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
This November is the centenary of the end of the battle of the Somme, one of the battles selected to commemorate the First World War by the UK Government. One of the most impressive acts of Remembrance has been overlooked by the media and the public. On 10th November on BBC Radio 4 General Tim Cross, reminded listeners that one reason for Remembrance is to learn the lessons of the past. One of the eternal, if pessimistic, truths is how rarely people learn from history. So it ought to be news when the armed forces actually do try to see what lessons can be learned from the past. That is what the British Army did in mid September, entirely unremarked and ignored by the media. This is a pity. Not only is is comforting to know that the sacrifices were not ignored, but many of the lessons uncovered ought to be considered by the politicians who set defence policy and the public who elect them.
The Army’s Operation Reflect Staff Ride Somme 2016 spent two weeks exploring the story of the battle of the Somme and learn the lessons for the current day. This was not a battlefield tour or a pilgrimage, but a serious professional study of the battle as a case study of the British Army in a war against a “first class peer enemy”, coalition warfare, development of tactics and technology, men in battle and supporting the army. It is very apposite to prepare for the worst, given the uncertainties of the current international situational politics.
This was a consultancy exercise involving some 200 Lieutenant Colonels, Majors and Warrant Officers mainly from the British Army, but with representatives from the French ,German, Commonwealth and US Armed forces, the RAF and the Civilian MOD. It was supported by battlefield historians from the British Commission for Military History, including the “OP” , and input from French and German historians.
The OP was struck by the fresh perspective from French and German historians. Even now much British military history written about the Somme ignores the French. The first book in English that sought to give anything like a fair balance between the British and French contribution to the battle was William Philpott’s “Bloody Victory” published as recently as 2010. The set text for the exercise was Dr Matthias Strohn’s “Somme Companion,” published for the exercise and featuring contributions from some of the historians taking part.
It was interesting to see the First Day of the Somme from the Belvedere de Frise, taken by the French 6th Army with only a fraction of the casualties suffered by the British further north, and to explore why this was. Few Britons, even professional historians are familiar with the capture of Bouchavesnes by the French in September 1916. Yet this high point of French endeavour on the Somme was the context for the first use of tanks by the British a few miles North West and a few days later.
This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. The best part of a day was spent in acts of commemoration and Remembrance at the German cemetery at Rancourt and the Anglo French memorial at Thiepval led by senior British French and German general officers.
It was a pity and a surprise that there has been no media coverage of this huge exercise in remembrance and reflection. The public ought to know that our military institutions have committed serious time and effort to try to learn lessons from the past – real institutional Remembrance.
Frank Baldwin is a battlefield historian, a member of the British Commission for Military History and member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. www.frankbaldwin.co.uk
“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.
Verdun 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.
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.
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).
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. Like 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.
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.
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”
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. The 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.
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.
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.
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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.
The first day of the Somme is best known for 57,000 casualties suffered by the British Army; the largest in a single day, and the event that supports the idea of British generals as “Butchers and Bunglers.” Yet, paradoxically, it was concern for safety which led to disastrously high casualties and failure of most of the attacks.
ir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army. His initial plan for a methodical advance was rejected.
The battle of the Somme originated from a decision taken in December 1915, that the Entente powers, Britain, France, Italy and Russia would all launch an attack as soon as possible in 1916. The Somme was selected as the site of the Anglo French offensive because it was the junction between the two armies. It was originally envisaged that the French Army would take the lead. However, the German offensive at Verdun, started in February 1916 cost the French and Germans armies over 200,000 casualties each. By June 1916 not only would the British have to take the lead at the Somme, offensive but the bear This had two consequences, there were fewer French troops available which meant that the British would have to take the lead. Furthermore, the attack of the Somme was imperative to take pressure from the French at Verdun.
The British Army had limited experience of offensive battles, and had never planned an operation of the scale of the battle of the Somme. In March 1915 the British had launched a successful breach into the German lines at Neuve Chapelle, supported by a concentrated barrage by the artillery of the British Expeditionary Force. During other attacks in 1915 a shortage of artillery ammunition had prevented the British from repeating this level of fire support. However, by 1916 British industry had geared up to supply the vastly expanded British Expeditionary force swelled by millions of volunteers who Kitchener’s New Army recruited in 1914-15.
The largest ever British Army would be supported by the huge quantity of artillery pieces, 1072 light and 442 medium and heavy guns
GHQ issued no special instruction on the co-operation of infantry and artillery as, in the words of the official history, this main feature of the theory of the assault was well understood. In summary, towards the the close of the bombardment, shortly before Zero, the artillery would put down an intense barrage on the enemy front trenches; at Zero this would be lifted and dropped on the next trench, from which it would be lifted at a fixed time. Before each lift, the infantry under cover of the barrage was to creep to within as close assaulting distance as the barrage permitted. This was around 100 yards from the enemy’s front parapet and the infantry was to assault as soon as the barrage lifted.”
It was impressed on all, at conferences by both Haig and Rawlinson that “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it.” Owing to this optimism, the problem of evicting the Germans from the labyrinth of trenches was seen just as one of assault only. It was not seen as a race for the parapet between the attackers across no man’s land against the defenders in the their dug outs. Instead it was seen as something that could be done at leisure.
Not everyone shared this assumption. “Some Regimental officers suggested that the infantry might creep even nearer to the barrage, as was done later on and in at least one instance on the 1st of July. Forty yards was suggested instead of a hundred but it did not receive official approval. (1)
The race to the parapet was the essence of attacking a trench. It can be envisaged as a rather deadly form of ‘rock-paper-scissors’. The defenders can either be in their dugouts or manning the trenches. The attackers can either send artillery rounds or infantrymen. Defenders lining trenches would slaughter attacking infantry but were vulnerable to artillery fire. Defenders would be reasonably safe in their dugouts, but could do nothing if the attackers were waiting at the top of the dugout steps. The key was for the assaulting infantry to be so close to the artillery barrage that the defenders had no time to react.
