Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


Over the past few days Channel 4 have been showing trails for Thursday’s Time Team Special entitled ‘The Somme’s Secret Weapon’  and I have seen hits on the various articles on my website rocketing. I am heartened by the interest, and having seen the longer two-hour version of the film at a special event on Monday night at the Royal School of Military Engineering at Chatham I am confident that the visual impact of the film will attract plenty more interest. It is surely one of the most intriguing – indeed almost unbelievable – stories of the war. I have noted that many people are searching for the location of the dig site and I thought it appropriate that interested parties should be aware of the birth, the evolution and the structure of the project.

Initial stages

The idea of searching for the flamethrower was first mooted in 2005 when Peter Barton and I were working on our Somme panorama book. The book, now revised and back in the shops, covers the battle in its entirety but includes a lengthy section on the extraordinary story of the use, mis-use and lack of use of a considerable network on shallow tunnels dug under No Man’s Land by Royal Engineer Tunnellers in preparation for the opening of the battle. They were known as Russian Saps.

The Somme - the unseen panoramas by Peter Barton with Jeremy Banning. Published by Constable & Robinson.

In certain sectors on 1 July 1916 they were not used to their full potential whilst in the southern part of the British line the tunnels, terminating close to the German front line and integral dugouts, contained a variety of schemes to neutralise the enemy. These included substantial mines to destroy strongpoints, smaller bored charges to blow in dugouts, manholes close to the German trenches for the swift deployment of attacking forces into the line, trench mortar positions and machine gun emplacements emanating from tunnels in the middle of No Man’s Land, and perhaps most amazingly, huge flamethrowers for firing 100-metre jets of burning oil across and along German positions. The idea was to create a complex mixture of surprise and terror that would materially assist the British infantry to cross No Man’s Land and capture the enemy front line in a less molested manner than normal. It was the flame-throwers, however – the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector – that seized the imagination, especially as they have received such scant attention in the mountain of literature associated with the Somme.

The projectors were almost 20 metres long, weighed 2.5 tonnes, and required a 7-man crew. Their placement in a tunnel beneath No Man’s Land was to attain an effective firing pattern some 50 or 60 metres from the German lines, and of course to keep their existence secret until the very moment of firing.

The Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector being tested at Wembley. Copyright National Archives. Reproduced with permission from NA file MUN5/385.

We knew that four had been planned for use on Z-Day. Two were deployed successfully from tunnels just to the west of the Carnoy-Montauban road whilst another was damaged and unused. The machine that really caught our attention was the one that was to have been fired from Sap 14 at a position in the British line between Bois Francais and Mansel Copse on the 7th Division frontage.

Trench map of the Fricourt - Mametz area dated June 1916. The tiny blue dot marks the site of the start of Sap 14 which was to house the flamethrower.

British (blue) and German (red) trench lines overlaid on a modern IGN map. The route of Sap 14 is marked by the red triangles. Courtesy of Iain McHenry using Linesman

The Special Brigade war diary showed that on 28 June the machine had been brought up to the front line along a communication trench called 71st Street by a party of around 250 R.E. and Devons (8th or 9th Battalion) but that heavy shelling of the area meant the parts had to be dropped whilst the men took cover. The most important parts were then picked up by the R.E. and placed in the entrance to Sap 14 for safety. However, this inclined entrance tunnel was then hit by a heavy shell which sealed up the end of the sap for 20 feet, ‘burying vital parts of the flammenwerfer beyond recall’. [Special Sections RE War Diary – ref: WO95/122]

Extract from War Diary of Special Section RE for June 1916. Copyright National Archives. Reproduced with permission from NA file WO95/122.

