Category Archives: Battlefield Guiding

Why did the Gunners want to bombard Langemarck Church?

There is a small interpretation centre at the entrance to the German cemetery at Langemarck. One of the slides shows Langemarck church as a heap of rubble – with an doorway suggesting at some dug out complex in in the crypt. It’s a striking image to compare with the rebuilt church.

Sure, anything in the “strip of murdered nature” that were the battlefields of the Western Front was going to end up as rubble. But there are RGA War Diaries that record  their target as “Langemarck Church” not a strong point in the church, or the village but the church itself. It was repeatedly targeted along with targets such as “trenches u.16.d.76.23- u 16 d.54.14 and “wire u 16 a.52,05 – u16 a.15.16” So why was the church such a popular target?

A week or so ago I was carrying out some research for a guided family history tour to the battlefields of where their relative Bombardier Griffiths had served in 324 Heavy battery RGA.  The battery’s war diaries were available, but the diary for March 1918, the month he died , was missing.   Furthermore, there was evidence that suggested that Bombardier Griffiths did not join 324 battery until january 1918.

However, the diaries were very legible and full, recording the details of each shoot, including rounds fired and the target.

6″ 26cwt Howitzers near Boesinge 1917

324  Heavy Battery was formed from 1916 conscripts and deployed to France in May 1917 equipped with four 6″ 26 cwt  Howitzers.  After a few weeks on the quiet sector of Bois Grenier the battery moved to Woesten, north of Ieper on 14th July 1917. From there it took part in the preliminary bombardment for the 31 St July , then stepping forwards to Elverdinge. The first day of 3rd Ypres 31st July, was successful on Pilckem Ridge, with the British line moving forward roughly along the Steenbeek south west of Langemarck.

A first world war artillery piece aimed at a target some 6km away was probably going to miss with its first round, even if the target had been plotted on a surveyed trench map. The position of the guns and the direction in which they are recorded as pointing may not be particularly accurate. Changes in the wind speed and direction will change the trajectory. An observer with communications to the guns could adjust the fire of the guns until the rounds form the guns are landing in the target area. Of course, by this the enemy will have worked out what was going to happen next and take cover.

A further problem is that the guns in a battery would not all have the same characteristics. Guns may be manufactured to different standards and might have different wear in the barrel. The WD entry for 5th August records that between 2pm and 2.30 pm 324 battery fired 30 rounds unobserved at Langemarck Church as ordered in Operation Order No 23. After this, someone,at Periscope House, probably Major William Orpen Sikottowe Sanders, the  battery commander  decided to calibrate the guns using the church. Firing ten rounds and watching one hit the church with others plus and minus, the unit could apply a correction for each gun. (Though ten rounds might be few to base a statistically reliable.

Part of a panorama. It is hard to pick out any landmarks on this devastated battlefield. Corrections from a Witness Point using a trench map might be the only way to hit targets.

It wasn’t always possible to see targets clearly. Pilckem ridge isn’t much higher than the surrounding ground and it would have been quite difficult to pick out specific targets from the ground. Furthermore, the landscape was devastated, with buildings and trees leveled and landmarks obliterated.

One technique which could help is to use a “Witness Point” This was a point some distance from a target, but accurately located in relation to it, which could be ranged without losing surprise against the target and the correction applied to data for the target. If the correction to hit the church was “left a bit and add a bit”, the same correction could ensure that targets in the same area picked off a map could be hit first time.

The entry for 7th August shows that between 3.30 and 6.30pm 324 battery fired a total of 24rounds at Langemarck Church as a Witness Point. Their next shoot 7.30pm to 8.30 an unobserved concentration on trenches straddling the Langemarck-Poelcapelle road was unobserved, but could be expected to be reasonably accurate, as might the shoot at 9pm. a response to a call for the SOS.
The targets on the 8th August were east and west of the German positions which ran through the north end of the German Cemetery at Langemarck, as evidenced by the three bunkers.

The search for the part an individual soldier played  turns up some surprising detail about how the battle was fought and the reason why Langemarck Church was shelled.   It also explain the rationale that supports the old military axiom to never deploy at an obvious terrain feature. Landmarks are shelled because they are landmarks .

1918: A Year Britain has chosen not to Remember…

The official government website shows nothing between Passchendaele and the Armistice

The main focus for commemoration in 2018 will be the centenary of the Armistice on 11th November.  If you take your history from Blackadder, Sebastian Faulks, or even the Royal British Legion or Commonwealth War Graves Commission, you might be forgiven for thinking that Passchendale was the climax of the First World War and that the fighting ended in the vicinity of the same lines of trenches fought over since the end of 1914.

What do the official commemorative  websites say happened in 1918?

There is nothing on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission campaign history pages for the Western Front 1918

As of 2 February 2018, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission lacks any pages for 1918 in the Western Front campaign pages, which end at Cambrai.   Nor does the British Government First World War Commemoration website make any reference to any events of 1918 before the Armistice.  The Royal British Legion seems to have lost interest in the Centenary too. It’s focus for the year is to celebrate the 90th anniversary of its own Great Pilgrimage in Ieper, a location peripheral to the events of 1918. It offers a “100 days” option, alongside one to visit the battlefields of 1914-17, suggesting Loos and Mons as destinations. It looks self indulgent, if not neglectful for the Royal British Legion, as custodians of national Remembrance to organise an event celebrating 90 years of battlefield pilgrimages at a peripheral location that competes with the commemoration of the anniversary of the battle of Amiens.

