Archive for the ‘Battlefield Tours’ Category


From 2 – 4 March I was guiding a private battlefield tour. Late last year I had been asked to compile a report on S/8888 Private William Charles Sewell who served in the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. William Sewell went overseas in November 1915, served through the Somme in 1916 and was killed at Roeux during the Battle of Arras on 3 May 1917. As well as compiling a detailed report on William Sewell’s war service I was asked to take his great nephew, Paul Carter with his friends to follow in William’s footsteps from Arras down to the Somme.

Private William Charles Sewell, 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. Killed 3 May 1917 during an attack at Roeux during the Battle of Arras. Many thanks to Paul Carter for his permission to use this photo.

Despite a distinct lack of decent weather for the entire trip we had a wonderful time and it was a real honour to be guiding the first member of William Sewell’s family to ever visit his grave.  Starting at Vimy Ridge and the Memorial Park we began our tour of the Arras battlefields. After a stop at La Targette for the enormous French and German cemeteries we picked up the Athies road, following in the footsteps of the triumphant 9th (Scottish) Division in their advance on 9 April 1917. After a quick stop at Point du Jour Cemetery and the 9th (Scottish) Division memorial we headed to Fampoux, tracing the route of the 4th Division as they leapfrogged the Scots that day. Stopping at the Seaforths Cross at the Sunken Lane I explained the disastrous attack on 11 April 1917 and read an account of the operation from Private James Stout, a survivor of the attack. As one of those actions that holds a particular fascination for me it was all the more poignant being there with a relative of a soldier who may well have taken place in that ill-planned venture. The following account provides a bleak picture of subsequent events:

At ZERO Hour (12 noon) 2nd Seaforths and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers advanced, the former on a 3 company front, the latter on a 2 company front. The 2nd Seaforth Highlanders’ objective was the cross roads I.13.a.9.3, exclusive to cross roads I.7.a.4.3 exclusive.  Immediately these two battalions advanced, they came under a very heavy machine gun fire from the INN, CHEMICAL WORKS, STATION, CHATEAU and Railway Embankment.  The whole ground in Squares H.12 and 18 appeared to be swept by machine gun fire.

At the same time a barrage was put down on FAMPOUX and East of the SUNKEN Road where the remaining two battalions were assembling.  This machine gun fire very soon thinned the advancing lines but the troops continued to advance.

On the left, part of a company of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders entered a new trench some 150 to 200 yards west of the 1st objective, about I.7.c.5.9.

This party under an officer [Lt Donald Mackintosh] maintained itself in the trench for some time, until its ammunition was exhausted, when they were forced back by a counter attack and only a few returned. The remainder, including the officer who is missing, were either killed or wounded, and left in this trench.

The heavy machine gun fire maintained by the enemy made it impossible to obtain information regarding the course of the action but it required no report that a single wave of 400 men who had to advance an average distance of 400 yards with a Battalion front of 1100 yards could not obtain their objectives in face of such machine gun fire and rifle fire.

Map extract from 10th Brigade war diary showing 'line of dead Seaforths'. Ref: WO95/1479 10th Infantry Brigade War Diary. Copyright National Archives & reproduced with their permission.

After the debacle of 11 April 4th Division went back for some rest. Their next large-scale attack was the fighting at Roeux on 3 May. It was during this fighting that William Swell was killed. Starting next to the A1 motorway at Crump Trench Cemetery we followed the battalion through their part in the battle.  The following map shows the objectives, named respectively the BLACK, BLUE and RED Lines. The total advance was so far as the 4th Division was concerned was to cover a distance of 2500 yards, including:

  1. The capture of the Northern portion of the village of ROEUX, including the CHEMICAL WORKS and STATION buildings.
  2. The capture of the trench system on the high ground near HAUSA and DELBAR Woods, and finally
  3. The piercing of the defences round PLOUVAIN, which were partially wired.

3 May 1917: the 4th Division's attack plan for Roeux . Positions for the 2nd Seaforths can be seen marked in yellow. Ref: WO95/1446 4th Division War Diary. Copyright National Archives & reproduced with their permission.

Of the attack, the war diary notes:

3 May – Zero hour 3.45am when a heavy bombardment of enemy’s position started, lasting for half an hour. Barrage then crept forward very slowly. Battalion left their trenches at 4.30am, being in support to the Household Battalion who were to capture the cemetery north of ROEUX. The Royal Warwickshire Regiment were on the left of the Household Battalion and Royal Irish Fusiliers on left of Seaforths, support to Royal Warwickshire Regiment. 1st Somerset Light Infantry were on the right and were to capture village of ROEUX. On reaching BLUE Line which was just west of DELBAR WOOD the Battalion moved to their right until left of each wave was opposite NW corner of DELBAR WOOD where a halt was made until ZERO + 85 = 5.10am when they advanced to capture the RED line, east of DELBAR and HAUSA WOOD, and immediately west of PLOUVAIN, through I.21.b. and I.15.d & b. This attack unfortunately failed owing to both flanks being held up and severe losses, and later on the whole Brigade line was forced to withdraw to original front line. The Battalion came back to CRETE Trench. This was the position until dark when the Battalion was sent to relieve the Household Battalion in CEYLON Trench from its junction with CORONA Trench I.19.a.8.7. to its junction with COX Trench I.19.a. 7.3. Company Sergeant Major Fraser was in charge of the line as all officers taking part in these operations had become casualties. The Commanding Officer, Adjutant, Medical Officer and three other officers became casualties of the same shell.

