The war in the West was a race between the Allies and the Germans. Could the Allies mount D Day before the Germans had perfected a new generation of weapons which would terrorise Britain into submission. The German revenge weapons included the Fi 176 cruise missile, (the V1 flying bom), the A4 surface to surface ballistic missile (the V2) and a very long range gun, the V3.
Ever since the allies became aware of the existence of these weapons the Allied air forces had mounted a bombing campaign against the structures that the Germans were building to house these weapons. This campaign cost the allies 1,900 aircrew, a comparable number of fatalities to those lost on D Day.
On 3rd May 1944 the 8th USAAF Target was the the huge bunker at d’Helfaut-Wizernes, northern France. This vast structure was intended as a hardened launch centre for V2 and built with slave labour. This air raid was one of sixteen carried out by the allies air forces between march and the end of July 1944. 47 B24 Bombers of the 392nd Bombardment Group of the USAAF would drop 180 x 2000 lb bombs.
Briefing for crews was held between 0930-1000 hours. The mission was to be GH ship led with (22) aircraft carrying 2000# GP bombs. Despite fairly good visual bombing weather over the target with 3/lOths – 5/lOths cloud cover, bombing was poor with only a few hits in the target area of the (80) weapons released. While no enemy fighters were sighted, flak over the target was intense and accurate causing damage to (14) aircraft and wounding some crewmembers. No aircraft were lost and the mission recovered at base around 1740 hours after a 4 1/2 hour mission.http://www.b24.net/missions/MM050344.htm
The bombing by bombs of up to a ton in weight made no impact on the concrete dome, but wrecked the un-armoured facilites above ground, including the rail connections.
The bunker would be abandoned after a raid by 617 Sqn RAF :Lancasters and a on 17th July using six ton Tallboy bombs. Three of these exploded next to the tunnels, one burst just under the dome, and another burst in the mouth of one tunnel. The whole hillside collapsed, undermining the dome support, and covering up the two rocket vertical entry ways. The Germans abandoned the site in late July 1944.
According the the French Records, the ultimate fate of the 1,100 Russian slave labourers who worked site is not known.
The Bunker complex is now a museum, easily accessible from Calais and a day trip from the SE of England. Although the Germans never used the site for its intended purpose, the sheer scale of the building , the conditions under which it was built and its sinister purpose make it a thought provoking place. It is part of the V weapon story and the defeat of the V weapon bombardment of London. The story of the aerial campaign waged by the RAF and USAAF against the V weapon sites deserves to be better known.
The Battle of Leipzig 16-19 October 1813, was the largest battle of the nineteenth century, and fought between the Prussians, Russians, Austrians and Swedes and French under Napoleon. The only mention of that the Emperor Napoleon makes about the course of the battle Leipzig, is that his forces were heavily outnumbered, but the allied victory would not have been as decisive if the Saxon Army had not defected to the Allies in the middle of the battle.
The Rocket Brigade RHA (now O Battery (the Rocket Troop) RHA,) was the only British unit to take part in the battle of Leipzig. This experimental unit played a part out of all proportion to its size and numbers. It may have played a key role in the surrender of the Saxon troops that gave rise of Napoleon’s bitter comments.
The Rocket Brigade RHA were at the Battle of Leipzig almost by historic accident. They were an experimental unit tasked with conducting what might be regarded as an operational test of the Congreve rockets on land.
Asian armies were using rockets for military purpose since the thirteenth century. By the time the British East India Company was fighting wars against the Indian states in the late C18th, rocket technology had developed. By using metal, rather than paper, cases the range of military rockets was extended from c.500m to c. 2,500m.
Stores “For the Annoyance of the Enemy”
The Armies of Mysore equipped with these caused problems for the British, including inflicting a defeat at Battle of Pollilur (1780). At the invitation of the Admiralty, “to develop stores for the annoyance of the enemy” Colonel Congreve at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich developed a range of rockets, which are known by his name.
These included rocket projectiles in different sizes from 6 pdr to 48 pdr and a sophisticated range of natures including solid shot,. Shell, incendiary carcass, case shot (shrapnel) and even illuminating parachute flare. The advantage of a rocket is that it does not need a heavy ordnance to launch it, allowing for a much larger weight of projectile. Rockets had a psychological effect, particularly on animals or those unfamiliar with the weapon. The disadvantages were the inherent inaccuracy of the rockets. This could be overcome by launching them en masse, the solution adopted even in WW2. After the fall of Seringapatam, the British found 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and 9,000 empty rockets.
“Handsomest Men of His Day”
The Royal Navy made use of rockets to bombard ships in harbour, at Boulogne and Copenhagen. The inherent inaccuracy of rockets resulted in the town set ablaze along with docks and ships, and scepticism about rockets within the army, including by Arthur Wellesley, in command of the army in the Peninsular. None the less, in September 1811 an experimental unit was established at Woolwich to test rockets for land use, formed of 30 gunners under the command of Captain Bogue RHA. Described as “one of the handsomest man of his day and a friend of the Prince Regent” (1) Bogue had served in the Corunna campaign with B battery RHA.
By May 1813 the Ordnance board had decided that everything that could be discovered from exercises had been extracted and that a trial would be needed on active service. The experimental unit would be brought up to strength for service in the field as the Rocket Brigade RHA. The opportunity arose in the spring of 1813 after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. By the time the Rocket Brigade had landed in Stalsund on the Baltic coast of Germany the sixth coalition against Napoleon included Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia and Sweden. The Rocket Brigade would join the Army of the North under the Crown Prince of Sweden.
The Battle of Görde 18 September 1813
The Rocket Brigade’s first action was on the 18th September 1813 at the battle of Görde North West of Danenberg in what is now Lower Saxony. Half of the brigade took part in the battle in which an allied force of Hannoverian, Prussian and Russian troops destroyed a French division advancing South from Hamburg. After the battle they rejoined the other half of the Brigade with the Army of the North at the siege of Wittenberg. Their guide across Germany was an officer of the 5th Battalion the Kings German Legion, who became the only member of the KGL to be present at the Battle of Leipzig.
