Category Archives: Military History

The forgotten soldiers of Passchendaele – the French First Army

French Map showing the phases of the battle.
General François Paul Anthoine commander of the First French Army. “It is a question of national hon our. We have to keep our word we gave to the British”

One army has been almost completely absent from any mention in the commemorations of this week=end’s centenary of the start of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. This army is the French 1st Army which also took part in the battle. Although the operation was led by the British, it was an allied operation With 135,000 men and over 1000 guns the French Army that took part was larger than the Australian, Canadian or New Zealander contingents that fought. Yet their role and sacrifices have been ignored.
The French First Army’s deployment on the British left was a commitment to the alliance, despite the strikes and mutinies afflicting their army after the failure of the Nivelle offensive April 1917. Their tactics were designed around using artillery fire to destroy and neutralise defences and seizing limited objectives to minimise infantry casualties.  The tactics used on 31st July were the first use of those methods that Petain would use to rebuild the confidence of the  French Army.

French artillery positions and artillery supply routes. 21 July 1917
French engineers building a footbridge – probably across the Yser canall
French troops visiting positions captured on 31 July.
Canadian troops visiting a super heavy French gun October 1917

The two divisions of the 1st Army attacked on a 4 km frontage. Particular attention was paid to artillery support. The artillery included 60 batteries of 75mm guns, 240 pieces, 277 pieces of trench artillery – mortars, 164 heavy howitzers, 148 long ranged guns (105- 240mm) for counter battery fire and 64 heavy guns (305mm,320mm and 370mm) to smash concrete bunkers. This artillery train was supported by aircraft detachments for heavy artillery and counter battery fire, bomber, and reconnaissance squadrons and the elite Cigognes fighter squadron.
The French were faced with the problem of assaulting across the Yser canal against defences based on concrete bunkers. The French thought the concrete bunkers were less of a tactical challenge than the deep shelters capable of protecting entire platoons the Germans dug is drier country. The assaulting troops were preceded by a creeping barrage of shrapnel 150m ahead of the infantry.
On the 31st July the French First Army was tasked with protecting the Northern flanks of the British 5th Army. They succeeded in this mission, advancing 2500 metres, almost as far as the Guards division to their right. The French took part in several attacks in concert with the British , until the end of October.
The French had advanced some 10 km, capturing 1,500 prisoners. Their casualties were low, 1,625 killed or missing and 6901 wounded or taken prisoner. These are very light compared to those suffered by British formations, and raise some questions about British tactics.
The French army of Flanders was deployed to support the British led operation “as a matter of honour.” It is a shame that their gesture has not be remembered a century later.

Aldbourne’s War Dead and Easy Company’s Band of Brothers

Albourne Heritage Centre Curator John Dymond points out the layout of the 506 PIR camp with the help of Ww2 era photographs.

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of being the historian guide for the US National World War 2 Museum  “Band of Brothers Tour”. They are partners of the Liberation Route Europe. I accompanied the group to Aldbourne in Wiltshire, where the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment were billeted in 1943-44. The Aldbourne Heritage society were splendid hosts.

Memorial to Second World War dead: Aldbourne Parish Church
Memorial to Second World War dead: Aldbourne Parish Church

Travelers were curious about the reaction of villagers to the influx of American soldiers doubling the population. One of the overwhelming thoughts must have been reminders to them of their own menfolk, doing their bit for the war effort far from home.

The names on the memorial plate in the church provide evidence of the war service of villagers. Most of those who served came back, and the memorial is merely a fragment of the part that Aldbourne played in the war. By the time that Easy Company arrived in Aldbourne many men were serving in one of the armed forces, and six people from Aldbourne had already died.

Picture of M V Zealandic
M V Zealandic

At 00.45 hours on 17 Jan 1941 the unescorted M V Zealandic was hit underneath the forward mast by one torpedo from U-106 about 230 miles west-northwest of Rockall. The ship stopped for a short time, sent distress signals and then continued. The ship sank slowly after being hit amidships by more two torpedoes at 00.59 and 01.27 hours. The Germans observed how the crew abandoned ship in three lifeboats, but they were never seen again. The master, 64 crew members, two gunners and six passengers were lost. The passengers included 31 year old Wing Commander D. P. Lascelles RAF, and his wife Diana Trelawny,who lived on the Green, Aldbourne. Wing Commander Lascelles’ younger brother Flying Officer John Richard Hasting, had been lost over the Atlantic three month earlier, aged 20.

HMS Hood in 1924

Two others died at sea before 1943. 17 year old Desmond Trevor Wooton was serving as a Boy 1st Class in the Royal Navy on 24th May 1941 aboard H.M.S. Hood when it was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland. He was the youngest of the village war dead.

HMS Tigress in 1918
A sister ship to HMS Niger
Map of the Denmark Strait
The Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Both HMS Hood and HMS Niger were sunk in this water

Commander Arthur Jelfs Cubison, (D.S.C. and Bar) RN was a naval hero. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) as the Gunnery officer of the 770 ton destroyer HMS Tigress, when the Tigress and three other small craft gave chase to a German-Turkish squadron including the 22,500 ton battle cruiser Yavuz Sultan Selim (Ex German SMS Goeben) and 4,500 ton cruiser Midilli (Ex German SMS Breslau). Cubison showed marked ability, quickly straddling and hitting an enemy destroyer. Between the wars his career included service on river gun boats in Iraq during the Arab Rebellion in 1924 and ended with his retirement in 1934, after 21 years in the Royal Navy. At the outbreak of war, he re-joined the Navy and served at HMS Vernon, the Navy’s torpedo and mine recovery school. He took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk and was awarded a bar to his DSC. In 1942 he was the Captain of the 835 ton minesweeper HMS Niger. In fog on 5 July 1942, with visibility of less than a mile, he mistook an iceberg for Iceland’s North Western Cape and led six merchant ships of the Murmansk to Reykjavík convoy QP 13 into Northern Barrage minefield SN72 laid one month earlier at the entrance to the Denmark Strait. Every ship detonated British mines. 46 civilian crew and 9 Naval Armed Guards died aboard the American Liberty ship John Randolph, and the freighters Hefron and Massmar. There were only eight survivors of the 127 men aboard Niger. Only one freighter could be salvaged. An expensive accident and a tragedy for mariners who had survived the Arctic passage to Russia.

Four airmen died before Easy Company arrived. Corporal Leonard John Barnes died in the UK on 12th June 1942, aged 26, and is buried in Aldbourne Churchard.

Picture of spitfiare
Spitfire Mk V in markings of No 234 Squadron April 1942.

There is also a private headstone to Pilot Officer George Roxberry Bland, of 234 Squadron RAF who died on 16th April 1942, age 20, but his body was never found. His was one of two Spitfire aircraft from, 234 Squadron RAF probably shot down by German fighters as cover to an air sea rescue patrol off Cherbourg. Sergeant Robert Herbert Charles Crook of 45 Squadron RAF was lost on 18th April 1941 over the Western Desert. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the El Alamein Memorial in Egypt.