The shrapnel shells from the British 18 Pdr Field gun were highly directional, and ejected forwards, like the blast from a shotgun. In the Boer war the British found that infantry could advance to within 50 yards with some safety. Japanese troops had also used these tactics in the Russo-Japanese War, as had the French in their costly 1915 offensive in Champagne. The “dapper and charismatic” artilleryman Robert Nivelle had developed a creeping barrage (le barrage roulant) 80-100m ahead of the leading infantry. (2)
The trouble with this tactic was that it had a fatal cost. Artillery rounds do not all land in the same place, but are scattered in a cigar shaped pattern, through variation in the propellant and further dispersed by variations in the wind and of temperature and human error in laying the piece. So “getting close to the barrage” inevitably meant “in a place likely to be struck by shrapnel from a shell that fell shorter than most”. Indeed the rule of thumb, later in the war, was that unless the infantry were taking casualties from their own artillery fire, then they were not close enough.
So the commanders faced a dilemma. The men lost to artillery fire would usually be far lower than the casualties suffered from the machine guns of alert defenders. However, if the artillery preparation was going to leave the defenders unable to resist then would it be right to expose the infantry to friendly fire casualties?
To make matters worse, the gunners firing the barrage were mostly Kitchener’s Army men. Their gunners, technicians and officers had limited training and experience, and were using ammunition and guns produced by newly expanded or hired suppliers. It might have been sensible to apply nn extra safety margin. The plans for the 1st July seem to bear this out.
The fire plan for the first day of the Somme specified an artillery barrage that would lift from the German front line trenches at zero hour, even though the distance between the British and German Trenches was much wider – from 200-800 metres across most of the assault frontage. Some British units left their trenches before zero hour, and worked their way as close as possible to the German trenches. Where they did, the British succeeded in capturing the German front lines; the Ulstermen at the Schwaben redoubt, the Highland Light infantry at the Leipzig redoubt and the 30th Division near Maricourt. Elsewhere, success was more illusive and on much of the front the assaulting infantry faced fully manned trenches.
The excessive safety distance between the starting barrage and the infantry wasn’t the only reason that casualties were so heavy and the gains so slight on the 1st July. There needed to be enough breaches in the German wire. Where the wire was intact, the advance stopped. It helped if the defenders were crushed in their dugouts or demoralised by the barrage. There were more, and heavier guns, and the dug outs were less deep south of the Albert-Bapaume. The Germans had to be prevented from bringing down their own defensive barrage preventing movement across no mans land. There were fewer German guns south of the Albert Bapaume Road, and the British could call on the more numerous French heavy guns for counter battery .
The worst losses and least success was on the frontage of the VIIIth corps where a “safety factor” played a grotesque part in the tragedy that unfolded. A number of a mines had been dug under the German trenches. Almost all were scheduled to be detonated at 07.28, on the 1st July, two minutes before zero hour. This would allow two minutes for the debris to fall before the British infantry assaulted the crater. One of these was under the Hawthorn redoubt near the village of Beaumont Hamel. The commander of VIII Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wanted this to be fired some hours before the attack, so that the redoubt could be occupied before the assault, but sufficiently in advance that any general alarm would have died down by zero hour. This was vetoed by more senior commanders, but as a compromise the mine would be fired at 07.20, ten minutes before Zero.
This allowed for a plan to occupy the crater early, but it required the heavy artillery bombardment of the redoubt and adjacent trenches to lift during the assault. However, instead of fire lifting only from the immediate area, all of the VIII Corps heavy artillery was ordered to lift at 7:20 a.m. and the field artillery to lift at 7:25 a.m. A light Shrapnel barrage fired by the divisional field artillery, was to continue on the front trench until zero hour but in the 29th Division sector, half of the guns were to lift three minutes early.
This allowed the German defenders ten minutes notice of the impending assault and condemned the infantry from three divisions to heavy casualties and failure across the breadth of their front. It did not matter how well the wire had been cut or whether the infantry crept out into no man’s land. One of the attacking battalions lost all its officers before zero hour.
So why did the seemingly responsible commanders, who were professional experienced soldiers, get this decision so wrong?
One simplistic, but popular explanation is that the commanders were incompetent “butchers and bunglers”iii. Professor Norman Dixon in the Psychology of Military Incompetence (4) argued that there was something about military training which led to poor decision making. Indeed, the performance of General Sir Aylmer Hunter Weston is hard to describe as anything less than incompetent. “Hunter-Bunter” was a strange man with a command style reminiscent of that of the monstrous Blackadder creation General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett. The disastrous decision to lift fire early across the VIII Corps front was very much in keeping with his micro-management and idiosyncratic decision-making. He had a history of over compensating for the risks of friendly fire in Gallipoli. He was found out on the first day on the Somme. Afterwards, although he retained his command, he was never entrusted with command in an offensive and only employed on quiet sectors. Could he have been removed earlier? To be fair to Rawlinson and Haig, Hunter-Weston was new to the Western Front. He had commanded the 29th Division and then the VIII Corps at Cape Helles in Gallipoli and arrived with his corps as an experienced commander and a reputation of relatively competent performance.
Elsewhere in the BEF the disastrous decision about fire plan timings resulted from agreements between groups of people, commanders and subordinates and their staffs.
In the first instance, the senior commanders were not looking at this problem. The correspondence between Rawlinson and Haig shows a focus on the problems of exploiting success. In earlier battles such as Loos and Neuve Chapelle the British infantry had taken the German first line wherever they had adequate artillery support.
The plan for the Somme was a bad compromise. Rawlinson, commander of the fourth army, put forward a plan for a phased advance, initially taking just the first German line, which he and his staff thought was within the capabilities of the resources available. Haig did not think this was ambitious enough. He rejected the plans and insisted that an attempt should be made to breach both the front line and the second line to ensure that any opportunity for a breakthrough was not missed.
On this occasion Haig was able to impose his will on Rawlinson, despite reservations about the artillery being spread too thin made by the newly appointed artillery adviser at GHQ, General Birch. Birch and Rawlinson, having expressed their opinions in private, then issued orders and expressed their confidence in them.