Preparation

It was this tenuous but enticing line in the war diary that was the catalyst for the project. Peter Barton’s knowledge of how the R.E. worked and the sequence of events subsequent to 1st July, combined with our archival research persuaded him that some of those parts would not have been recovered. His relationship with Canadian television producers Cream Productions was already established as a result of previous documentary work and Cream agreed to take on this ambitious and indeed risky project. Peter then spent weeks travelling between the UK and the Somme for myriad meetings for permissions and logistics – far too much to catalogue here but his workload was prodigious and the entire project would not have been possible without this necessary but unglamorous work. On one of our first recces to the projector site we had a chance encounter with farmer Eric Delporte on whose land the old trenches and sap run through. After some initial scepticism he soon willingly gave use of his field free of charge, refusing any payment for ground rental or for lost crop yield on the basis that he owed it to the young British soldiers lying in the several nearby cemeteries. M. Delporte been the perfect host thereafter – a true gentleman and friend to us all.

Using trench maps and Linesman on one of our recces to the site. The village of Mametz lies in the low ground at top of image

To cut a very long story short, by spring 2010 the dates for the dig had been fixed – it would be the final three weeks of May. The project brief was to study Sap 14 and the nearby trenches, enter and survey the saps if possible, and to locate and recover parts of the 1916 Flame Projector if still in situ.

Map from war diary of 183 Tunnelling Company showing Mametz West secton. The flamethrower was to fire from the spur of Sap 14 on right of image. Image copyright National Archives. Reproduced with permission from NA file WO95/406.

The excavation was officially authorised by the French authorities and was under the archaeological control of Dr Tony Pollard and Dr Iain Banks of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, Glasgow University.  We received enormous and invaluable assistance from the Historial de la Grande Guerre, the Préfecture de la Région Picardie, the Conseil Générale de la Somme, M. Stéphane Brunel and the Mairie of Mametz, Mines Rescue, Bactec International and the Corps of Royal Engineers. Most touching was the response of local businesses. As a result of visits by Peter with Francois Bergez (at present the acting Director of the Historial) they sponsored fencing, portakabins, water bowsers, digging machines, portable toilets, etc – all free of charge.

Archival research

I had carried out extensive archival work in the year before the dig, not only investigating as many files as possible with regard to the production, testing and deployment of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors for the start of the Somme offensive but also the use of Russian Saps along the entire British battle front. Our colleague Simon Jones added further invaluable information to the database. I also looked into the subsequent use of the flame projector in September 1916 at High Wood and in front of Guillemont. The object of this intensive work was to gain a detailed understanding of the use of the machine but also to try and unravel how and why decisions were made on the use of the saps. I compiled a 65-page report including any mention of the potential use of flame projectors and saps from war diaries ranging from Army level down through Corps, Division, Brigade and Battalion and, of course the Tunnelling and Field Companies of the RE.  Between Peter and I we spent months getting as well-versed in all matters subterranean as possible. Only by having this level of preparation did we feel prepared to start.

The dig – May 2010

The dig ran throughout May and was attended by hundreds of people – locals and battlefield visitors alike. The team adopted an ‘open house’ policy, and many people came to the site every day to watch our progress. On the second Saturday of the dig we had an official open day which was attended by several hundred people. Detailed presentations were given in French and English and we displayed many of the artefacts we had recovered. The results of the dig were spectacular and after three weeks solid work it was a tremendous feeling of privilege for us all to have worked on such a project and to have developed such close and ongoing links with many of the local people.

Finding out more

This post has been deliberately sparse with information on the dig itself for two reasons. Firstly, the international version of the film will not be aired until the autumn and therefore would not want to pre-empt this programme. Secondly, a huge amount of material will be on display in the forthcoming exhibition entitled ‘Breathing Fire – Le Dragon de la Somme’  to be held at the Historial at Peronne. This exhibition, curated by Peter, will incorporate a great deal of extra information, display the salvaged flamethrower parts, and (most surprising of all, perhaps) include a full-scale replica of the Livens machine. This is at present in the process of being built by metalwork students in Amiens. The exhibition will run from 16 June – 11 December 2011.  An academic report on the Mametz dig by Tony Pollard and Iain Banks will be available in the next edition of the Journal of Conflict Archaeology.