Lancaster Mk 1 R5573 ZN-B of 106 Squadron RAF

 

Memorial in Harze to the aircraft

Sergeant Ronald Charles Barrett, 21, was the wireless operator of Lancaster Mk 1 R5573 ZN-B of 106 Squadron RAF, returning from a raid by 287 bombers on the city of Cologne when it was shot down at 01.53 on 9th July 1943, by a German night fighter over the Ardennes. He is buried in Heverlee War Cemetery near Louvin Belgium. There is a memorial in the Ardennes village of Harze to the crew of the aircraft. Two other Lancaster bombers were lost by 106 Squadron on the night of 8/9 July. One was flown by 1st Lieutenant Eugene Leon Rosner USAAF, from Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania who had initially served with the RCAF before transferring to the USAAC in early July. This was the first mission in which Rosner flew in

1st Lt Eugene Rosner USAAC who died as captain of Lancaster III ED720 ZN-R 8/9 July 1943

USAAC uniform.  Rosner is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in Plot A Row 3 Grave 38, above Omaha Beach.
During the period that Easy Company were billeted in Aldbourne before D-Day, three more men from Aldbourne would die. 35-year-old Captain Dermot Horace Thomas Hanbury, Royal Engineers died in India in January. Lieutenant Thomas Martin Francis Lowinsky of 1st Battalion Scots Guards died 16th February 1944, age 22, at the height of the fighting at Anzio, Italy. Sapper William Robert May, of 42 Field Company, Royal Engineers also died in the battle for Rome, on 1st June 1944, and is buried in Cassino War cemetery. He left a widow, Florence, in Aldbourne.
Easy Company’s campaign is entwined with the fate of Aldbourne’s war dead through the remainder of the North West Europe Campaign. Sapper Derek Thomas Brind died in Normandy on 24th August 1944, aged 24, and is buried in the Bayeux War Cemetery. Lieutenant Colonel

Picture of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Irwin Bishell, DSO TD
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Irwin Bishell, DSO TD

Thomas Irwin Bishell, DSO TD commanded the 94th (Dorset and Hampshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment Royal Artillery throughout the Normandy campaign. Born in 1899 he was a veteran of the First World War. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his inspirational leadership during the tough fighting south west of Caen during the first two weeks of July 1944. He met all emergencies with calm and resolute action and set an example of devotion to duty $rand contempt for danger. His regiment was part of the divisional artillery of the 43rd Wessex

Image of Route marker for 94 Field Regiment 43rd Wessex Division
Route marker for 94 Field Regiment 43rd Wessex Division. Markers like these would have been familiar to the 101st.

Division which played an important role in Operation Market Garden. He was killed by a shell splinter on 1st October a dozen miles from where Easy Company made their attack on the same day. “Every single man in the regiment had the greatest confidence and admiration for him, and whenever he visited the gun position during lulls in the battle he always had a cheery word and smile for everyone.” Bishell is buried in Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.

305 (Polish) Squadron RAF Mosquito Mk VI

Not far very far away, across the German border is the Commonwealth Reichswald War cemetery, which contains the graves of many RAF airmen, including that of Flight Sergeant Kingsley Osbern George Nugent, the Navigator of a twin engine Mosquito fighter bomber downed on 26th November 1944. He is buried alongside the Bahamian pilot, flying in the 305th (Polish) Squadron, an illustration of the patchwork of nationalities in the RAF. Easy Company’s route to Berchtesgarten passed within ten miles of the War Cemetery at Durnbach where Sergeant/Air Gunner Bernard Conrad Ricketts of 170 Squadron, Royal Air Force is buried after his Lancaster bomber was shot down in the last RAF raid on Nuremburg, Bavaria.

PIcture of oldiers from 6th South West Borderers Burma 1944
Soldiers from 6th South West Borderers Burma 1944

The British army in Burma is sometimes known as the “Forgotten Army.” But there were some 20,000 British soldiers who fought in the Chinese American Northern command under US General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell. They weren’t “forgotten” because few people ever knew they existed! One of these men was Private Ronald Arthur Hacker, 6th Battalion South Wales Borderers, who died on 15th November 1944, age 25. At Gyobin Chauang on the road to Mandalay, his battalion fought a five day battle with the Japanese 128th Infantry Regiment in thick jungle. Hacker has no known grave and is commemorated on the memorial at Yangon(Rangoon), Burma.

The last Aldbourne fatal casualty of the war was Flight Lieutenant Guy Richard Brown, DFC RAF who died, aged 24, on 6th September 1945, three weeks after the Japanese surrender and is buried in Heliopolis War Cemetery, Cairo, Egypt. Brown was awarded the DFC for his service in 50 operational missions over Egypt and Libya leading to the capture of Tripoli. After then he seems to have flown for a electronic countermeasures unit in Britain against Germany. At the time of his death he was serving in an air ferry unit. The bus shelter was built as a memorial to him.
https://www.burmastar.org.uk/stories/south-wales-border-regiment/
There is another name on the village war memorial, Sergeant Ernest Wakefield Royal Engineers. This name cannot be linked to any name in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database. Village memorials were erected by the local parish and we may never know anything more about this man.
Of the seventeen names on the memorial, seven have no known grave. Their relatives would have received a message that their loved ones were missing, and that it was possible that they would be found or had been taken prisoner. Much later there would be a letter stating that their status was “missing presumed killed.” It must have been hard to hope that it was all in error, and that one day they would come home.
The Band of Brothers of Easy Company 506 PIR fully illustrates the experience of every and any American soldier in the liberation of Europe. Aldbourne is a village which can represent every and any English village. While every village has its own unique history and Aldbourne seems to have been the home of a higher proportion of officers than many, the war service of its villagers covers all three services, across the globe. The fortunes of war took many of them into contact with American servicemen in general and several of them even cross the paths of Easy Company. They all did their bit.

British Commission for Military History Battlefield Tour to the battlefields of the Spring Offensive 1917

The OP spent last weekend on a Battlefield tour with the British Commission for Military History to the battlefields of the Allied Spring Offensive of 1917. Travelling with a bunch of military historians is more of a master class seminar than a battlefield tour. The historians leading on different aspects included Tim Gale on French Tanks, Tony Cowan and Jack Sheldon on the Germans in Spring 1917, Michael Orr on Bullecourt,(and Gavrelle), Andy Simpson on Arras, Robin Brodhurst on Monchy-le-Preux and Gordon Corrigan on the Canadians. The OP’s contribution was to defend the reputation of Robert Nivelle and the odd matters artillery in the absence of a more distinguished Gunner historian .

Interesting topics.

– Was there any real learning curve in the Allies in 1917?

– Was there any way that the Nivelle Offensive could have been successful?

– Did the Germans really have a consistent “elastic defence doctrine”

– What were the Russian Brigades doing on the Western Front?

BTW did you know that the lethal strain of Influenza that killed more than 45 million in 1918-19 first mutated in the British military hospitals in Etaples.

