Posts Tagged ‘Royal Engineers’


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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Last week I spent an enjoyable two days on the battlefields with four clients. For all but one of them it was their first visit to the western front.  We met bright and early on Monday morning at the Channel Tunnel terminal and travelled over in convoy down to Arras.

Arras

Our first stop was in the superb Carriere Wellington. Our guide, the irrepressible Pascal, was as keen as ever and coupled with my preliminary talk on the Battle of Arras and the ten minute ‘taster’ film shown prior to going underground my  group got a good initial grasp of the battle in April & May 1917. Following our hour underground we visited the Arras Memorial to the Missing and Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery. The sheer scale of men with no known grave from the Arras battlefields had the usual sobering effect.

Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery with the Arras Memorial in the background

Being so close we popped into the Mur des Fusillés and paid our respects at the site where 218 French resistance and civilians were shot by the Germans in the Second World War. I have always found it an eerie place with a strange atmosphere all of its own.

We then headed out to the Great War battlefields around Arras with the first stop the Point du Jour for a visit to the military cemetery and the graves of the 10th Lincolns men (Grimsby Chums) found in 2001 and the impressive 9th (Scottish) Division memorial re-sited next to the cemetery. After a picnic lunch in the cemetery we headed back into Athies and along to Fampoux. The village marked the point of furthest advance into German lines on 9 April 1917. We stopped at the sunken lane to look at the attack of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers (10th Brigade, 4th Division) against Greenland Hill and Roeux on 11 April 1917. Whilst at the Sunken Lane Cemetery overlooking the sloping fields down to Roeux I told my group of Donald MacKintosh and the actions that earned his Victoria Cross.  We then drive through Roeux past the site of the Chemical Works (now a Carrefour mini-supermarket) and around to Brown’s Copse Cemetery to pay our respects at MacKintosh’s grave.

The grave of Donald MacKintosh VC in Brown’s Copse Cemetery, Roeux

Back on the road we crossed the Scarpe and headed up to Monchy-le-Preux. I pointed out the positions of various trench lines and explained about the catastrophic failure of the 3 May attack, the Third Battle of the Scarpe. We then had a drive around Monchy, stopping at the stunning 37th Division memorial and the Newfoundland Caribou Memorial which is built on the top of a British artillery observation post constructed in August 1917 by 69 Field Company RE. Our day’s battlefielding was completed with a stop east of the village on Infantry Hill where I told of the disastrous 14 April attack by 1st Essex Regiment and the aforementioned Newfoundlanders. Both battalions were destroyed in carefully planned German counter-attacks – the first use of the new doctrine of ‘elastic’ defence. Monchy was at the mercy of the Germans and the situation was only saved by the quick thinking action of Lt-Colonel James Forbes-Robertson and a small group of men – all decorated for this action and known thereafter as the Heroes of Monchy.

The Men who saved Monchy – all decorated for their part in the action

We had a pleasant walk up Infantry Hill to the Mound and then headed back into Arras to pick up my car and then headed down to the Somme for a welcome meal and good night’s sleep.

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

The Somme

The next day was spent touring the 1916 Somme battlefield. Very much aware that one can only skim over the surface with one day around such a large and important battlefield we were up early to make full use of the daylight. After an explanation in the car park on the battle using various maps we set off north up to Serre, the most northerly point of continuous attack on 1 July 1916. En route we pulled the car in at the Ulster Tower for a view across the Ancre and an explanation of events in the northern part of the battlefield. The Gospel Copses at Serre were deserted and we had Sheffield Memorial Park all to ourselves as I explained about the failure of the attack and the losses incurred by the northern Pals battalions of the 31st Division.

The entrance to Sheffield Memorial Park with Railway Hollow Cemetery in the background.

After some time in Railway Hollow Cemetery we stopped at Serre Road Cemetery No.2 (the largest on the Somme battlefield) and the across the Redan Ridge to Beaumont Hamel, and the infamous sunken lane, the jumping off point for the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers that fateful morning. We then retraced our steps and stopped for a pleasantly quiet walk around the preserved trenches of Newfoundland Memorial Park with its Caribou and even more imposing memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division, conquerors of Beaumont Hamel in November 1916. Our next stop was to the magnificent Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, a must for any battlefield visitor to the western front. Heading via Pozières of Australian fame we reached the Old Blighty Tea Rooms at La Boisselle for a deserved late lunch.

The afternoon began with a detailed tour around the Glory Hole at La Boisselle and a good walk around the site looking at the craters and depressions marking the trenches followed by a stop at the unmissable Lochnagar Crater.

The Glory Hole at La Boisselle. Overlooking the site of the Granathof.

We then headed east through the battlefield, past Contalmaison, Longueval and Guillemont to the Cedric Dickens cross at Ginchy overlooking Leuze and Bouleaux Woods. This was a special stop for one of the group whose grandfather had served with the 1/8th Middlesex Regiment and who had probably been in these very fields in mid-September 1916.