The Royal British Legion’s commemoration is a parade of standards at the Menin Gate. If Pilgrimage 90 follows the path of the 1928 Pilgrimage the “organised tour commemorating the last 100 days of WW1” looks like a tour of the highlights of the rest of war on the western front – such as Ypres, Mons and Loos.

If you want to see the impact of official amnesia of 1918, read the coverage of centenary events in the media.  The printed The Times report of the centenary of the sinking of the SS  Tuscania on 5th February, in with the loss of over 200 American servicemen merely as “shortly before the end of the First World War.”   This misses the point that the Americans men were on their way to fight the decisive battle. T he Daily Mail use the same language in their coverage of the airmen who wore slippers to face von Richthofen.   The implication is that the war of 1918 is more of the same old trenches until November, and ignores entirely the intense air war that would kill von Richtofen and many of the other leading aces in the meantime.

1918 – the year that Challenges Preconceptions

An iconic of the First World War on the Western Front – laden Tommies on Pasechendaele ridge

But this overlooks the dramatic events of 1918 itself.  These do not sit comfortably with the popular stereotype of the Western Front.   And that is one reason why the events of that year and the actions of those who fought deserves special recognition

1918 wasn’t about waves of Tommies going over the top in a vain attempt to break through lines of trenches. Instead, the battles of 1918 started with the Germans on the attack.  Nor was it a tale of mud, blood, barbed wire and trench foot.  Much of the fighting took place in open country and some distance from the battle fields of Passchendaele and Loos.  The year contained some of the lowest points in British military history – and some of the highest.

It’s a pity that the events of 1918 have not attracted more support from the  institutions that have led the commemorations of the First World War. It is shameful for their events to be bundled together as merely the overture to the centenary of the Armistice.

1. The German Spring offensives were among the biggest and bloodiest battles in history

The Russian revolution and armistice ended Germans’s Eastern Front.  For the first half of 1918, until the Americans arrived in force,  the Germans would have superior numbers on the Western Front.  Between March and May 1918 they stuck the British and then the French with a series of hammer blows.  A combination of infiltration tactics, clever use of artillery and broke the stalemate of the trenches.  These battles were the most intensely fought and bloodiest of the Western Front, if not in history.  The casualties were very high.

Between 21st March and 5th April the British Army lost 160,000 casualties, an average of over 10,000 casualties a day, compared to some 2,700 casualties per day for the Somme and Passchendaele.   The opening day, 21st March 1918, was the second worst day in British military history, costing 35,000 casualties.

Between 9th -30th April the next German attacks, in Flanders cost the British a further 80,000 casualties.  Again, a higher rate of casualties than endured by the British Army in the offensives between 1915-1917.  In May , a further attack on British Troops sent to a “quiet sector” cost the British a further 27,000 casualties in nine days. Between 21st March and 6th June the British lost some 260,000 casualties, higher losses than in Flanders in 1917.  Between March and July 1918 the German Army lost nearly 1,000,000 casualties. This is a story worth as much dedicated attention as Passchendaele,  Loos and Cambrai

2. The July and August battles on the Marne and the Somme were the turning point of the first World War

8th August 1918 Australian infantry following British tanks on the Black day for the German Army

Between 15 July and 7th August six French armies, with American, British and Italian Army Corps, halted and turned back the last great German offensive. This was followed by the British led offensive at Amiens on 8th August – the black day of the German army.

From this time the Germans were on the back foot and under continuous pressure from the allies. The last 100 days of the war cost the British 360,000 casualties. About one quarter of the strength of the BEF.  Only the 1916 battle of the Somme cost more.

3 The feats of arms of the British Forces of 1918 were one of the high points in British Military history

Australian Artist Septimus Power has captured the combination of arms of the 1918 BEF – artillery, tanks and air power. More 1940 than 1914….

It isn’t fashionable to praise the First World War as an allied victory; or to admire its generals. But there is much merit in the performance of British and commonwealth armed forces on the Western Front in 1918.

The retreat from Mons by the BEF in 1914 is famous, but the fighting retreats of March and April 1918 were fought by an amateur citizen army which fought a series of continuous engagements instead of two battles and a series of skirmishes.   According to the Official History the retreats of 1918 were a greater achievement.

Turning defeat into victory is a remarkable achievement. The BEF of 1918 lost twice as many casualties as the BEF in 1940, but then turned around and beat the Germans.  The experience was unique and unlike the trench warfare that preceded it.

The British army of 1918 won the war.  In the last 100 days it took almost as many prisoners as other allied armies put together. Its tactics were closer to 1940 than 1914.  Its leaders, castigated as “butchers and bunglers” turned out to be good effective experienced commanders. The leadership and tactics in 1918 are hard to fault. At the end of the First World War the Britain’s Armed Forces were at a peak. They had mastered modern mechanised warfare. The Royal Air Force was the worlds largest, and only independent, air force, and had mastered most of the elements of air power.  These were remarkable achievements for a citizen army.

4. The experience of 1918 was unique and deserves the same recognition extended to the Somme and Paschendaele.

There are qualitative differences in the solders’ experience, and in how we perceive them and the losses they suffered. The battles of 1916 were fought by citizen armies largely new to the fray and with a sense that they would deliver the big push that would end the war. There was a false dawn in 1917 with Vimy Ridge and Arras, but by Passchendaele the British and commonwealth armies had lost their sense of optimism. Their losses in retrospect have been seen as an almost biblical sacrifice. “what passing bell tolls for those who die like cattle?” -” I died in Hell men called it “Passchendaele.” The late Bob Bushaway wrote a perceptive paper on this elevation of the war dead from the casualties of war to sacrifices for mankind.   Passchedaele epitomes loss and futility that is perhaps the mostly widely popular narrative of the First World War.   That  the war continued for another decisive year is an inconvenience for this interpretation, doubly so as British soldiers return to undertake operations in the national interest and end as victors not sacrifices.  It is easy to understand the temptation to lose interest after Passchendaele.