As the Official History notes, not everybody assumed that the enemy would be flattened by the preparatory barrage. There seems to have been sufficient internal criticism for Rawlinson to include the following in the Fourth Army tactical notes;
“it must be remembered that all criticism by subordinates of their superiors, and of orders received from superior authority, will in the end recoil on the heads of the critics and undermine their authority with those below them.” (5)
This was hardly the atmosphere in which to challenge the fundamentals of the plan. The late, great professor Richard Holmes remarked in the episode on the Battle of the Somme in the Western Front BBC series that the generals of the first world war were stronger in physical than moral courage.
It should be said that the BEF was very quick to learn and the next major attack, on the 14th July, less than two weeks after the first day, was conducted with a much greater concentration of artillery fire and with the infantry following a creeping barrage.
There is a modern relevance of the battle of the Somme. This was a major high profile project into which much had been invested and expected. The resources available weren’t enough to deliver the hoped for results. At the heart of the plan were flaws that, could have been spotted and rectified but were not. The plan required subordinates to achieve “stretch targets”, “do more with less”, and “sell the party line” within an organisational culture that inhibited internal criticism.
The safety margin dilemma occurs frequently across all walks of life. If anything, the compensation culture makes it harder to choose to take risks. It is very hard to imagine the modern British Army willingly encroach on safety distances even if was the only way to win a battle.
We may not face machine guns and un-cut wire, but we often make important business and other decisions against a back ground of pressure from peers and superiors to agree to deliver uncertain commitments as part of a team effort. Many of us are under pressure to support decisions that have been made and face severe personal and career sanctions for whistle blowing. What is it that we can do to be more effective both as leaders in these situations and followers?
If you would like to visit the Somme and see the story of the artillery on the Somme join Gunner Tours on the Somme Centenary tour. firstname.lastname@example.org
The centenary of the battle of the Somme, which took place between June-and November 1916, has a special significance in Gunner history. This was the largest battle fought by the British army, costing 400,000 casualties. While public interest in the battle centres on the infantry who went 'over the top' on the first of July, the Gunner battle started a week earlier with the opening bombardment by the largest number of guns assembled.The Somme was essentially an artillery battle, with the guns the only weapons capable of clearing wire, destroying and neutralising defences and artillery. This was an awesome responsibility, and the success or failure of the infantry was down to the effectiveness of the fire plan. The story of how the Royal Artillery learned during the campaign is one of successful innovation, and a matter of pride to Gunners.It is also a human story. We will see where Gunner staff work made a difference; where Gunners went over the top with the infantry and where . Gunners worked to the point of exhaustion in the service of the guns.This tour will tell this story at the places where this largest artillery battle took place 100 years after the opening barrage was fired.
(1) Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds; Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1916, Volume I: Sir Douglas Haig’s Command to the 1st July: Battle of the Somme,, 1932
(2) Strong P and Marble S, Artillery in the Great War
(3) John Laffin;s polemic “Butchers and Bunglers of World War one” is the publication which is most associated with the term.
(4) Dixon N F, On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence, Basic Books, 1976
The biggest commemorative battlefield event in 2016 will be the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Our tour commemorates the start of the battle, which was the opening barrage 24 June. We are also offering a proven Normandy and West Front tour that tells the Gunner side of these
The Somme Centenary, 23-26 June 2015 £469
The Battle of the Somme began on 24 June 1916 – known as U Day. It was a dull day, low cloud and heavy rain, following thunderstorms the day before.It is a myth, showing much misunderstanding of a First World War battle, to believe it began with the infantry attack on 1 July.
The Battle of the Somme is an iconic event in British memory of the First World War. But the Gunner side of the story tends to be overlooked. The Gunner Tout top the battlefield will visit places ignored by many visitors and tell stories not often told. This is the story of the Royal Artillery in the Somme battles of 1916.
The main public interest in the battle is the staggering losses suffered by the volunteers of Kitchener’s Army on the first day. As one “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.”- the description of one Pals battalion.
The Gunners don’t come out too well from the short version of the battle of the Somme. The largest ever concentration of British Artillery firing the largest ever barrage was supposed to cut the barbed wire in front of the German trenches, destroy German bunkers, defences and guns and keep the Germans heads down while the infantry advanced. But, over about eight out of thirteen miles of the front line attacked this did not happen, resulting in tragedy. We will show you why, and something of the efforts and sacrifices made by the Gunners to deliver the impossible,.
The tour has been based on research inspired by a project started by the late Will Townsend. It is based on research from original documents in the National Archives, Firepower Archives, the Historial de la Grande Guerre Château de Péronne and RUSI. We have brought together anecdotes and stories from a wide range of published and unpublished accounts by and about Gunners. We will have fire plans drawn by the future Field Marshall Lord AlanBrooke.
We will look at the French and German artillery too. Few Britons are aware of how closely the British and French artillery worked. Nor is the German experience well known- even thought the most enduring German memory of the Somme was probably how their trenches were stamped into the ground by the British guns.
We are going to travel the week before the national commemoration because that is when the battle started for the Gunners, and we will have a better opportunity to get around the battlefield.
The tour is four days and three nights and for more information follow this link.
D Day Beaches and Landing Sites, 2-5 September 2015 £389
A visit over a long weekend to the D Day beaches and landing sites. There is a gunner story on each beach and landing site. We will see the strength of the German defences and see where and how the Gunners helped to overcome them. We will explore the stories of the Gunners who took part, the planners, commanders and soldiers, heroes, poets and those who fell.
£389 per person sharing single supplement £75
BEF Western Front 10-14 November 2016 £469
Five days and four nights, covering the sites of the major battles of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons in 1914 to victory in 1918 over Remembrance day 11 November.
£469 per person sharing single supplement £110
This photograph in the National Army Museum Collection shows the men of the 1/5th Hampshire Howitzer battery in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq in 1915. It was a Territorial unit, with many men from the Isle of Wight. Around half of the battery and three other batteries from the Regular Xth Field Brigade which served alongside them, would die during the war. This November is the centenary of the fateful events which lead to these units being doomed to suffer some of the highest proportional losses of any Gunner units losses in the Great War.
