Archive for the ‘Miscellany’ Category


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.

One of my favourite spots on the battlefields - early morning in Quarry Cemetery, Montauban

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!

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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.

The opening page of my talk on the Battle of Arras

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.

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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.

Mac & Marian wandering past the endless graves at Etaples Miltary Cemetery

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.

Evening sunlight in Langemarck German Cemetery

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.

David Gallaher, All Blacks captain at Nine Elms, Poperinghe

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.

La Targette British Cemetery with endless rows of French graves behind

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.

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.

Mac at the graves of 6th Seaforth men buried in Highland Cemetery, Roclincourt

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.

Faubourg d'Amiens Cemetery, Arras

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.

Graves in 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.

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.

Early evening at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery. A ray of sun pierces through the clouds to strike the ground.

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.

South African Memorial, Delville Wood

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

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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.

Further details can be found on the Historial’s website: http://en.historial.org/content/view/full/21046 and on my detailed blog post HERE.

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.

The replica flame projector made by local students - the monitor head is nearest the camera

The replica machine - the timber frame indicates the cramped nature of the tunnels (or Russian Saps) dug under No Man's Land

Valve found at Mametz in May 2010 in front of the replica flame projector

Three of the fourteen information panels on display

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

Following on from my blog posts HERE and HERE on the finding, identification and burial of Private Thomas Lawless, 49th Battailon CEF I have just received this update from the Canadian Portrait Academy – more good news to come from this story:

On Friday May 26th the Canadian War Museum announced they will be acquiring for their collection the original forensic facial reconstruction of WWI soldier Pte. Thomas Lawless created by the preeminent Newfoundland & Labrador sculptor and forensic artist Christian Cardell Corbet, FRSA.

Pte. Lawless of Alberta’s 49th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, was identified by means of the facial reconstruction and isotopes marking a first in the positive identification of a World War 1 soldier. Pte. Lawless went missing in battle in June 1917 and his remains were not found until 2003 in France. The facial reconstruction was created in a multidisciplinary collaborative effort between The Department of National Defence and the University of Western Ontario.

The Canadian War Museum wrote the Canadian Portrait Academy and Mr. Corbet stating: “The collections committee met this morning…and the forensic facial reconstruction bust of Pte. Thomas Lawless has been accepted by the museum…(it) will be the only (forensic facial reconstruction sculpture) one in our collection. It’s quite a unique piece and the committee was very excited about its acquisition.”

Corbet commented: “This acquisition is a true honour to me; to be recognized by a national museum in one’s own country is indeed very special. Corbet further commented: “I hope the portrait of Pte. Lawless will act as an educational visual means where it will help tell the story about Canada’s significant contributions during the Great War and ultimately to the freedom we so enjoy today.” Corbet hopes to deliver the portrait bust in person.

This recent important acquisition was preceded the day before with yet another milestone for Corbet where the National Museum of Ireland wrote to acquire a copy of the forensic facial reconstruction of Pte. Lawless.

Corbet is represented in over 80 museums, art galleries and special collections in 14 countries.

Website: http://www.christiancorbet.com/

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I spoke at the Thames Valley Branch of the Western Front Association (WFA) last Thursday (28 April). When first approached I had to choose between speaking about the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector on the Somme or the subject of our last book, The Battle of Arras. I opted for the latter, mainly because I figured that the Channel 4 Time Team programme would have been only shown a short time before and so many of those attending would know at least the gist of the story. So, Arras it was. The talk was to last for about an hour (as it was, I think I spoke for nearer 70 minutes) and so this necessitated a good deal of reading to refresh the memory. I prepared a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate some aspects of the talk and managed to get panoramas to slowly scroll across the screen too (a technical feat I was quite pleased with!)

The talk was entitled “The Battle of Arras: April – May 1917″ and was well attended with about 45 people regulars plus my brother Mark Banning and his friend and regular battlefield companion Malcolm Sime.

It was structured to not merely cover the battle but start with warfare in the Arras area in October 1914, look at the costly French actions of 1915 and then move on to British occupation in March 1916. The German attack against the 47th (London) Division on Vimy Ridge was touched upon and then I covered a basic backdrop to battle from the political and military standpoint and explained in detail the new German policy of ‘elastic defence’ to be brought into play for 1917. Moving through the Chantilly and Calais conferences I then spent some time on the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line (Operation Alberich) before exploring preparations for battle such as the tremendous work of the Royal Engineers. I also looked into French preparations, the actions of General Robert Nivelle and the extraordinary series of leaks and security lapses that marred the French pre-battle period. By this time half an hour had gone but I felt it important to set the scene fully and not merely delve straight into the battle itself.