The situation 11 November. Each Arabic number is a division of C 15,000 men. Fresh formations are shown in black and tired formations in red. Click on the map to enlarge.

But that does not do justice to the story of the men who fought in 1918.  The last hundred days was an unrelenting battle. Those who fought did not know that the war would end imminently. Many in authority thought it would continue to 1919 or 1920. Some of the soldiers’ letters refer to the thought that they had the Germans on the run and would try to finish them off before winter weather gave the Germans a respite.   One striking feature of the graves of the men who fell in 1918 is the proportion with at least one decoration.  These men had already done their bit but were determined to finish the job. Their knowing sacrifice deserves some focused reflection.

Places to evoke memories of 1918

Battlefields are places of historic memory. Yes, they inform the visitor about how the micro-terrain influenced events, and the sights, sounds and smell of the landscape. They are also powerful symbols evoking memories and emotions.  They have a deep cultural significance as places of sacrifice, reinforced by memorials and ceremony.   The places dedicated to the sacrifices of 1916 and 1917 won’ t serve the memories of 1918. It is hard to think about successful open warfare at Amiens while standing at the Menin Gate, literally on the road to the mud of Passchendaele.

 The Somme

In 1918 the fighting crossed the 1916 battlefields twice.  But the 1918 battlefield covered a much wider area.  To interpret the battle the visitor should explore the area around St Quentin. West of that town were the British lines that formed the setting for the play Journey’s End and the German onslaught in March. In late September the British with Australian and American troops forced their way across the Hindenburg line a few miles north of St Quentin. Peronne, ten miles to the west was the site of British rear-guard fighting in March and a great feat of arms by the Australian Corps in August. It also has a fine museum, the Péronne Museum of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, overlooked by many visitors to the 1916 battlefields. The graves dating from March and August 1918 are evidence of the fighting that took place across the old battlefield.  The memorial to the Fifth Army missing of 1918 is in the Pozieres war cemetery on the road from  Pozieres to la Boiselle – often ignored by visitors. The fighting extended west of Albert to Villers Bretonneaux outside Amiens, the site of Australian feats of arms and their national memorial in France.  The graves of many British soldiers in Villers Bretonneaux is ample evidence of the part played by British troops in the area, which is also the location of the first battle between tanks.

There is no single memorial to the battle of Amiens. The paths of British and Commonwealth troops east can best be evidenced by the graves dated August 1918. The formidable Hindenburg line lay east of the March 1918 Allied lines. You can find remains of German defences and memorials to the battle that forced this line.

Flanders

Semper Fidelius The last stand of the 2nd Devons at the Bois des Buttes

The second German offensive was in Flanders, in the area between Armentieres and La Bassee, stretching West as far as Hazebrouck and Mount Kemmel.  Start with the Portuguese cemetery just south of the Indian Army memorial at Neuve Chapelle.  Under equipped and under-trained the Portuguese defenders of this quiet sector were some of the unfortunate victims of the Germans Georgette offensive. The 55th Division memorial at Givenchy commemorates the gallant stand by the territorial soldiers from West Lancashire holding the flank of the German breakthrough.   The German Alpine corps took Mont Kemmel, south west of Ieper, which then fought over by British and French troops for the next three months. Mount Kemmel is an overlooked battle. The French war cemetery with 5,000 graves testifies to the ferocity of the fighting. The US memorial at Vierstraat Kemmel is a reminder of the 60,000 American soldiers who served in the area in August 1918. On 27th September Ieper was the starting point for the last act in the Salient. A single day was all that was needed to capture the whole of Passchendaele Ridge.  The fighting that followed half-way to Brussels was hard enough for several VCs to be awarded and for Brigadier Freyburg to be awarded two bars to his DSO.  The Americans captured Oudenarde, and their Flanders Fields cemetery at Waregem has  those that fell.

Arras to Le Cateau and Mons

Thousands of people visit the impressive memorial and preserved battlefield of Vimy Ridge, captured by the Canadian corps in 1917.  Far, far fewer follow the story of the Canadian and British troops that advanced from Arras to Cambrai, Mons and Le Cateau.  This was no triumphal parade.  The memorial to the missing at Vis-en-Artois was the site of a bloody set back at the end of August, while at Iwuy in October the Germans counterattacked with tanks, throwing the British back.

The Aisne

British troops were also deployed to the Aisne area North East of Paris. In May an army corps of some 80,000 battered in the earlier German attacks was sent to a quiet sector to recover and integrate reinforcements.  Unfortunately for them they were in the path of the next German offensive.  The experiences of Captain Ulick Bernard Burke of the Devonshire Regiment were recorded and the digitised recording is held by the Imperial War Museum available . From 11 minutes into reel 17 he describes the last stand of the battalion.

Battle of Tardenois. Infantry men of the 62nd Division looking out for the enemy in the Bois de Reims. (Imperial War Museum image Q11089)These British troops were some of the 60,000+ Tommies fighting alongside Italians and Americans under French command in July 1918. Once French General Foch had been appointed Supreme Allied Commander formations were deployed where they were needed.

Further east, in July two divisions, some 35,000 soldiers fought under French command near Rheims, supported by American tanks and Italian artillery in the second battle of the Marne.  From Paris eastwards the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) played a major role in halting the Germans and turning them back.  The AEF battlefields of the Aisne-Marne, Champagne, Meuse-Argonne and St Mihel are well preserved and interpreted.  If you are interested in visiting these, check out americanvictory.com

There is far more to the fighting in 1918 than the 100 days as a prelude to the Armistice. It is a shame that there is so little public awareness or interest in public education by the bodies that should take the lead.