The 1915 campaign in Mesopotamia is over-shadowed by the Gallipoli expedition. After the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire joined the war on the side of Central Powers the British send a small expeditionary force “Indian force D” based on the 6th (Poona) Indian Infantry Division to secure the oil refinery at Abadan, important for fuel oil for the Royal Navy. In addition to the 1/5th Hampshire Howitzer battery, the artillery included the Xth Brigade Royal Field Artillery, (63,76 and 83 batteries) The 1st Indian Mountain Brigade, 23rd and 30th Batteries), a Territorial Army unit and S Battery RHA
The Mesopotamian campaign started well and by April 1915 had secured its limited objectives. After landing at Fao on the 6th November 1914, the expeditionary force defeated the Ottoman defenders in battles for Basra and Qurna in 1914. At the battle of Shaiba 12-14 April 1915, the British defeated an Ottoman attempt to evict them, the last time that they would threaten Basra. But what next?
The strategists in London wanted to scale the operation back, in favour of the Western Front and other theatres. Those in India saw an opportunity to exploit success and capture Bagdad given the light, defeated opposition. This was to be achieved with the resources in theatre.
So on a logistic shoestring, General Townsend with a force of around 11,000 men of the 6th Poona Division was ordered to advance up the River Tigris, supported by river gunboats as far as Kut-al- Amara and , if possible Bagdad. On 29 September the British defeated the Ottomans south west of Kut after an night march and dawn attack.
By 21 November the 6th Division was approaching the next line of Ottoman defences on a six mile front at Ctesiphon 26 Km South East of Bagdad. The Turkish commander had entrenched his troops across the valley. The British plan was to form four infantry columns and attach the Turk positions at dawn on the 22nd while a flying column manoeuvred around the right, Eastern flank. Much of the fire-power to support the attack was to be from gun boats on the River Tigris. The Turks concentrated their artillery fire on the gun boats and by the end of the 22nd each side had suffered close to 50% casualties in a very bloody battle. Both commanders ordered their men to withdraw. Townsend had only a few thousand unwounded men, not enough to capture and hold Bagdad, and thousands of wounded. He fell back to Kut. The suffering of the wounded was pitiful. Townsend entrenched his men at Kut and waited for relief. The Turks brought up reinforcements, defeated relief efforts and in April 1916 Townsend and his Army surrendered. Prisoners of War were not well treated by the Turks and around half of the British and Indian soldiers who fell into their hands died in Mesopotamia or on a forced march to Anatolia or in the harsh conditions there.
Among them were the men of the 1/.5th Hampshire Howitzer Battery and the three batteries of the Xth Brigade RFA (63,76 and 82). The Commonwealth War Graves records lists 442 dead from these units, which had an establishment of around 800.
Two batteries of the current day 106 Regiment are based in Hampshire are continue the traditions of Hampshire volunteer artillerymen, even though 457 and 295 batteries draw on the traditions of the Hampshire Yeomanry. The regular batteries were reformed, but none survived the post WW2 reorganisations.
One other battery which took part as Force D is still in existence. The 23rd Peshawar Mountain battery (Frontier Force) was transferred to the army of Pakistan in 1947. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/23rd_Peshawar_Mountain_Battery_(Frontier_Force)
Camp of 1/5th Hampshire Howitzer Battery at Makina Masus near Basra, 1915.
Photograph, World War One, Mesopotamia (1914-1918), 1915.
1/5th Hampshire Howitzer Battery landed at Basra on 23 March 1915 and joined 6th Indian Division which had arrived in November 1914.
It fought in the Battle of Shaiba (April 1915) and took part in the advance towards Baghdad, including the Battle of Es Sinn, capture of Kut (September 1915) and Battle of Ctesiphon (November 1915). The battery was captured by the Turks following the British surrender at Kut in April 1916.
Blackadder goes Forth was the final series of the Blackadder BBC TV comedy programme. “The series placed the recurring characters of Blackadder, Baldrick and George in a trench in Flanders during World War I, and followed their various doomed attempts to escape from the trenches to avoid certain death under the misguided command of General Melchett.” The six programmes in this series were a satirical comedy set in the trenches of the Western Front. The characters were grotesque and funny, but the series ended with the poignant death of most of them in a hail of bullets in 1917, in slow motion with a final scene cutting into a shot of a field of poppies.
This was the “Oh What Lovely War” version of the First World War, with a heavy handed moral slant, but it is also glorious comic satire. And being funny is one of the core values of the British Army. Not the official Core Values of the British Army , which are Courage, Discipline, Respect for others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment. All worthy ideals but they do not round out the character of the British Army. There are at least three other unofficial core values –“ Sense of Humour”; “BS Baffles Brains” and above all “Don’t get Caught” all come to mind.
There is a grain of truth in each episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Starting with the existence of a Captain Blackadder in the Royal Field Artillery, as reported by the Radio Times in 2014. The Imperial War Museum (IWM) has a copy of his diary. This is listed as providing details of his service in 151 Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. However, Peter Hart and Nigel Steel, both senior staff members of the IWM, record his unit as the 152 Battery – so I am not sure which is right. Both of these batteries were raised in Scotland, equipped with four 8″ Howitzers and deployed to France in August 1916. Blackadder took part in the major battles from the 1916 battle of the Somme to the end of the war and his observations are a primary source for these battles. During this time he rose from lieutenant to major and decorated for gallantry for organising the withdrawal of his guns , ammunition and stores under heavy fire.
The real Blackadder, with his accounting background looks a little more like Tim McInnerny’s Captain Darling.
However, the extracts from his diary from summer 1917 in the 3rd battle of Ypres make it clear that he was far from a pen pusher with a paper-clip fetish.