The Battle of Leipzig 1813
The Rocket Brigade was attached to the Swedish Guard. It had a privileged position as a unit of the Swedish Army’s British paymasters. On the 18th October 1813, the third day of the battle of Leipzig, the army of the North approached the Battlefield from the North East. A British senior officer, General Sir Charles Stewart, was present at the battle. In a letter to Captain Bogue’s Father in law, Stewart’s ADC, Lieutenant John James wrote:-
“at the commencement of the action on the morning of the 18th, Captain Bogue addressed himself to General Winzingtrode, commanding the advance of the Crown Prince, expressing his desire to see the enemy and requesting permission to engage. The General much taken with the gallantry and spirit of the address, granted as a guard a squadron of dragoons and requested Captain Bogue to follow his own plans and judgement.
Captain Bogue lost no time in advancing to the village of Paunsdorf, then in possession of five of the enemy’s battalion, upon whom he opened, in advance of the whole army, a most destructive fire. This was returned by musketry and for a time a very hot combat ensued, which the enemy , unable to withstand the very well directed fire of Captain Bogue’s brigade fell into confusion and began to retreat. Captain Bogue, seizing the moment, charged at the head of the squadron of cavalry, and the enemy terrified of his approach, turned around and taking off their caps gave three huzzas and , every man to the number of between two and three thousand, surrendered to the Rocket Brigade, which I believe did not exceed 200 men.
The intelligence of this success being communicated to the Crown Prince, he sent his thanks to Captain Bogue for such eminent services, requesting at the same time that he would continue his exertions: and the brigade proceeded in consequence to the attack of (I believe) the village of Sommerfeld (2) , still further in advance. Sir C Stewart accompanied the brigade and I was of the party. The situation taken up on the flank of the village was exposed to a most heavy fire , both of cannon balls and grapeshot from the enemy’s line, and from the riflemen in the village. A ball from the latter soon deprived us of the exertions of poor Bogue;it entered below the eye and passing through the head caused instantaneous death.” (3)
“Some Prussian battalions of General Biilow’s corps were warmly engaged at Paunsdorf, and the enemy were retiring from it, when the Prince Royal directed the rocket brigade, under Captain Bogue, to form on the left of a Russian battery, and open upon the retiring columns. Congreve’s formidable weapon had scarcely accomplished the object of paralysing a solid square of infantry, which, after our tire, delivered themselves up, as if panic struck, when that estimable man and gallant officer, Captain Bogue, of the British royal artillery, received a mortal wound in the head, which at once deprived society of a noble character, and this country of his valuable services. Lieutenant Strangways who succeeded in the command of the brigade, received the Prince Royal’s thanks, conveyed through me, for the important assistance they had rendered. I felt great satisfaction at witnessing, during this day, a species of improved warfare, the effects of which were truly astonishing; and produced an impression upon the enemy of something supernatural.(4)
Not everyone saw Congreve’s formidable weapon as an unmitigated improvement in warfare. Dr Wenzel Krimer, was a surgeon in a Prussian Reserve Infantry Regiment, commented.
“It was at this juncture that I realised the terrible effects of the Congreve rockets. I was not alone in asking myself in horror and disgust: Haven’t we enough instruments of death without needing to resort to these diabolical things, worthy of the inventiveness of an Adramelach (5) We were standing on a flat plateau and could overlook a large part of the enemy forces. In front of us was just such a devilish rocket battery. Each time a rocket was fired and went hissing and shooting forth fire into an enemy column and exploded, one saw whole files hurled down. The scorched and battered bodies lay in great piles where they fell. At first the French did not seem familiar with this new weapon of death and stood up against it; but when they saw what fearful destruction it wrought and in what a ghastly manner the victims died, even if only a drop of the fuel came too near, there was no holding them. Whenever they saw a rocket coming, whole columns ran away and abandoned everything. (6)
The Terrible Effects of the Congreve Rockets.
Colonel Hermann von Boyen was Chief of Staff for General von Bulow’s III Corps, the lead troops of the Army of the North. He described how, as soon as the Army of the North came into the battle line, a heavy artillery-duel began.
“About an hour later the French advanced from the so—called peasants’ houses with a column made up of two or three battalions and appeared to be heading for the Swedish corps which stood some distance back. In support was the English rocket battery under Captain Bogue. This gallant soldier immediately went forward undaunted with his battery against the enemy column and came so close that before he could open fire an enemy sharpshooter shot him dead. However, his subordinates were not dismayed by this loss, and the rockets produced a most unusual effect near where they were ignited. The French column, which hitherto had been advancing in very good order, even if latterly with a shorter step, was utterly dispersed just as occurs when one breaks up an ant heap with a blow, and it ran in total disorder back towards the peasants’ houses, amid our almost universal laughter.
When we marched next day across the scene of the French advance, we convinced ourselves of the important effects of the rockets. A considerable number of corpses lay there, but in addition several of them were completely burnt on their faces and uniforms in a most uncommon way, so that one could readily understand how the enemy’s morale had been shaken by this extraordinary operation.” (7)
What happened at Paunsdorf on 18th October 1813?
The action around Paunsdorf was one of the climactic episodes of the battle of Leipzig. The village was defended by the French VIIth Corps under the command of General Reynier of on the junction of the attacks by the Army of Poland by General Bennigsen and the Army of the North. It is also notable for the defection of the Saxon Army, which in his memoirs Napoleon claims that the allied success “would have been less decisive had it not been for the defection of the Saxons. In the midst of the battle, these troops having moved towards the enemy, as if intending to make an attack, turned suddenly around, and opened a heavy fire of artillery and musketry on the columns by the aids of which they had a few moments before been fighting.”(8)
The French troops opposing the Rocket Brigade in the afternoon of 18th October were from General Reynier’s VIIth Army Corps. These comprised two divisions, and C 30 cannons. The 24th (Saxon) Division commanded by General zon Zeschau, comprised of two brigades. One under Colonel v Brause, of five Battalions and a second under General von Ryssel, of three battalions, and the 32nd (French) Division under General Durutte, of six battalions organised into two brigades. The Saxon division has been estimated at a maximum of 4,200 men with no more in Durutte’s division.