SOUTH AFRICAN CONFLICT HERITAGE – REFLECTION AND RECONCILIATION

Battlefield Tourists at Spion Kop  (© Frank Baldwin February 2017 )
Boer gravestones Wagon Hill/Platrand Burgher Memorial and Cemetery. (© Frank Baldwin February 2017 )
Inscription on British Memorial Spion Kop. (© Frank Baldwin February 2017 )
Memorial to a Afrikaans military success: Fort Schanskop Pretoria.  A statue of a burger on soil from the Magersfontein Battlefield. (© Frank Baldwin February 2017 )
Famous connections: memorial on the site of the train ambush where Winston Churchill was captured. A few weeks later Mohandas Gandhi passed the same spot.
Post 1990 memorial on Spion Kop to the Indian Stretcher bearer Corps. Was Ghandi the last British commander on the hill?
The Battle of Blood River – Voortrekker memorial Pretoria
Constitution Hill – the old gaol buildings preserved next to the Supreme Court building – which is made from bricks from the prison.
Information board Spion Kop. The battlefields are well signposted and supported by maps with GPS co-ordinates and signposts
Entrance to the Apartheid museum. Visitors are assigned entrance tickets randomly marked as white or non white – and follow a different route.
The Voortrekker memorial In the background is a monument to the Afrikaans national myth; In the foreground is the Garden of Remembrance in Freedom Park Pretoria
Each of the rear views of modern South Africans is linked to a display in the museum telling the story of the country through the eyes of an ancestor. This personal stories approach is similar to that used by the Liberation Route Europe.

The Republic of South Africa is a country which has systematically promoted its battlefield and other conflict sites as heritage tourism destinations.
It is also a country that has been shaped by the conflicts between the different peoples of different races. The wars against the Xhosa in the Cape, the wars between the Boers and different native tribes, the Anglo Zulu and Anglo Boer wars left their legacy in the Union of South Africa, the apartheid regime which replaced it, and the modern South African state. It is hard to understand South Africa without knowing something of the significance of the battles of Blood River, Ulundi and Spion Kop. I have used the term “conflict” rather than “battlefield”, as the scope of the heritage is far wider than purely conventional battlefields, including the prisons and memorials that tell of the conditions of the majority population under colonial and apartheid rule.
It is also a story with a wider international significance. British reverses at the hands of the Zulus and Boers were visible signs of the fragility of the British Empire. The Anglo Zulu War generated the iconic images of colonial warfare – the film Zulu. The Anglo Boer War brought together men who would influence the world long after the peace of 1902: Kitchener, Haig, Churchill, Gandhi and Smuts.
Many of the sites are very well preserved by European standards. The battlefields are often dominated by substantial topographical features, rivers and Kojpies. Over the last century human settlements have grown larger. The centre of the colonial town of  Ladysmith is filled with shopping malls, and a power station obscures the view from Long’s guns at Colenso.  However, many of the actions took place outside settlements, and it is still possible to trace the pattern of some of the shallow trenches and rock sangers. War graves also provide archaeological evidence of the battlefields. Road maps and tourist guides to the country include the battlefields and memorials.  Historic sites are signposted, and many include informative interpretation for the visitor.
There is a network of guides and a scheme to licence guides. This varies by region, with KwaZulu- Natal promoting their battlefield heritage of the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo Boer wars as a destination. It is easy for an informed visitor to find the sites and interpret the ground.
There is a lot to see, and a lot of food for thought. There are layers of interpretation, which reveal the interests and priorities of different regimes. For example, at battlefields such as Spion Kop and Caesar’s Camp there are the graves of British and Boer soldiers who fell, and British Regimental memorials. There are then more elaborate memorials to the Boers, with concrete paths presumably erected in the Aparthied era and more recent memorials, that remember the African and Asians who also took part and suffered.

Some of the interpretation boards and heritage material look rather faded.  The story of battlefield presentation in ZwaZuluNatal is more complicated, driven by a group of enthusiasts in the 1980s, with inconsistent support from local authorities.  An anticipated tourism boom from the 2010 World Cup, did not materialise, and there is a shortfall in funding battlefield tourism infrastructure. See Moller (1)  and van der Meurwe (2)

The preserved prison buildings on Constitution Hill, Johannesburg are a stark reminder of the experience of those who fell foul of racist regimes, where the discriminatory pass laws blurred the difference between political and criminal offences.  The visitor bears witness to the inhumanity of mankind.
About fifteen miles away on one of the hills overlooking Pretoria is the Voortrekker memorial, built in 1948. It is a memorial and museum which tells the story of the Afrikaans struggles against the African tribes and the British, using the language of a white supremacist regime. It is hard to imagine, say, memorials in Germany Europe advocating Italian Fascism or the world view of German National Socialism.
The current South African Government has an interesting approach to the past. One clue is on the another hill overlooking Pretoria, landscaped to form Freedom Park, envisaged as a national and international icon of humanity and freedom. Its noble sounding , if lengthy mission is to “provide a pioneering and empowering heritage destination, in order to mobilise for reconciliation and nation building in our country; to reflect upon our past, improving our present and building our future as a united nation; and to contribute continentally and internationally to the formation of better human understanding among nations and peoples.”

Symbolism in front of the Union Buildings Pretoria. In the foreground: a statue of Mandela with arms raised. In the background, below Mandela’s elbow, is a copy of the South African War memorial at Delville Wood; a symbol of an earlier age. It is surmounted with a bronze of Castor and Pollux, by Alfred Turner. They represent the two white races of the South African Union, British and Afrikaans.
Original of Castor and Polloux. Dev=livlle Wood Memorial Somme, France

The summit of the park is the Garden of Remembrance, a focus for national commemoration. This has a roll of honour of those who contributed to the freedom of the country in the main conflicts in South Africa’s past, among them genocide, slavery, the wars of resistance, the Anglo-Boer wars, the First and Second World Wars, and the struggle for liberation from apartheid.
Of course, the current state faces little threat from any resurgence of white supremacy. But the decision to leave layers of historic interpretation is also due to the tone set by Nelson Mandela. The truth and reconciliation commission under Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with a remit which extended to reparation and reconciliation, made any rewriting of history seem rather petty.

South Africa’s Conflict heritage raises two questions:-

Souvenirs mugs based on the arbitrary entrance tickets: controversial conversation piece or a joke in poor taste?

Firstly,  the experience of South African conflict heritage deserves wider notice and study. The  Republic of South Africa has taken conflict heritage tourism seriously and invested in destinations, marketing, preservation and interpretation and supporting a network of licenced guides.  It started this strategy over a decade ago.  There is evidence emerging about the value and and implementation issues. Knowing the answer to this would help anyone interested in battlefield preservation.

The second question is what lessons can be learned from how South Africa presents its history for telling the story of European wars, in particular those of the C20th? There are parallels between the problems of presenting the conflicted history of South Africa and  that of Europe.  Different peoples have different myths and memories from a traumatic past.  There is something positive in the idea of drawing on a shared experience as a catalyst for reconciliation, creating mutual understanding and a united future in peace and freedom.  While South Africa is very different from Europe, it is a useful benchmark for organisations such as Liberation Route Europe.

References

  1. Maricki Moeller:  Battlefield Tourism in South Africa with Special Reference to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift KwaZulu-Natal. 
  2. Clinton David van der Merwe: Battlefields Tourism: The status of heritage tourism in Dundee, South Africa

 

BOOK REVIEW – THE WESTERN FRONT : LANDSCAPE, TOURISM AND HERITAGE DR STEPHEN MILES

Of all the books published about the First World War in the last few years, Dr Miles’ book is probably the most important for the Battlefields Trust. It one of the few books that covers the subject matter of the Trust – preservation, interpretation and presentation, and their value in economic and cultural terms.

Dr Miles covers the history of battlefield visits, the status of the battlefields and nature and motivation of battlefield visitors and addresses some of the issues that have arisen.  He starts with history of battlefield tourism to the western front and analyses the tourist experience. He uses the concepts of “dark tourism”, the multi-disciplinary academic approach to tourism to sites of death; including battlefields.