The road to the new position is a mere apology for a road and as we are taking down the first gun at night the road surface collapses and the gun sinks to its cradle. It has lain there for three days now and we have not been able to shift it — two caterpillars failed to move it. Now we have had heavy rain so it is very doubtful if we will get the guns to their new place at all. The result of three nights’ work is to get one gun into a hole and another off to a workshop. Tonight I am to get the gun out of the ditch and another to the workshop if possible. The Hun shelled the battery all afternoon, broke another limber and badly damaged the road again. About midnight he again shelled and set off more ammunition but all the men got clear. I got the gun out of the ditch with two engines and into the new position. It was difficult to get the gun away to the workshop owing to the road being cut up but we succeeded without mishap about 3 a.m.”
29 July (1917) At night, about 11 p.m., the old Hun began to strafe us and all around. The guns got it first of all so I ordered all to clear out. Then he worked up towards the fighting post, a concrete erection left by the Hun. Several of the gunners had come up here for shelter some very badly shaken. The shells were falling very near now, the concussion putting out the lights several times, then, all of a sudden, a tremendous crash and all darkness and smoke almost suffocating us — a direct hit on the post! We lit the candles again, but could hardly see for the smoke.
After ascertaining all were untouched I tried to get out, the shelling having moved to the guns again, but found the entrance blocked with debris. All wires had been broken too so we were out of touch with the guns and headquarters. We soon worked a passage out and set to work to get into communication. Meantime some of the ammunition on No. 3 gun had been set on fire and the limber and stores were burning merrily: I got this gunner to come with me to put the fire out, this we did without mishap and returned to the concrete post. About 2 a.m. the shelling stopped and at dawn we reckoned up the damage done. Casualties, nil, material destroyed, very little. The fighting post was only slightly damaged and will stand many more hits thanks to the excellent work of` the Hun.”
Once again, it is ‘Der Tag’ and again we are nibbling at the Bosche line. Our Battery is busy closing up the Hun guns and during the day in addition to carrying out our programme during the attack, we received many calls from aeroplanes who saw Hun guns active. The Hun strafed the Battery area just before zero hour and broke all the communications to the guns, but we got these put right just in time. He did little damage though he hit No. 2 gun pit twice. During the day too, he endeavoured to neutralise the Batteries about our area with shrapnel and high velocity guns, but we got off with no damage.
Lieutenant Robert Blackadder 152nd (sic) Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. (Steele and Hart Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground)
1. Steele and Hart Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground – on e of the best histories of this battle, drawing heavily on personal accounts and one of the few that tells the story from the Gunner’s perspective.
2. https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/366252 The entry credited to Paul Evans look like the work of Firepower’s archivist
3.http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=101508 The pictures of 152 Seige battery, triggered by someone’s family research.
25 April was the anniversary of the landings on the Gallipoli peninsular. It has become synonymous with the Australian and New Zealand forces, the ANZACs. This was the day when the forces of these dominions first played a significant role in military operations. Gallipoli; in particular ANZAC Cove has become a place of pilgrimage for antipodeans commemorating the endeavours and sacrifices of the antipodean dominions.
But the ANZAC corps which fought in Gallipoli was not just made up of Aussies and Kiwis. British and Indian gunners also served in it. The Corps comprised the 1st Australian Division and the Australian and New Zealand Division. Neither included as much artillery as a British infantry Division. The 1st Australian Division included three artillery brigades, each of three four gun batteries equipped with 18 Pdr field guns, a total of 36 x 18 Pdr guns. The Australian and New Zealand Division’s artillery support was the 1st New Zealand Artillery Brigade with twelve 18 Pdr guns and a howitzer battery of four 4.5” Howitzers. By comparison a British infantry division was supported by fifty four 18 Pdr guns, eighteen 4.52 Howitzers and four 60 Pdr guns. The ANZAC Corps had less than half of the artillery that supported comparable British formations.
It was particularly short of howitzers capable of lobbing high explosive shells over hills and into trenches. Almost all of its guns were 18 Pdr guns with a flat trajectory and very difficult to deploy in the hills inland from Anzac Cove. Often the way to enable the guns to engage was to run them forwards with the infantry in the direct role. These guns were supplied solely with shrapnel shells which was almost useless against troops in trenches. Although the Allies could call on the support of the naval guns of the fleet, these too had a flat trajectory and could not be easily brought to bear onto Turkish positions among the hills.
At least three other Imperial gunner units were brought in to support the ANZAC Corps to redress this deficiency. Even so, the expeditionary force as a whole was never supplied with the level of artillery support, either in the number of guns or ammunition that was found necessary to support a successful attack.
The 7th Mountain artillery brigades of the Indian Army was attached to the ANZAC Corps.The mountain artillery were the only artillery part of the Indian army manned by Indian rather than European gunners. Ever since the Indian Mutiny Indians were not entrusted with artillery, with the exception of the relatively small mountain artillery, a kind of elite which supported operations on the North West frontier, between British India and Afghanistan.
The two batteries which formed the brigade: 1st (Kohat) Mountain Battery and 6th(Jacobs) Battery are still in existence in the Pakistani Army. These were equipped with the BL 10-pounder Mountain Gun. This was a 2.75 inches (69.8 mm) calibre gun, which lacked a recuperator or recoil system. It could be dismantled into 4 loads of approximately 200 pounds (90.7 kg) for transport, typically by mule. It could fire a shrapnel round or common shell. This was a shell filled with a low explosive such as gun powder. As a whole this was a weapon better suited to colonial warfare than a C20th battlefield. It was deployed in sections of two guns, as can be seen in the sketch map.
Major Ferguson, (known to the Australians as “Percussion Sahib”) commanded the 21st Mountain Battery. He met Colonel Sinclair-Maclagan, commander of the 3rd Infantry Brigade on the morning of the 26th April . ‘I found him at last, plumb in the middle of the firing line and asked where he wanted artillery support…. He waved his arm through a semi circle and said everywhere around there. I selected a gun position pretty high up and ordered up the battery. After a long interval a very heated subaltern arrived with a couple of gunners carrying wheels and said that all the loads would have to be carried up as the ground was very steep and sodden with rain, and the mules weak, and that we could not possibly have four guns in action in under an hour… We got into action at last and began shelling movement on the chessboard, while two guns began shelling us… The Australians were very polite about our assistance that day, as always.” Within three weeks the 7th Mountain Brigade unit needed 75 replacement soldiers.
