Archive for the ‘Miscellany’ Category
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
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.
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.
I am back in Bristol after a delightful weekend spent in Sussex. On Saturday I gave a lecture entitled Somme Archaeology: The Glory Hole and the work of the La Boisselle Study Group at Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum. Despite it being a boiling hot day and the lure of the sea only a few yards away it was standing room only by the time I began speaking in one of the Redoubt’s (thankfully cool) casemates. My talk focussed on the La Boisselle Study Group’s work since June 2011, showing images from the British tunnel system as well as images of surface archaeology and artifacts. I spoke about the actions of the French in autumn 1914 with focus on the capture of the Granathof by the 118th Infantry Regiment on Christmas Eve 1914. British occupation of the ‘Glory Hole’ was also covered with especial mention of underground action by 179 and 185 Tunnelling Companies, RE. I was able to show the current state of excavation and explain the plans for the next tranche of work in September/October. This includes potential exploration of the British tunnel system at the 80ft level.
After an hour’s lecture there was a tea break which was followed by a further 25 minute Q&A session. It was good to see friends there, especially Richard Dunning, owner of the Lochnagar Crater. My grateful thanks to Ryan Gearing for organising the series of lectures, Keith Ross (ex-Royal Sussex Regiment) for his kind introduction and the Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum for providing such an inspiring venue.
September’s lecture is to be given by Richard van Emden who, utilising his research material gathered for his book ‘The Quick and the Dead’ will be speaking about loss, grief and the families who are often forgotten when the fallen are remembered. Further details can be found here: http://www.eastbournemuseums.co.uk/Events.htm
Having just returned from three days in Arras where I gave a lecture at the Carrière Wellington about the Battle of Arras (April-May 1917) I am heartened by the increase in interest shown in the spring offensive. There is even a plan to tweet updates from the battle which should appeal to those using social media. I thought it a good opportunity to write a short article on the first stage of the battle – the First Battle of the Scarpe which ran from 9 – 14 April 1917. If time and work permits I will do the same for the Second (23/24 April) and Third (3 May) Battles of the Scarpe.
Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 was a momentous day which saw the start of the Battle of Arras. It is best known in Canada for the attack and capture by all four Canadian Divisions (operating together as the Canadian Corps) of the previously unconquered heights of Vimy Ridge. It must be remembered that this action, whilst quite rightly lauded was undertaken to protect the northern flank of the main Arras battle front. Sadly, and almost inexplicably the main effort by troops of General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Army have been largely neglected by historians, television documentary producers and British battlefield visitors who all head north to Flanders and the blood-soaked fields around Ypres or south to the Somme. I cannot understand this omission as to me, Arras is the most interesting battle of the war offering a major element in the evolution of warfare. By the end of the offensive I would argue that, to many, the prospect of a final victory almost disappears from the Allies’ view.
The British attacks at Arras were part of a larger Anglo-French offensive planned for spring 1917. The author of this scheme was General Robert Nivelle, commander-in-chief of the French armies on the Western Front, who proposed three separate attacks. Two of these astride the Rivers Aisne and Oise would be French led. Great Britain, as the junior partner in the alliance was to launch a major diversionary attack in the north around Arras. It was not what Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British forces wanted, but faced with such a huge French effort there was no other choice but to accept. The German retreat to the pre-prepared positions of the Hindenburg Line (Siegfried Stellung) rendered the attack on the Oise redundant. However, the major offensive on the Aisne and the British diversion at Arras would still go ahead as planned.
9 April 1917 – the opening day
Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 was, in the main, a great success for the attacking British and Canadian forces. Despite the unseasonal sleet, snow and severe cold the Canadian Corps captured the vast majority of Vimy Ridge and British advances to the south were also impressive. An advance of over three and a half miles was achieved by the 9th (Scottish) Division and the ‘leapfrogging’ 4th Division who captured the village of Fampoux. This advance was the longest made in a single day by any belligerent from static trenches.