This is an academic book, but very accessible and stimulating to anyone with an interest in battlefield tourism.  The analysis of the economic benefits of battlefield tourism supports the case for preserving and developing battlefields as heritage tourism destinations. Unfortunately, the charts are not clearly labelled or referenced within the text.  There are thought provoking chapters on topics such as the morality of battlefield travel and the etiquette of visiting battlefields and cemeteries.

There are some shortcomings in the work. There is little reference to the value of battlefield landscape rather than monuments or the remains of trenches.  Professor William Philpott once referred to the landscape as important in three ways. Firstly, the micro-terrain that influenced   the course of events; the dips and hollows that may have determined that some men died and others survived. Secondly, the landscape enables the visitor to experience sounds and sights familiar to the combatants. The beet fields of Flanders evoke 1914 while the visitor to the Somme in July can see the flora and fauna that Sassoon describes. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, the landscape has a mythical significance as hallowed ground sanctified by the blood of the fallen. Monuments are erected in recognition of the sacred significance of the ground, a process which continues.

There could have been more of the educational value of battlefield heritage.  Pioneer tour operators, guides and guidebook authors Tony and Valmai Holt talked of battlefield travel as being a mixture of information, entertainment and education. Education is also the primary purpose of the thousands of visits by school and university students and soldiers under training. The desire for education or enlightenment is one way to distinguish between the respectful pilgrim and the sensation seeking tourist.  Other dark tourism studies have commented on the way that visits to historic thanatourism sites result in the visitor reflecting on their own mortality.

Visits to the Western Front as the setting to facilitate thought about war and society at a deeper level than the idea that peace is better than war.  The well informed or well guided visitor should be aware that the British memorials were not erected to glorify war, but to glorify the sacrifice of a generation who were thought to die in a “war end war.” Over the last fifteen years around 100,000 British servicemen and women under training have visited the battlefields to reflect on the core values of the army and their own role -and mortality.  The Irish Peace memorial at Mesen is mentioned, but not for the battlefield setting of Mesen as the base for projects to communities across the sectarian divide.

Over the last two decades, perhaps half a million to a million school and college students studying C20th History will have explored battlefields which bear the scars of two world wars.  The Western Front is not just a reminder of the cost of war, but also the choice between war and an unsatisfactory or unjust peace. It is perhaps standing on the battlefields that the European Union makes most sense – a point emphasised by French Western Front sites; such as the museum at Meaux, with its 1914 room labelled “Disunited Europe” and the EU, French and German flags over Fort Douamont.  This message pointedly ignored by the British media and politicians in the Brexit debate, which seem very keen not to mention the war.  I wonder if one consequence of visiting the western front might have predisposed young Britons to see the European Project more favourably than their grandparents and voted in greater numbers to remain in the EU referendum of 2016

Of course, the observations in the preceding critical paragraphs were stimulated by reading his work. Were Dr Miles to have expanded his work to deal with these themes it would have been a much larger work and he might still be writing it!

This is an important and thought provoking book which should be read by anyone with a serious interest in battlefield heritage and tourism.  Frank Baldwin

The Overlooked Remembrance – the British Army Learns Lessons from the Somme

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The view from the sights of a German machine over the Lancashire Fusiliers exit from the Sunken Road at Beaumont Hamel. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)
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Mine explosion at the Hawthorn redoubt. The German machine gunners had ten minutes to occupy a position to the left of the explosion
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A line of twenty-first century soldiers climbing Hawthorn ridge blend into the iconic silhouette from the Great War. (Photo and copyright: Frank Baldwin.)

This November is the centenary of the end of the battle of the Somme, one of the battles selected to commemorate the First World War by the UK Government. One of the most impressive acts of Remembrance has been overlooked by the media and the public.  On 10th November on BBC Radio 4 General Tim Cross, reminded listeners that one reason for Remembrance is to learn the lessons of the past. One of the eternal, if pessimistic, truths is how rarely people learn from history. So it ought to be news when the armed forces actually do try to see what lessons can be learned from the past.  That is what the British Army did in mid September, entirely unremarked and ignored by the media.  This is a pity. Not only is is comforting to know that the sacrifices were not ignored, but many of the lessons uncovered ought to be considered by the politicians who set defence policy and the public who elect them.

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Group photograph on the old French front line at Frise with the river Somme in the background. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)
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German historian Lieutenant Colonel Dr Mattias Strohn from the War Studies Department Sandhurst, author of The Somme Companion. (Photo Frank Baldwin)

The Army’s Operation Reflect Staff Ride Somme 2016 spent two weeks exploring the story of the battle of the Somme and learn the lessons for the current day. This was not a battlefield tour or a pilgrimage, but a serious professional study of the battle as a case study of the British Army in a war against a “first class peer enemy”, coalition warfare, development of tactics and technology, men in battle and supporting the army. It is very apposite to prepare for the worst, given the uncertainties of the current international situational politics.

This was a consultancy exercise involving some 200 Lieutenant Colonels, Majors and Warrant Officers mainly from the British Army, but with representatives from the French ,German, Commonwealth and US Armed forces, the RAF and the Civilian MOD. It was supported by battlefield historians from the British Commission for Military History, including the “OP” , and input from French and German historians.

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Syndicate discussion on the site of the Schwaben redoubt. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)
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At Rancourt German Cemetery this senior German general read out the words of “Wild Geese Rushing.” (To find out more about this song  read about Walter Flex and his wild Geese follow this link  )(Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Senior British French and Germans Generals lay wreaths at the Thiepval memorial. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)

The OP was struck by the fresh perspective from French and German historians. Even now much British military history written about the Somme ignores the French. The first book in English that sought to give anything like a fair balance between the British and French contribution to the battle was William Philpott’s “Bloody Victory” published as recently as 2010. The set text for the exercise was Dr Matthias Strohn’s “Somme Companion,” published for the exercise and featuring contributions from some of the historians taking part.

It was interesting to see the First Day of the Somme from the Belvedere de Frise, taken by the French 6th Army with only a fraction of the casualties suffered by the British further north, and to explore why this was. Few Britons, even professional historians are familiar with the capture of Bouchavesnes by the French in September 1916. Yet this high point of French endeavour on the Somme was the context for the first use of tanks by the British a few miles North West and a few days later.

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Group Photograph outside the marie at Albert. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)

This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. The best part of a day was spent in acts of commemoration and Remembrance at the German cemetery at Rancourt and the Anglo French memorial at Thiepval led by senior British French and German general officers.

It was a pity and a surprise that there has been no media coverage of this huge exercise in remembrance and reflection. The public ought to know that our military institutions have committed serious time and effort to try to learn lessons from the past – real institutional Remembrance.

Frank Baldwin is a battlefield historian, a member of the British Commission for Military History and member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. www.frankbaldwin.co.uk  

14th July – the Battle of Bazentin Ridge

XIICorps_Trace_LREveryone has heard of the first day of the Somme, famously the day on which the British Army suffered its highest casualties on a single day. Fourteen days later the British Army made its next big push. Demonstrating that occasionally lessons are learned and learned quickly, the plan was a bit different from on the 1st of July.