The 1/4 Lowland Brigade RFA, (4th City of Glasgow) equipped with 5“ Howitzers was transferred from Cape Helles to support the ANZAC Corps at the end of July 1915. This was a territorial unit whose heritage and traditions are maintained by 207 (City of Glasgow) battery RA, who hold what is believed to be the breech of the gun which fired the last rounds on the Gallipoli campaign.
A lone 6” howitzer, under the the command of Regimental Sergeant Major David Hepburn with a Royal Marine Artillery detachment was deployed ashore in mid May and attached to the New Zealand Artillery Brigade. His gun had been deployed on the battleship HMS Prince George, which was damaged below the waterline by a shell on 3rd May. “We had to fire over two successive ridges each 400 feet high at a target only 1,300 yards away. We could not see the target. We had the sea at our backs, and that was the only direction in which we did not fire. On one occasion we fired in one direction, then turned the gun round completely and fired in the other direction. One afternoon we received a message “engage enemy heavy gun!” Out came the map and from the map we laid our gun. It pointed bang over our won headquarters! It is ticklish work when the shells only just slither over the crests and when the target is only 30-100 yards from our own trenches. I never did get over the idea of firing so close to our own men.(2)
Several of the artillery commanders in the ANZAC units were Royal Artillery Officers. Brigadier Charles Cunliffe Owen CBE was Brigadier General RA of the ANZAC Corps. A South African War veteran he had commanded 26 Brigade RFA in 1914 in the Retreat from Mons and the battles of the Marne and the Aisne and the 2nd Infantry Brigade in Ypres.
The CRA of the Australian and Zealand Division was Lieutenant Colonel G N Johnston RA. He was born in Canada but schooled in Scotland and commissioned through Woolwich. Johnson served
throughout the war as CRA of the New Zealand Division receiving the CMG and DSO and mentioned in dispatches eight times.
The CRA of the 1st Australian Division was Brigadier Talbot Hobbs, an Australian architect and militiaman who ended the war succeeding Monash as the GOC of the Australian Corps. His senior staff officer, Brigade Major Royal Artillery (BMRA) was Major Stuart Anderson, a British Regular Officer. Educated at Westminster and Clare College Cambridge. Major Anderson was appointed as the Instructor in Gunnery for the Australian Commonwealth forces artillery in 1912, and in 1917 he became CRA of 1st Australian Division.(3)
Gunner Tours is happy to provide subject matter expertise for any group seeking to understand the Gunner side of the Gallipoli Campaign.
1. AWM War diary HQ ANZAC CORPS GS May 1915
2. IWM Docs manuscript quoted in Hart Gallipoli
2. Venn, J, Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Volume 2
Two dramatic episodes from 1914 have been the centre of commemorations for the Royal Artillery. E Battery were supporting the cavalry screen ahead of the BEF when they fired the famous first shot on 22nd August 1914. The role of L battery in the “Affair at Néry” on 1st September 1914 has caught media and public attention ever since 1914. The German surprise attack on the 2nd British Cavalry brigade was beaten off with heroic acts rewarded by three Vcs and two MMs to the men of L Battery, and led to the award of the Honour Title of “Néry”. These events have tended to overshadow the other actions undertaken by E and L battery during the First World War, and by other batteries of the current 1st Regiment RHA.(1)
The current batteries are A Battery (The Chestnut Troop), B, E, L (Nery) and O Battery (The Rocket Troop) . Their 1914 home stations and wartime deployment are summarised in the following table.
Station in 1914
Indian Bde RHA then XVIth Bde RHA 4 Cav Div/Army troops
XVth Bde RHA 29 Div
1 Cav Div then 3 Bde RHA – 2 Cav Div.
1 Cav Div then XVth Bde RHA
Vth Brigade RHA 8 Div then Army troops
Each Battery was commanded by a Major with a battery captain, and three subaltern section commanders. Two Subsections formed a Section and in a six gun battery these would be designated as Left, Centre and Right Sections. A Subsection consisted of a single gun and limber drawn by six horses (with three drivers), eight gunners (riding on the limber or mounted on their own horses), and an ammunition wagon also drawn by six horses (with three drivers).
RHA batteries were armed with the 13 Pdr Gun. The 13 Pdr fired a 13 lb shrapnel shell to a range of 5,900 yd (5,400 m). The 18 Pdr, which equipped the Field Artillery fired a projectile weighing nearly 50% heavier and for which an HE shell was in service by October 1914. It also out-ranged the 13 Pdr and had a range of 6,525 yd (5,966 m) and 7,800 yd (7,100m) with the trail dug in. During the course of the war all but E Battery were re-equipped with 18 Pdr.
The introduction of the dial sight had made it possible to operate in an indirect role. However the flat trajectory of the 13 Pdr and the limited signal equipment tended to restrict indirect fire to situations where the battery commander could position the guns behind cover and act as the observer from a position where he could see the guns and the target. There were no established forward observer parties, but as trench warfare developed and telephones and wire became more widely available, an observation post might be deployed at some distance from the battery or a liaison team sent to the infantry.
Although indirect fire techniques were known and practised, the RHA went to war with equipment better suited to operating in the direct role. The 13 Pdr had a flat trajectory and it would be difficult to find good indirect gun positions in broken country such as the industrial landscape of Mons. The only ammunition provided for the 13 Pdr was shrapnel, which is very effective against troops in the open, but almost useless against troops behind cover.
The part the Horse Artillery played in the opening months was not far removed from pre war expectations. British Cavalrymen were equipped with the same SMLE rifle as the infantry and marksmanship training, which gave them an edge of the carbine equipped Germans in dismounted action. However, it was the battery of 13 Pounders supporting each brigade which contained the major part of its fire power, and guns which would inflict the majority of casualties in the Fist World War..
