uk/Events.htm

Other speakers for September and October are my good friend Richard van Emden and Curator of the RLC Museum, Andy Robertshaw.

The lecture will showcase the work undertaken since June 2011, giving a history of French, German and British warfare (surface and subterranean) at La Boisselle from 1914-1916.  I will also include many images previously unseen showing British tunnels dug in September-October 1915.

A pdf document with details of all three talks can be downloaded by clicking on the image below.

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On 13 June I gave a talk to 65 students and staff at South Bromsgrove High School on the work of the La Boisselle Study Group. Soon after media coverage began on our work in June 2010 I was contacted by James Wilson from the History department who was keen to learn more and, if possible, visit the site on the annual school battlefield trip.

In mid flow at South Bromsgrove High School - June 2012

My talk focussed on our current archaeological work as well as the wartime history of the site. It was satisfying to be given the opportunity to do justice to the resolute French fighting for the village and Granathof in 1914/15. French efforts on the field of battle are often overlooked, something that we are seeking to redress at La Boisselle. I went on to talk about the handover to British troops in summer 1915 and their subsequent efforts, both above and below ground.

Your talk was very well received by both staff and students alike, indeed some of the students have come to find me this morning to ask if we can arrange to come and volunteer at the site; a definite sign that the talk was delivered at the right level. I have to say that it was absolutely what we were looking for, it both enthused and moved the audience through the personal stories you used throughout. I would personally recommend your lecture to anyone who has a interest in the La Boisselle area, or indeed anyone who has an interest in history, a truly captivating talk by an inspirational historian! Mr James Wilson, History Teacher, South Bromsgrove High School

Sadly, this year it was impossible to show the school’s battlefield trip around the site but we aim to do so next year. I have also been asked back to the school to speak next year and look forward to visiting again. My thanks to James Wilson and his colleagues for their generous welcome and feedback. Many thanks to the students for their faultless attention. As a firm believer in the power of education it was immensely rewarding to be able to share my experiences of La Boisselle to school students.

Should you be interested in having me talk at your school or group then please contact me directly.

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