There wasn’t quite as many guns or ammunition as there was on the first day, but all of it was concentrated ion the German defences along Bazentin ridge and the German guns behind it. One the 1st of July there was one gun to every 20 yards of front – spread over two defensive lines and the preparation lasted for a week, firing 1.5 million shells . On the 14th there was one gun for every 6 yards and the preparation lasted for 48 hours, firing just under half a million rounds.

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The Deccan Horse photographed on the Somme 1916. I wonder if any of the limbers on the road are from N Battery?

H Hour was 03.25 at dawn. The infantry of five divisions moved out into no mans land at night, and guided by mine tape deployed quietly a few hundred yards from the German front line. It was a great success and about three miles of German trenches were taken and a gap wide enough to launch cavalry – supported by a battery of horse artillery that still exists as N battery the Eagle Troop. However, by the time the cavalry was in action the Germans had blocked the gap.

N Battery RHA came into action just short of the wire protection the 14 July German Front line
N Battery RHA came into action just short of the wire protection the 14 July German Front line

Artillery deployment in the First World War looked a bit like this. Starting from 2’14” in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0X7CfNBsq4

The map is the hand drawn trace for the XIII Corps fireplan for the attack on 14th July. Delville Wood is on the right hand side just below the number 12. The wood above the number 10 is High Wood. The poet and author Robert Graves was wounded in this attack at the churchyard in the village of Bazentin-le-Petit to the left of the number 9.

German_trench_Delville_Wood_September_1916
An abandoned German trench in much shelled Delville Wood taken September 1916 (Warwick Brooke – This is photograph Q 4267 from the collections of the Imperial War Museum)

The area between Delville and High woods was the focus for fighting for the next two months. It was calculated that seven shells a second landed on Delville Wood at times.

 

 

 

Two of the casualties on that day was Lieutenant Colonel Dudley George Blois DSO Commander of 84th Brigade RFA and his Trumpeter.  They were riding forwards to recconoitre new positions for 84th Field Brigade of 18th Division and caught by shellfire.  Blois  a descendent of the royal house of Blois, is commemorated in Blythburgh Church in Suffolk.

If you are interested in visiting any of these battlefields and hearing the Gunner side of the story contact Gunner Tours.gunner tours logo white on brown

 

Major Tombs – the Noble and Handsome Soldier

Major_General_Henry_Tombs9th July is the anniversary of the action for which Captain Henry Tombs https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Tombs of the Bengal Horse Artillery was awarded the Victoria Cross, and became the honour title of “Tombs’ Troop” , now 28/143 battery (Tombs Troop)

Tombs was awarded the VC for coming to the assistance of one of his subalterns who had got into a spot of bother in hand to hand combat with mutineers. The citation says: “For very gallant conduct on the part of Lieutenant Hills before Delhi, in defending the position assigned to him in case of alarm, and for noble behaviour on the part of Lieutenant-Colonel Tombs in twice coming to his subaltern’s rescue, and on each occasion killing his man.”

The citation references a dispatch by Lieutenant-Colonel M. Mackenzie’s which reads:

Despatch No. 40, Lieut.-Colonel M. Mackenzie, commanding 1st Brigade Horse Artillery, to Brigadier A. Wilson, Commandant
of Artillery.
CAMP NEAR DELHI,
July 10, 1857.
SIR,—

“It is with great pleasure I submit, for the information of the Brigadier Commandant, the following account of the very gallant conduct of Second Lieut. James Hills, of the 2nd Troop, 1st Brigade Horse Artillery, and the noble behaviour of his commanding officer, Major H. Tombs, in twice coming to his subaltern’s rescue and on each occasion killing his man.

Yesterday, the 9th inst., Second-Lieut. J. Hills was on picket-duty, with two guns, at the mound to the right of the camp. About eleven o’clock a.m. there was a rumour that the enemy’s cavalry were coming down on this post. Lieut. Hills proceeded to take up the position assigned in case of alarm, but before he reached the spot he saw the enemy close upon his guns, before he had time  to form up. To enable him to do this, Lieut. Hills boldly charged, single handed, the head of the enemy’s column, cut down the first man, struck the second and was then ridden down, horse and all.

On getting up and searching for his sword, three more men
came at him (two mounted). The first man he wounded with his pistol, he caught the lance of the second with his left hand, and
wounded him with his sword. The first man then came on again and was cut down; the third man (on foot) then came up and
wrenched the sword from the hand of Lieut. Hills (who fell in the struggle), and the enemy was about to cut him down when Major Tombs (who had gone up to visit his two guns) saw what was going on, rushed in and shot the man and saved Lieut. Hills. By this time the enemy’s cavalry had passed by, and Major Tombs and Lieut. Hills went to look after the wounded men, when Lieut. Hills observed one of the enemy passing with his (Lieut. Hills’) pistol. They walked towards him. The man began flourishing his sword and dancing about. He first cut at Lieut. Hills, who parried the blow, and he then turned on Major Tombs, who received the blow in the same manner. His second attack on Lieut. Hills was, I regret to say, more successful, as he was cut down with a bad sword-cut on the head, and would have been no doubt killed had not Major Tombs rushed in and put his sword through the man. I feel convinced that such gallant conduct on the part of these two officers has only to be brought properly forward to meet with an appropriate reward. Major Tombs was saved from a severe sword cut on the head by the wadded head-dress he wore.
“(Signed) M. MACKENZIE,
“Lieut.-Colonel.”

The Tombs claimed that his folded military cloak saved his life from the sword thrusts of his opponents.

136 Tombs post cardThere was a lot more to Henry Tombs than this act of gallantry. Here is what Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar had to say about him in his autobiography “Forty One Years years in India”

I longed to meet and know the men who names were in everyone’s mouth. The hero of the day was Henry Tombs, of the Bengal Horse Artillery, an unusually handsome man and a thorough soldier. His gallantry in the attack on the Idgah (a Mahomedan place of worship and sacrifice) and wherever he had been engaged was the general talk of the camp. I had always heard of Tombs as one of the best officers in the regiment, and it was with feelings of respectful admiration that I made his acquaintance a few days later.

Jemmy Hills, one of the subalterns in Tomb’s troop, was an old Addiscombe friend of mine; he delighted in talking of his Commander, in dilating on his merits as a soldier and his skill in handling each arm of the service. As a cool, bold leader of men, Tombs was unsurpassed ; no fire, however hot, and no crisis, however unexpected, could take him by surprise ; he grasped the situation in a moment and issued his orders without hesitation, inspiring all ranks with confidence in his power and capacity. He was somewhat of a martinet, and was more feared than liked by his men until they realized what a grand leader he was, when they gave him their entire confidence and were ready to follow him anywhere and everywhere.” Page 175.

And:

On the 17th (September, 1857) we were attacked from almost every direction— a manoeuvre intended to prevent our observing a battery which was being constructed close to an Idgah situated on a hill to our right, from which to enfilade our position on the Ridge. As it was very important to prevent the completion of this battery, Barnard ordered it to be attacked by two small columns, one commanded by Tombs, of the Bengal Horse Artillery, the other by Reid. Tombs, with 400 of the 6oth Rifles and 1st Bengal Fusiliers, thirty of the Guides Cavalry, twenty Sappers and Miners and his own troop of Horse Artillery, moved towards the enemy’s left. . . . Tombs drove the rebels through a succession of gardens, till they reached the Idgah, where they made an obstinate but unavailing resistance. The gates of the mosque were blown open and thirty-nine of its defenders were killed. Tombs himself was slightly wounded and had two horses killed, making five which had been shot under this gallant soldier since the commencement of the campaign.” Page 169.