If you are interested in visiting the battlefields of 1918 contact info@baldwinbattlefieldtours.com

 

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 weekend’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 eight 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.

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.

The Nivelle Offensive: Second Battle of the Aisne (16 April – 9 May 1917)

16th April 1917  marks the centenary of one of the most important battles of then First Wold War.   Overshadowed in British public consciousness by the Somme and Passchendaele, the battles of spring 1917 are better remembered in Canada and Australia. The battle of Arras was part of an Anglo French offensive.  The aim was to break through the German lines using proven techniques for combining artillery and infantry learned from the Somme and Verdun. The British and French started with high hopes, but the offensive cost 350,000 casualties in six weeks, without demonstrable results. Subsequently the French Army mutinied  – or rather went on strike.

By late 1916 the French government had become dissatisfied witch their generalissimo  Marchal Joffre , the savior of the Marne.  Joffre for the last three years Joffre had had advocated a concerted attack by the allied armies.  This had cost  France two million casualties.  The French sought a new commander in choice and selected a relatively junior officer – Robert Nivelle.  Nivelle had distinguished himself in command of an artillery regiment, infantry brigade, division, corps and then army over two years. He was the hero of Verdun  who had recaptured Fort Douamont and Fort Vaux.

Nivelle thought he had solved the problem of attacking trench lines.  He offered a solution that would end he war in one stroke and defeat the Germans on the western front, with minimum casualties. An idea that offered to make the omelette without breaking eggs was timely and attractive.  However, not all were convinced.  A new War minister Painlevé appointed in March 1917 was deeply skeptical of a plan that looked too good to be true.  Many senior military officers, including of Nivelle’s subordinates and former superiors, pointed out that the plan could not deliver the promised benefits, ignored practical difficulties and would cost far more than projected.   However, Painlevé could not obtain enough consensus to call of the idea in  the face of popular and media support for an ideas that appeared to allow France to  have their cake and eat it.  It is a story with a modern relevance.

The following text has been taken from the entry in the British Army Guide to the Battlefields of the First World War  published in 2014.

Principal Forces Engaged

French

French  Commander-in-Chief General Robert Georges Nivelle

Reserve Group of Armies (Micheler)
Fifth Army (Mazel)
Sixth Army (Mangin)
Tenth Army (Duchene)
French Central Group of Armies (Petain)
Fourth Army (Antoine)
83 Divisions. 1,200,000 men 4800 artillery pieces, 1000 aircraft 150 tanks

 

German

German Commander-in-Chief  Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and Prussia

Crown Prince Group of Armies
First Army (F v Below)
Third Army (Rothmaler)
Seventh Army (Boehn)
55 Divisions 700,000 men, 2430 artillery pieces, 640 aircraft.

Context

French: Attempted breakthrough North of the Aisne River following the success of the Arras offensive starting 9th April.

German: Defensive action using the tactical principles developed following the Somme.

Casualties

French C. 185,000 including 4,000 prisoners
German C. 160,000, including 23,400 prisoners

Consequences

The French army mutinied. Petain was appointed to restore order and confidence. The French Army undertook no further offensive operations until July 1918. The Germans obtained the objective sought from the battle of Verdun. They had an opportunity to beat Russia, Italy and Britain in turn before the US mobilised.

Introduction

At the end of 1916 the French and British governments, found the advice of Haig and Petain that the war could not be won quickly or without further heavy casualties unpalatable. French General Robert Nivelle, a hero of Verdun, claimed that the Germans were exhausted. A violent surprise blow would rupture the German lines and achieve a decisive breakthrough in 48 hours. The allied governments appointed Nivelle as supreme commander, subordinating the BEF to the French temporarily. The British would strike near Arras and on the Somme to draw the German reserves. The French Army would attack north on the Aisne with a surprise attack using massed tanks and artillery. In February the Germans withdrew from the 1916 Somme battlefield to a shorter fortified position; the Hindenburg line. This disrupted allied plans and released German troops.

The Ground

The E-W limestone ridge between the Aisne and Ailette is known as the Chemin des Dames and has been of tactical significance since ancient times. Both Caesar and Napoleon fought battles in the area. Further South East the front lines stretched into the Champagne plain East of Rheims where the Moronvilliers Hills dominated observation. The River Aisne was an obstacle to movement, as was the damage caused by the bombardment.

Deployment

The German positions had been occupied since September 1914, strengthened using the “Caunes” (underground quarries), and improved by extensive tunnelling. Their deployment was based on the “Conduct of the Defensive Battle” (Dec 1916). Instead of fighting the main defensive battle in the front line, the main fight was to take place behind the front line, out of view and out of range of enemy field artillery.
North of the Aisne, at the centre of the main effort of the attack the Germans outpost line was along the Chemin des Dames Ridge while their main position was in the Ailette valley on the reverse slope. The Germans kept a proportion of their troops back to counter attack.
The French planned to attack on a 65 km (40 mile) frontage North of Rheims, with a subsidiary attack east of Rheims, between Prunay and Aubérive, along the Moronvilliers Hills. On the Chemin des Dames the French deployed an artillery piece every 20 metres. The French infantry were expected to follow a creeping barrage which advanced at 100m per minute. The Fifth Army would attack on the Western half of the Chemin des Dames, with the colonial Corps attacking from the West. The Sixth army would attack the right hand side and NE across the plain North of Rheims. The phase lines anticipated an advance of 10km on the 1st day. The anticipated breach would be exploited by a fresh army and 128 tanks. The following day the 4th Army would attack in Champagne. The French placed particular faith in the élan of their African troops, which formed two of the assault corps in Mangin’s 6th Army, which was also reinforced by British heavy artillery. Three brigades of post revolutionary Russians attached to the 5th Army voted to take part in the attack.
Many senior commanders had misgivings and only relented after Nivelle promised to cancel the operation after 48 hours unless a breakthrough had been achieved. Nivelle’s optimism and promise of success spread among the French troops who appear to have approached the battle with confidence.
French security was lax. The offensive was discussed in the media. German raiders captured operations orders. The two week long preparatory bombardment eliminated any residual uncertainty. The Germans reinforced the sector, doubling the number of divisions and batteries.