South of the river attacking British divisions also fared well with Observation Ridge and Battery Valley captured. However, the planned capture of the village of Monchy-le-Preux on its hilltop plateau and Guémappe were not realised. Moving south of the Arras-Cambrai road the successful capture of The Harp and Telegraph Hill can also be viewed as particular triumphs. However, south of the Roman road the British were now attacking the newly constructed Siegfried Stellung (known to the British as the Hindenburg Line). The intelligent siting and design of the Hindenburg Line, coupled with the inability of British artillery to destroy barbed wire sufficiently made the attacks in the south a costlier and much more difficult task. Neuville Vitasse was captured but the two divisions to the south of the village suffered grievously in their attacks.
The night of 9 April saw Germany’s fate in the balance. If British success could be exploited then it was very possible a potentially disastrous breach in their line could lead to a full-scale German retreat. Sadly, for the British, the success of 9 April was the zenith of their action at Arras. Disorganization, breakdown of communications, dreadful weather and the perennial problem of moving the artillery forward over heavily bombarded ground resulted in little concentrated action taking place on 10 April. This delay was exactly what the Germans needed – time to reorganize and strengthen their defences.
First Battle of Bullecourt
The next day, 11 April was a pivotal day of fighting. General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army attacked in the south at Bullecourt. The hastily constructed plan has been to use tanks of the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps to crush the thick belts of barbed wire protecting the Hindenburg Line. When these failed to arrive on time Australian troops broke through the wire, fighting their way into the Hindenburg Line. By midday they were faced with the Germans closing in on them on three sides and were forced to retreat across No Man’s Land to their own line. Over 2,000 men were taken prisoner – the largest number of Australians captured in the war.
The Capture of Monchy-le-Preux
The day also saw the capture of Monchy-le-Preux by the infantry of the 15th and 37th Divisions, aided by six tanks. The capture of the village was an unbelievable feat of arms. Astonishingly, many of the attackers had lain out in the cold and snow for two days and it is a credit to their training and the fighting determination of the British Army that their attacks were pressed with such resilience. Despite the undoubted success of the infantry it is the the fate of the cavalry that Monchy has become synonymous with. With the village captured the cavalry were to advance east to the Green Line. However, they were forced back into the village by German machine gun fire where they were subjected to a ‘box barrage’ of artillery. Unable to escape, the narrow streets were clogged with horses and cavalrymen. The latter dismounted; seeking refuge in cellars but the horses could do nothing and were killed in great numbers as shells rained down. The streets of Monchy, full of horse carcasses and the foul residue of high explosive shells and animals are said to have run with blood.
Disaster for the Seaforths
An ominous taste of things for the future conduct of the battle to come was the attack by the 4th Division on the Green Line from Fampoux. At midday the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers attacked from the sunken lane between Fampoux and Gavrelle . They were spotted whilst forming up by the enemy in Roeux and on the railway embankment and subjected to shellfire. At zero hour, as they advanced over a kilometre of open ground behind a feeble artillery barrage they were hit by heavy machine gun fire from the railway embankment and Chemical Works. The Seaforths attacked with 12 officers and 420 men and suffered casualties of all 12 officers and 363 men. Only 57 men survived this attack unwounded. This action and the casualties from other battalions of Seaforths are commemorated with the Seaforths Cross at Fampoux. Subsequent attacks were similarly costly. Roeux was fast earning a reputation as a fortress village. British attacks were badly planned and not supported by sufficient artillery fire whilst German defences grew in strength.
13 April was a day for fresh troops to take the field in order to carry on the attack. Exhausted and frozen men trudged back to Arras, replaced by units at full strength. By now it was almost definitely too late for the breakthrough that had appeared so possible on the evening of 9 April.
Infantry Hill – the destruction of the Essex Regiment & Newfoundlanders
An attack was planned from the precarious Monchy salient. Just two battalions of men would attack up Hill 100 (named Infantry Hill by the British). Conditions were so bad in the village with the detritus from horse carcasses blocking the narrow roads that the attack was postponed until 5.30 a.m. on 14 April. The plan was to capture Infantry Hill and send out patrols into the Bois du Sart and Bois du Vert to check for enemy. In hindsight this badly planned attack appears highly dangerous, almost suicidal. The Monchy salient was already surrounded on three sides by enemy forces. The attack, carried out by the 1st Essex Regiment and Newfoundland Regiment went in as prescribed. It started well and by 7.00 a.m. it was reported that Infantry Hill had been captured. However, in their first proper use of the new defensive employment of ‘elastic defence’ a German counter attack was delivered with such speed and precision that over 1000 Essex and Newfoundlanders were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Monchy had been left undefended and was now at the mercy of advancing Germans troops. The situation was only saved by the commander of the Newfoundland Regiment, Colonel James Forbes Robertson who, with eight other men opened rifle fire from the edge of the village. For five hours their fire held back the enemy until fresh troops reached them. These men, known as the ‘Men who saved Monchy’ were all decorated for this action.
