Archive for the ‘News from the front’ Category


Memorial to commemorate the losses of the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment and the Essex Yeomanry at Monchy-le-Preux

Memorial to commemorate the losses of the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment and the Essex Yeomanry at Monchy-le-Preux

Monchy-le-Preux has long been one of my favourite spots on the battlefields. The tale of its capture and subsequent defence make fascinating reading. As such, I was delighted to take my group of battlefield clients to attend the unveiling of a new memorial to the 1st Essex Regiment and Essex Yeomanry in the village square on Saturday 21 May 2016. The memorial is the brainchild of Dr Ted Bailey, whose grandfather served in the 1st Essex Regiment.

The start of the ceremony, 21 May 2016

The start of the ceremony, 21 May 2016

Monchy was chosen as the site for this memorial as it is forever associated with the losses sustained by the cavalrymen of the Essex Yeomanry who aided the capture of the village on 11 April 1917. During this action, Lance Corporal Harold Mugford held back the advancing enemy singlehandedly, although seriously injured. For his actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Three days later the 1st Essex Regiment and Newfoundland Regiment launched an ill-fated push eastwards up Infantry Hill. The Newfoundlanders losses are commemorated with one of their five caribou in the centre of the village. Dr Ted Bailey has sought to redress this imbalance with a memorial to the memory of the Essex Regiment and Yeomanry.

The press release distributed prior to the unveiling provides additional detail on the two actions of the Essex Regiment and Yeomanry at Monchy:

On 11 April, the Essex Yeomanry, as part of a mounted division, bravely attacked Monchy in a snowstorm, galloping into the village but were met with heavy fire and lost 135 men, 29 killed in action, and most of their horses. Machine Gunner Lance-Corporal Harold Mugford doggedly defended the position under severe enemy pressure although severely wounded in both legs which were subsequently amputated. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and survived the war with distinction.

On 14 April, the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment attacked east of Monchy into a wooded area aiming for their objective, some high ground known as Infantry Hill. Initial success, with ground captured and prisoners taken, was reversed by  a heavy German artillery barrage plus a simultaneous counter attack by the 3rd Bavarian Regiment, one of the enemy’s finest fighting units.  The battalion suffered 661 casualties, so many that a temporary battalion had to be formed with the Newfoundland Battalion, named the ‘1st Newfoundessex’, comprising only 400 men.

Other Essex Battalions were also in the vicinity during this larger Arras engagement. The 2nd Battalion was in action on 9 April losing 78 men whilst the 9th Battalion lost 163 men.

Wreath laying at the memorial

Wreath laying at the memorial

The unveiling ceremony was very well attended with a long list of dignitaries from the UK along with a great many locals. The memorial can be visited in the square outside the church just off the Rue de la Chaussy. It stands a mere 50 metres away from the Newfoundland caribou.

Map showing location of the new memorial to the 1st Essex Regiment and Essex Yeomanry at Monchy-le-Preux

Map showing location of the new memorial to the 1st Essex Regiment and Essex Yeomanry at Monchy-le-Preux. Map courtesy of Geoportail www.geoportail.gouv.fr/

Detail on the plaque, Monchy le Preux

Detail on the plaque, Monchy le Preux

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.

The view from the British trenches at Roclincourt. Highland Cemetery now sits on the position of the German front line. The line was assaulted on the morning of 9 April 1917 by units from the 51st (Highland) Division.

Introduction

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.

An extract from XVII Corps battle plan showing objectives for the 34th Division including the Point du Jour. Ref: WO153/225. Copyright National Archives & reproduced with their permission.

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.

Battery Valley - captured on 9 April 1917

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.

The distinctive church spire of Monchy-le-Preux as seen from Orange Trench Cemetery

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.

Seaforth's Cross at Fampoux

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.

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

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.

Poppies at Fampoux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 attended the premiere of the Breathing Fire documentary on last May’s search for the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector at Mametz (Somme) last night at the home of the Royal Engineers – Brompton Barracks in Chatham. Many of the team involved came from all over the country and it was good to meet up again with them and to catch up with the officers, NCOs and sappers who had been such an integral part of the dig.

A replica flame projector stands between the marquees

The Corps had excelled themselves once again and three marquees had been erected to provide appropriate cover from the rather unwelcome showers that greeted us on arrival. These also housed the bar, tables and a good deal of information on the dig site including photographs and biographical details of Captain WH Livens and his various weapons of war. To add an authentic note to proceedings there were several serving soldiers kitted out in Great War period uniforms. The most impressive element was a small scale replica of the flame projector (approximately 12 ft long) which had been constructed in the square. Apparently it had been tested and could fire flame 30ft but this was (perhaps wisely) considered a bit of a risk with so many civilians around and so remained benign all night.

Even the showers could not dampen the evening

After canapés and bubbly we all made our way (via the red carpet) to the auditorium and after welcoming speeches we sat down to watch the long, international version of the ‘Breathing Fire’ film. A break was provided halfway through with time for ice-cream and then afterwards a curry supper was provided.

The auditorium during the ice cream break

As the film highlights the skills of the Royal Engineers – in 1914-18 and nowadays too – it was well received by all. The evening was held in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund and was a resounding success with approximately 250 people attending. My thanks to all of those personnel who were part of the project and yesterday evening – it has been a remarkable experience to have been involved.

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A quick update from the remarkable story of the identification of Private Thomas Lawless, 49th Battalion CEF. One of the key pointers in identifying the human remains found at Avion as belonging to Thomas Lawless concerned the portrait facial construction undertaken by renowned sculptor Christian Corbet.

1 April saw the first official public unveiling of the portrait reconstruction to a full house at the local armoury. The event was hosted by a local museum and supported by the 2nd Newfoundland Regiment. The event commenced with several letters from parliamentarians and even one from the family itself.

Letter from the Prime Minister on the unveiling of Thomas Lawless's portrait

This was then followed by a short Power Point lecture given by Christian Corbet on his role in the identification process which was well received.

Letter from Government of Newfoundland and Canada

There has been an enormous amount of interest generated by this story and it clearly shows the fascination with and the desire to honour the fallen of the Great War.  As an addenda to this blog I have today (12 April) received a link to an excellent blog by sculptor Christian Corbet which details his part in the ID process. Please click on Identifying a WW1 Soldier to read it.

Cadets pose with the portrait of Pte Thomas Lawless and sculptor Christian Corbet

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