French Troops attacking on the Chemin-des-Dames 1917

The Battle

The Preliminary Bombardment 2-15 April 1917. The preparatory bombardment was hampered by the weather and the aggressive German fighter force, which hampered the French use of aircraft to direct fire against reverse slope positions. Despite the number of French artillery pieces, the German positions were too deep and extensive for the bombardment to be effective. By the eve of the attack the wire had not been consistently cut and the level of devastation were visibly less than that seen on the Somme and Verdun battlefields. The majority of Germans waited underground.
16th April 1917 H Hour was 06.30. The weather was cold wet and very windy and the infantry froze waiting for the assault. Far from advancing at a rate 100m per minutes deep into the German positions, the French struggled to get beyond the German first line in the face of machine gun and artillery fire. The barrage advanced uselessly away from the infantry. The Germans counter attacked, and in some places reappeared from shelters and tunnels behind the attackers. H Hour for the 1st colonial corps, due to attack on the extreme left had been delayed by three hours to minimise the risks of friendly fire from the anticipated breakthroughs the south and the Western faces of the Chemin des Dames position. The Senegalese managed to capture the Mont de Singes with the support of British Artillery, but were forced to withdraw.
The Fifth army had more success. In the Juvincourt sector where the attack was supported by tanks, the French penetrated to the German second line.. The 14 ton Schneider tanks were restricted by their poor cross country performance to a narrow line of advance and came under concentrated artillery fire. Most tanks were knocked out or broke down before they reached the German lines.
17th April – 15 May 1917 . The Sixth army was to capture the remainder of the Chemin des Dames and cover the success of the Fifth army. The appalling wet weather persisted overnight and prevented artillery preparation. Further attacks were called off while the French hung on to their gains. The Fourth army in Petain’s army group attacked, penetrating the German line to a depth of 500m-2.5km. These gains were developed methodically, seizing the crests of the Moronvilliers hills. The Germans launched costly counterattacks to try to recover them.
Despite Nivelle’s earlier promise, he pressed for the operation to continue with limited tactical objectives. The Tenth army was deployed to seize commanding features on the Chemin des Dames. On the 18th the Germans pulled back from the Chemin des Dames, losing heavily during this movement. the French continued to make small gains during the rest of April and into May.
By this time Nivelle had lost the confidence of the government and his subordinates. Petain was appointed, initially as Nivelle’s Chief of Staff on 26th April and then in his place as GoC on 15th May.

The Constellation de la Douleur – a tribute to the ‘Senegalese’ Infantrymen

The Mutinies

The first mutinies began on the 4th May peaking a few weeks later and continued with diminishing levels until January 1918. Despite individual acts of insubordination, these were effectively strikes, with units refusing to take part in offensive operations. Petain took measures to suppress the mutiny, imposing discipline and arresting ring leaders. 48 mutineers were executed. He also addressed grievances and improved the administration of soldiers, such as regular leave and improving the quality of food. He then initiated a series of minor attacks to restore the French army’s confidence. The French Army was in no condition to take the offensive for the remainder of 1917. The Germans do not seem to have been aware of the French Mutinies.

German Cemetery Cerny-en-Laonnais

Commentary

At Verdun Nivelle enjoyed adequate and successful artillery support, surprise and limited attainable local objectives. None of these featured on the Aisne. Nivelle offered British and French politicians a solution which was politically acceptable rather than militarily achievable.
As “Application of force” (1985) concludes, “the attack demonstrates what may happen when soldiers already jaded by two and half years of war, are buoyed up with promises of a cheap and quick victory only to have their hopes dashed and their morale shattered by an unexpectedly bloody reverse. The aftermath shows how firm and understanding leadership can repair the damage to an army’s spirit.”
In pure material terms the battle might be considered a moderately successful attrition battle. French losses were heavy, but no worse than in 1915. They gained more ground and, according to official figures inflicted proportionally heavier German losses a higher proportion of prisoners than for the first month of the Somme.
The Nivelle offensive achieved for the Germans everything they had hoped for their attacks on Verdun the year before. As a result the Germans had the time to impose their terms on Russia and the opportunity to force Italy and Britain out of the war

Figure 1 :-German Cemetery Cerny-en-Laonnois
Figure 2:- Memorial to the African Soldiers Killed in 1917

The Battlefield Today

Much of the Chemin des Dames was designated as devastated land and turned over to forestry, preserving the trenches, bunkers and munitions. There are interpretation panels and monuments in many of the key locations. The battlefield is largely the same ground as the British Aisne battlefields of 1914 and 1918.
The Cave au Dragons museum is an underground battlefield and offers interpretation and local guides.
There are several memorials on the Chmein des Dames road commemorating different French units, including the Senegalese and the Basques.
The destroyed village of Craonne has a symbolic significance, as the subject of the bitter anti war song the “Chanson de Craonne”, banned in France until 1974.
The evocative adjacent French and German cemeteries at Cerny-en-Laonnois, on the crest of the Chein Des Dames, on what would have been the German front line. They contain the graves of 7,526 Germans 5,150 French and 54 Russian soldiers