I structured the actual battle part of the talk by focussing on the First and Third Army fronts from north to south, starting with the Canadian Corps attack on Vimy Ridge before moving into what I always think of the main ‘Arras proper’ battlefield. Realising that no talk about the Battle of the Somme would neglect to work its way down the front line for 1 July 1916 I adopted the same structure – following each division’s success (or failure) as we moved southwards across the Scarpe and Arras-Cambrai road into Hindenburg Line territory until ending with the 21st Division at the south of the attacking frontage. Explaining the reasons for success in many sectors and failure in others I then worked my way through the battle focussing on stand-out actions. These included the capture of Monchy-le-Preux on 11 April 1917 and the destruction of the cavalry of the Essex Yeomanry and 10th Hussars in the village.

I also covered the attack by two battalions of the 10th Brigade (4th Division) towards the village of Roeux and the Chemical Works. 1/Royal Irish Fusiliers and 2/Seaforth Highlanders suffered grievous losses in the attack; the Seaforths attacked with 12 officers & 420 Other Ranks and their losses were all 12 officers & 363 O.R. This meant that a mere 57 men survived the action unwounded – and the objective wasn’t gained in any way. The beautiful Seaforths Cross on the Sunken Lane at Fampoux is a reminder of the men who attacked and suffered so much that day. I touched on the fighting at Bullecourt that day but felt that the disastrous actions around that particular salient village warranted a talk of their own.

The next attack to be looked into was the attack up Infantry Hill by the Newfoundland Regiment and 1/Essex Regiment on 14 April 1917 – an attack that almost destroyed both battalions and which left the way open for the German reoccupation of Monchy. The day was saved by a gallant band of men led by Lt Col James Forbes Robertson, CO of the Newfoundlanders who organised a small group of men to run to eastern edge of village and open rifle fire. For five hours their fire held the Germans at bay until the village was relieved. All were decorated and became known as ‘The Men Who Saved Monchy’.

I then worked through the month of April, looking at the failed French attacks on the Aisne and then explaining the movements of 23 April (Second Battle of the Scarpe) with particular emphasis on the fighting for Roeux and the Chemical Works by the 51st (Highland) Division. The battle was deteriorating against well organised and deployed German troops employing the new ‘elastic defence’ doctrine. It was a dreadful time – Third Army suffered 8,000 casualties alone on the 23rd/24th April.

It seemed apt giving the talk on 28 April as I then touched on the attack that day 94 years ago and the capture of the village of Arleux. It was building to the climax of battle – the Third Battle of the Scarpe on 3 May 1917 – a very dark day indeed for the British Army. The 21km frontage from Fresnoy in the north to Bullecourt (again) in the south lent itself to particular problems. The Australians at Bullecourt wanted a night attack to aid their chances of success – in the north this would have been disastrous for the attack on Oppy Wood. A miserable compromise was reached and Zero Hour was set for 3.45am – the attack was still to go in at night time.  It was a terrible fiasco – many units were unable to even find their starting points and had no idea of direction to attack, merely following the direction of the artillery barrage with the hope of finding some Germans. Accounts mention morale being poor and a general malaise amongst the depleted attacking divisions. I read from the Official History: Military Operations France and Belgium 1917 by Cyril Falls as it summed up most eloquently the reasons for failure on 3 May 1917:

“The confusion caused by the darkness; the speed with which the German artillery opened fire; the manner in which it concentrated upon the British infantry, almost neglecting the artillery; the intensity of its fire, the heaviest that many an experienced soldier had ever witnessed, seemingly unchecked by British counter-battery fire and lasting almost without slackening for fifteen hours; the readiness with which the German infantry yielded to the first assault and the energy of its counter-attack; and, it must be added, the bewilderment of the British infantry on finding itself in the open and its inability to withstand any resolute counter-attack.”

I concluded with the finals stages of battle, the loss of Fresnoy and eventual capture of Roeux and the Chemical Works and for my last slide whilst talking about the men who had done the fighting I showed one of my favourite pictures. It shows a triumphant shot of a group of the 12/West Yorkshire Regiment in Arras celebrating their success of 9 April with captured booty. I was amazed when a man in the front put his hand up, saying he had spotted his grandfather in the photo! Apparently the only wartime souvenirs that his grandfather left were his medals and a copy of this photo. The man was 50496 Acting Corporal John Davison Johnson (marked with a red arrow in the photo) and I thank his grandson, John Johnson for this information – it quite made my night!

All feedback received has been good and the Branch Chairman, Bridgeen Fox, wrote very warmly afterwards with her thanks. Her comments can be read here. As she herself said, “it should have raised the profile of the battles of Arras and I hope it will have encouraged more people to explore the area”.