Delbar and Hausa Wood no longer exist. Le Lac Bleu (Blue Lake) now covers the ground on which the woods sat. Unless there is specific personal testimony it is notoriously hard to pinpoint the exact spot that a soldier was killed. However, as most casualties were sustained between the BLUE and RED lines it seems likely that William Sewell was killed in this area. Having followed the route of advance we returned to the ground between Fampoux and Roeux to pay our respects at William Sewell’s grave.

William Sewell's grave in Brown's Copse Cemetery

Crossing the Scarpe we drove up in Monchy-le-Preux and up Infantry Hill where I recounted the story of 14 April attack by the 1st Essex and Newfoundlanders and the resulting action of the small band of men who saved Monchy from German recapture.  For our last stop of the day we headed to the Arras Memorial to Missing.

Next morning began with a windswept walk on the Hindenburg Line to the quiet delight of Rookery Cemetery and Cuckoo Passage Cemetery, the latter full of men of the Manchester Regiment killed on 23 April 1917.

Cuckoo Passage Cemetery, Heninel

We then headed back into Arras for a good tour of the underground boves and tunnels at Wellington Quarry. Our brief visit to Arras was now at an end as we headed south down to the Somme battlefields.

Our first stop was the Sheffield Memorial Park and the Gospel Copses at Serre (the 2nd Seaforths held the frontline trenches here in November – December 1915). We then headed to Redan Ridge to look at the part played by the 2nd Seaforths in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. The operation plan was for 11th Brigade to take Munich Trench and then for 10th and 12th Brigades to pass through them at a given time and gain the final objective along the Beaucourt Ridge (2nd Seaforths were part of 10th Infantry Brigade)

The war diary offers the following explanation of events:

Zero at 7.30am. From 5.30am the very intense bombardment concentrated on the German trenches in front. At 7.30am the 11th Brigade moved forward from our front in waves.

By 8.45am no messages had come through from 11th Brigade. Patrols advanced and were met by heavy machine gun fire. Telephone to Brigade HQ was out so two orderlies were sent for orders. As they had not arrived by 9am – the hour appointed for the Battalion advance – the remainder of the Battalion moved forward.

On coming into view of the German trenches the Battalion came under heavy machine gun fire from the front and direction of Beaumont Hamel. After passing the German front, parties pushed forward and reached the third line of trenches. Other parties of our men may have reached Munich Trench but there was no possible communication and none returned.

By this time 11th Brigade had already lost their Brigadier, General Prowse (died of wounds) and all four Commanding Officers (killed). Enemy held first, second and third lines on our left and right. Attempts were made to consolidate the ground gained. Enemy bombed on flanks and the third line was given up at about 1pm.

By 11am there were only 5 officers left with the battalion and casualties were proportionately heavy in the ranks. During the evacuation of the third trench Drummer Ritchie sounded the Charge with the idea of encouraging these waverers who had lost their leaders. This gallant action in addition to his conduct throughout the day gained him the Victoria Cross.

We finally withdrew at about 5pm to original front line positions south of the Quadilateral. At this time there were about 40 men of the battalion left.

The war diary records the following casualties:

Officers Other Ranks
Killed 12 59
Died of wounds 1 6
Wounded 8 260
Missing, believed killed 0 1
Missing 0 53
TOTAL 21 379

Redan Ridge viewed from a position on the Hawthorn Ridge. The German-held village of Beaumont Hamel is to the right of frame.

Further stops that afternoon included the Sunken Lane at Beaumont Hamel, scene of the infamous  attack by 1st Lancashire Fusiliers on 1 July, Newfoundland Memorial Park with its preserved trenches and the Ulster Tower and Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. We finished by following the front line by Authuille Wood to Ovillers, down Mash Valley and then to the hotel at Albert.

Our final day dawned in thick fog which made pointing out sites rather difficult.  Beginning with a stop at Fricourt and the Bois Francais we followed the British front line and saw the site of Siegfried Sassoon’s Military Cross action before heading to the site of the Livens Flame Projector site at Mametz. Dropping down to Devonshire Cemetery we headed toward Maricourt and the junction with the French Army on 1 July. Passing Trônes Wood, Guillemont and Ginchy we headed to the desolate fields between Lesboeufs and Le Transloy for our last in-depth look at the part played by the 2nd Seaforths during the Somme battle. Fighting in desperate mud with a thick mist (not unlike the weather on the day we visited) the battalion took place in two attacks in mid-October against German positions in Dewdrop and Rainy Trench.  The Battalion war diary recorded the ground conditions in the area:

From Montauban eastwards the whole country is one stretch of absolute desolation – a more gloomy sight I have never seen. The ground is just a maze of shell holes, varying from size of stokes mortar crater to the size of a crater made by a 15-inch.

The attacks on the 14th and 23rd were pressed with utmost gallantry but typical resolute defence from German troops allied to the dreadful ground conditions encountered made any serious advance impossible.

After a walk around Delville Wood and a stop at Flat Iron Copse Cemetery and the Welsh Dragon Memorial at Mametz Wood we ended up at the Glory Hole at La Boisselle where I was able to show them around site and take them underground in W Adit. It had been a real pleasure spending time with these gentlemen. Thanks to Paul Carter and his friends Tim Halliday, Al Kendall and Richard Johnson for making me so welcome. I hope that we can do it again sometime soon – perhaps Ypres next time?

