Posts Tagged ‘RE Museum’
Today sees the grand opening of the new exhibition about the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector at the Historial in Péronne. I have taken a day out from a holiday and have just arrived in Péronne after three separate train journeys. The exhibition will commence with a few speeches and then the first screening of the “Breathing Fire – Le Dragon de la Somme” in French will be shown in two auditoriums. I understand from staff at the museum that usual attendances are about 80 people. That figure will be doubled tonight – we have 160 people coming along including many from the UK including representatives from the Corps of Royal Engineers.
I managed to get a few pictures earlier of the exhibition and, most notably, the specially-commissioned replica constructed by local students of vocational training centres. I will post an update later if time permits. Having worked on the project since its initial inception back in 2005/6 I am obviously a touch biased but, having had a good look at what has been produced and is on display, I can say that it looks fantastic and would urge any battlefield visitor to the Somme to take a look. The exhibition is currently scheduled to run to December 2011.
EDIT: Evening went with a great success – speeches followed by the unveiling of the replica flame projector and then a viewing of the Breathing Fire film with French subtitles. A great evening and wonderful to see so many people from all around the western front – Johan Vandewalle from Polygon Wood, Alain Jacques from the Arras archaelogical service, Philippe Gorczynski, owner of D51 Deborah from Cambrai and Isabelle and Pascal from the Carriere Wellington, Arras to name a few. Thanks to all for their support.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Update – 13 April 2011.
A detailed blog on the birth, evolution, research & structure of the Livens Flamethrower project with maps, plans and images can now be read here:
After much delay and waiting I am pleased to finally announce that the Channel 4 Time Team Special on our archaeological dig for the Livens Flame Projector dig at Mametz, Somme is to be aired at 9pm on Thursday 14 April. The working title was ‘Breathing Fire’ but C4 appear to have retitled it ‘The Somme’s Secret Weapon’. Details can be found via this weblink:
It has been edited down to fill a one hour slot (9pm – 10pm) – a mere 48 minutes of actual programme. I have watched the rough cut of the 83 minute version (for History Television and the international audience) and I thought it moved at great pace. It will be interesting to see quite how the editing team have managed to keep the story whilst cutting so much footage.
I am looking forward to seeing the long version of the film at the premiere to be held at the Brompton Barracks, Chatham on the 11th April and will write my thoughts next week after the event.
As ever, television can only give a tiny piece of the information gleaned in the research process. A detailed explanation of the use of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector can be found at the exhibition to be held at the Historial, Peronne from 16 June – 11 December 2011. Details can also be found in the revised 2011 edition of our Somme panorama book.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of the new Victoria Cross Gallery at the Royal Engineers Museum on 11 November. The exhibition opened to the public on 12 November but, along with about a hundred others, got a sneak preview. The exhibition celebrates the twenty five Victoria Crosses that the Museum holds as well as giving details for a further thirty RE VCs not in the museum collection. BBC Kent covered this story HERE.
Prior to the opening we were all lucky enough to see the ORIGINAL Victoria Crosses in a display box – I was informed that a cost estimate for the box was about £10 million.
It was terrific to see medals – from some of the earliest medal from the Crimean War, Boer War (Lieutenant Digby Jones who was the first man to be awarded the VC posthumously) through to the Second World War and that of Sergeant Thomas Durrant, awarded posthumously following his actions in the St Nazaire raid of 1942; his bravery was so great his captors insisted he receive a bravery award.
However, it was the Great War VCs that I had really come to see and I was not disappointed. Amongst those on display along with unseen archival material, personal items, and weaponry were the three Royal Engineers whose VC action was on the same day – 4 November 1918 when crossing the Sambre-Oise canal; Sapper Adam Archibald VC, 218 Field Company, Major George de Cardonnel Elmsall Findlay VC, MC & Bar, 409 (Lowland) Field Company and Major Arnold Horace Santo Waters VC, 218 Field Company.
Major James McCudden, Gillingham’s own VC recipient, whose medals are on display alongside those of his two brothers (who sadly both also died in WW1) and his father’s (who died shortly after WW1).
My main interest was to see an addition to the museum’s collection of the story of Sapper William Hackett. I had tracked down descendants of Thomas Collins, the man Willam Hackett refused to leave under the fields of Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée in June 1916. This BBC Wales news item shows the picture of Thomas that hung over his mother’s fireplace until her death. It had been arranged between the family descendants and the RE Museum that this picture would go to the museum – after all, Collins is instrumental to the Hackett’s VC action. I was delighted to see Terry Carroll there, nephew of Thomas Collins, who I had met at the Tunnellers Memorial unveiling in June. He was delighted and understandably moved to see the picture of Uncle Tommy, a picture he knew so well from his childhood, restored, cleaned and hanging in such illustrious company in the RE Museum.
There is a Remembrance book in the Medals room, specifically for people to record their memories of members of their family who have served in the armed forces. The exhibition is now open to all visitors – it is highly recommended. Well done to the museum staff who have done such a fine job with this exhibition. The braveryof the men who earned these awards is, as ever, staggering.
The museum can be found on Prince Arthur Road, Gillingham, Kent, ME4 4UG. Telephone 01634 822839 or website www.remuseum.org.uk
The past week has been very busy with preparations for the talk in Arras at the Wellington Quarry that Peter Barton and I are doing on 12 November in French to local media & invited guests. Peter is doing 40 minutes and I am doing 5 minutes but he can speak French and mine is very GSCE-level so I thought it a fair trade off!
We are meeting Rachel Gray, great-niece of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment whose hitherto unused memoir was used extensively in the Arras panorama volume. It will be a tremendous opportunity to show Rachel the battlefield where Percy fought in April & May 1917 and I should imagine it will be an emotional day all round. In my experience his memoir is unsurpassed in detail and we will literally be able to ‘walk in his footsteps’. The Bucks Herald are running this story for us as Rachel lives in their readership area. Many thanks to Nicholas Moore for his help with this. Link to be included when it goes online.
I have also been in touch with the Bristol Evening Post who are coming around on Thursday. Whilst on the archaeological dig on the Somme in May looking for parts of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector with Peter Barton & Tony Pollard (Centre for Battlefield Archaeology) we explored some caves under one of the churches in a nearby village. These caves were used as a refuge from German shelling by British soldiers – a safe and dry place to sleep. The walls are literally festooned with graffiti – names of the men who were billeted in these caves. One of the names particularly caught my eye – that of a man from just outside Bristol who had written his name, unit and home village as well as the date – 30 November 1916. I did a bit of research and found that, sadly, he was killed in March 1918. I will post more details on this plus the picture when the story is published.
The period around Armistice Day is always a busy time with the Great War in so many people’s minds through the Poppy Appeal. Coupled with upcoming research at Kew and the preview of the new ‘Valour’ Victoria Cross exhibition at the Royal Engineers Museum on 11 November as well as a battlefield trip this year is no exception. The strangest thing will be not being in Ypres (Ieper) on 11 November – I think I have only missed one year in the last ten.