Henry Tombs was a veteran of dozens of campaigns over twenty years of service and his military career is the story of the British Army in India. As a twenty year old Subaltern he was ADC to Sir Harry Smith, who had stormed Badajoz in the Peninislar war under Wellington. Tombs was promoted to major general at the age of 42, but died aged 49 of sickness.

However, James Hill, http://www.britishmedals.us/people/hills.html the subaltern Tombs saved, and awarded the VC for the same action  lived to the age of 85 and died in 1919 as a Lieutenant General , living through the first world war.  He maintained his friendship with Lord Roberts choosing to spend some of his retirement on campaign in  South Africa during the Boer War serving in a private capacity on Lord Robert’s staff.  (Is this an  extreme form of battlefield tourism?)

The battery that he had served in fighting with sword and revolver had become 56th Howitzer battery RFA which served on the Western Front throughout the First World War and took part in the battle for Delville Wood on the Somme 100 years ago this month in late July 1916.

To visit the battlefields of the Royal Artillery for battlefield tours, staff rides and battlefield studies contact Gunner Tours info@gunnertours.com

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Health and Safety and the First Day of the Somme

 

The first day of the Somme is best known for 57,000 casualties suffered by the British Army; the largest in a single day, and the event that supports the idea of British generals as “Butchers and Bunglers.” Yet, paradoxically, it was concern for safety which led to disastrously high casualties and failure of most of the attacks.

Somme map first day
Attacks on the British Sector of the Somme

ir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army. His initial plan for a methodical advance was rejected.

The battle of the Somme originated from a decision taken in December 1915, that the Entente powers, Britain, France, Italy and Russia would all launch an attack as soon as possible in 1916. The Somme was selected as the site of the Anglo French offensive because it was the junction between the two armies. It was originally envisaged that the French Army would take the lead. However, the German offensive at Verdun, started in February 1916 cost the French and Germans armies over 200,000 casualties each. By June 1916 not only would the British have to take the lead at the Somme, offensive but the bear This had two consequences, there were fewer French troops available which meant that the British would have to take the lead. Furthermore, the attack of the Somme was imperative to take pressure from the French at Verdun.

rawlinson
Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army. His initial plan for a methodical advance was rejected.

The British Army had limited experience of offensive battles, and had never planned an operation of the scale of the battle of the Somme. In March 1915 the British had launched a successful breach into the German lines at Neuve Chapelle, supported by a concentrated barrage by the artillery of the British Expeditionary Force. During other attacks in 1915 a shortage of artillery ammunition had prevented the British from repeating this level of fire support. However, by 1916 British industry had geared up to supply the vastly expanded British Expeditionary force swelled by millions of volunteers who Kitchener’s New Army recruited in 1914-15.

The largest ever British Army would be supported by the huge quantity of artillery pieces,  1072 light and 442 medium and heavy guns

GHQ issued no special instruction on the co-operation of infantry and artillery as, in the words of the official history, this main feature of the theory of the assault was well understood. In summary, towards the the close of the bombardment, shortly before Zero, the artillery would put down an intense barrage on the enemy front trenches; at Zero this would be lifted and dropped on the next trench, from which it would be lifted at a fixed time. Before each lift, the infantry under cover of the barrage was to creep to within as close assaulting distance as the barrage permitted. This was around 100 yards from the enemy’s front parapet and the infantry was to assault as soon as the barrage lifted.”

Douglas_Haig
General Douglas Haig. He applied pressure to spread the artillery very thinly

It was impressed on all, at conferences by both Haig and Rawlinson that “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it.” Owing to this optimism, the problem of evicting the Germans from the labyrinth of trenches was seen just as one of assault only. It was not seen as a race for the parapet between the attackers across no man’s land against the defenders in the their dug outs. Instead it was seen as something that could be done at leisure.

Not everyone shared this assumption. “Some Regimental officers suggested that the infantry might creep even nearer to the barrage, as was done later on and in at least one instance on the 1st of July. Forty yards was suggested instead of a hundred but it did not receive official approval. (1)

rock-paper-scissors
The race for the parapet: lethal game of rock-paper-scissors

The race to the parapet was the essence of attacking a trench. It can be envisaged as a rather deadly form of ‘rock-paper-scissors’. The defenders can either be in their dugouts or manning the trenches. The attackers can either send artillery rounds or infantrymen. Defenders lining trenches would slaughter attacking infantry but were vulnerable to artillery fire. Defenders would be reasonably safe in their dugouts, but could do nothing if the attackers were waiting at the top of the dugout steps. The key was for the assaulting infantry to be so close to the artillery barrage that the defenders had no time to react.

Shrapnel Barrage
Infantry could advance close behind the directional shrapnel barrage.

The shrapnel shells from the British 18 Pdr Field gun were highly directional, and ejected forwards, like the blast from a shotgun. In the Boer war the British found that infantry could advance to within 50 yards with some safety. Japanese troops had also used these tactics in the Russo-Japanese War, as had the French in their costly 1915 offensive in Champagne. The “dapper and charismatic” artilleryman Robert Nivelle had developed a creeping barrage (le barrage roulant) 80-100m ahead of the leading infantry. (2)

HE splinters
Shell splinters for HE shells could fly hundreds of yards laterally, making it dangerous for friendly troops to approach closer than 200 metres.

The trouble with this tactic was that it had a fatal cost. Artillery rounds do not all land in the same place, but are scattered in a cigar shaped pattern, through variation in the propellant and further dispersed by variations in the wind and of temperature and human error in laying the piece. So “getting close to the barrage” inevitably meant “in a place likely to be struck by shrapnel from a shell that fell shorter than most”. Indeed the rule of thumb, later in the war, was that unless the infantry were taking casualties from their own artillery fire, then they were not close enough.

So the commanders faced a dilemma. The men lost to artillery fire would usually be far lower than the casualties suffered from the machine guns of alert defenders. However, if the artillery preparation was going to leave the defenders unable to resist then would it be right to expose the infantry to friendly fire casualties?

Artillery Dispositions 26th June 1916 behind Newfoundland Park
British (and some French) Artillery positions behind 29th Division of VIII Corps at Beaumont Hamel

To make matters worse, the gunners firing the barrage were mostly Kitchener’s Army men. Their gunners, technicians and officers had limited training and experience, and were Artillery Keyusing ammunition and guns produced by newly expanded or hired suppliers. It might have been sensible to apply nn extra safety margin. The plans for the 1st July seem to bear this out.

The fire plan for the first day of the Somme specified an artillery barrage that would lift from the German front line trenches at zero hour, even though the distance between the British and German Trenches was much wider – from 200-800 metres across most of the assault frontage. Some British units left their trenches before zero hour, and worked their way as close as possible to the German trenches. Where they did, the British succeeded in capturing the German front lines; the Ulstermen at the Schwaben redoubt, the Highland Light infantry at the Leipzig redoubt and the 30th Division near Maricourt. Elsewhere, success was more illusive and on much of the front the assaulting infantry faced fully manned trenches.