Thank you very much for the wonderful report on my Great Uncle William Sewell and the tailor made trip following in his footsteps 97 years later. Your local knowledge, historical expertise and professional service gave my small group a fantastic tour- better than we could have hoped for. The stories of individual’s personal experiences brought an extra dimension to the trip and brought to life briefly a few of the thousands of names inscribed on memorial walls or grave stones. We all agreed that trip would have been so much less of an event if we had tried to find our own way around, and we would have missed so many significant points. The battlefield overlays and WW1 panoramas were fantastic to relate to as we stood in the centre of all those events and you recounted the events played out. On our journey back there was plenty of talk about the next trip – until then! Paul Carter

I know all four of us found the experience fascinating, thought provoking, educational and frequently moving as well.  Your own passion and knowledge of a crucial era in our history was captivating and I am sure like me, the other guys have been singing your praises to those they have talked to about the trip. It certainly was a weekend to remember. Al Kendall

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Earlier this month I spent an enjoyable time on the Somme with a client, Roland Parr, who was following in the footsteps of his great uncle, John Thomas Davies VC, 11th South Lancashire Regiment.

Roland had commissioned me to produce a detailed report on his great uncle in order that other family members could know more about this man, his war and the actions that led to the award of his Victoria Cross. Over the past few months Roland had accompanied me to the National Archives to look at war diaries from Division, Brigade and Battalion level. We also visited the Imperial War Museum to work in the Department of Documents and to have a good look at the new(ish) Lord Ashcroft Gallery which holds the original VC of Jack Davies. It must have been a somewhat surreal experience for Roland to be looking at the actual VC in its hermetically sealed case when he remembers holding the medal as a young boy.

All of this was the precursor to our visit to the battlefields to follow ‘Uncle Jack’ around the western front.

We set out from Peronne and began our pilgrimage at Maricourt, a village that Jack Davies and the rest of the 11th South Lancs would have known well from their time here in 1916. The battalion were the Pioneers to the 30th Division. I had found a map showing the trenches in this sector dug by the battalion during the month of July 1916. I also noted that they had opened out some of the Russian saps dug by men of 183 Tunnelling Company RE. All of these sites could be viewed in the fields in front of us.

Trench map extract of the Maricourt sector - dated June 1916

We stood at the site of the British front line on the quiet road to Montauban with Machine Gun Wood on our left and Germans’ Wood to our front right and imagined what this scene looked like on 1 July and the subsequent days and weeks as battle moved on in this area.

Panorama from British front line looking towards the village of Montauban on the right hand side - an objective for the 30th Division. Machine Gun Wood can be seen on the left of frame.

After Montauban we stopped at the 18th (Eastern) Division memorial at Trones Wood. The 11th South Lancs had been working in the wood in the latter half of July 1916.

Looking into Trones Wood from the 18th Division memorial

We then spent a pleasant few hours on a tour of the battlefields – all south of the Ancre. Stops included High Wood, Ulster Tower and the Pope’s Nose and the Thiepval Memorial. I was also able to give Roland a good look around the Glory Hole at La Boisselle.

After stocking up on a picnic lunch at the Old Blighty Tea Room at La Boisselle we headed back to Peronne and then down to St Quentin, focussing on the period from the German attack on 21 March 1918 through to the action for which Jack Davies was awarded his VC on the morning of 24 March. We visited the villages of Savy, Roupy and the small site of Epine de Ballon. Jack’s company (unknown) was in one of these locations prior to the German offensive. We then made our way to Fluquieres and from there to the high ground between Aviation Wood and Mill Wood. On the evening of 21 March 1918 the battalion dug and wired a defensive line through here, remaining for nearly 24 hours until on the evening of 22 March the order was given for all troops to withdraw in orderly fashion to Ham. Upon reaching Ham the battalion was told to billet in nearby Eppeville. We had a good look around Ham, visiting the bridge over the Somme Canal blown up by a detachment of Royal Engineers on the morning of the 23rd before driving west to Eppeville itself.

The bridge over the Somme Canal at Ham blown up by a detachment of RE on the morning of the 23 March 1918

This was the village, really no more than one street, intrinsically tied to Jack Davies’s VC story. After stopping at the Sucrerie (ironically now owned by a German company called Südzucker, the largest sugar producer in Europe) we continued west and crossed the railway line, noting the positions held along the line by the battalion.

The Sucrerie at Eppeville

Finally, we reached the field where two companies of the battalion were almost entirely surrounded on the morning of 24 March 1918. As is the way with so many sights of unimaginable bravery in the Great War there is nothing to mark the site as anywhere special – just a couple of grassy fields next to the road with a man-made lake behind them barring the way to the stream over which the survivors escaped.

The field where Jack Davies performed the deeds which led to his VC award. German troops had crossed the canal and were coming directly towards this spot.

According to the after-action report compiled in the war diary it was in these two innocuous fields that Jack Davies mounted the parapet and kept his Lewis Gun firing until overwhelmed by the advancing Germans.

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty under heavy rifle and machinegun fire. When his company – outflanked on both sides – received orders to withdraw, Corporal Davies knew that the only line of withdrawal lay through a deep stream lined with a belt of barbed wire, and that it was imperative to hold up the enemy as long as possible.