It is not the purpose of this brief article to mention every stage of the fighting but to merely pick out some of the more well-known points. Fighting continued on the Wancourt Ridge with the British capture of the remains of Wancourt Tower. Bitter fighting also continued in the Hindenburg Line; the most well-known casualty from these actions was war poet and officer on the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Siegfried Sassoon who was wounded on 16 April. With limited piecemeal actions achieving little Sir Douglas Haig now took control, halting these costly and morale damaging attacks until a combined offensive could be made.
This decision marked the end of the first stage of the Arras fighting – the end of the First Battle of the Scarpe. It was now the turn of General Nivelle to launch his attack on the Aisne. After regrouping and with a marked improvement in weather the British attacked again on 23 April – the Second Battle of the Scarpe.
So, on 9 April 2012, ninety-five years after the whistles blew and attack commenced I will be raising a glass to the memory of the men of all nationalities who fought in the battle. Their sacrifice, perseverance and resolution to finish the job are astonishing. My respect grows for them daily. It is up to all of us to ensure that their efforts are not forgotten.
Should you be interested in the Battle of Arras then the book that Peter Barton and I produced, ‘Arras: The Spring 1917 Offensive including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt’ is still available. I would urge anyone to visit Arras as it is a lovely town with good hotels and restaurants and only an hour’s drive from Calais. The battlefields are quiet and are immensely rewarding to visit. If you have a relative who fought in the battle or are looking for a guide to show you then please contact me. I would be delighted to help.
The Arras Tourist board are running a number of events over April 2012. Details can be found here: http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/attachments/article/2293/Arras_Ceremony_9_April.pdf
Having mentioned it in a conversation last night I realise that I have not updated my blog for over three months. This is in no way due to laziness on my part. In fact, I have never been busier and am working all hours. Just today I have turned down the chance to author a WW1 book and have been presented with the opportunity of working on what looks like a fascinating WW2 TV project. My blog silence is more due to the fact that the majority of work I am doing is related to upcoming projects, either those definitely agreed and commissioned or others in the pipeline and awaiting the final ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ So, simply put, for much of my work I am unable to provide any details.
Being fashionably late (well over a month) I thought it may be instructive to look back upon 2011 and see if things had moved on from the same point twelve months before. Whilst my accountant may not agree, things have stepped up in almost every department. The most startling event last year was the launching of the La Boisselle Study Group. It was in November 2010 when lecturing on the Battle of Arras at Wellington Quarry that Peter Barton and I were approached by Claudie Llewellyn, owner of the Glory Hole who asked if we would be interested in looking at the site. Naturally we jumped at the chance and my work in 2011 was dominated by the project. It was a relief in June when we could, at last, go public. After many nights burning the midnight oil the website was online. Little did we appreciate the interest in the subject with the BBC article receiving over a million hits and the LBSG the recipient of hundreds of emails. Throughout the traditional battlefield tours season I have been able to take guests to the site for a personal tour and it never fails to astound them. One of the earliest of these was writer Vanessa Gebbie, author of the brilliant novel ‘The Coward’s Tale’, who joined me in April for a tour as we followed the 14th Battalion Welsh Regiment (Swansea Pals) from the Somme to Ypres and back.
I had many trips to the Somme where I was able to enjoy the beauty of this magnificent and fascinating battlefield. In August, in a deviation from the norm, I headed further south with a client, Roland Parr, to follow in his great uncle’s footsteps. Roland’s Uncle Jack was Corporal John Thomas Davies VC. Amongst the many trips I undertook last year it stood out for me as we diligently traced the retreat of the 11/South Lancs to the point outside Eppeville where Jack performed the heroic action that earned him his Victoria Cross. The latter part of the year was primarily taken up with work at La Boisselle, including our successful week’s archaeological dig in October. Unlike my own site, the LBSG website has continued to grow as we add more and more information.