Beaumont Hamerl 1916 NAM 59353
Artillery Bombardment Beaumont Hamel Somme 1916

The excessive safety distance between the starting barrage and the infantry wasn’t the only reason that casualties were so heavy and the gains so slight on the 1st July.  There needed to be enough breaches in the German wire. Where the wire was intact, the advance stopped. It helped if the defenders were crushed in their dugouts  or demoralised by the barrage. There were more, and heavier guns, and the dug outs were less deep south of the Albert-Bapaume.   The Germans had to be prevented from bringing down their own defensive barrage preventing movement across no mans land.  There were fewer German guns  south of the Albert Bapaume Road, and the British could call on the more numerous French heavy guns for counter battery .

By F. A. Swaine - http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924088057223, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2494174
Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston By F. A. Swaine – http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924088057223, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2494174

The worst losses and least success was on the frontage of the VIIIth corps where a “safety factor” played a grotesque part in the tragedy that unfolded. A number of a mines had been dug under the German trenches. Almost all were scheduled to be detonated at 07.28, on the 1st July, two minutes before zero hour. This would allow two minutes for the debris to fall before the British infantry assaulted the crater. One of these was under the Hawthorn redoubt near the village of Beaumont Hamel. The commander of VIII Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wanted this to be fired some hours before the attack, so that the redoubt could be occupied before the assault, but sufficiently in advance that any general alarm would have died down by zero hour. This was vetoed by more senior commanders, but as a compromise the mine would be fired at 07.20, ten minutes before Zero.

2015-06-23 18.52.16_wire cxutting
Barrage map for 29th Division at Beaumont Hamel showing wire cutting tasks for 18 pdr batteries (blue) and trench mortars (brown) and preparation targets for 4.5″ Howitzers (yellow)

This allowed for a plan to occupy the crater early, but it required the heavy artillery bombardment of the redoubt and adjacent trenches to lift during the assault. However, instead of fire lifting only from the immediate area, all of the VIII Corps heavy artillery was ordered to lift at 7:20 a.m. and the field artillery to lift at 7:25 a.m. A light Shrapnel barrage fired by the divisional field artillery, was to continue on the front trench until zero hour but in the 29th Division sector, half of the guns were to lift three minutes early.

2015-06-23 18.52.30_barrage map 2
Barrage map for 29th Division Artillery showing the sections of front line trench and final lines for each battery.

This allowed the German defenders ten minutes notice of the impending assault and condemned the infantry from three divisions to heavy casualties and failure across the breadth of their front. It did not matter how well the wire had been cut or whether the infantry crept out into no man’s land. One of the attacking battalions lost all its officers before zero hour.

So why did the seemingly responsible commanders, who were professional experienced soldiers, get this decision so wrong?

shrapnel shells_LR
7,000 shrapnel shells, enough for a divisional creeping barrage

One simplistic, but popular explanation is that the commanders were incompetent “butchers and bunglers”iii. Professor Norman Dixon in the Psychology of Military Incompetence (4) argued that there was something about military training which led to poor decision making. Indeed, the performance of General Sir Aylmer Hunter Weston is hard to describe as anything less than incompetent. “Hunter-Bunter” was a strange man with a command style reminiscent of that of the monstrous Blackadder creation General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett. The disastrous decision to lift fire early across the VIII Corps front was very much in keeping with his micro-management and idiosyncratic decision-making. He had a history of over compensating for the risks of friendly fire in Gallipoli. He was found out on the first day on the Somme. Afterwards, although he retained his command, he was never entrusted with command in an offensive and only employed on quiet sectors. Could he have been removed earlier?  To be fair to Rawlinson and Haig, Hunter-Weston was new to the Western Front. He had commanded the 29th Division and then the VIII Corps at Cape Helles in Gallipoli and arrived with his corps as an experienced commander and a reputation of relatively competent performance.

secondwave
The Second Wave: Colonel Walford’s Impression of an attack on the Somme, following the barrage shown on the left

Elsewhere in the BEF the disastrous decision about fire plan timings resulted from agreements between groups of people, commanders and subordinates and their staffs.

In the first instance, the senior commanders were not looking at this problem. The correspondence between Rawlinson and Haig shows a focus on the problems of exploiting success. In earlier battles such as Loos and Neuve Chapelle the British infantry had taken the German first line wherever they had adequate artillery support.

The plan for the Somme was a bad compromise. Rawlinson, commander of the fourth army, put forward a plan for a phased advance, initially taking just the first German line, which he and his staff thought was within the capabilities of the resources available. Haig did not think this was ambitious enough. He rejected the plans and insisted that an attempt should be made to breach both the front line and the second line to ensure that any opportunity for a breakthrough was not missed.

By F. A. Swaine - http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924088057223, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2494174
Hawthorn Redoubt mine. By F. A. Swaine – http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924088057223, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2494174

On this occasion Haig was able to impose his will on Rawlinson, despite reservations about the artillery being spread too thin made by the newly appointed artillery adviser at GHQ, General Birch. Birch and Rawlinson, having expressed their opinions in private, then issued orders and expressed their confidence in them.

As the Official History notes, not everybody assumed that the enemy would be flattened by the preparatory barrage. There seems to have been sufficient internal criticism for Rawlinson to include the following in the Fourth Army tactical notes;

“it must be remembered that all criticism by subordinates of their superiors, and of orders received from superior authority, will in the end recoil on the heads of the critics and undermine their authority with those below them.” (5)

60
The battlefield today. Part of the 29th Division sector in Newfoundland Park.  The barrage on the German trenches at the far side of the patk was provided by 13 battery of  XVII Field Brigade, which is still in the Royal Artillery as part of 28/143(Tombs Troop) Battery an AS 90 battery in 19 Regiment.

This was hardly the atmosphere in which to challenge the fundamentals of the plan. The late, great professor Richard Holmes remarked in the episode on the Battle of the Somme in the Western Front BBC series that the generals of the first world war were stronger in physical than moral courage.
It should be said that the BEF was very quick to learn and the next major attack, on the 14th July, less than two weeks after the first day, was conducted with a much greater concentration of artillery fire and with the infantry following a creeping barrage.

Major-general_James_Frederick_Noel_Birch,_Cb_Art.IWMART1784
Major General J F N Birch CB, Haig’s senior Gunner argued that the artillery was spread too thin

There is a modern relevance of the battle of the Somme. This was a major high profile project into which much had been invested and expected. The resources available weren’t enough to deliver the hoped for results. At the heart of the plan were flaws that, could have been spotted and rectified but were not. The plan required subordinates to achieve “stretch targets”, “do more with less”, and “sell the party line” within an organisational culture that inhibited internal criticism.

The safety margin dilemma occurs frequently across all walks of life. If anything, the compensation culture makes it harder to choose to take risks. It is very hard to imagine the modern British Army willingly encroach on safety distances even if was the only way to win a battle.

We may not face machine guns and un-cut wire, but we often make important business and other decisions against a back ground of pressure from peers and superiors to agree to deliver uncertain commitments as part of a team effort. Many of us are under pressure to support decisions that have been made and face severe personal and career sanctions for whistle blowing. What is it that we can do to be more effective both as leaders in these situations and followers?

If you would like to visit the Somme and see the story of the artillery on the Somme join Gunner Tours on the Somme  Centenary tour. info@gunnertours.com

Somme_centenary


The centenary of the battle of the Somme, which took place between June-and November 1916, has a special significance in Gunner history. This was the largest battle fought by the British army, costing 400,000 casualties. While public interest in the battle centres on the infantry who went 'over the top' on the first of July, the Gunner battle started a week earlier with the opening bombardment by the largest number of guns assembled.