He mounted the parapet, fully exposing himself, in order to get a more effective field of fire, and kept his Lewis gun in action to the last, causing the enemy many casualties and checking their advance. By his very great devotion to duty he enabled part of his company to get across the river, which they would otherwise have been unable to do, thus undoubtedly saving the lives of many of his comrades. When last seen this gallant N.C.O. was still firing his gun, with the enemy close on the top of him, and was in all probability killed at his gun.

Quite how and why he wasn’t killed remains unknown but it was only two months later, after his VC citation had been published in the London Gazette that word reached home that he was a POW in Germany. It was safely assumed that Jack was killed in the action and so the citation (above) is written as a posthumous record of his bravery.

The "deep stream lined with a belt of barbed wire" over which the survivors of the 11th South Lancs escaped - now called the River d'Allemagne.

Roland laid a small cross in the field and we then paid our respects at Ham British Cemetery where other men of the 11th South Lancs who hadn’t the same luck as Jack are buried. It was a spot I hadn’t visited before and I was taken by the two cemeteries – the British and Commonwealth cemetery directly next to the Muille-Villette German Cemetery.

Ham British Cemetery. The black crosses of the neighbouring German cemetery can just be made out above the Portland stone headstones.

A view from the German cemetery - the gravestones of German and British soldiers lie almost side-by-side.

Before leaving I laid a cross at the grave of Lieutenant John Cuthbert Lidgett, 11th South Lancs in memory of all the men of the battalion who made the ultimate sacrifice. It had been a real trip to remember….

“What a wonderful day you provided for me, far exceeding my expectations for our time together. I mentioned the words ‘bringing alive’ and certainly you did that both for the 1 July 1916 action on the Somme and also Jack’s story from 21-24 March 1918. I have no idea how many similar stories you have so far put together, but I cannot think that anyone trying to trace the steps of a long lost relative would regret having made contact with you. If this is the source of your livelihood, then I can see nothing but success ahead.” Roland Parr, Cambridge

The grave of Lieutenant John Cuthbert Lidgett, 11th South Lancs in Ham British Cemetery. The cross was placed in memory of all the men of the battalion who made the ultimate sacrifice.

What a wonderful day you provided for me, far exceeding my expectations for our time together. I mentioned the words ‘bringing alive’ and certainly you did that both for the 1 July 1916 action on the Somme and also Jack’s story from 21-24 March 1918. I have no idea how many similar stories you have so far put together, but I cannot think that anyone trying to trace the steps of a long lost relative would regret having made contact with you. If this is the source of your livelihood, then I can see nothing but success ahead.

Roland Parr,

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Last week I spent an enjoyable two days on the battlefields with four clients. For all but one of them it was their first visit to the western front.  We met bright and early on Monday morning at the Channel Tunnel terminal and travelled over in convoy down to Arras.

Arras

Our first stop was in the superb Carriere Wellington. Our guide, the irrepressible Pascal, was as keen as ever and coupled with my preliminary talk on the Battle of Arras and the ten minute ‘taster’ film shown prior to going underground my  group got a good initial grasp of the battle in April & May 1917. Following our hour underground we visited the Arras Memorial to the Missing and Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery. The sheer scale of men with no known grave from the Arras battlefields had the usual sobering effect.

Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery with the Arras Memorial in the background

Being so close we popped into the Mur des Fusillés and paid our respects at the site where 218 French resistance and civilians were shot by the Germans in the Second World War. I have always found it an eerie place with a strange atmosphere all of its own.

We then headed out to the Great War battlefields around Arras with the first stop the Point du Jour for a visit to the military cemetery and the graves of the 10th Lincolns men (Grimsby Chums) found in 2001 and the impressive 9th (Scottish) Division memorial re-sited next to the cemetery. After a picnic lunch in the cemetery we headed back into Athies and along to Fampoux. The village marked the point of furthest advance into German lines on 9 April 1917. We stopped at the sunken lane to look at the attack of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers (10th Brigade, 4th Division) against Greenland Hill and Roeux on 11 April 1917. Whilst at the Sunken Lane Cemetery overlooking the sloping fields down to Roeux I told my group of Donald MacKintosh and the actions that earned his Victoria Cross.  We then drive through Roeux past the site of the Chemical Works (now a Carrefour mini-supermarket) and around to Brown’s Copse Cemetery to pay our respects at MacKintosh’s grave.

The grave of Donald MacKintosh VC in Brown’s Copse Cemetery, Roeux

Back on the road we crossed the Scarpe and headed up to Monchy-le-Preux. I pointed out the positions of various trench lines and explained about the catastrophic failure of the 3 May attack, the Third Battle of the Scarpe. We then had a drive around Monchy, stopping at the stunning 37th Division memorial and the Newfoundland Caribou Memorial which is built on the top of a British artillery observation post constructed in August 1917 by 69 Field Company RE. Our day’s battlefielding was completed with a stop east of the village on Infantry Hill where I told of the disastrous 14 April attack by 1st Essex Regiment and the aforementioned Newfoundlanders. Both battalions were destroyed in carefully planned German counter-attacks – the first use of the new doctrine of ‘elastic’ defence. Monchy was at the mercy of the Germans and the situation was only saved by the quick thinking action of Lt-Colonel James Forbes-Robertson and a small group of men – all decorated for this action and known thereafter as the Heroes of Monchy.