The year ended well as I was contacted by Wall to Wall Media, producers of the acclaimed ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ series and asked to film on the new series, showing one of the chosen celebrities around the western front battlefields. The recce in December was cold, bleak and wet whilst we were blessed with cold, clear winter days for the three days filming in January. The programme is due for broadcast in the autumn.
With the build-up to the centenary commemorative period gathering pace I am heartened to see the interest from the public. Some of this may be due to Spielberg’s film ‘War Horse’ and the recent BBC adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’. Whatever the reason, I cannot think of a point in my lifetime when the public consciousness of the Great War has been so high. It will continue to grow as 2014 looms nearer and the plethora of planned books plus TV and radio programmes come to fruition.
Much of my planned research has been put on hold due to other commitments. It will be good to get back into the archives and I look forward to visiting many regimental museums later in the year. My next talk is a planned 45-50 minute lecture on the Battle of Arras, to take place on 4 April. Having spoken on the subject many times I should have no fear. The twist is that the lecture is to be given in French. Having been invited by the Tourist Office in Arras there was no way I could turn down the opportunity. Sadly, my spoken French is not up to sufficient standard yet so I will be practicing like mad between now and April!
Last Wednesday (19 October) I spoke at my local branch of the Western Front Association. The subject was one dear to my heart – “The Battle of Arras: April-May 1917″. It was the same talk that I gave to the Berkshire branch of the WFA back in April – see this BLOG article. This time I was allowed a bit longer and so spoke for 45 minutes which took us through the reasons for battle, political intrigues, German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, preparations, work of the RE and artillery and then a detailed look, division by division, working down the line on 9 April 1917 – the first day of battle. After a pleasant ten minute break I continued for a further half hour with details of the fighting for Monchy-le-Preux, Infantry Hill, Roeux and the Chemical Works and Gavrelle before culminating in a description of the disastrous 3 May attack – an attack on a 21km frontage in which 5,900 men were killed in a single day.
It was lovely to speak on ‘home’ turf; the branch in Kingswood being a mere ten minute drive from my house. I do my utmost to attend the monthly lectures but work and family life normally get in the way so it was nice to actually make it this time. It was good to see people had driven from Devon and Newport and I thank them for their interest and support. This morning I received a letter from Dr Barry Maule on behalf of the Avon branch.
“I am writing on behalf of the Bristol branch of the WFA to thank you most sincerely for the excellent talk you gave us on Wednesday evening on the Battle of Arras. You probably gathered from the buzz in the room after your talk that it was particularly well received and very much appreciated by those of our members who share your view that the Arras battles deserve to be much better known.
From experience I can always tell when a talk has been well received by our members because they are reluctant to clear off home afterwards, something that was particularly noticeable on Wednesday evening.
I am sure our chairman spoke for everyone in the room when he described your talk as absolutely tremendous.”
I raffled a copy of our Arras panorama volume and raised a nice sum for the La Boisselle Study Group. Many thanks to all who attended for their generosity. Should anyone be interested in hearing this or other talks then please contact me.
A few weeks ago I took a couple, Mac & Marian from New Zealand, around the battlefields. They had asked me to show them around the Western front for three days before catching a train to Paris for the next leg of their trip. What made this trip so special was that we were following Corporal Andrew McDonald, 6th Seaforth Highlanders. Andrew McDonald died of wounds on 13 April 1917 and is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery. His battalion was involved in the opening stages of the Battle of Arras. It is highly probable that he was wounded when the battalion ‘went over the top’ in front of Roclincourt at 5.30am on 9 April 1917. I had previously written about the area in a piece entitled 6th Seaforth Highlanders at Roclincourt – The Battle of Arras, 9 April 1917.
After picking up Mac & Marian at Folkestone we took the tunnel over and then headed along the coast to Etaples. They told me that they had visited Second World War cemeteries before but I could see how moved they were when we pulled up at Etaples. The cemetery, the largest Commission cemetery in France, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The scale of the place defies belief and really deserves to have more visitors. After visiting Andrew’s grave and laying a small cross – something that Mac had been wanting to do for years – we spent a couple of hours just walking around this vast and sobering cemetery – the final resting place for 11,500 men and women.