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records 233 men as serving in one of the batteries.(2) Given WW1 norms of two wounded for each dead, this would imply around 700 casualties during the war. The establishment of a 1914 RHA Battery was five officers and 200 other ranks, giving 1,025 for the five current batteries. This gives a conservative estimate of a fatality rate of just under 23% of the establishment across all batteries. The casualties were not evenly distributed. L Battery’s 78 fatalities implies a figure of killed and wounded well in excess of the battery establishment of 205. Nor was 1914 the year in which L Battery suffered its highest casualties.
Current 1 RHA Batteries Fatalities 1914-1921
(Note that these figures are an indicative minimum. The CWGC database does not always identify the unit in which a soldier served. . )
Even before Néry, the fortunes of war placed L Battery in a position to play a significant role in the battles of Elouges on the 24th and Le Cateau on the 26th. On each occasion they brought down fire on German troops attempting to outflank the army. Even without Néry curtailing their participation in the campaign, L Battery were one of the most actively engaged RHA Batteries.
The fighting in the early months of the First World War was very different to other campaigns on the Western Front, or even other campaigns of the war. The pattern of warfare was closer in some ways to that of the previous century. The battles were of short duration with one side disengaging. Mons, Le Cateau, Elouges and Néry can be identified by a single day. At Le Cateau the British Army even deployed anachronistically on an open plain with the guns drawn up in the front line as if it were 1815. It was not until the battle of the Aisne that both sides became aware of the power that C20th weapons gave to the defence. After the trench lines developed between September and November 1914 the character of the war changed to become one continuous engagement. There would be no more individual battle days as bloody as Nery, but a trickle of casualties throughout the four years of the war, with some days bloodier than others.
In November 1914 O Battery arrived on the Western Front as part of the Vth Brigade RHA in the 8th Infantry Division’s artillery. . In 1915 The Chestnut Troop joined them on the Western Front as part of I Indian Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery. They both took part in the battles in the Neuve Chapelle area 1914-15.
The rebuilt L Battery joined B battery in the XVth RHA Brigade as part of the divisional artillery of the 29th Division in 1915. This division was formed from regular army garrisons around the world and first deployed in the Gallipoli campaign. It would become known as the “Indomitable” 29th and would take part in more attacks than any other formation. There is no specific monument in Gallipoli for the artillery of the 29th Division. However, one of the first fatalities suffered by the reconstituted L battery was Bombardier Darbyshire, who only relinquished the layers seat of F Sub at Néry after his ears and nose bled from concussion. He was killed on 12th July 1915 and is buried in Lancashire Landing Cemetery at Cape Helles, along with nine other horse gunners from B and L Battery. A further seventeen are buried or commemorated elsewhere in Turkey, Egypt and Malta.
After the evacuation from Gallipoli the 29th Division was brought back to the Western front, in time for the big push on the Somme. The Divisional symbol of the red triangle can be seen at Newfoundland Park, and tin triangles can be seen on the packs of the soldiers from the divisions filmed on the First Day of the Somme. At 07.30 on the 1st July the 2nd Royal Fusiliers and 16th Battalion the Middlesex Regiment stormed the crater formed by the detonation of the Hawthorn mine. 2 Lt Grant-Suttie and a party of telephonists from B Battery advanced with the CO of 16th Middlesex into the mine crater, but were forced to withdraw, with Bdr Port wounded, and Bdr Brockett and Driver Indge missing. Brockett’s body was found and he lies in Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No.1, Auchonvillers. Indge’s was never identified but might be one of the 68 unidentified graves in this cemetery. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
O battery also took part in the battle of the Somme supporting the operations of the 8th Division on its disastrous first day, and in October in the battle of Le Transloy. Three O battery soldiers are buried on the Somme. The lower number of fatalities in 1916 than in 1917 and 1918 might be attributed to the weakness of the German counter battery artillery in the Somme. Nor were any of the batteries placed in situations were they were exposed to small arms or direct fire. There were very few occasions in 1916 where sufficient ground had been gained to justify moving the guns forward. No German counter attacks threatened the guns.
1917 was the bloodiest year for the 1st RHA Batteries, and can be attributed to the three major British offensives in that year. The 29th Division (B & L ) and V Brigade RHA (O Bty) took part in all three offensives. E Battery in two and Chestnut Troop in one.
The five week long Arras offensive 9 April – 16th May 1917 was one of the most intense the BEF endured. The daily casualty rate over the course of the battle was higher than any other BEF offensive. The initial attack was very successful, largely due to improvements in artillery technology and tactics,. German batteries were located by sound ranging and flash spotting, improved fuses increased lethality and enabled wire to be cut more easily. Aerial observation techniques and creeping barrages made it easier for the infantry to assault. In 1917 O Battery’s Vth RHA Brigade became an army artillery brigade and used to support whatever part of the line needed additional artillery support. On 9th April they supported the attack on Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps.
When attacks were successful artillery would need to be redeployed forwards if the infantry were not to advance beyond artillery range. On 24 April B and L Batteries followed up an infantry advance into a valley just North of the Wancourt Tower. As soon as the success signal was given the guns galloped forwards. According to the infantry the advance of the guns was a magnificent and inspiring sight, carried out with great dash and skill.(3) Unfortunately a German counter attack drove the infantry off the ridge, leaving L and B Battery in the open within rifle and machine gun range of German troops. The operations on the Arras front between April and June 1917 cost the XVth Bde RHA 49 killed, (including the BC and another officer from B Battery and six other officers) 74 wounded (including officers from each of B and L officers) and a further 13 men evacuated with shell shock.
The 29th Division was used as an assault division twice in the 3rd Battle of Ypres, fought in a muddy artillery landscape. The artillery destroyed the drainage along with the buildings and vegetation. On 16th August the 29th division assaulted the Langemark area alongside the 20th Division which included the late Harry Patch and his pals. Seven weeks later 29 Division attacked again on 4th October towards Poelcappelle. The main memorial to this attack is the memorial to Private Fred Dancocks of the 4th Worcesters who was awarded the VC for his gallantry capturing a bunker near Namur crossing on the old Ypres-Staden railway line, which is now a footpath.