The Men who saved Monchy – all decorated for their part in the action

We had a pleasant walk up Infantry Hill to the Mound and then headed back into Arras to pick up my car and then headed down to the Somme for a welcome meal and good night’s sleep.

The view of Infantry Hill from Green Lane. Bois du Vert sits on the horizon to the right of the picture.

The Somme

The next day was spent touring the 1916 Somme battlefield. Very much aware that one can only skim over the surface with one day around such a large and important battlefield we were up early to make full use of the daylight. After an explanation in the car park on the battle using various maps we set off north up to Serre, the most northerly point of continuous attack on 1 July 1916. En route we pulled the car in at the Ulster Tower for a view across the Ancre and an explanation of events in the northern part of the battlefield. The Gospel Copses at Serre were deserted and we had Sheffield Memorial Park all to ourselves as I explained about the failure of the attack and the losses incurred by the northern Pals battalions of the 31st Division.

The entrance to Sheffield Memorial Park with Railway Hollow Cemetery in the background.

After some time in Railway Hollow Cemetery we stopped at Serre Road Cemetery No.2 (the largest on the Somme battlefield) and the across the Redan Ridge to Beaumont Hamel, and the infamous sunken lane, the jumping off point for the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers that fateful morning. We then retraced our steps and stopped for a pleasantly quiet walk around the preserved trenches of Newfoundland Memorial Park with its Caribou and even more imposing memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division, conquerors of Beaumont Hamel in November 1916. Our next stop was to the magnificent Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, a must for any battlefield visitor to the western front. Heading via Pozières of Australian fame we reached the Old Blighty Tea Rooms at La Boisselle for a deserved late lunch.

The afternoon began with a detailed tour around the Glory Hole at La Boisselle and a good walk around the site looking at the craters and depressions marking the trenches followed by a stop at the unmissable Lochnagar Crater.

The Glory Hole at La Boisselle. Overlooking the site of the Granathof.

We then headed east through the battlefield, past Contalmaison, Longueval and Guillemont to the Cedric Dickens cross at Ginchy overlooking Leuze and Bouleaux Woods. This was a special stop for one of the group whose grandfather had served with the 1/8th Middlesex Regiment and who had probably been in these very fields in mid-September 1916.

Jack & John with Bouleaux Wood in the background. John’s grandfather served here in September 1916 with the 1/8th Middlesex Regiment.

Our final stop of the day was to the site above Mametz of our successful archaeological dig for a Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector where I could stand my clients on the spot where the parts had been recovered in May 2010.  Sadly we did not have time to all visit the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne to see the temporary exhibition and salvaged projector parts as well as the full size replica but there is only so much we could do within the time constraints.

“I would just like to say a big thank you for making our battlefield tour such an interesting and amazing event. Your knowledge of the area and what went on and where, is just incredible. The tour was made that much better by the fact that you had researched my Grandfather’s service in the Middlesex Regiment and proceeded to show us exactly where he was and what he would have experienced almost to the day but 95 years ago. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck!

The choice of locations that you picked were excellent, and whilst I know two days is not long enough to cover everything there is to see, we certainly got a very good understanding of what happened, by whom and where. This was made even more poignant by linking them to my ancestors who had fought there. I would have no hesitation in recommending your tours to any of my friends, in fact I have told them of my experience with you and we are already planning another tour for next year.” John Waterman, Kent

It was a terrific trip with delightful people who have clearly got the battlefielding bug. My thanks to John, Clare, Sally and Jack for their enthusiasm, understanding and for sending me a selection of photos. I am already looking forward to the next time…

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Last month I managed to stop in at the Arras battlefields when on my way down to La Boisselle for more site work. I only had a couple of hours before a lunchtime meeting in Peronne but still managed a quick recce for a private battlefield tour I am taking in September.

Looking from the British lines to Highland Cemetery, Roclincourt

I have some clients coming from New Zealand who have a relative, Corporal Andrew McDonald MM, who was fatally wounded at the Battle of Arras.  I have been compiling a detailed report on this soldier who served in the 6th (Morayshire) Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders.

Derek Bird - "The Spirit of the Troops is Excellent." A first-class study of the battalion - highly recommended reading.

Andrew McDonald was in the battalion from its very formation and arrived in France in 1915. As part of 152 Brigade, 51st (Highland) Division he served throughout the Somme offensive including Bazintin-le-Grand, High Wood and the successful capture of Beaumont Hamel in November. He was awarded the Military Medal for his part in a raid on enemy positions in September 1916 on the Railway Salient near Armentieres. A most useful book on the battalion is Derek Bird’s ‘The Spirit of the Troops is Excellent’ which I can heartily recommend as a superb battalion study.

On the opening day of battle, Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 the battalion was to be involved from the off. Facing the German trenches northeast of the small village of Roclincourt they were tasked with capturing three lines of German trenches, the third of which was designed the Black Line. They would then consolidate these whilst the 1/5th Seaforths passed through them in the ‘leap-frog’ system to take the next two lines, the Brown and Blue Lines.

Trench map of Roclincourt-Neuville-Thelus sectors. The black lines are the boundaries for the 6th Seaforths attack on 9 April 1917. CLICK map to enlarge.