Jack & John with Bouleaux Wood in the background. John’s grandfather served here in September 1916 with the 1/8th Middlesex Regiment.

Our final stop of the day was to the site above Mametz of our successful archaeological dig for a Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector where I could stand my clients on the spot where the parts had been recovered in May 2010.  Sadly we did not have time to all visit the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne to see the temporary exhibition and salvaged projector parts as well as the full size replica but there is only so much we could do within the time constraints.

“I would just like to say a big thank you for making our battlefield tour such an interesting and amazing event. Your knowledge of the area and what went on and where, is just incredible. The tour was made that much better by the fact that you had researched my Grandfather’s service in the Middlesex Regiment and proceeded to show us exactly where he was and what he would have experienced almost to the day but 95 years ago. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck!

The choice of locations that you picked were excellent, and whilst I know two days is not long enough to cover everything there is to see, we certainly got a very good understanding of what happened, by whom and where. This was made even more poignant by linking them to my ancestors who had fought there. I would have no hesitation in recommending your tours to any of my friends, in fact I have told them of my experience with you and we are already planning another tour for next year.” John Waterman, Kent

It was a terrific trip with delightful people who have clearly got the battlefielding bug. My thanks to John, Clare, Sally and Jack for their enthusiasm, understanding and for sending me a selection of photos. I am already looking forward to the next time…

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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

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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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:

The Time Team Special dig at Mametz – the evolution and structure of the project behind the search for the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector

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:

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/time-team-specials/episode-guide/series-6/episode-2

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.

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Following the three week archaeological dig at Mametz last May I am pleased to report that a new exhibition is to open at the Historial, Peronne from 16 June 2011.

Below is the text from the flyer that has been produced. If you are on the Somme from June – December then please do visit the Historial for the chance to see this exhibition.

An exhibition that tells for the first time the story behind the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector. Employed only ten times during the war – nine of which were on the Somme. The machine was 19 metres long, 40 centimetres wide, and weighed 2.5 tonnes. It was deployed from a tunnel beneath No Man’s Land by a specially-trained crew of seven, and fired a jet of flaming oil 100 metres long over the German trenches: the strangest, rarest and most horrifying weapon of the Great War.

In May 2010 historians and archaeologists excavated a section of the British trenches near the village of Mametz in search of the remains of a Flame Projector believed to have been abandoned underground in late June 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme. The results were extraordinary, and for the first time for almost 100 years some of the original parts found in 2010 can be viewed alongside a specially-commissioned replica constructed by local students of vocational training centres.

A special screening of the film “Breathing Fire – Le Dragon de la Somme” will be shown at the opening of the exhibition, 16 June at 6pm.

A downloadable version of this flyer in pdf is available by clicking on the link below. Please feel free to disemminate this information to all your friends and battlefield visitors. It promises to be a terrific exhibition and for many will be the first chance to see parts of the Livens Flame Projector, buried in the Somme mud for 94 years.

Breathing Fire – Le Dragon de la Somme exhibition

Exact date of transmission of the version for UK television still to be determined. I will post this when I find out the date from the production company.

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I use the tools supplied by WordPress and Google Analytics to follow how visitors reach my site. I am seeing a large number of visitors searching for details on the archaeological dig and accompanying television documentary programme that followed our search for any surviving pieces of a Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector at Mametz in May 2010. As the site was open to visitors and there was no ban on photos I don’t think it is breaking any great secret to reveal that we DID find pieces of this amazing weapon. It was 19 metres long, 40 centimetres wide and weighed 2.5 tonnes. Its specialised team of seven ensured it fired three ten second bursts of flame for up to 100 metres and, perhaps most remarkably, this was fired from a tunnel or ‘Russian Sap’ dug specially under No Man’s Land.

At present (14 February) there is no broadcast date available for the UK or North American market. In the UK the programme will be broadcast as a Channel 4 Time Team Special. As soon as I know the broadcast date I will post the details so please check back or follow me on Twitter to be kept up to date.

In the meantime, a couple of pictures.

Update – 13 April 2011.

The Time Team Special will be shown on Channel 4 at 9pm on 14 April. A detailed description of the birth, evolution and structure of the project along with maps and images is now available here:

The Time Team Special dig at Mametz – the evolution and structure of the project behind the search for the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector

The Projector site on a recce in September 2009. The old British front line runs through this shot. The village in the distance is Mametz.

What a difference nine months makes - our open day at the site which was attended by hundreds.

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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.

Twenty-five original VCs - estimated cost near £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.

Original Victoria Cross of Sapper William Hackett, 254 Tunnelling Company

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.

For Valour - list of RE Victoria Cross recipients

Victoria Crosses held by the Royal Engineers Museum - click to enlarge

The museum can be found on Prince Arthur Road, Gillingham, Kent, ME4 4UG. Telephone 01634 822839 or website www.remuseum.org.uk

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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 volumeIt 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.

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