When I have some time I will write a blog piece with detail about the 3 May fighting. My thanks to Geoff Sullivan from the wonderful ‘Geoff’s Search Engine’ for furnishing me with some tremendous statistics for that day. If anyone is intersted in hearing this talk then please contact me. I am speaking on this subject in Bristol in October – see here for details. For those with an interest in the battle our panorama book on the subject is available here.  Alternatively, if you are interested in a battlefield tour to Arras then please contact me – I would be happy to discuss.

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I had been invited to attend the annual service of commemoration for the Battle of Arras at the Wellington Quarry and had written a blog piece about the impending service which had been picked up by the WFA for inclusion on their website. Sadly I was unable to attend due to family commitments but I have been sent images and details of the event by Isabelle Pilarowski of the Wellington Quarry. The service is held at 0630hrs on 9 April each year. The early start is due to the start of battle in 1917 – Zero Hour was 5.30am. It is a gathering of people who want to pay their respects for the men involved in the huge British offensive at Arras in April and May 1917. So often overshadowed by the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, Arras stands as one of the three major British offensives of the war.

I have a huge soft spot for the place, as a battlefield and a superb town to visit, and enjoy the quiet surroundings without the hordes of coaches and resulting pilgrims that can often be seen in some of the more popular battlefield stops on the western front.

Isabelle tells me that the service went very well and that it was well attended by officials and visitors alike. Attendees included the Mayor, the Préfet, the Ambassador of New Zealand, representatives from Australia and Canada [denoting their countries role in the Battle – at Bullecourt and Vimy] as well as members from other French and British associations.

Of particular interest to me was the inclusion of extracts from the wonderful memoirs of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment. As part of the 12th (Eastern)  Division his battalion attacked up Observation Ridge on the first day of battle. After a rest in the middle of April the battalion was back in the line for the disastrous attacks of 3 May 1917 (Third Battle of the Scarpe) – 94 years ago today. The day is one of the blackest days for the British Army in the Great War and was a hideous muddle from its inception to its execution. Over 5,900 men were killed that day as the attack was repulsed with ease along the vast majority of the Thurd Army front.  Very kindly the copyright holder, Rachel Gray, had let me copy a set of Percy’s memoirs for donation to the Wellington Quarry. They are probably the finest account extant of the battle and were quoted through the service. The service also included a reading of the poem ‘The Owl’ by Edward Thomas. He was killed on the morning of 9 April 1917 by a shell blast and is buried in Agny Military Cemetery:

For further details of Percy Clare please see this blog piece or consult our book Arras: The Spring 1917 Offensive in Panoramas Including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt

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I had a few much-needed days rest with the family at a cottage in Devon last week. We were blessed with beautiful weather and a good time was had by all. Most importantly I came back rested and restored after a busy time over the past few months.

I had wanted to visit Plymouth, my old university city, for some time, not only to see how it looked nowadays but to go to The Hoe and visit the Plymouth Naval War Memorial. I can well remember the memorial from my student days but gave it little thought back then. Twenty years older and perhaps a little wiser I wanted to pay my respects at the name of one man whose story I had looked into – Able Seaman Daniel Collins. Daniel was the younger brother of Thomas Collins, the man Sapper William Hackett refused to leave 40 feet below the fields of Givenchy – an act for which Hackett was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. He was the only tunneller ever to receive the award and he and Thomas Collins lie there still.

Plymouth Naval Memorial

Text on Plymouth Naval Memorial

Able Seaman Daniel Collins, RNVR was killed on 26 February 1918 on “SS Greavesash”, a merchant steamer which was torpedoed without warning by German submarine UB-74 and sunk off the Normandy coast. Daniel was one of eight crew who were killed that day. Whilst visiting Thomas and Daniel’s nephew, John Abraham back in March 2010 I had been struck by the loss of the two eldest Collins boys in the war and could only imagine the effect that this had on the family.

1918 RNVR panel on Plymouth Naval Memorial

The memorial is very imposing and is situated centrally on The Hoe overlooking Plymouth Sound. It commemorates 7,251 sailors of the First World War and 15,933 of the Second World War. The panels bearing the rank and names of sailors who were lost at sea are organized by date so I had to walk around the entire memorial from 1914 through to 1918 until I came to Panel 29 which contained the names of officers and men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. The names, as per the various Memorials to the Missing on the Western Front are organised by rank and it was to the bottom right of the panel that I spotted the men who had the rank of Able Seaman; the third name down was “COLLINS D.”

Able Seaman Daniel Collins, RNVR – like your brother Thomas, gone but not forgotten.

Close up of Able Seaman Daniel Collins' name on Plymouth Naval Memorial

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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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