Andrew McDonald was serving in C Company – they had even more limited objectives, being tasked with taking and holding a section of the first two lines. D Company with a platoon of B Company would then push on to the Black Line – the final objective for the battalion.

As Andrew McDonald’s service record no longer survives it is very hard to know where he was fatally wounded and the war diary offers scant evidence. However, in September I will take his relatives, having travelled half way around the world, to the site of the jumping-off trenches occupied by C Company and let them stand where he stood on 9 April 1917. I am pretty confident that he was wounded in the fields in front of us, rising towards Farbus and Thélus on the southern shoulder of Vimy Ridge. The beautiful Highland Cemetery now stands close to the site of C Company’s advance. It is full of Highland Division men and is well worth a visit.

Highland Cemetery, Roclincourt

One casualty buried in the cemetery that particularly stood out for me whilst reading Derek Bird’s book was Sergeant Charles Mackenzie who was reportedly killed while engaged in a bayonet fight. One of his men was bayoneted and in a selfless act Mackenzie stood over his body to protect him from further wounding.  Sadly he himself was then overcome and killed.

Sgt Charles Mackenzie, killed in a bayonet fight on 9 April

Fatally wounded on 9 April Andrew McDonald succumbed to his wounds on 13 April, having made it back to the huge hospitals near Etaples. He is buried in the vast and sobering Etaples Military Cemetery, another spot my clients will visit on their September pilgrimage.

Panorama overlooking Highland Cemetery. It is taken close to the site of the Battalion HQ during the opening stages of the Battle of Arras. The tree lined road on the left takes you to Thelus.

All of this took place just off the A26 motorway so please spare a thought and look to your right and the lonely Highland Cemetery just past Junction 7 next time you are heading south.

Total losses for the Battalion during the opening stages of the Battle of Arras were 9 Officers and 320 Other Ranks. Further trials awaited the battalion later in the month at Roeux and the Chemical Works during some of the most savage infantry fighting of the war.  For those with an interest in the battalion Derek Bird has compiled a Roll of Honour to the fallen of the 6th Seaforths. It can be viewed here: http://www.scotlandnorthbranch.webspace.virginmedia.com/Roll-of-Honour/Index.htm

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I was pleased to receive some photos of Railway Chateau Cemetery near Ypres from my brother, Mark Banning of MGB Tours. This was one of the cemeteries that the CWGC chose to conduct their climate charge trial on. Sadly this meant that for a period of eighteen months the cemetery lost its turf which was replaced with a most unsatisfactotry form of hard standing. It was telling how the difference in ground surface had such an effect on the architects vision of the cemetery – no longer a peaceful English garden but a messy patch of neglected ground. Even the plants seemed to suffer.

I wrote back in February that the cemetery was to be returned to tuft and can now post some images from last week.

Railway Chateau Cemetery in April 2011 with a welcome return of the turf

Thank goodness this experiment has ended. Whilst I completely understand the need for the CWGC to be at the vanguard of horticulture with regard to climate change, it was pretty clear at the outset that this experiment was not well regarded. The work seemed to have been done in such a slapdash way – quite unlike the usual CGWC gardening and landscaping.

Some other images below including how the cemetery looked during its experiment.

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Following the three week archaeological dig at Mametz last May I am pleased to report that a new exhibition is to open at the Historial, Peronne from 16 June 2011.

Below is the text from the flyer that has been produced. If you are on the Somme from June – December then please do visit the Historial for the chance to see this exhibition.

An exhibition that tells for the first time the story behind the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector. Employed only ten times during the war – nine of which were on the Somme. The machine was 19 metres long, 40 centimetres wide, and weighed 2.5 tonnes. It was deployed from a tunnel beneath No Man’s Land by a specially-trained crew of seven, and fired a jet of flaming oil 100 metres long over the German trenches: the strangest, rarest and most horrifying weapon of the Great War.

In May 2010 historians and archaeologists excavated a section of the British trenches near the village of Mametz in search of the remains of a Flame Projector believed to have been abandoned underground in late June 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme. The results were extraordinary, and for the first time for almost 100 years some of the original parts found in 2010 can be viewed alongside a specially-commissioned replica constructed by local students of vocational training centres.

A special screening of the film “Breathing Fire – Le Dragon de la Somme” will be shown at the opening of the exhibition, 16 June at 6pm.

A downloadable version of this flyer in pdf is available by clicking on the link below. Please feel free to disemminate this information to all your friends and battlefield visitors. It promises to be a terrific exhibition and for many will be the first chance to see parts of the Livens Flame Projector, buried in the Somme mud for 94 years.

Breathing Fire – Le Dragon de la Somme exhibition

Exact date of transmission of the version for UK television still to be determined. I will post this when I find out the date from the production company.

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I have been sent some photos of a trip to the Ypres battlefields made in 1984. I was still in the second year of secondary school at this point so didn’t go along – the two intrepid travellers were my father and eldest brother, Mark (http://www.mgbtours.com/). For the both of them this was their first trip to any Great War battlefield. I am glad to say that it was certainly not their last – my father regularly visits both Ypres and the Somme with the rest of the Banning family and also with the wonderful Genesta Battlefield Club. As for Mark, he now spends his time as a full-time battlefield guide (and highly recommended he is too) so it is clear that this 1984 pilgrimage was the first of many visits to the hallowed ground of the Ypres salient.