How the Royal Engineers were persuaded to build and fire a working full-size modern version the flame projector is another story….but we thank and salute them.

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I subscribe to monthly emails from the National Archives with their latest news. Quite why, I don’t really know as I almost never read them but I am now glad that I did subscribe. For some reason I opened this month’s offering earlier today and was heartened to see that our new Somme panorama book was advertised. When I went on the website I discovered it was their ‘Book of the Month’!

Just a pity that despite the email using the new cover, the website below shows the old cover.

National Archives Bookshop ‘Book of the Month’

It would save much confusion if the new cover (with revised subtitle) was shown rather than that from the 2006 out of print version. Still, mustn’t complain as all publicity is good publicity….

I would welcome any other mentions of the book in any local newspapers, websites, bookshops etc.

N.B. Edit: 14 March – I was at Kew last week for a day’s research and spoke to the man in the bookshop, asking him who chose the ‘Book of the Month’. He replied that it was his choice and when I explained my involvement with the book we had a good chat. He was very complimentary about it and it was gratifying to hear his comments on content and quality.

Over the past few months I have been in touch with people at the Bristol Evening Post (whose stories also feature in the Western Daily Press and Bath Chronicle) after they ran the story about Alfred Flux’s graffiti in the Bouzincourt Caves on Armistice Day 2010. I had mentioned that the revised version of the Somme panorama volume was out in February and had arranged for a copy to be sent to them for review.

I have just spent weekend away but was texted yesterday by a neighbour who congratulated me on the book being ‘Bristol Book of the Week’. Luckily she had saved me a copy of the review which is attached below. My thanks to Suzanne Savill for organsing this.

The Somme book review from the AllRight! section of the Bristol Evening Post dated 26 February 2011

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The revised and updated version of the 2006 Somme panorama book that I produced with Peter Barton is due out in the shops in February 2011. The official publication date is 24 February but I expect that copies will be available from the usual outlets a couple of weeks before then.

The Somme - The unseen panoramas by Peter Barton with Jeremy Banning (2011 version)

So, what is new?

The most obvious thing to note is that my name is on the cover this time and that the subtitle has changed from ‘a new panoramic perspective’ to ‘The unseen panoramas’. Other than that, text has been revised throughout and some pictures have been changed. There were elements of the 2006 version that we were not happy with and it is good that an opportunity has arisen to amend many of these parts. With every book you produce, there is inevitably a progression in the skills employed and understanding of what is required. I certainly found the Arras book easier to work on in the years 2008-10 than I did for the 2006 Somme version, but that is to be expected as in the intervening period we had produced the Passchendaele volume as well as my research on a couple of Richard van Emden’s books.

Some images have been replaced and, most notably, we have included a section of one of the most remarkable panoramas of the war – a German panorama taken on 18 August 1916 from a spot near Grevillers showing High Wood and Martinpuich under British bombardment. The undamaged tree-lined Albert-Bapaume runs right across the image. Many who have seen this panorama stand open mouthed – such is the effect of seeing what a Great War battlefield looked like.

Probably the most relevant inclusion to spring 2011 is the revision and addition to the section concerning the use of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector. We have added incredible pictures of the weapon in testing at Wembley and some shots from our successful archaeological dig at Mametz in May 2010 showing elements of what we found from the machine. I have seen the first rough cut of the ‘Breathing Fire’ TV documentary for worldwide distribution and it is looking very good. A version for a Channel 4 Time Team Special will be cut for the UK market and broadcast in the spring (exact date to be confirmed).

Should anyone have further questions about alterations to the book then please get in touch via the Contact page.

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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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Whilst at the National Archives last week I met up with Richard van Emden for a coffee and he gave me a copy of his latest book, Tommy’s Ark: Soldiers and Their Animals in the Great War. I had been eagerly waiting for this as I had done a good deal of research for Richard on this book about a year ago and wanted to see how this fitted into the finished product as well as look at the reams of material that Richard had found. I was delighted with what he and Bloomsbury have produced. The jacket cover is in the same style as that used for Richard’s recent books with the same publishers, The Last Fighting Tommy and The Soldier’s War and shows a small dog, Sammy, the mascot of the 1/4th Northumberland Fusiliers who travelled out to France with the battalion in April 1915, served at Ypres (where he was wounded and gassed), was buried by shellfire on a number of occasions and later served on the Somme. Just this description gives some idea of the strange and amazing stories that the book contains.