Further Reading

• Doughty, R. A., Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War, 2008
• Buffetaut, Y., The 1917 Spring Offensives: Arras, Vimy, le Chemin des Dames, 1997
• Clayton, A, Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914-18 Cassell Military, 2003
• HMSO Army Field Manual Vol1 The Fundamentals Part 1 Application of Force,1985

To find out more about why Nivelle was promoted, check out this post In Defence of Robert Nivelle

If you are interested in visiting this battlefield, contact Frank at frank@frankbaldwin.co.uk

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

They Shall Not Pass! “On Ne Passe Pas’”

“On ne passe pas’” (They shall not pass!) emerged from the battle of Verdun as watchwords of French. This phrase, widely attributed to General Phillip Petain has been used as a rallying cry for France since then, and an inspiration for subsequent defiance by, among others, Spanish Republicans, south American revolutionaries and the Russian Feminist group Pussy Riot. But like many national symbols and iconic events, much of the story is myth, factoid rather than fact. But the story behind the myth does reveal something about the battle of Verdun and the men who coined the catch phrase.

WWOne12Verdun was one of the major battles of the First World War, costing the French and the Germans about a quarter of a million casualties each. The battles of Verdun and the Somme, linked inextricably, dominated the Western Front in 1916. The Germans intended to break the French Army by forcing it to fight a battle of attrition under unfavourable circumstances. The battle was launched with heavy artillery support on 22nd February 1916. Catching the French ill prepared, the offensive was initially successful, inflicting heavy casualties on the French and their forces in disarray, crowned by the capture of Fort Douamont on the 25th February.

General Henri Phillipe Petain
General Henri Phillipe Petain

The same day, General Petain, commander of the Second Army, was ordered to take charge of the Verdun sector. He was chosen purely because his army was in reserve and available. Petain was an infantryman with an undistinguished pre war career only enlivened by his rejection of the pre war orthodoxy that willpower and aggression could overcome modern weapons. As an instructor at the Ecole de Guerre he preached the heresy that “firepower kills,” with the logical implication that a well organised defence would stop the Attaque à outrance (attack to excess). His rise to army command in the first eighteen months of the war had confirmed the need to “separate the real from the imaginary and the possible from impossible.”i An address to a decimated regiment illustrates this.

You went into the assault singing the Marseillaise; It was magnificent. But next time you will not need to sing the Marseillaise. There will be a sufficient number of guns to ensure your attack’s success.

Petain's "On Les Aura" as a propaganda poster
Petain’s “On Les Aura” as a propaganda poster

The measures Petain took to defend Verdun were based on firepower and belief that there were no short cuts to victory. He centralised control of the artillery and massed defensive fires where it could be most effective. He organised administration and logistics and arranged for a systematic and early replacement of formations committed to Verdun, known as the “Noria” (bucket chain) or “tourniquet” (turnstile).

Joan of Arc the inspiration for Petain;s Courage, on les auras”
Petains Catch phrase “Courage, on les auras” was a reference to Joan of Arcs words at Orleans. “Our enemies, even if they hung in the clouds, we shall get them! And we will drive them out of France!”

On 10th April Petain issued an order of the day which ended with the phrase “Courage, on les auras” (Take heart, we’ll get them.) This was meant to stick in the memory as a catch phrase. It was a allusion to the words of Joan of Arc at Orleans. “Nos ennemis, fussent-ils pendu aux nuages, nous les aurons! Et nous les bouterons hors de France!” (Our enemies, even if they hung in the clouds, we shall get them! And we will drive them out of France!) They were a reminder of the need for patience a war that could only be won by only fighting winnable battles but might take a long time.
Petain’s realistic, pessimistic approach to value counter attacks, did him no favours with Joffre, the French commander in chief or with the politicians. On 27th April Petain was promoted to Commander of the Central Region, and replaced as commander of the 2nd Army, by General Robert Nivelle who was more to Joffre’s taste.
Gervais-Courtellemont_Robert_Nivelle_1916_001Like Petain a mere colonel in 1914, Nivelle’s career had a meteoric trajectory. A heroic action at the Marne was followed by successful command of a brigade, divisional and corps. A whole hearted believed of the ideas of de Gradnmaison, Nivelle believed that success in battle was based on the will to win and that flawed leadership (but not his) led to “defaillance”, (weakness or breakdown). However, artilleryman Nivelle was also aware of the necessity of good infantry artillery co-operation. He was probably responsible for the most important technical development that enabled attacks to succeed, the barrage roulant – the creeping barrage.

sketch13 verdun O 1st greencross_22-23June
Target areas for Phosgene bombardment 323 June 1916

On 23 June 1916 the Germans planned a major attack by their elite mountain corps. This would be preceded by “Green Cross”, chemical artillery shells containing Phosgene, a new very lethal choking agent, which the Germans thought might penetrate French gas masks.