The Royal Saxon Army, were from the part of Germany where much of the 1813 campaign had been fought, and now overrun by Napoleon’s enemies. The Saxon officers had formed the opinion that the campaign was lost and the best course of action would be to defect to the allies. The French had already become distrustful of their Saxon allies. The 24th (Saxon) Division under General Von Zeschau had been ordered to march to Torgau, NE of Leipzig. The arrival of Austrian and Russian troops of the Army of Silesia and the Army of the North had blocked that move. As a consequence the Saxons deployed around Paunsdorf, which had been garrisoned by a battalion of French soldiers from Durutte;s 32nd French Division and two companies of Saxons on the Morning of 18th . Von Brause’ Brigade of five battalions was deployed across the road to Taucha West of Paunsdorf, and von Ryssel’s Brigade of two battalions and a jaeger company near the Windmill at Stuntz. Three batteries of artillery were deployed between Stuntz and Paunsdorf. Five out of six of the six battalions forming Durutte’s French 32nd Division were deployed formed in the area around Sellerhausen.
During the morning the Austrian Army 2nd Advance Guard Division made repeated attacks on Paunsdorf. With support troops from Durutte’s division the French hung on to a position in the village or close to it until around 2 pm. The fire from the French Saxon artillery seems to have been effective in suppressing the Austrian artillery, killing or wounding artillery detachments and horses. This changes with the arrival of the Prussian troops from the army of the North attacking from the NE and the Rocker Brigade.
There seem to have been three stages in the Rocket Brigade’s actions.
First, acting on his own initiative Bogue deployed rockets against the “five Battalions of the enemy defending Paunsdorf”. This, in conjunction with an attack by infantry resulted in the defenders fleeing.
Second. Bogue followed up the withdrawal with a charge at the head of the (Russian?) cavalry squadron detailed to escort him by General Wintzingtrode. After this charge, according to Jones the enemy “ turned around and taking off their caps gave three huzzas and , every man to the number of between two and three thousand, surrendered to the Rocket Brigade.”
Third, on the orders of the Crown Prince of Sweden, the Rocket Brigade engaged troops near Sellerhausen. Here the battery comes under fire, Bogue killed, and the battery continues to engage the French under the command of Lt Strangeways.
What part did the Rocket Brigade play in the defection of the Saxon Army? At some point in this area, during the Rocket Brigade action the majority of the Saxon Army defected to the allies. Digby Smith includes a lengthy account sympathetic to the Saxons, apparently based on accounts by someone with von Ryssel. The Saxons were keen to avoid abandoning their artillery and artillerymen to French retribution. They also preferred to surrender to the Austrians, Russians or Swedes than to the Prussian who they saw as keen rivals. This account describes the defecting Saxons marching East from Stultz, out of contact.
That might explain the defection of von Ryssel’s Brigade. But how did von Brause’s Brigade, committed to the defence of Paunsdorf disengage and defect? Were these the troops that James wrote of as greeting their mounted pursuers with three Huzzas? Perhaps this was an announcement of a defection rather than the surrender of a mob. Otherwise why would an infantry unit organised enough to organise three cheers find more security in a square bristling with bayonets? The five battalions of this formation might add up to the 2,000-3,000 prisoners mentioned by James.
Did the presence of the Rockets give the Saxons an opportunity to defect? The British Joint Operational Research from WW2 found that German prisoners of War reported that rocket projectiles fired from aircraft was one of the more terrifying experiences. Despite Saxon disillusionment with Napoleon’s cause, Von Brause’s men seem to have fought determinedly at Paunsdorf – until under fire from the Rocket Brigade.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Rocket Brigade started with a strength of 142 officers and men, over 100 horses horses, four women and two children. During the battle of Leipzig the Brigade’s casualties were one officer and one man killed, six wounded and 26 horses killed and wounded. The Rocket Brigade was not involved in the Battle on the 19th of October, but spend the day buring their dead. Richard Bogue was buried in Taucha churchyard, four miles away from where he fell, and a stone monument was erected over his grave in 1815 by national subscription. As the nineteenth century drew to a close the grave was found to have fallen into a state of neglect, but on this fact being made known members of the Bogue family and officers of the Royal Regiment of Artillery contributed money for its restoration.
First medals for Gallantry Issued to British Soldiers
In January 1814 the Crown Prince of Sweden sent the Swedish Military Order of the Sword, 4th Class (Knight) to Captain Bogue’s widow, and also a gift of 10,000 dollars. Six years later, he, as the King of Sweden awarded silver medals of the same Order to Sergeants Michael Taylor and Robert Chalkley, Corporals Edward Marks and William Wareham, and Bombardier John Guy. The reverse of each medal bore the inscription ‘FÖR TAPPERHET I FÄLT (‘For bravery in the field’). These medals were the first medals for bravery issued to British Soldiers.
The Rocket brigade was also given the battle Honour “Liepzig” and adopted as a battery Honour Title after the Royal Artillery adopted “Ubique” (Everywhere) in place of individual Battle Honours.
A descendant of Captain Bogue, happened to read the piece in the Daily Telegraph about the talk on Leipzig for the Battlefields Trust. Bogue’s descendant also called Richard, has in his possession Captain Bogue’s papers, including his Journal, and the letters sent to Bogue’s widow by the Prussian General Prince Blucher, and The Swedish Crown Prince Carl Jean. He also inherited Bogue’s nine volume travelling works of Shakespeare that accompanied him on campaign.
