In May 1915 Fred Brown enlisted as a private soldier in the 18th Battalion Royal Fusiliers at the age of 17 years, 10 months. After training at Clipstone Camp, Nottinghamshire and Tidworth Camp the Battalion sailed for France in November 1915 as part of 98th Brigade, 33rd Division, soon transferring to 19th Brigade in the same Division. After a short time the Battalion entered trenches near Festubert north of the La Bassée Canal.
Following a hard winter spent in and out of the trenches and in hope of a six week break away from the front in Rouen Fred volunteered for a course of engineering. Sadly for Fred and his fellow volunteers the course was far from what was envisaged – they were now temporarily attached for fatigue duties to 251 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, billeted in nearby Béthune. Their role was to acts as ‘beasts of burden’, working underground removing spoil excavated from the face by more experienced miners. After a few weeks Fred applied for a transfer and was accepted into the Royal Engineers as 256302, Sapper Fred Brown. He served with 251 Tunnelling Company for the remainder of the war. Toward the end of his life Fred recorded his wartime experiences in typed form and by tape recorder. These were left with his second wife’s family who have been kind enough to pass them on to me. My thanks to Mary Burgess for her kindness. The photographs used in the Audioboo links are of a dapper looking Fred in later life. The recordings are not brilliant quality, being taken from old D90 cassette tapes. Over the next few weeks I will post as many of Fred’s audio recordings as possible.
1. Hear Fred describe the start of a typical working shift on the Western Front as he moves from Béthune to Cuinchy
2. Hear Fred describe the descent into 251TC’s labyrinthine tunnels at Cuinchy and how the work of spoil removal took place underground
3. Fred describes his shift in a lone listening post spent listening for the sound of German miners
Recommended reading on military mining and the underground war
- Beneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers War 1914-1918 by Peter Barton, Peter Doyle & Johan Vandewalle
The internet is a wonderful thing; for anyone interested in a certain battalion or unit it is now possible to hammer a few key words into a search engine and find all sorts of information about their part in major, set-piece battles. Forums and discussion groups also have their place. Some regimental museums have even transcribed all of their battalion war diaries, making them available online for free.
Libraries, regimental archives and the National Archives all have information available to help understand events. However, what of the vast majority of time spent not going ‘over the top’ or taking part in the next ‘Big Push’? What of the less-well chronicled, monotonous but necessary routine of trench warfare?
It can be an immensely satisfying task to follow a unit’s movements around the battlefield; this is often undertaken as part of a family pilgrimage or greater desire to ‘follow in the footsteps’ of a relative who served. For me, when battlefield guiding, it is the part of the job that I love the most. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a general tour around the main tourist sites as well as the next person but it is in analysing the minutiae of war diary entries and working out such mundane things as billeting arrangements or where sports events were held that yields most fulfilment.
I recently returned from a bespoke trip following the 17th Middlesex Regiment (Footballers’ Battalion) around various villages and towns in French Flanders and the Gohelle coalfields in which they spent November 1915 – March 1916. My client’s grandfather had enlisted underage and spent four months with the battalion before being wounded in mid-March 1916; a wound which saved him from taking part in the Battalion’s action at Deville Wood on the Somme. During the four month period the Battalion held trenches at Cambrin, Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée and Festubert before taking over the Calonne sector from the French at the end of February.
Over the course of our three day trip we visited all of these places, as well as many not associated with the 17th Middlesex; Fromelles, Aubers, Hulluch and Loos. Our stops were not solely restricted to places but included visits to 17th Middlesex Regiment men who had been killed in action. To stand at the grave of Donald Stewart (who served under the alias of Private James MacDonald) in Cambrin Churchyard Extension and know he was the first man of the battalion to be killed in action struck a particular chord. However, for me the highlight came during our visit to Béthune. The Battalion war diary for 2 December records a move to Béthune and billeting in the College des Jeune Filles. I had an old postcard of the college and knew the greater part of it still stood so arranged to visit it during our lunch stop.
Battlefield guides will recognise the satisfying feeling – being able to tell someone that their relative was at that spot on a certain date, not nearby or somewhere in the town but here, actually here. We had the same feeling eating our lunch of ham and cheese baguettes in the square at nearby Beuvry. A poorly-attended market filled half of the square but, as we sat eating, I was able to explain that this village, now almost a suburb of Bethune was where the Footballers’ Battalion had spent Christmas Day 1915. There was no plaque commemorating this event, no visible link at all, just the knowledge that men of the Battalion would have walked around the square over the festive time, amongst them my client’s grandfather. It made the lunch, eaten in the car whilst a steady drizzle fell that bit more special.
After a tour around the Loos battlefield I took my client to the site of Middlesex and Football Trench in the Calonne North sub-sector. It was here in that his grandfather was wounded in March 1916. The war diary of the 16th records ‘4 casualties occurred from GRENADES, 2 in “B” Coy and 2 in “D” Coy’; it is likely that my client’s grandfather was one of those wounded men as he left France on the 18th, crossing the channel for treatment at a hospital in Britain. Such were the effect of the wounds received that he was discharged from service three months later. Compared to many who served, his war was unremarkable – his service record shows he played no part in any major offensive and yet the four months he spent with the 17th Middlesex from November 1915 – March 1916 had a profound effect on him for the rest of his life.