These pictures, taken in the pre-digital era, have been scanned and tidied up by me. Ignoring the questionable fashions on display they show fascinating details of many oft-visited places around the immortal salient – all without the coaches of visitors that often accompany some of these spots nowadays.

Of particular interest are the shots of the Advanced Dressing Station on the banks of the Ieper-Ijser canal at Essex Farm Cemetery which show the site before its restoration in the 1990s. Modern shots can be seen by visiting this site. Visitors to the area will know of its association with John McCrae, author of ‘In Flanders Fields’.

Also worth noting are the low trees at the Brooding Soldier Memorial at Vancouver Corner. It is amazing how the horticulture and the inexorable work of nature has such an effect on the way a particular spot looks. It was this site that held their main interest as they remembered my grandfather, Private Seymour Henry Banning, 13th Battalion, CEF (Royal Highlanders of Canada) who was gassed and taken POW very close to the spot on or around 22 April 1915 – one of the first men ever to have been gassed in warfare.

Click on the pictures to see them at full size.

Many thanks to my brother Mark Banning for these photos.

McCrae Advanced Dressing Station at Essex Farm

McCrae Advanced Dressing Station at Essex Farm before renovation

Mark at Hill 60

The scene of vicious fighting - hallowed ground of Hill 60

Preserved trenches in Sanctuary Wood

One of the rides in Plugstreet Wood

French Ossuary at Kemmel

Spoilbank Cemetery with the spires of Ypres visible in the background

The Brooding Soldier Memorial at Vancouver Corner - note the low trees

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Now that I am back at my desk in Bristol I can reflect on a wonderful time spent in Arras from the 11-13 November with my colleague Peter Barton. The main reason for our visit was to do a talk (in French) to the locals and media. This was scheduled for 1830hrs on the 12th, ensuring we had sufficient time to meet up with Rachel Gray, great-niece of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment. Those who have the Arras panorama volume will know his name – we used extracts from his fantastic memoirs extensively, both for the pre-battle build up and 9 April attack and the disastrous 3 May attack between the villages of Monchy-le-Preux and Pelves.  Rachel lives in Aylesbury and her local paper, the Bucks Herald covered the story in a piece entitled “Following in the footsteps of a hero”.

I had let Rachel know about our talk some time ago and she had agreed to travel out to Arras with her partner Brian so that we could give her a highly personalised tour of the battlefields – literally, as the newspaper article intimated, following in Percy’s footsteps. After meeting at the Hotel d’Angelterre and having a quick fifteen minutes explanation of the battle we set off along the Arras-Cambrai road to the starting position of the 7th East Surreys on the first day of battle, 9 April 1917. Such is the quality and details of Percy’s writing that we could almost stand on the exact spot where each event happened. This luxury was denied us by the British front line, No Man’s Land and first four lines of German trenches being covered by the industrial units that have grown eastwards along the Roman road. Still, this did not spoil the experience.

View from top of Observation Ridge looking back towards British lines and Arras - 7th East Surrey Regt fought their way up this slope on 9 April 1917

We then drove up over Observation Ridge and I pointed out the site of Sergeant Cator’s VC action and the site near Orange Hill where the battalion spent a freezing cold night on 11/12 April 1917. Percy Clare later wrote; ‘Of all the bad nights I spent in France, this one was easily the worst’. We then headed up to the fields between the villages of Monchy-le-Preux and Pelves where, by driving across the farm tracks (thank goodness for Peter’s Range Rover), we followed the disastrous attack of the battalion on 3 May 1917. It was possible to see the ‘dead ground’ which Percy described as sheltering him and his colleagues from German machine gun fire from the direction of Keeling Copse and Bois des Aubepines. We drove up a track to Bois des Aubepines to have a view of the entire battlefield and appreciate the commanding position the Germans held. As we looked back towards the British start positions in the direction of Bayonet Trench we knew that that this benign ground in front of us was the ground in which Percy Clare and his pal, Edward Gunnett had rolled back to safety whilst under continual German machine gun and rifle fire.

Standing at Bois des Aubepines - the fields in the background are those fought over on 3 May 1917 by Percy Clare and others of the 7th East Surrey Regiment

After spending some time here we went back into Arras and visited the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery and British Memorial to the Missing. The East Surrey’s panels bore names we recognised – one being Captain Thomas King, commanding ‘A’ Company whose compassion shone through when he had removed his coat, placing it over his sleeping servant in the bitter cold of the 11 April night. Captain King was then killed by a German grenade exploding on his chest in the 3 May attack. Another was Lance Corporal Christmas James Steele, a friend of Percy’s who had been killed when running into the British barrage on the German front line on 9 April and Private George Bean who Percy had discovered in No Man’s Land on 3 May, dead but with no trace of a wound on his body. We then headed back into Arras to drop Rachel and Brian off for a well-deserved lunch.