The Somme was essentially an artillery battle, with the guns the only weapons capable of clearing wire, destroying and neutralising defences and artillery. This was an awesome responsibility, and the success or failure of the infantry was down to the effectiveness of the fire plan. The story of how the Royal Artillery learned during the campaign is one of successful innovation, and a matter of pride to Gunners.

It is also a human story. We will see where Gunner staff work made a difference; where Gunners went over the top with the infantry and where . Gunners worked to the point of exhaustion in the service of the guns.

This tour will tell this story at the places where this largest artillery battle took place 100 years after the opening barrage was fired.

 Notes:

(1) Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds; Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1916, Volume I: Sir Douglas Haig’s Command to the 1st July: Battle of the Somme,, 1932

(2) Strong P and Marble S, Artillery in the Great War

(3) John Laffin;s polemic “Butchers and Bunglers of World War one” is the publication which is most associated with the term.

(4) Dixon N F, On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence, Basic Books, 1976

(5) Fourth Army Tactical Notes

From the Beachhead to Belsen: The Humanitarian Mission of 113 Light AA Regiment RA

Belsen-survivors3What did you do in the war daddy? Gunners from 113 Light Anti Aircraft Regiment could truthfully answer – “We helped to save tens of thousands of lives.”

113 Light AA Regiment Royal Artillery was originally raised as 2/5th Battalion the Durham Light Infantry, converted to a Searchlight battalion RE before the Second World war, and then to a Light AA Regiment in 1941.

In June 1944 it landed in Normandy as part of 100 AA Brigade and defended the bridges over the Caen Canal, including Pegasus bridge and the gun areas north of Caen. In September 1944 it took part in Operation Market Garden, taking over responsibility for defending the Bridge at Nijmegen. After a cold winter in the Netherlands and Belgium it provided air defence for the bridge over the Rhine at Xanten.

2015-09-18 09.50.09 2015-09-18 10.11.09 2015-09-18 14.01.18By 16th April 1945 German air effort was weakening and the Regiment came out of action into a concentration area near Haldern East of the Rhine. The Allied spearheads were rapidly advancing through Germansy and the Red Army had surrounded Berlin. It might reasonably expect to have little to do until demobilised. 113 LAA the Regiment’s service was not untypical of any Light AA Regiment It had done its bit.

But things changed with the orders the next day to move to administration duties at Belsen Concentration Camp (42 miles North of Hannover) under command 10 Garrison, taking over from 63 Anti tank Regiment.

Belson .1Captain Pares, the Adjutant of 113 LAA wrote the following:-
“On 12 April 1945 following the break-through of Second Army after the Rhine crossing, the German Military Commander at Bergen-Belsen (Chief of Staff 1 Para Army) approached 8 Corps with a view to negotiating a truce and avoiding a battle in the area of Belsen Concentration Camp.

In occupation of the area were 800 Wehrmacht, 1,500 Hungarians with their wives and families, and certain SS Prison Guards. In the concentration camp were known to be 45-55,000 internees of whom a very large number were reported to be suffering from Typhus, Typhoid, Tuberculosis and Gastro-Enteritis. The electricity and water supply had failed: there was no bread and very little food.

The camp area consisted of the concentration camp and ½ mile North a large tank training centre with very extensive barrack buildings, a small PW camp attached in which were 800 Russians, and a military hospital.

In the interests of our own troops and the internees, and from the point of view of preventing, the spread of disease, a truce was granted on the following terms.

The German Military Authorities were to erect notices and white flags at all the road entrances, marked ‘Danger – Typhus’ on one side and ‘End of Typhus Area’ on the reverse, with a disarmed German post at each notice. German and Hungarian troops would remain at their posts armed, wearing a white arm-band on the left sleeve. The Hungarians would remain indefinitely and were placed at the disposal of the British for such duties as might be required. The Wehrmacht were to be released within 6 days and conveyed back to the German lines with their arms, equipment and vehicles. SS Guard personnel were to be removed by 1200 hrs 13 April and any remaining to be treated as PWs. SS Admin personnel would (if the Wehrmacht could prevent them running away) remain at their posts, carry on with their duties, and hand over records. When their services could be dispensed with, their disposal was left by the Wehrmacht to the British authorities, i.e. the Wehrmacht ‘sold’ the S.S.

About 50% of the inmates were in need of immediate hospital treatment. All of them had been without any food for 7 days, and prior to that living on the normal concentration camp semi-starvation scale of diet.

There were about 10,000 typhus-infected bodies, mostly naked and many in an advanced stage of decomposition, lying around the camp, both inside and outside the huts, which required immediate burial; and the daily death rate was 4/500.

The living conditions were appalling – people were sleeping 3 in a bed, mainly treble-bunk beds, and huts which would normally accommodate 60 were housing 600. There were no sanitary arrangements, and both inside and outside the huts was an almost continuous carpet of dead bodies, human excreta, rags, and filth.

There were some 50,000 persons to supply and feed, but the cooking facilities were totally inadequate. There were 5 cookhouses of varying size equipped with a number of large boilers, and the only containers available to distribute the food were a few large dustbins A large proportion of the occupants were bed-ridden, and many were incapable even of feeding themselves.

The inmates had lost all self-respect and been degraded morally to the level of beasts. Their clothes were in rags and teeming with lice; they had no eating utensils or plates, and at the time of the food distribution they behaved more like ravenous wolves than human beings.

There were 49 SS male and 26 female prison guards under close arrest and a Wehrmacht Hospital with 2,000 sick and convalescent German soldiers.

The electricity which came from Celle was cut off and the wiring sabotaged; the water supply which depended on it for pumping had consequently failed.

To prevent spread of Typhus and the other diseases it was necessary to keep all the internees within the Camp, yet the Hungarian guards were grossly lax and made little effort to prevent them from filtering out.”  More of Captain Peres Account here.

Over the next month 113 LAA took over the Wehrmacht barracks at Bergan-Belsen, which would become Bergen-Hohne Camp.   The typhus epidemic meant that the the concentration camp inmates could not be allowed to leave. They built cook-houses, buried the dead transferred the living to clean accommodation, guarded the SS men, and disarmed the Hungarians. Their soldiers can be seen in the newsreel shots. The War Diary entry for 26th April comments that over 8,000 bodies had been buried since their arrival in the camp.  The SS Guards interviewed for the newsreel seem to have lost the  SS Runes from their uniforms. These seem to have fallen into possession of the Gunners.

Victory march1On VE Day 9th May the Regiment paraded through Hohne Camp,. Starling at the corner of the Belsen Concentration Camp past British, US Soviet and US Senior officers who took the Victory march 3salute to the sports pitch where the 54 guns of the Regiment fired ten rounds single shot and ten rounds automatic to celebrate victory and peace in Europe.

At this point their work was only half complete. The last huts of Belsen Camp were burned with as short ceremony on 23 May 1945.

Belson 2
Last hut burning May 1945

After the traumatic work, 113 LAA Regiment were given ten days leave beside the Baltic and issued 6000 bottles of beer.

A tour for Spirit of Remembrance Image1baldwin battlefields logo