Football Trench ran through what is now an open field next to the A21 motorway and the urban sprawl of miners’ cottages of Liévin. The railway line from Lens to Bethune runs across the northern tip of Middlesex Trench. Much of the rest of it is hidden under a civilian cemetery or is being built upon for new housing. A casual visitor to the site today would find it far from enchanting. Locals stared at our car with British number plates; clearly, the back streets of Liévin didn’t see too many battlefield tourists. However, the relative inaccessibility of the spot made visiting it that bit more special. To those of us in the car, it felt as though we had tracked down a site rather than merely followed the tourist signs. Having researched the young Middlesex soldier it certainly had an effect on me. It was a real pleasure to be able to share these places with his grandson; not just the obvious sites of front line and communication trenches but the places in he was billeted, the towns and villages he would have known well and the roads he marched along on his route to and from the front. To me, this is what makes following in a soldiers footsteps such an enriching experience.
N.B. A very readable account of the 17th Middlesex Regiment is Andrew Riddoch & John Kemp’s ‘When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers’ Battalion in the Great War’ – highly recommended.
Earlier this month having spent a few days recceing sites and walks for upcoming trips I spent a day showing a client, Tony Wright, around the Arras battlefields following in the footsteps of his great uncle, S/30401 Rifleman Herbert William Victor Wright, 9th Battalion Rifle Brigade who was killed on 3 May 1917. It was most likely that Herbert had joined the battalion as one of nearly four hundred reinforcements received in January 1917. As such, the spring offensive at Arras would be his first major battle.
Sadly, Herbert Wright’s service record no longer existed and so we were unable to determine which company he had served in. However, with the knowledge that he would have been ‘in the area’ we started off by looking at the battalion’s role in the 9 April attack. The 9th Battalion Rifle Brigade was part of 42nd Infantry Brigade, 14th (Light) Division. The divisional objectives for 9 April were to capture the strong German position known as the Siegfried Stellung, (Hindenburg Line) which the Germans had fallen back to throughout the month of March. The hinge of the ‘old’ German line and new Hindenburg Line was the village of Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines. South of the village lay the 14th Division’s objective, the southern part of The Harp, a formidable position some 1000 yards long and 500 yards wide, full of tangled field defences. Along with Telegraph Hill to its immediate south its dominant position enabled German defenders to fire in enfilade northwards up Observation Ridge and southwards to Neuville Vitasse; its capture was absolutely critical.
The role of the 9th Rifle Brigade on 9 April was limited to that of ‘moppers-up’. An initial assault was to be made against the southern portion of ‘The String’, a trench running down the length of The Harp, by the 5th Ox and Bucks Light Infantry and 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Once captured the 5th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry would then pass through or ‘leapfrog’ the two battalions to capture the second objective close to the Blue Line running south from the rearward face of The Harp down the Hindenburg Line. Nearly seven hours after the initial advance and with these objectives taken B & D Companies of the 9th Rifle Brigade, under the command of Captain Buckley were to leave their positions in and around the old German front line to clear the ground between the Blue and Green lines within the Brigade boundaries.
They would also occupy an outpost line north east of the Tilloy – Wancourt road (now the D37). Considering the magnitude of the day’s fighting the Battalion war diary gives scant information about the work completed other than to record the final objective was gained by 1.30pm with one hundred prisoners and two machine guns captured. Casualties sustained were Captain D.E. Bradby killed , 2/Lt H.M. Smith wounded and fifteen Other Ranks wounded. Despite differing figures from those provided in Brigade records it is clear that losses amongst the 9th Rifle Brigade were extremely light when compared to other battalions within 42nd Brigade.
After relief on 12 April the Battalion spent time in training where they received a draft of fifty two reinforcements. On 23 April the Battalion began their march back to the battlefield, moving into newly captured positions between Guémappe and Chérisy on the evening of the 24th. The war diary records constant shellfire for this entire period; on one day alone 2/Lt J.M. Harper and a further sixteen Other Ranks were wounded. Between 30 April – 2 May the Battalion were in reserve but provided working parties to dig out a new communication trench named Jungle Alley running between the Ape and the Boar trenches before taking up their positions in the front line north of Chérisy on 2 May. The stage was set for a renewal of the offensive; three armies would be attacking along a fourteen mile frontage from Bullecourt in the south to Fresnoy in the north. Having suffered such comparatively small losses on 9 April the 9th Rifle Brigade was to take a leading part in the coming battle, attacking on the left of the Brigade next to the 5th Ox & Bucks Light Infantry. The 5th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps were in Brigade Reserve.