This and Bogue’s journal gives an insight into the character of a highly professional officer, whose decisions made a difference. He was also a cultured man, commenting in his journal on the tomb of Thomas a Becket and Saxon church architecture. 170 years after Liepzig an Ex Battery Commander of the Rocket Troop exorted the officers of his regiment to have professionalism, polish and panache. Richard Bogue RHA epitomised these qualities.
(This is the first of two posts based on the research for the talk given on behalf of the Battlefields Trust at the Fusiliers Museum at HM Tower of London on 15th October 2013. The Second part will cover the story of the Rocket Troop that fought at Waterloo, and ask why it is missing from many accounts of the battle) .
In fact the village was Sellerhausen
Letter from Lieutenant John James held by Mr R Drake copies in Firepower and O Battery.
Londonderry, Lieutenent-General Charles William Vane Marquess (Sir Charles Stewart) Narrative of the war in Germany and France in 1813 and 1814 (London 1830)
Boyen, Generalfeldmarschall, Herman von Denkwürdigkeiten und Erinnerungen, 1771-1813, 2 vols (Stuttgart 1899)
Adramelach was an Assyrian god to whom children were sacrificed on a fire.
Krimer, Wenzel Erinnerunger eines altern Lützower Jägers, 1795-1819, 2 vols stuttgart 1913 (in Brett James, Anthiony Europe against Napoleon
Bourrienne, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de, “Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte”
The Aisne battlefields are in some ways a forgotten corner of the Western Front. Most British visitors to the Western Front tend to focus on the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, or hurtle across it en route to Verdun, the iconic French battle. Yet the battlefields in the Aisne, the bordering department south of the Somme Region, play a significant part in the development of the Western Front, have a special place in the story of the British Expeditionary force and are the resting place of several thousand British soldiers.
The Department of the Aisne forms an inverted triangle with St Quentin near the top left corner and the town of Château Thierry near the base. The northern half of the department is part of the Picardy plains. The southern half is much hillier and cut by the Oise, Aisne and Marne rivers flowing East to West. Battlefields tend to be determined by physical geography rather than administrative regions. Thus the department plays an significant role in several battlefields, only one of which takes its name from the department.
THE OTHER SOMME BATTLEFIELD
There are geographic and commercial reasons why British battlefield tourists tend to miss out the Aisne. The Somme is that bit closer, and even then most British visitors focus on the battlefields around Albert, the site of the dramatic and costly first day of the Somme, and popularised in literature from Siegfried Sassoon to Sebastian Faulks. There has also been a major investment in the Somme in heritage tourism, from the development of the Thiepval interpretation centre, to the establishment of the Museum of the Great War in Peronne, and there is the well organised support for British tourists and the tourist trade. There is a risk though, that the focus on that which is easiest to visit distorts our understanding of the history and what it means.
The Northern part of the Aisne department centres on the town of St Quentin. This area tells a different story of the battles we know as the Somme. The most obvious features are the remains of the Hindenburg line, the fortified line created due to the high cost to the Germans of the battle of the Somme. We don’t often see the 1916 Somme battle as a “victory”. The huge investment in developing the Hindenburg line and the spiteful destruction of everything of possible value in the land they evacuated indicates that the Germans saw the Somme as a defeat. This area included the sites of actions in the advance to the Hindenburg line in March 1917. The village of Francilly-Selency includes reminders of this in the monument to the 2nd Battalion the Manchester Regiment which liberated the village in March 1917, in the action during which one of their officers, the poet Wilfred Owen, was wounded.
If we relied purely on popular culture, the Great war was not won but fizzled out in an Armistice, whether in a hail of bullets in no man’s land in Blackadder or with the tunnellers still under the static trenches in Bird Song. However, a visit to the Battlefields around St Quentin bears witness to the violent climax to the First World War on the Western Front. In March 1918, Manchester Hill, captured by Wilfred Owen’s battalion the previous spring, was occupied by the 16th Battalion the Manchester Regiment, understrength and exhausted from the Passchendaele campaign. This was one of the British redoubts isolated by German storm troops on the first day of the Kaiserschlacht and where its commanding Officer fought to the death, and was subsequently
awarded the Victoria Cross. The Hindenburg Line positions north of St Quentin stormed by the British, Australian and American troops 28 September-3 October 1918, are still very visible and provide evidence of the story of the allied determination, skill and courage that overwhelmed the Germans in 1918. At this point the German defences were based on the Canal du Nord, a major obstacle protected by barbed wire and concrete bunkers. The tactical problem can be compared with the D Day landings. The bridge at Riqueval, seized by Captain Charlton and nine men can be compared to the capture of Pegasus Bridge on D Day. It is one of the most evocative places, and captured on a camera.
The fighting did not end at the canal. The concrete bunkers of the Hindenberg line are much better preserved than the earthworks of the Somme. The BBC TV Programme ”Who Do You Think You Are?” featured Matthew Davis the descendent of William Henry Johnson VC winner seeking the story of his ancestor. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23109590
Close to here, at Mannequin Hill, N.E. of Sequehart, Lance Corporal William Harold Coltman, of 1/6th Bn, North Staffordshire Regiment, carried out the actions for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. William Coltman, whose Christian beliefs would not allow him to kill another man was Britain’s most highly decorated serviceman of the First World War ( 1914-1918 ). In the last two years of the war he was awarded the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Conduct Medal twice, and Military Medal twice, acting as a stretcher-bearer.
THE AISNE – THE BIRTH OF TRENCH WARFARE
South of Laon is the area of the Aisne battlefields. The department included the battlefield is bordered by the city of Soissons in the West and Berry au Bac in the East, and stretches as far south as the River Marne and the city of Laon in the North. The countryside is a little more alien for the British visitor. The Somme Battlefields are geologically similar to Southern England and the rolling countryside and large fields are similar to the landscape of Hampshire. Much of the fighting centred on the high ground North of the river Aisne. The heights are often referred to by the name of the road along the heights, the Chemin des Dames.
