Posts Tagged ‘Bethune’


Fred's annotated map showing mining areas along the British Front. 251TC's area around Cuinchy is circled.

Fred’s annotated map showing mining areas along the British Front. 251TC’s area around Cuinchy is circled.

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

IGN Map extract showing the area between Bethune and Cuinchy. Reproduced from http://www.geoportail.gouv.fr/accueil

IGN Map extract showing the area between Bethune and Cuinchy. Reproduced from http://www.geoportail.fr/

2. Hear Fred describe the descent into 251TC’s labyrinthine tunnels at Cuinchy and how the work of spoil removal took place underground

British trench map extract from December 1915 showing line around Cuinchy and Auchy.

British trench map extract from December 1915 showing trench lines around Cuinchy and Auchy.

3. Fred describes his shift in a lone listening post spent listening for the sound of German miners

Mine workings and tunnel plans - craters on the Cuinchy Front. Fred's handwritten annotations show his daily journey to work.

Mine workings and tunnel plans – craters on the Cuinchy Front. Fred’s handwritten annotations show his daily journey to work from Béthune.

Recommended reading on military mining and the underground war

  • Beneath Flanders Fields by Peter Barton, Peter Doyle and Johan Vandewalleeter Barton, Peter Doyle and Johan VandewalleBeneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers War 1914-1918 by Peter Barton, Peter Doyle & Johan Vandewalle
  • Underground Warfare 1914-1918 by Simon JonesUnderground Warfare 1914-1918 by Simon Jones
  •  Tunnellers - Captain W. Grant Grieve and Bernard NewmanTunnellers by Captain W. Grant Grieve & Bernard Newman
  • War Underground by Alexander BarrieWar Underground: The Tunnellers of the Great War by Alexander Barrie

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The internet is a wonderful thing; for anyone interested in a certain battalion or unit it is now possible to hammer a few key words into a search engine and find all sorts of information about their part in major, set-piece battles. Forums and discussion groups also have their place. Some regimental museums have even transcribed all of their battalion war diaries, making them available online for free.

Extract from the 17th Middlesex Regiment War Diary. Reproduced with permission of National Archives, Ref: WO95/1361

Extract from the 17th Middlesex Regiment War Diary. Reproduced with permission of National Archives, Ref: WO95/1361

Libraries, regimental archives and the National Archives all have information available to help understand events. However, what of the vast majority of time spent not going ‘over the top’ or taking part in the next ‘Big Push’? What of the less-well chronicled, monotonous but necessary routine of trench warfare?

It can be an immensely satisfying task to follow a unit’s movements around the battlefield; this is often undertaken as part of a family pilgrimage or greater desire to ‘follow in the footsteps’ of a relative who served. For me, when battlefield guiding, it is the part of the job that I love the most. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a general tour around the main tourist sites as well as the next person but it is in analysing the minutiae of war diary entries and working out such mundane things as billeting arrangements or where sports events were held that yields most fulfilment.

Walking along the route of Football Trench, Calonne North sector.

Walking along the route of Football Trench, Calonne North sector.

I recently returned from a bespoke trip following the 17th Middlesex Regiment (Footballers’ Battalion) around various villages and towns in French Flanders and the Gohelle coalfields in which they spent November 1915 – March 1916.  My client’s grandfather had enlisted underage and spent four months with the battalion before being wounded in mid-March 1916; a wound which saved him from taking part in the Battalion’s action at Deville Wood on the Somme.  During the four month period the Battalion held trenches at Cambrin, Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée and Festubert before taking over the Calonne sector from the French at the end of February.

Private James MacDonald, 17th Middlesex - first casualty of the battalion at Cambrin Churchyard Extension

Private James MacDonald, 17th Middlesex – first casualty of the battalion at Cambrin Churchyard Extension

Over the course of our three day trip we visited all of these places, as well as many not associated with the 17th Middlesex; Fromelles, Aubers, Hulluch and Loos. Our stops were not solely restricted to places but included visits to 17th Middlesex Regiment men who had been killed in action. To stand at the grave of Donald Stewart (who served under the alias of Private James MacDonald) in Cambrin Churchyard Extension and know he was the first man of the battalion to be killed in action struck a particular chord. However, for me the highlight came during our visit to Béthune. The Battalion war diary for 2 December records a move to Béthune and billeting in the College des Jeune Filles. I had an old postcard of the college and knew the greater part of it still stood so arranged to visit it during our lunch stop.

College des Jeune Filles, Bethune - then and now

College des Jeune Filles, Bethune – then and now

Battlefield guides will recognise the satisfying feeling – being able to tell someone that their relative was at that spot on a certain date, not nearby or somewhere in the town but here, actually here. We had the same feeling eating our lunch of ham and cheese baguettes in the square at nearby Beuvry. A poorly-attended market filled half of the square but, as we sat eating, I was able to explain that this village, now almost a suburb of Bethune was where the Footballers’ Battalion had spent Christmas Day 1915. There was no plaque commemorating this event, no visible link at all, just the knowledge that men of the Battalion would have walked around the square over the festive time, amongst them my client’s grandfather. It made the lunch, eaten in the car whilst a steady drizzle fell that bit more special.

After a tour around the Loos battlefield I took my client to the site of Middlesex and Football Trench in the Calonne North sub-sector. It was here in that his grandfather was wounded in March 1916. The war diary of the 16th records ‘4 casualties occurred from GRENADES, 2 in “B” Coy and 2 in “D” Coy’; it is likely that my client’s grandfather was one of those wounded men as he left France on the 18th, crossing the channel for treatment at a hospital in Britain. Such were the effect of the wounds received that he was discharged from service three months later.  Compared to many who served, his war was unremarkable – his service record shows he played no part in any major offensive and yet the four months he spent with the 17th Middlesex from November 1915 – March 1916 had a profound effect on him for the rest of his life.

Map of Calonne North Sector showing Football and Middlesex Trenches . Reproduced from 6th Infantry Brigade War Diary held at National Archives, Ref: WO95/1353

Map of Calonne North Sector showing Football and Middlesex Trenches . Reproduced from 6th Infantry Brigade War Diary held at National Archives, Ref: WO95/1353

Calonne North map overlaid on to Google Earth. Football Trench runs between the A21 motorway and the Lens – Bethune railway embankment.

Football Trench ran through what is now an open field next to the A21 motorway and the urban sprawl of miners’ cottages of Liévin. The railway line from Lens to Bethune runs across the northern tip of Middlesex Trench. Much of the rest of it is hidden under a civilian cemetery or is being built upon for new housing. A casual visitor to the site today would find it far from enchanting. Locals stared at our car with British number plates; clearly, the back streets of Liévin didn’t see too many battlefield tourists. However, the relative inaccessibility of the spot made visiting it that bit more special. To those of us in the car, it felt as though we had tracked down a site rather than merely followed the tourist signs. Having researched the young Middlesex soldier it certainly had an effect on me.  It was a real pleasure to be able to share these places with his grandson; not just the obvious sites of front line and communication trenches but the places in he was billeted, the towns and villages he would have known well and the roads he marched along on his route to and from the front. To me, this is what makes following in a soldiers footsteps such an enriching experience.

When the Whistle Blows by Andrew Riddoch & John Kemp

When the Whistle Blows by Andrew Riddoch & John Kemp

N.B. A very readable account of the 17th Middlesex Regiment is Andrew Riddoch & John Kemp’s ‘When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers’ Battalion in the Great War’ – highly recommended.

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