The name of Lance Corporal Christmas James Steele on the Arras Memorial to the Missing - one of over 35,000 names on this memorial alone

The Talk at the Wellington Quarry

Peter and I then spent a couple of hours putting up panoramas, aerials and maps on the walls in the Thompson’s Room at the Wellington Quarry – our talk venue.  The talk began at 1830hrs and we were delighted with the number who came along on a wet, cold night – over 100 people meant standing room only at the back. Peter’s talk was entitled ‘The Battlefields of Arras – the Past, the Present and the Future’. It started with the Battle of Arras and focussed not on specific actions but more on general tactics as well as an emphasis on the importance of the quality of the battlefield archaeological work undertaken in Artois. I then spoke for about ten minutes (apparently my French was understood!) about Percy Clare and his role in the battle as an illustration of one man’s battle. My aim was to use his story to show the importance that the fields around Arras had for not only his family but thousands of others. Peter then talked about the mass grave excavations at Fromelles and our work near Mametz (Somme) in May this year on the search for remaining pieces of a Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector.

The talk was followed by a book signing and the event judged a great success. We were treated to a lovely meal out in a restaurant in the Petit Place by M. Prestaux, head of the Arras Tourist Board. My thanks to Isabelle Pilarowski and the staff at the Wellington Quarry, Alain Jacques and M. Prestaux. Lovely also to see Philippe Gorczynski there. Overall, it was a real success and an honour to find out that we were the first two English historians to speak in French to a French audience in Arras.

Wellington Quarry website is http://www.carriere-wellington.com/

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I received an email from a mate of mine a few weeks ago telling me that he was planning a visit to the battlefields in late-May. He was coming with a few friends for a boy’s weekend with a bit of remembrance and battlefield touring thrown in for good measure. It so happened that they would be in Arras on the day when I was planning to return to the UK after three and a half weeks on the Somme archaeological dig with Cream Productions.

I couldn’t turn down a chance to give them a whistle-stop tour of the Arras battlefield and duly met them on the Saturday morning at Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines where I hopped in their car and gave them a running commentary around St.Laurent Blangy, Athies, Point du Jour, Fampoux, Roeux and the site of the infamous Chemical Works, Monchy-le-Preux and a walk up Infantry Hill, with a run back down the Arras-Cambrai road past Feuchy Chapel back to my car.

Whilst at Point du Jour we visited the graves of many of the Grimsby Chums (10th Lincolns) whose bodies were found in 2001 when foundations were being dug for a nearby BMW car factory.  These bodies were buried with full military honours in the nearby cemetery in 2002.  Sadly, positive identification of any of the remains proved impossible and all are now buried in graves marked with ‘unknown’ headstones.

Describing the Arras battle whilst at Point-du-Jour Military Cemetery

One unexpected outcome of the whistle-stop tour was an answer I received to my usual question of ‘Did you have any relatives that fought in the war?’ One of the party, Rob, responded by telling me he was related to the Great War fighter ace, Albert Ball VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC. He had read about Ball’s exploits recently and this had stirred his interest in the visit. I was glad to hear that next day they all visited Ball’s grave in Annoeullin Communal Cemetery, German Extension.

Great War fighter ace - Albert Ball VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC

So, whilst a lightning quick overview of a very small area, it was still a great way to spend a morning. It was also the first time that I had used the new Arras panorama volume on the battlefield – an mighty useful it was too! Many thanks to Rob, Chilts, Errol and of course, Pieman and his massive but silent car.

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I spent last weekend (16-18 April) taking a family from Bristol on a battlefield tour to Ypres. It had been a while since I have been there after so much recent research effort on Arras for the forthcoming book and the Somme for next month’s TV documentary (of which more details to be released later).  The family wanted to follow in the footsteps of their grandfather and great-grandfather who both served during Third Ypres as well as see the usual sites. This meant a fair bit of in-depth research on two actions that I hadn’t studied before – I’ve passed over the ground en route to somewhere else but never actually looked into what happened at each spot. I was in the extreme north of the advance, up at Faidherbe Crossroads – les 5 Chemins area (at a place called Madonna) in front of Houthulst Forest to cover the 35th Division attack on 22 October 1917.  I then moved down to more familiar territory and focussed on the 9 October 1917 attack of the 2nd Royal Warwicks against Judge Copse. Lunch was taken at my good mate Johan Vandewalle’s café, De Dreve at Polygon Wood (www.polygonwood.com). I also took them to Harry Patch’s memorial to the 7th DCLI in front of Langemark, Vancouver Corner for the Canadian Gas Memorial, Tyne Cot Cemetery (where I bumped into my brother as he was guiding for a trip!), Black Watch Corner down to Clement Robertson VC’s bridge as well as a good cup of tea at the Hill 60 café and then a good stroll around the hill and a stop at the Caterpillar crater. Sunday morning was spent with a quick stop at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery to visit the grave of Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse VC & Bar, MC.

Grave of Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse VC & Bar, MC - Brandhoek New Military Cemetery

Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse VC & Bar, MC

We then drove down to the Messines battlefield to view the mine craters of the Messines attack. The group were mightily impressed by the sheer size of Peckham Crater and Spanbroekmolen.

Explaining the work of the tunneller at the enormous Peckham Mine Crater on the Messines Ridge

We then headed south to Ploegsteert (Plugstreet) for the Memorial to the Missing where I told them all about Sapper William Hackett VC, 254 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers (see www.tunnellersmemorial.com) and then turned about-face and arrived at our final stop – Talbot House, Poperinghe. The tunnel back was much busier than usual owing to the closure of airports but, despite missing our chosen train, I arrived back in Bristol at about 8.30pm. A tiring but brilliant trip all carried out in most un-Flanders like glorious sunshine! My thanks to Robert, Helen, David, Robin, Nicky and of course Thomas for being such charming travel companions.