The War first came to the area in September 1914 as the French and British armies fell back south pursued by the Germans. The German Schlieffen plan finally unravelled in the battle of the Marne between 5-12th September 1914 and the Germans pulled back. When the allies advanced north many could be forgiven for thinking that this war was nearly over. There had been an advance, a big battle and now the invaders were in full retreat. But, when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed the river Aisne, they found the Germans dug in on the spurs on the high ground overlooking the rive Aisne and supported by plentiful artillery. Despite heroic efforts in over a week of fighting, the BEF were unable to dislodge the Germans and both sides had started to dig trenches. Field Marshal Sir John French, the commander of the BEF wrote to the king “I think the battle of the Aisne is very typical of what battles in the future are most likely to resemble. Siege operations will enter largely into the tactical problems – the spade will be as great a necessity as a rifle”
There is a lot to see in the area from the BEF experience on the Aisne. The ground itself is evocative, and much as it was in 1914. You can still see the bridging site where the Royal Engineers bridged the river next to the damaged bridge. The story of the BEF can be traced on the landscape and past the cemeteries with the reminders of the costs.
THE CHEMIN DES DAMES –1917 THE CALVARY OF THE FRENCH ARMY
The Chemin des Dames area was the site of the disastrous Neville Offensive in May 1917. The newly appointed commander of the French Army, General Robert Neville, thought that he had discovered the secret of the offensive based on the experience of successful limited attacks on the Somme and Verdun. He massed hundreds of guns and the cream of the French army, including tens of thousands of African soldiers. Unfortunately for Neville and the French army, the Germans had tunnelled deep into the ground, developed defences in depth and found out when and where the attack would take place. After several days bombardment the attack started under atrocious weather conditions, for May. After 135,000 casualties the French troops had had enough. There were mutinies in several regiments. They were strikes really, with soldiers protesting about ill planned attacks, poor food and no leave.
The saviour of Verdun, General Petain was appointed as Commander in chief of the army. He is credited with restoring discipline and confidence to the French Army. He did so with a mixture of carrot and stick. He instigated improvements in pay and leave arrangement, and perhaps most significantly, he cancelled further major offensives. This allowed the French army to recover its confidence in its commanders through a series of carefully planned and executed limited offensives. One of these, in November 1917 took place in the area around Fort Malmaison on the Aisne and resulted in the Germans withdrawing from the Chemin des Dames, the objective on the first day of the Neville offensive. The other implication of the French Army mutinies was that the burden of warfare on the West would have to be borne by the British until the American army could be mobilised and brought to Europe.
Arguably the 1917 mutinies had another legacy, in the French army of the Second World War. There is a comparison with Verdun. Verdun is a story of determination and sacrifice characterised by “They shall not pass”. The Chemin des Dames is where the French army reached the limits of endurance. It can be characterised by the bitter words of the Chanson de Craonne. ” It’s in Craonne up on the plateau That we’re leaving our hides ‘ Cause we’ve all been sentenced to die. We’re the ones that they’re sacrificing.”
There is a lot to see on the Aisne battlefield from the 1917 battles. The battlefield itself, like much of the
area around Verdun was deemed to be too devastated to be restored for agricultural use and designated a “Red Zone.” Although subsequently much agricultural land has been recovered, there are still tracts of the battlefield preserved as it was at the end of the First War, with the ruins of abandoned villages such as Craonne. There are also plentiful interpretive panels and panoramas relating the landscape of the battlefield. One focus for interpretation is the Cavern de Dragons, a quarry that became the scene of underground fighting. This contains an imaginative museum and guided tour.
There are also some evocative memorials each of which tells something of the French army. One memorial has a statue of a French soldier of 1814 alongside one of 1914; a reminder that this was also the site of one of Napoleon;’s last victories.
A group of elegant dark statues represents the spirits of the African soldiers who suffered so heavily in 1917. There is also a memorial to the first use of tanks by the French Army at Berry au Bac.
THE BRITISH ON THE AISNE IN 1918
The troops that made up the Ninth British Corps were singularly unlucky during 1918. As mentioned earlier, the Germans launched a series of offensives to try to win the war before the American Army appeared in numbers. The first offensive was between St Quentin and Arras on 21st March and took the Germans to within a few miles of Amiens. The second, the battle of the Lys, in April took the Germans close to undermining the Britsh in Flanders. In these five weeks the British Army had taken over 230,000 casualties, about the same as in the four month Passchendaele campaign. Five of the most battered British formations were transferred to the Aisne front, which had been a quiet sector since 1917. And so when the Aisne became the target of the German “operation Blucher.”, the plateau of California and Craonne was defended by the 4th Battalion the East Yorkshire Regiment of the 50th Northumberland Division. The resulting battle saw the British and French pushed back 25 miles to the river Marne. The 2nd Battalion the Devonshire Regiment and 5 Battery RFA distinguished themselves by the heroic defence of the Bois de Buttes despite being attacked by storm-troopers supported by tanks. Both units were awarded the Croix de Guerre which now is worn by all soldiers in 5 Gibraltar Battery RA and the Rifles. One of the best accounts of the fighting on the Aisne is published as “The Last of the Ebb:The Battle of the Aisne, 1918” by Sidney Rogerson Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal
BIG CASTLES AND BIG GUNS
The hilltop village of Coucey has a particularly fine ruined château and the remains of town walls. But it’s ruin is a story of the First World War. Before 1914 the château of Coucey was the largest in France and a major tourist destination. But in 1917 it lay in the zone that the Germans were planning to abandon and was destroyed in what in retrospect seems spiteful vandalism. On the outskirts of Coucey is a different sort of structure. In the forest is a concrete emplacement for a giant gun used by the Germans for shelling Compiegne 20 km away.