Retracing our steps back up the motorway we headed to Ypres where I took them to various spots around the salient including Pilckem Ridge, Polygon Wood, Robertson’s Bridge at Reutel, The New Zealand Division Memorial at Gravenstafel, Tyne Cot Cemetery and finally the German Cemetery at Langemarck. We headed back to our excellent B&B and then back out to Ypres so we could attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. We ate in the square before heading back to the B&B for a good sleep after a long day.
The next day was to be spent around the Arras battlefields. After a mammoth breakfast we set off south, firstly stopping at Nine Elms Cemetery at Poperinghe to pay our respects at the grave of David Gallaher, captain of the All Blacks.
We had a quick stop at Peckham and Spanbroekmolen, two of the huge craters formed by the Messines mine explosions on 7 June 1917 before heading south via Ploegsteert and into France to our next stop at La Chapelle-d’Armentières. It was here, at the site of the Railway Salient that Andrew McDonald’s brave actions during a trench raid on 15 September 1916 earned him the Military Medal. I was able to stand Mac at a spot looking down the railway line to where the German salient jutted out into No Man’s Land and explain the events of that night. We then continued south, stopping at Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery & Extension to pay our respects at Marian’s great uncle, David Watson’s grave. He had been killed during the Battle of Loos whilst serving with the 1st Battalion, Cameron Highlanders. Leaving the coalfields of Gohelle behind us we began our look at the Arras battlefields.
I started with a stop at the village of La Targette with its staggering French and German cemeteries. If ever there is a place to fully appreciate the extent of losses suffered by our French allies and German foe then this is it. Neuville St Vaast Soldatenfriedhof has over 44,000 German buried within its grounds – a truly sobering place. We then headed to Vimy Ridge where, after a tour of the trenches, we headed to Walter Allward’s magnificent Vimy Memorial.
Next up was a special visit to the exact spot outside Roclincourt where ‘C’ Company, 6th Seaforths attacked on 9 April 1917. It was in the fields between the British front line and second German line (the area now contains the beautiful Highland Cemetery) that Andrew McDonald most likely received his fatal wound.
After an emotional stop at Highland Cemetery to visit other 6th Seaforth men we continued our tour through St Laurent Blangy and Athies to the Seaforths Cross at Fampoux. We then headed to the infamous village of Roeux (heavily fought over by the 51st Division in April and May 1917) and crossed the Scarpe to Monchy-le-Preux, Infantry Hill and then back down the Arras-Cambrai road to the superb Carrière Wellington tunnels. Our final stop of the day was at the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery & Arras Memorial to the Missing where, bathed in evening sunlight, we wandered at our leisure. After a meal in the Grande Place we headed off for a much-needed sleep.
The following morning saw us continue south down to the hallowed ground of the Somme battlefields. Mac & Marian had asked for unusual stops so, en route, we stopped at the quiet Ayette Indian & Chinese Cemetery.
Continuing south we visited Sheffield Memorial Park at Serre where I explained about the destruction of the Pals battalions of the 31st Division on 1 July 1916, the First Day of the Somme. We then headed over the Redan Ridge to Beaumont Hamel where, as well as looking at the disastrous attack by 29th Division troops on 1 July I gave a detailed explanation of the 6th Seaforth’s role in 51st Division’s successful attack on the village bastion on 13 November. We then visited Mailly Wood Cemetery to visit the graves of 6th Seaforths men killed in that attack. Most notably I had wanted them to visit the grave of 2/Lt Donald Jenkins MC. He had won his Military Cross in the same raid that earned Andrew his Military Medal – in fact, both men had crossed No Man’s Land three times bringing back wounded men on each occasion. Undoubtedly, despite the officer/other rank divide there would have been some connection between Andrew and this officer now lying at peace in Mailly Wood Cemetery.
Other stops that afternoon included a good stroll around Newfoundland Memorial Park, the Ulster Tower and Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Having stopped at Mash Valley I took Mac & Marian on a private tour of the Glory Hole at La Boisselle (http://www.laboisselleproject.com/) before our final stops of the day at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery for the New Zealand Memorial to Missing from September/October 1916 and the New Zealand Division Memorial at Longueval.