On ne passe pas'” They shall not pass! 2nd Army Order of the Day 23 June 1916
2nd Army Order of the Day 23 June 1916

The phosgene barrage caused consternation and 1,800 casualties, mainly among French gunners.  By the end of the day German infantry penetrated the furthest they ever achieved towards Verdun. Nivelle issued an order of the day that included the words “Vous ne les laisserez passer, mon camadares” (“You will do not let them pass”

Verdun Right bank 23 June 1916

Crisis at the battle of Verdun 23 June 1916. The solid blue line shows the French line before the attack. The dashed line shows the furthest extent of the German advance and the blue crosses the positions restored by the French by 2nd July

This wasn’t an original phrase. It had been circulating among the troops for some time, but there is no evidence that Petain used the phrase himself It was an appeal drawing on ‘cran’ (guts) very much Nivelle’s style . However this was out of character for Petain whose command style was based on promises of artillery support and avoided appeals for flesh to face material or attempt the physically impossible.
On_Ne_Passe_Pas_1918The crisis passed and the very next day, the preliminary barrage started on the battle of the Somme. From this moment Verdun became a secondary sector. However, throughout the remainder of 1916 Nivelle, occasionally constrained by Petain conducted a series of counter attacks which cumulated in the dramatic recapture of the Fort Douemont on 24th October. On that day the French troops advancing under a creeping barrage recaptured the ground that it had taken the Germans months to capture.

Monument_-_Fleury_devant_Douaumont_-_Detruit_en_1916_-_Version_juin_2007
Monument to the village of Fleury close to the German attack on 23 June

At the end of 1916, the French government had lost confidence in Joffre, their commander in chief, held responsible for the neglect of the defences of Verdun and the disappointing results of the Somme offensive. On the 27th December 1916 Joffre was promoted to Marshall and removed from command, to be replaces by Nivelle, who promised a decisive victory if allowed to use his tactics on larger scale. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive in May 1917 and the subsequent mutinies led to Nivelle’s fall and replacement by Petain. Nivelle was largely forgotten and Verdun became, in the public mind synonymous with Petain.

Pussy Riot wearing "they shall not pass" chic.
Pussy Rioter: “they shall not pass” chic.

In the meantime he catch phrase “On ne passe pas” , to use an anachronism, went viral. It joined “Old Contemptables” “In Flanders Fields” and “over the top” evoking aspects of the war. The call for the spirit to over come material odds made it attractive for the underdog and even chic.

The difference catch phrases of Petain and Nivelle illustrate different approaches to the battle of Verdun. They were also present in the British high command. The logic of Petain’s approach leads to the “bite and hold “ school identified with Rawlinson and Plumer, while Nivelle’s appeal to strength of will has much in common with the “Harroshing” of Haig and Gough. Indeed, Haig’s “Backs to the wall” order of the day in April 1918 is very similar to Nivelle’s appeal on 23 June.

If you ever need to use this article to settle a bet, donations are always welcomed by the battlefields Trust, a UK Charity dedicated to preservation, interpretation and presentation of battlefield heritage. Battlefields Trust Just Giving

There is a lot to see at Verdun, where far more of the battlefield was abandoned after the war.  Far fewer Britons visit Verdun, know as much about this battle or even its connection to the battle of the Somme.  If you are interested in visiting the battlefield of Verdun or other battlefields of the Western Front contact me.

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Where Were the Current Day RA Regiments and Batteries on the First Day of the Somme?

Somme map first day affiliationsThe Battle of the Somme was the largest, most bloody battle fought by the British Army. The popular image in Britain is of waves of foot soldiers going over the top into a hail of shells and bullets. But whether they succeeded often depended on how well the Gunners had breached then barbed wire, damaged defences, neutralised enemy batteries and neutralised enemy in the path of the infantry, and whether the infantry used the barrage.The Somme was an artillery battle, the first of its scale waged by the Royal Regiment. The artillery plan for the 1st of July assault was the first army wide artillery instruction. Within common principles and guidelines each corps developed its own fire plan.  In one sense the First Day of the Somme was a very big experiment with each Corps trying out a different technique for supporting the infantry.

The verdict was clear by the end of the day and the tactics used by the XV and XIII Corps, of heavy counter battery fire and a creeping barrage  became the norm for future attacks.

The majority of the BEF’s troops were “Kitchener’s” New Army Volunteers, raised for the duration of the war.However, many of the regular and territorial units which fired in the opening barrage and on the first day of the Somme are still part of the Royal Artillery.

VII CORPS

The northern most corps, VII Corps of the 3rd Army was made by two Territorial Divisions, the 46th (North Midlands) and the 56th (London). 210 (Staffordshire ) Battery can be considered the descendants of the CCXXXI (231)and CCXXXII (232) (II and III North Midlands Brigades) recruited from Staffordshire

Somme Artillery Territorial Army British QF 4.7 inch Gun on 1900 Mk I "Woolwich" carriage, Western Front, World War I.
This picture shows a QF 4.7″ gun on the III Corps front later in July 1916. The Territorial Heavy Batteries were each armed for four of these obsolescent guns, retained in service because of the shortage of modern long ranged artillery. AWM)

265 (Home Counties) battery might consider themselves associated with the territorial artillery brigades of the 56th (London) Division at Gommecourt. The Home Counties Territorials also formed the 1/1 (Kent) Heavy Battery with four 4.7” Guns, part of the 48th Heavy Artillery group supporting the VIIth Corps at Gommecourt, as was the 1/1 Lowland Heavy battery, raised from the recruiting area of 207 (City of Glasgow ) Battery.

VIII CORPS

The VIIIth Corps, was the Northernmost army corps in the Fourth Army. One of its infantry divisions, the “Incomparable 29th Division” formed from regular units serving across the world. This division fought in Gallipoli and in all of the major battles on the Western front from the Somme onwards. The part of the battlefield over which the 29th Division advanced is includes the preserved battlefield of Newfoundland Park, one of the most visited and photographed. One regiment and four current day batteries have antecedents which served with the 29th Division on the First Day of the Somme.