THE 1918 BATTLEFIELDS OF THE MARNE – WHEN THE AMERICANS SAVED PARIS FRANCE AND WON THE WAR
On two occasions in the First World War the Germans nearly reached Paris. It was the high point of the German advances in 1914 and in 1918. The battles which saw the repulse of these attacks are both known as the Battle of the Marne. The turning point was the deployment of American troops on the Marne in June and July 1918. The Americans played a big part in halting the Germans on the Marne at Château Thierry, which is home to the impressive US Châteaux Thierry monument. Not far away is Belleu wood, which is where the US marines attacked in 1918. This battlefield has been preserved and it and the neighbouring US American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery and the German cemetery are reminders of the part America played in the First World War.
The battle of Crécy (1346), alongside Agincourt (1415) has gone down in history as the triumph of the English foot soldier armed with the longbow over the French Knights. It has been known for a long time that Edward III had four cannons with his army, but their role on the battlefield has been dismissed, as having no effect beyond announcing that fire-power had arrived on the battlefield. However, in a speech to the Battlefields Trust, Professor Michael Prestwich argued that we should re-examine our interpretation of the Battle of Crécy and that Edward III’s cannons had a much bigger impact than as a mere gimmick of alchemy.
Edward III’s unexpected victory over the French at Crécy-en-Pontieu near Abbeville overturned the presumption that knights would ride down foot soldiers. This established the Longbow as an important weapon, the yeoman archers of England as heroes, and demonstrated the fighting power behind Edward III’s claim to the French throne which started the Hundred Years War.
King Edward III landed in Normandy in July. Having captured Caen he moved East to cross the Seine and then headed North along the coast, pursued by a larger French Army under King Philip VI of France. Edward crossed the Somme after winning the Battle of Blanchetaque on August 24. Tired from their marching and fighting the English army encamped near the Forest of Crécy. Philip raced towards Crécy with his men, keen to defeat the English and angry that he had failed to trap them between the Seine and Somme.
It is generally accepted that Edward deployed his men along a ridge between the villages of Crécy and Wadicourt and divided his army into three divisions. The right division was assigned to his sixteen-year old son Edward, the Black Prince. The left division was led by the Earl of Northampton, while Edward, commanding from a vantage point in a windmill, commanded the reserve. These divisions were comprised of dismounted men at arms supported by large numbers of archers equipped with the English longbow. The English improved their position by digging ditches and laying obstacles in front of their position. The baggage train was in the rear of the English position. Sometimes accounts mention that four cannons were positioned in the front line.
The leading parts of Philip’s army, advancing North from Abbeville arrived near the English around mid-day on August 26. The French started the battle before the whole French army had arrived on the battlefield. The French advance was led by several thousand mercenary Genoese crossbowmen, followed by thousands of French knights organised into divisions under the leading nobles, while King Philip commanded the rearguard.
When the Genoese crossbowmen approached close enough they fired a series of volleys at the English. These proved ineffective compared to the English response which was devastated the Genoese and forced them to retreat. This in turn provoked some French Knights to cut down the retreating Genoese as for their cowardice. The failure of the Genoese is attributed to several factors. A brief thunderstorm before the battle had wet their bowstrings. The decision to start the battle early, meant that they fought without their pavise’s wooden shields behind which they could shelter while reloading. Also, the rate of fire of a longbow was far in excess of a crossbow, with a longbow-man loosing thre or four arrows to each crosw-bow bolt.
The French knights fell into confusion as they collided with the retreating Genoese. Continuing the attack, the French knights were forced to negotiate the slope of the ridge and the man-made obstacles. Cut down in large numbers by the archers, the felled knights and their horses blocked the advance of those to the rear.
At some point in the battle Edward received a message from his son requesting assistance. This King Edward refused, stating “I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help,” and “Let the boy win his spurs.” As evening approached the English still held their position after repelling sixteen French charges, and felling their attackers with arrows. This was a huge English victory.
But, this interpretation is based on conflicting and fragmentary sources surviving from medieval records. Michael Prestwich pointed out the accepted interpretation is largely based on a selective choice about which sources to accept and which to reject. Even the location is uncertain. Geoffrey le Baker, refers to the field of Crecy, while Froissart writes that battle took place near a wood, somewhere between Crécy and La Broie, (five miles apart) and the king was on the mound of a windmill, at the rear of his army. While another source, Henry Knighton mentions another place name, Westglyse, identified as Watteglise, which is to the north-east.
Michael Prestwich also drew attention to Italian sources which give a very different version of the battle from the English and French, and for work done by Richard Barber in an as yet unpublished work on Crécy. These accounts are dismissed as being written at third hand and in a third country. But there were large number of Italian Genoese present at the start of the engagement. One of these accounts, by Giovanni Villani, who died in 1348, “stressed above all the English encampment of carts. The whole army, he said, in three battalions, was enclosed in a ring of carts, with a single entrance. Bombards were placed under the carts, and the archers shot from them, their arrows stacked in barrels.” The same account also includes a description of the effectiveness of the artillery “The English guns cast iron balls by means of fire…They made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses…The Genoese were continually hit by the archers and the gunners…[by the end of the battle] the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls.”
Professor Prestwich also quoted a second Italian account which dates from about 1360, and thanked Richard Barber for this. According to this account “Edward surrounded his army with iron chains, fixed to posts, in a horseshoe plan. Carts were then placed outside the chains, tipped up with their shafts in the air. Ditches were dug to reinforce the defences. Archers were hidden in the woods and cornfields – the author noted that as it was very cold in northern France, corn was not ha
rvested until September, and in Crécy it was still standing (the battle was 26 August). The Genoese had to climb a slope to approach the English position. They could not shoot their crossbows and were mostly cut down. The English archers, advancing through the corn, shot at the French cavalry and did so much damage that the battle was lost. There is a telling detail in this account. The Genoese crossbowmen’s problem was not that their bowstrings were damp – this account explains that the difficulty was that the ground was so muddy and soft that they found it impossible to put the crossbows down and hold them there with the stirrup for reloading. “
These Italian accounts are usually discredited because it is hard to reconcile the accounts of the carts with known practices of the time.