Passing High Wood I was able to point out the position of Seaforth Trench, dug by 6th Seaforths in July 1916 before heading off to our B&B at Flers for a well deserved beer, meal and chat.
The final day dawned with beautiful sunshine and so, rather than dropping Mac & Marian off in Amiens as had been agreed, I took them just down the road to Delville Wood and the South African Memorial. We were the first ones to visit that day and the atmosphere and light were quite superb.
After a circuitous tour to Ginchy, Guillemont and Montauban I stopped at the site of the Carnoy craters to tell them about the successful use of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors employed there on 1 July 1916. Moving on to Amiens, we visited the splendid cathedral before I bade them a fond farewell at the railway station. It was another trip to be remembered with lovely people – thanks Mac & Marian for making it such a great time for me too.
More photographs from this trip can be seen on my dedicated Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/67774984@N03/sets/72157627598624551/
“Thank you for a fantastic trip in September 2011. We were lucky enough to travel with you for three and a half (far too short) days and experience your enthusiasm and passion for WW1 and the Somme first hand. We needed a lot longer. On your website you mention Corporal Andrew McDonald. He is my husband’s Great Uncle lost in 1917. During our time with you he came back to life and it was marvellous to be able to tread the same ground that he walked and to see similar sights. The report that you provided to us will hopefully inspire some other family members to travel to France and Belgium and to utilise your knowledge and enthusiasm for the Western Front and the Somme. You were willing to take us out of our comfort zone and show us areas, memorials and cemeteries that we had no idea could exist from the smallest to the largest including German, Indian, Chinese, Kiwi, Aussie, French, British, South African, Canadian etc. More than we had hoped for or realised that we would have ever seen. Thank you for your ability to generate interest and create great memories.
We would suggest that anyone who contemplates visiting Gallipoli and the Somme, visit Gallipoli first as the memories of France and Belgium will be stronger than those of Gallipoli. Jeremy was a fantastic guide who took care of us and took us to places we could never hope to see or find on our own. His contacts, his advice, the accommodation he organised and all aspects of the trip were 110%. Thank you for your time and efforts and we both wish you well for the future. Keep guiding.” Marian & Mac Macdonald, Pukekohe, New Zealand
Today sees the grand opening of the new exhibition about the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector at the Historial in Péronne. I have taken a day out from a holiday and have just arrived in Péronne after three separate train journeys. The exhibition will commence with a few speeches and then the first screening of the “Breathing Fire – Le Dragon de la Somme” in French will be shown in two auditoriums. I understand from staff at the museum that usual attendances are about 80 people. That figure will be doubled tonight – we have 160 people coming along including many from the UK including representatives from the Corps of Royal Engineers.
I managed to get a few pictures earlier of the exhibition and, most notably, the specially-commissioned replica constructed by local students of vocational training centres. I will post an update later if time permits. Having worked on the project since its initial inception back in 2005/6 I am obviously a touch biased but, having had a good look at what has been produced and is on display, I can say that it looks fantastic and would urge any battlefield visitor to the Somme to take a look. The exhibition is currently scheduled to run to December 2011.
EDIT: Evening went with a great success – speeches followed by the unveiling of the replica flame projector and then a viewing of the Breathing Fire film with French subtitles. A great evening and wonderful to see so many people from all around the western front – Johan Vandewalle from Polygon Wood, Alain Jacques from the Arras archaelogical service, Philippe Gorczynski, owner of D51 Deborah from Cambrai and Isabelle and Pascal from the Carriere Wellington, Arras to name a few. Thanks to all for their support.
Today sees the public launch of our ambitious project at the Glory Hole in the village of La Boisselle at the heart of the Somme battlefields. We have been invited by the landowners to conduct a long-term archaeological and historical study into the site, one of the most unique still extant on the western front.
BBC Breakfast and News 24 are covering the launch with Robert Hall on live feed from the Somme. He will be interviewing members of the La Boisselle Study Group (Peter Barton, Simon Jones and Iain McHenry) as well as one of the landowners who has given us this tremendous opportunity. Owing to other commitments I am not able to be on site today with my colleagues but am enjoying seeing the reaction in the UK.
For all details of the project please see our website: http://www.laboisselleproject.com/
The detailed article on the BBC website can be read here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13630203