The publishers blurb desribes it thus:

This book tells the story of all the creatures, great and small, that inhabited the strip of murdered earth that snaked hundreds of miles from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Alps. In all, 61 species are included here and within a few species, such as birds and butterflies, there are also a number of varieties: for example, 43 kinds of bird are noted. Some species are mentioned once, others on a number of occasions: these include spiders, maggots, canaries, chickens, owls, lions, turkeys, fish, horses, cats, ferrets, wasps and worms. However, just as importantly, this is not a book about wildlife in isolation from man. On the contrary, it is about the human condition in war, explored through the soldiers’ relationship with the natural world around them…”

Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, writes: “If ever you are in doubt about the devastation and universal suffering that war brings to us, and to all creatures, great and small, then read Tommy’s Ark

I really cannot wait to get stuck into it as soon as my current read is finished. When Richard and I were discussing how the book would work we identified various potential pitfalls to overcome; the main one being to avoid repetition. Having found many thousands of words of quotes myself I know the variation there is regarding these animals. Subsequent conversations and a good look through the book has confirmed my thoughts – there are such a wide range of stories that the reader really won’t be disappointed. My favourites (from the ones I found) are the old lady keeping bees on the lower slopes of Vimy Ridge in 1916 and the officer who tried to smuggle his beloved dog ‘Teddie’ back to Blighty at the end of hostilities. The images are terrific too – monkeys, dogs and kittens in the trenches as well as a collection of exotic mascots including a full grown bear!

I am sure it will sell well, particularly in the UK, as we have such an affinity to animals. Witness recent news items with the reactions to any instances of animal cruelty – I have seen people get more upset over the welfare of animals than people! Even on battlefield visits the wonderfully moving 58th (London) Division Memorial at Chipilly with its depiction of a soldier comforting his wounded horse has reduced some visitors to tears.

A quick word about conducting research for the book. Richard asked me to help him in finding animal stories in letters, memoirs and diaries. When I worked on the IWM panorama books Somme, Passchendaele and Arras with Peter Barton research was relatively easy, albeit time consuming. I visited over twenty different regimental museums around the UK as well as the Liddle Archive and many countless days in the Department of Documents at the IWM. My research was always tailored to a battle so I could use the archive search facility (if they had one!) for e.g. Somme or Arras. I also had a good knowledge of battalions, brigades and divisions which had served in each battle so could focus my reading that way.  However, searching for stories involved animals presented many challenges. Only the most obvious stories were included in any précis of a collection – these were secured straight away. Subsequent research was on a more ‘hit and miss’ nature. The IWM holds so much material but, from my time spent there, I knew that certain memoirs were better written than others or that the writer had a particularly inquisitive mind and keen eye. It was these that I began with and, more often than not, I was rewarded with an animal story. On occasions though I recall a hard afternoons speed reading of hundreds of pages of memoir, letters or diaries and nothing to show for it other than a headache and blurry eyes. I shudder to think how many words we read in order for Richard to get the requisite 100,000 words but it was all interesting stuff – the hardest part was not getting waylaid on other interesting stories that one came across.

I am sure that Bloomsbury will soon be pulling out all stops to promote the book so they don’t need any PR from me. However, for those interested further details of the book along with a collection of interviews and ephemera from veterans can be found on Richard’s new website: http://www.richardvanemden.com/

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Just a few lines really singing the praises of the series of books entitled ‘VCs of the First World War’. Whilst visiting the battlefields I have seen tours whose focus is solely to visit the graves of Victoria Cross recipients or look at the sites of VC actions. I have always thought that this was a narrow-minded way to view the battlefields and war. By the nature of their deeds, VC recipients were a breed apart and I feel that by too much emphasis on their actions, the real day-to-day grind of the ordinary soldier, be it PBI or artilleryman is diluted.