But perhaps the Genoese were describing something they had not seen before and could not understand. What they may have been looking at is the vehicles needed to support a gun battery – the worlds first wagon lines. Guns need a lot of vehicles, to transport the pieces, protect the ready use ammunition from the elements, carry ammunition and all the services to support the men who serve the guns. Edwards battery may have needed the ability to cast or carve their own shot, carry and possibly manufacture gunpowder. Edward’s army was on the move. It had prepared to fight at Crecy and it may have made sense to retain the ammunition and stores needed for the guns close by rather than banishing them to the baggage train.
As artillery evolved all the vehicles were held in the wagon lines where they would be protected from enemy fire. But at Crecy there was no enemy artillery fire, and contrary to Hollywood, flaming arrows were not a normal medieval battlefield weapon. A separate wagon lines would be additional risks to an English army marching through hostile territory and faced with a superior mounted enemy. And the wagons and carts might also have provided cover for archers.
Edward’s army may have been accompanied by more than the four bombards. According to Michael Prestwich, Edward had ordered 100 small guns, known as ribalds, in October 1345. These had, it seems, wheeled carriages, and were probably multi-barrelled.
So maybe the battle of Crecy was the worlds first battle where artillery played a significant part in the battle. So far this is a bit of speculation based on an after dinner speech by an eminent historian and information sources hiding in plain sight on the Internet. But the early gunpowder era is interesting for lots of reasons, not least because modern archaeological techniques have been able to establish new facts about medieval battlefields from the evidence that gunpowder weapons leave. In the last couple of years Glenn Foard rediscovered the battlefield of Bosworth from the cannon balls. Perhaps it is time to start a project to search for cannon balls from Crecy that may have sunk in the wet soil.
The climax of the film “Saving Private Ryan” is set in a village in Normandy, a few days after D Day. A small group of American paratroops are under attack from all directions by German heavy tanks, and are saved by an air attack. Saving Private Ryan is fiction. However, on 9-10th June, four days after D Day, in true life, a similar drama took place in the village of St Pierre separated by the river Seulles from the town of Tilly Sur Seulles.
On 8th June the 8th Armoured Brigade seized the high ground North of St Pierre, Point 103 in a rapid move. The reason for the significance of Point 103 is that it gives good visibility to the South, despite the hedges of the bocage country. This move coincided with the attack North by the Panzer Lehr division, the best equipped of the German Panzer divisions. This formation had 250 tanks and assault guns and could mount all its infantry in the 635 armoured half track APCs it possessed. Over the next five days the fighting would rage around St Pierre and point 103.
During the evening of 9th the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, supported by the 24th Lancers and 147 Field Regiment captured St Pierre where they were joined by two troops of 288 Anti Tank Battery equipped with 6 Pdr guns. The route to St Pierre South from Point 103 was over bare slopes and the troops in the village were subject to attacks from three sides.
On 10th June the Germans attacked St Pierre shortly after first light at 0700 hours. This was beaten off by 8 DLI with the support of 24 L and 147 Fd Regt. St Pierre was partially overrun, one of the FOO’s Lt Sayer, was killed and Maj C H Gosling, BC 511 Bty and three other FOOs were wounded. The tanks of the 24 Lancers withdrew up to Point 103 to take up hull down positions.
288 ATk Bty’s guns withdrew, some of the gunners fighting on as infantry. When ordered to withdraw by the infantry company which they were supporting Sgt Down (1), from Ashington Northumberland, refused to leave his gun as “his duty was to kill tanks”. Keeping LBdr Gilmour, his layer, with him, he sent the rest of his detachment back and then proceeded to knock out the only tank that appeared on his front, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and LBdr Gilmour the Military medal (MM). The citation to Sgt Down’s DCM states that his courage and example helped to restore the confidence of the infantry at a critical moment, enabling them to re-establish their position. Later the same day Sgt Down was ordered to take his gun forward and destroy an enemy armoured SP gun. He appears to have carried out a recce on foot then manoeuvred his gun forward unseen and destroyed the enemy. Sgt Down had already made his mark as an aggressive soldier by undertaking several patrols hunting snipers on the night of the 8th June. The next day an enemy tank closed into a covered position where it could not be engaged by Sgt Down’s 6 Pdr. He then stalked the tank with a hand held PIAT and hit it at 30 yards range forcing it to withdraw. (2)
On the other side of the village, Sgt Seaton had to move his gun forward to engage the tanks that were troubling him and after being wounded, had to leave his gun; but he and his layer, Gnr Beresford, later returned to the gun and hit a tank which stopped firing then withdrew; they were both awarded the MM, as was Bdr Hinder who knocked out one tank and forced another to withdraw.(3)
Throughout, Lt Brameld, the troop commander had remained forward, giving advance warning of the approach of tanks. At one point Brameld found that there were enemy tanks out of range of his 6 pdrs. He borrowed a 17pdr Sherman from a neighbouring armoured regiment and directed its fire from outside the tank whilst under small arms fire, until at least one and possibly two enemy tanks were destroyed. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). (4) At 1130 hrs, to prevent the counter-attack being resumed, 147 Fd Regt surrounded St Pierre with defensive fire, while Air OPs directed the fire of HMS Orion and Argonaut on to targets in the area Tilly-Juvigny-Fontenay-le-Pesnel and fighter-bombers attacked German reinforcements moving towards Tilly.
Later the same day 10 June the Panzer Lehr division launched an armuored attack on point 103, leaving 8 DLI surrounded in St Pierre and engaged the battalion from the North before returning South. The fighting stabilised with the British holding St Pierre and the Germans holding Tilly with the river Seulles dividing the armies.