The decision to launch the attack at 3.45am in darkness was contentious. Many commanders protested to no avail. A further complication for the 9th Rifle Brigade was their position nearer to the enemy than neighbouring units. As such, they were not to advance from their jumping off line until eighteen minutes after Zero Hour. The Battalion had two objectives; firstly to capture the Blue Line running in front of Triangle Wood and through Hill Side Work and then to push on to the Red Line, completing the capture of both positions. Advancing from a line 150-200 yards east of the front line marked by white tape fixed to the ground, the Battalion was to advance behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of artillery shells exploding in a slowly moving curtain across the battlefield.
Ten minutes before Zero Hour the first wave left the assembly trenches to line up on the tape. At 4.03pm they advanced, followed by the second wave that left the assembly trenches at Zero +42 minutes. In common with many units who attacked that dreadful day, no further report was ever received from the companies in the first wave. German artillery fire was extraordinarily heavy (lasting for over fifteen hours) with eight company runners either killed or wounded. Post -action reports noted the first wave veered to the right in the darkness, striking a new German trench wired and held by the enemy. Despite this, it was captured by Zero + 40 minutes and advance progressed. However, enfilade machine gun fire caused heavy casualties and ‘few, if any ever reached the rear of Hill Side Work’. All eight officers of the first wave became casualties very early in the day, some being wounded several times. Only seven NCOs of the first wave ever returned. The second wave fared no better. As their advance was in daylight they were subjected to machine gun fire sooner than the first wave and also came up against machine gun positions which had been established after or missed in the dark by the first wave, in addition to enfilade fire from across the Cojeul valley near St Rohart’s Factory.
The second wave was finally held up just in front of Spotted Dog Trench which was held by the enemy; they dug in along a line of shell holes about 600 to 700 yards in front of their original front line at Ape Trench. A German counter-attack against the 18th Division who had captured Chérisy forced their line back to its starting position; this action rippled northward with orders sent out to recall the Battalion. Such was the dominance of German artillery and machine gun fire (firing continuously from both flanks and from across the river valley) that these orders could only be communicated to two platoons; it being impossible to contact the remnants of the battalion occupying shell holes close to Spotted Dog Trench. On the evening of the 3rd two patrols were sent to recall one company holding a line of shell holes and strong point close to the German trench. Over the next couple of nights survivors of the 9th Rifle Brigade’s attack returned to the original British line. The Battalion’s casualties during the day’s operations were 12 officers and 257 Other Ranks. The 9th Rifle Brigade was relieved on 4 May before heading back to The Harp. This disastrous day marked the beginning of the end of the Battle of Arras. Desperate fighting continued for possession of Roeux, its infamous Chemical Works and Greenland Hill plus around Fresnoy which was recaptured on 8 May. However, by then British attentions were turning northwards to Flanders.
As Herbert Wright’s company is unknown it proved impossible to know whether he formed part of the first or second wave of attackers. Tony and I we walked the attack, passing the assembly trench positions, taped line from which the battalion advanced before moving to the final positions reached. It was here that Tony laid a small poppy cross in memory of his great uncle. Herbert Wright was one of ninety seven men of the Battalion killed on 3 May; all but two are commemorated on the Arras Memorial to the Missing. We visited the Arras Memorial and saw Herbert Wright’s name on Panel 9.
His remains may be buried in the grave of an unknown soldier or still be out on the battlefield. The Third Battle of the Scarpe, as the fighting over 3/4 May was named, was an unmitigated disaster for the British Army which suffered nearly 6,000 men killed for little material gain.
In the Official History, Military Operations France and Belgium 1917 Cyril Falls gives the following reasons for the failure on 3 May 1917 in the VII Corps frontage:
“The confusion caused by the darkness; the speed with which the German artillery opened fire; the manner in which it concentrated upon the British infantry, almost neglecting the artillery; the intensity of its fire, the heaviest that many an experienced soldier had ever witnessed, seemingly unchecked by British counter-battery fire and lasting almost without slackening for fifteen hours; the readiness with which the German infantry yielded to the first assault and the energy of its counter-attack; and, it must be added, the bewilderment of the British infantry on finding itself in the open and its inability to withstand any resolute counter-attack.”
This stark paragraph illustrates perfectly the battlefield during the 3 May 1917 fighting; nightmarish, terrifying and bloody. Having been at home for a week now I am still thinking about it and the windswept ridge between Guémappe and Vis-en-Artois.
“I spent an extraordinary day with Jeremy walking in the footsteps of my Great Uncle, who fell on May 3rd 1917 at the Battle of Arras. He did a wonderful job of balancing a very good explanation of the complexities of the overall battle itself with a highly emotional and personal end to the day of literally experiencing his final hours. As my Great Uncle was a private soldier, without detailed records of his service easily available, I was deeply impressed by how he brought together a range of different sources to nevertheless give me a really specific and personal understanding of what he and his comrades went through. It was an absolutely unforgettable experience”. Tony Wright
A good write up of the part played by one young officer, 2/Lt William Clarke Wheatley, former pupil at Sandbach School who was killed in the 3rd May attack can be found on Conor Reeves’ excellent website: http://sommejr.wordpress.com/william-clark-wheatley-3517/.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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/
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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)
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/