18 Pdr Gun battle pozieres ridge Somme 1916
This photograph taken after the first day shows an 18 pounder gun, its crew stripped to the waist in the sunshine, firing a barrage from the Carnoy Valley south east of Montauban. This was the equipment used by the field batteries that have survived to modern times.

The XVII Field Brigade is still part of the Gunners, being renumbered 19 Regiment after the Second World War. One of XVII Field Brigade’s batteries, numbered 13 Battery in 1916 is still part of 19th Regiment, having been renumbered as 28 battery in 1947. According to the fire plan, this battery fired the artillery support for the doomed attack across Newfoundland Park.

B and L Battery RHA also were part of the 29th Division and fought on the first day of the Somme. XV Brigade RHA was formed from RHA units, but was equipped with the 18 pounder field gun and carried out the same function as a divisional field artillery battery. B Battery sent an OP party forward to support the capture of the Hawthorn ridge crater caused by the much photographed mine.

10 Battery RFA, now 25/170 (Imjin) HQ Battery of 12 Regiment served in 147 Field Brigade, also part of the 29 Divisional artillery group.

The heavy artillery of the VIII corps included 1/1 Highland Heavy Battery, part of 1st heavy Artillery group raised from the recruiting area of 212 (Highland) Battery, and 1/1 Welsh Heavy Battery, raised in Carnarvon. Both territorial batteries were equipped with four 4.7” guns.

X CORPS

British 6inch 30cwt Howitzer Breech Open
The South African war vintage BL 6 inch 30 cwt Howitzer equipped several batteries for the Somme, including 17 Siege Battery.

To the right of VIII Corps was X Corps, which attacked the dominating ground around the village of Theipval. None of the field batteries of its new army and territorial had survived to the current day.

However, 17 Siege Battery RGA, the

BL 6-inch howitzer and a four wheel drive tractor
BL 6-inch howitzer and a four wheel drive tractor

recently disbanded 52 (Niagra) Battery was part of 40 Heavy Artillery Group which was the Northern Group supporting X Corps. The battery was equipped with four 30 cwt 6” Howitzers and fired on targets in the sector attacked by the 36th Ulster Division and commemorated by the Ulster Tower memorial.

III CORPS

The III Corps attacked either side of La Boiselle on the Albert-Bapaume road. This was the point of main effort of the Fourth Army. North of the road, the 8th Regular Infantry Division attacked towards the village of Orvilliers. Its artillery group included V Brigade RHA, now 5 Regiment, and XLV Brigade RFA renumbered as 14 Regiment in 1947.

60 Pdr Guns Somme IWM Q8651
This photograph of a 60 pounder Gun is from 1918 rather than 1916. 90 Siege Battery, the antecedents of 38 Battery, were equipped with four of these long ranged guns.

As with XV RHA, V RHA Brigade, was equipped as a field brigade, there being a greater need for field rather than horse artillery in trench warfare. V Brigade RHA’s batteries included was O and Z batteries RHA.

XLV Field Brigade, which became 14 Regiment and three of its batteries have also survived. 1 Battery as “The Blazers”, 3 Battery RFA as 13 (Martinique) Battery and 5 battery as 5 (Gibraltar 1779–83) Battery. This divisions attack just north of the Albert Bapaume road towards Orvilliers also failed with heavy casualties

The Heavy Artillery of III Corps included:-

1 Siege Battery equipped with four 6” howitzers, part of 27th heavy Artillery group. This became 73 battery, now part of 4/73 (Sphinx) Battery.

90 Heavy Battery RGA, equipped with four 60 pounder guns. part of 22 Heavy Artillery Group became the current day 38 (Seringapatam) Battery.

1/1 London (Woolwich) Heavy battery was part of 34 Heavy Artillery Group RGA, equipped with four 4.7” guns.

XV CORPS

Q 1490 6inchHowitzerPozieresSeptember1916
Man handling a BL 6 inch 26 cwt howitzer near Pozieres 1916.

XV Corps was to the right of III Corps. One of its two assaulting infantry divisions was the regular 7th Infantry Division. The artillery group included XXXV (35) Brigade RFA, which still survives as 29 Commando Regiment, as does one of its batteries 12 Battery RFA, now 8 Alma Commando Battery as do F and T Battery RHA which served as part of XIV brigade RHA. The attacks by the 7th Infantry division were among the most successful of the day, due in part to the innovative creeping barrage fired by the artillery of the corps.

1/2 Lancashire Heavy Battery, based in Sefton Barracks Liverpool, in the current day 208 battery recruiting area was part of the 18th Heavy Artillery Group equipped with four 4.7” Guns

XIII CORPS

The attacks by the two New Army Divisions of XIIIth Corps were the most successful of the day.

60pdrLeTransloyOct1916
Heavy Work. manhandling the 60 pounder on the Somme 1916

115 Heavy Battery RGA, the current day 18 (Quebec 1759) Battery was also equipped with four 60 pounder guns as part of 29th heavy Artillery Group in support of the XIII Corps. This was the right hand British Corps in the attack on the 1st day of the Somme. Their counter battery fire was particularly effective, supported by additional French heavy guns and a factor in the breakthrough in the XIII Corps sector.

1/1 Lancashire Heavy Battery was part of 29 Heavy Artillery group supporting XIII Corps, This too was raised in Sefton Road, Liverpool.

The story on each Corps sector is different.  There are the personal accounts of the men who served the guns. And there is the story of how the Army developed the techniques learned at a painful cost to turn the Somme into the “Muddy Grave of the German army.” 

If you would like to visit these places and see what the Gunners did on the Somme, there are still places available on the Somme Centenary Gunner Tour. 

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