Unteroffizier Petrov of the Panzer Lehr Division described the effect of the artillery fire: “Early this morning we put in our attack. We had three SP guns under command. We attacked a village … as soon as we got beyond the village the artillery opened up and I’ll say there was some confusion. Oh, that certainly was not much fun … Then came a counter-attack by the English … After a long search we found our vehicles but the enemy planes found us and the artillery fire came down on us again. We proceeded in short bounds to Regimental Headquarters and await further orders … Shall I have to go forward again? Thank God we are staying here overnight.” (5)
The story of the anti tank gunners at St Pierre is largely missing from accounts of the battle of Normandy. The fighting around St Pierre is one of the battles covered in the battlefield studies undertaken by the Cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but the anti tank gunners have not formed part of the story. They aren’t in the history of 8 DLI. They aren’t even in the war diaries of 8 DLI or 102 Anti Tank Regiment, which illustrates the fallibility of war diaries. The author of the cabinet history of the Normandy campaign (CAB 44/246)collated from war diaries refers to the uncertainty about the identity of the anti tank battery in support of 8 DLI only mentioned as 288 battery in the 8th Armoured Brigade War Diaries. The citations for the awards for Lt Bramald, Sgts Down and Seaton, Bdr Hinder, LBdr Gilmour and Gnr Beresford were all recommended by the CO 102 Atk Regiment commanders and supported by the CRA 50 Div, and approved by the GOC 50 Div and Corps commander.
There is a need for the story of the anti tank gunners to be told properly. There has been an academic debate about the proportion of anti tank gunners and their role started by the paper by Dr John Peaty entitled “Ubiquitous and Unnecessary? Anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery in the NW Europe campaign.(6) That is a question which is loaded in the absence of a proper account of their contribution.
The action at St Pierre was controversial. Brigadier James Hargest, the New Zealand observer to 21 Army Group, wrote a report before his death in action in August1944 which was very critical of the British infantry. He wrote that 8DLI ran away and ther village had to be retaken. The report is heavily quoted by Carlo ‘Este and Max Nastings in their books on the Normandy campaign. It is obvious from the citations that there was an unauthorised withdrawal by some infantry, and this would have been known by the divisional and corps commanders. This does not mean that the story in the DLI Regimental history wrong, merely that it isn’t the whole truth. The fact that some infantry ran, does not detract from the deeds of those who stayed to fight or counter attacked. 8 DLI took nearly 200 casualties in the battle. Eight MMs and an MC were awarded to the battalion for this action..
This article arose from research undertaken to complete the Official History of the Royal Artillery in the Normandy Campaign started by the late Major Will Townend.
If you would like to visit the site of this battle or other places and hear the story from the Gunner point of view visit www.gunnertours.com
1 London Gazette 31 August 1944 The Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) was (until 1993) an extremely high level award for bravery. It was a second level military decoration awarded to other ranks of the British Army and formerly also to non-commissioned personnel of other Commonwealth countries. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distinguished_Conduct_Medal)
2 London Gazette 31 August 1944
The Military Medal (MM) was (until 1993) a military decoration awarded to personnel of the British Army and other services, and formerly also to personnel of other Commonwealth countries, below commissioned rank, for bravery in battle on land. The MM ranked below the MC and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), which was also awarded to non-commissioned members of the Army. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_Medal
3 London Gazette 31 August 1944
4 London Gazette 31 August 1944. The Distinguished Service Order tended to be awarded to officers in command, above the rank of Captain. A number of more junior officers were awarded the DSO, and this was often regarded as an acknowledgement that the officer had only just missed out on the award of the Victoria Cross. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distinguished_Service_Order)
For ten years from 2000 -2010 every soldier who joined the army as an senior entry soldier took part in a Realities of War Tour to Ypres (modern Ieper) in Belgium. A whole generation of soldiers will have heard of the story of “the bayonet charge that saved the British Army.”, made by the 2nd Battalion the Worcester Regiment, Far fewer will be aware of the gunners who supported them.
On the 31st of October the Germans Army nearly won the First World War. They had assembled an overwhelming force of artillery and battered a hole in the British front line East of Ypres at a village called Gheluvelt, on the road between Ypres and Menin, the Menin Road. The only British reserved were the 2nd Battalion the Worcester Regiment, and they mounted a gallant bayonet charge which stopped the Germans and allowed the British line to recover, but at the cost of one third of their number.
But they did not do this alone. They were supported by the Gunners, and in particular by a heroic and skilful action by 54 Dragon Battery, which was one of the batteries which became 129 Dragon Battery, currently part of 4th Field Regiment Royal Artillery.
The map from the Official History of the War in France and Flanders shows a part of the battle of Gheluvelt. It shows German guns at the Western end of Gheluvelt and the position of 54 Battery
According to an infantry officer nearby “Lt Blewitt of 54 Battery came up to say to his battery commander that the Germans appeared to be bringing a gun to the barricade in the middle of Gheluvelt and asked permission to take an 18 pounder onto the road and deal with it. Having got permission, he manhandled the gun onto the road. The German gun fired first and missed. Blewittt did not give them a second chance. He put a stop to any trouble from that quarter for the rest of the afternoon. If the Germans had pushed home their attack during the afternoon there was nothing to stop them.”” Lt Blewitt was awarded the DSO for this action. His letters are in the Imperial War Museum archives. At the time his letters home gave no hint to his family and fiancé of the dangers he ran or his heroic and skillful acts.
Three years later, while a Gunnery instructor on England, he was persuaded to write about the circumstances which led to his award for gallantry. He wrote “My layer at the time was Bombardier Steel, whose efficiency I think solely we all – the detachment and I , owe our lives. The detachment as far as I can remember was: Sergeant, now (1917) BSM Howes, a sturdier man than whom never stepped, as No 1, Bombardier Steel, layer,. Bombardier Priestley, (killed a few days later1), No 6, while think Gunners Hobson and Delamere,(Both at later times my servant, the first wounded by a French battery few days later, and the latter gassed as a sergeant in the battery this year). Made up the crew. Who the last man was I can’t remember, but a damn fine crowd they were, every one of them.”
The German infantry in Gheluvelt. was the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, most famous for one its soldiers, the 19 year old Adolf Hitler. . .
1Gunner (Local Bombardier?) Alfred Priestley, husband of Nancy Priestley of Preston is commemorated on the Menin Gate.