However, I must acknowledge there is some contradiction in my above statement as, when guiding for a recent battlefield tour to Arras, I visited the graves or VC sites of three recipients in a single day; Private Horace Waller, 10th KOYLI, Captain Arthur Henderson, 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and Lieutenant Donald Mackintosh, 2nd Seaforth Highlanders.  Clearly, their deeds inspire us all and it seems the least one can do when in a cemetery containing a VC grave to read out their citation. This brings me on to the subject matter – the excellent series from the now defunct Sutton Publishing covering the war.

VCs of the First World War - my collection

The excellent and proficient Gerald Gliddon has covered the following:

1914, The Somme, Arras and Messines 1917, Cambrai 1917, The Sideshows, The Spring Offensive 1918, The Road to Victory 1918 and The Final Days 1918

Stephen Snelling’s three editions cover the Gallipoli and Passchendaele campaigns and ‘The Naval VCs’ whilst the ‘The Air VCs’ is compiled by Peter G. Cooksley and, finally, ‘The Western Front, 1915’ by Peter F. Batchelor & Christopher Matson. Each book follows a similar format with a detailed explanation of the VC action and subsequent history of the recipient. There then follows biographical information about the soldier (or sailor) from their birth to death.

I have six of the books listed above and each has proved indispensable in my research or when preparing for battlefield trips. I am currently using the Cambrai volume for some work on local hero, Lieutenant Hardy Falconer Parsons VC (more details to follow in due course). They can be picked up pretty cheaply on the net – try www.abebooks.co.uk. I would heartily recommend them as a study aid or even to pick up and read at any odd moment – the bravery contained therein can only inspire us all.

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I had a lunch yesterday in London with friends from Genesta Battlefield Club and was introduced to Keith Collman. Keith is a photographer with a keen interest in Great War veterans. His face seemed familiar and as he pointed out to me that we had met on a battlefield trip to Ypres in 2002 the recollections of that trip slowly came back to me. Keith had been travelling with us when we had taken Jack Davis, Harry Patch and Arthur Halestrap back to Ypres for Armistice commemorations.  I recalled that he has been snapping away through the trip so wasn’t surprised to hear about his photographic project.

For the past 25 years he has been taking black & white portrait photographs of veterans. He realised that he had a remarkable collection and that he had better preserve these for posterity. (He mentioned that his children wouldn’t know what all the negatives were and would probably bin them on his demise!) The result of his endeavour is a superb book entitled ‘Great War Portraits’. I bought a copy (priced £25) and it is a lovely quality book to flick through – a real tribute to these remarkable gentlemen that we all owe so much to.  Some of them I had had the pleasure of knowing, some I had never met but seen on TV documentaries whilst there are others whose faces were new to me. All are beautifully photographed and there are good details of all the men featured.

Keith has only produced 1000 copies and hopes one day to be able to get his money back – it is certainly not a profit making venture. His website http://www.greatwarportraits.com/ gives a really good idea of the quality of product and is a very nice read in itself. Highly recommended for those who want a memento of these wonderful men.

Following a nod from some kind soul on the Great War Forum I spent a few happy hours downloading free books from the excellent website: http://www.archive.org/

I had come across this site in the past when Googling for various books and had downloaded a few over the years. However, that was on a ‘as you need them’ basis. I had never sat down and really searched for Great War content available – and all for free!

It is amazing what is available and I have downloaded over 70 books in pdf format (totalling over 1GB). These range from personal memoirs I had never heard of before through to regimental, brigade and divisional histories. And the best bit? As they are in pdf format, it is easy to search for specific words. This makes research that much easier. However, don’t expect to see daylight for days. Searching for “1914-1918” yields over 10, 000 results! A pat on the back from me to all those who scan these books so we can all share the knowledge.