The 3rd Battle of Ypres was an artillery battle. The Germans held the ring of low hills around Ypres. As the allies advanced it was hard to find solid ground for gun positions around the muddy shell holes. Solid platforms might be constructed from wood or even boxes of rations. These made it easier for the German counter battery fire. During the campaign B, L and O battery would have spent a lot of time in their gas masks. The Germans unleashed a new horror on the battlefield during this battle, drenching gun positions with persistent blister agent – Mustard Gas.
After the 3rd Battle of Ypres petered out in the muddy ruins of Passchendaele the 29th Division was picked to reinforce the 3rd Army’s attack at Cambrai. This battle was a test for new technology and tactics. Instead of a lengthy preliminary bombardment, the battle of Cambrai would use 400 tanks and a short intense fire plan based on predicted targets. The fire plan was as innovative as the massed use of tanks. All of the batteries of the current 1 RHA took part in this battle. The initial attack, on 20th November created a breach in one of the stronger sector of the Hindenberg line, capturing as much ground in fifteen hours as in five months in the Ypres Salient. The Germans too had a tactical surprise in store. On 30th November they too launched an attack under a heavy predicted barrage, in their case led by storm troops which infiltrated into and then broke through British infantry on the salient caused by the British success. This advance threatened the army artillery massed behind the British infantry, with some Germans within 40 yards of the guns. L Battery was order to act the rearguard to allow the army artillery to escape. They and a mixed force of infantry and artillerymen inflicted around 150 casualties on the Germans before withdrawing. The eight L Battery soldiers commemorated on the Cambrai memorial are evidence of the cost of this operation. The official history includes praise for L Battery, a rare mention of an individual battery.(4)
Cambrai would be a good battle for a 1st RHA commemoration. This the one battle in the war in which each battery served. It allows for a focus on the tactical and technical innovation which has characterised the professional ethos of the Royal Regiment.
At the beginning of 1918, the Germans had a chance to win the First World War before the American Army took the field in strength. The Germans redeployed troops released from the Eastern Front by the collapse of Imperial Russia. After three years of allied attempts to break the stalemate of the Western Front, the German offensives from 21th March initiated a eight months of mobile warfare. Between March and June the Germans achieved a series of breakthroughs and forced the allies back.
All of the Batteries were involved in these battles. The Cavalry divisions were deployed to plug gaps in the line. The majority of Chestnut Troop’s war dead are buried or commemorated on the Somme battlefields of 1918. There is an account in the History of the Royal Artillery on the Western Front of how the observed fire from E and two other RHA Batteries held a German advance on the 22nd March for a whole day. (5) The BC of O Battery was given 600 infantrymen back from leave, eight lewis guns from No3 Kite Balloon Company to fill a gap in the line. (6)
These battles are rarely the subject of battlefield studies. They are as significant as defensive battles as Mons or Le Cateau, but much larger. These are the only major defensive battles fought by the British Army that approach the scale of the operations on the Eastern Front in WW2.
The tide turned in August with the dramatic breakthrough at Amiens which repeated the techniques demonstrated at Cambrai, but on a larger scale. 450 tanks supported by a surprise predicted barrage by just under 1,500 guns and 800 aircraft broke through and destroyed a German army in what was the “Black day” for the German army. Chestnut Troop, E and O Battery took part in these operations.
After Cambrai the 29th Division was redeployed to the Ypres sector and fought in the defensive battle of the Lys and in the counter attacks in the summer On the 27th September 1918 B & L batteries, with the other batteries of 15 Bde RHA came into action outside the Menin Gate in Ypres.(7) The following morning they fired a creeping barrage in support of the 29th Division attack which recaptured the ground ceded in April capturing the village of Gheluveldt by the end of the day. L and B Batteries were deployed forwards to Gheluveldt on the 30th September, and supported the attacks over the River Lys in October.
1919 and Afterwards
The Armistice did not mean demobilisation. The CWGC records war dead until 1921 as the regular army was deployed to respond to the messy aftermath of the War. The CWGC records the deaths of Lance Naik Batu Khan of Chestnut Troop in St. Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen (23 Dec 1918) and Driver Noor Mohammed of B Battery in Haidar Pasha Cemetery in Turkey (30 Jan 1920), and serve as a reminder of the British Army as an Imperial force and the Regular Army’s relationship with the Indian Sub continent.
The history of 1st RHA’s batteries on the First World War is that of the Western Front, its batteries were ubiquitous, “quo fas et gloria decunt”. Their actions took place among some of the familiar land marks of the Western front. Their battles tell the story of the development of technology and tactics during the wear and the part that the Gunners. Anyone taking a professional interest in the develo-pment of artillery on the battlefield would be remiss if they restricted their interest to the 1914 battles.
These were also actions in which at least 233 men lost their lives and perhaps 500 wounded. One of the key themes of commemoration is Remembrance, which should include understanding what these men did and why. The Centenary is an opportunity to visit the graves, memorials and the places where these men fought and fell. Of course, we celebrate the achievements of the Bradbury, Dorrell and Nelson at Nery, worthy of the highest award for gallantry that Britain can bestow. It is proper that L Battery remembers these men and the others that were lost at Nery. But the Centerary ought to be the time to find out about some of the other men who served the guns and remember them. Were the eight members of L Battery who fell on 30th November at Cambrai necessarily less brave? Were any of the men who fell any less mourned?
While many people are familiar with the battles and battlefields of the Western Front, far fewer have explored them from the Gunner’s point of view. The actions by the 1 RHA batteries are ideal topics for battlefield studies, conveniently located from the UK. The Centenary of the First World War is an ideal opportunity to undertake low level battlefield studies.
For more information on planning battlefield studies ands staff rides contact Gunner Tours www.gunnertours.com
 This article is based on a talk given to the Officers of the 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery on 8th April 2014.
 www.CWGC.org These are minimum numbers. The CWGC also lists RHA as “15 Brigade RHA,” which may include soldiers who might or might not be members of B or L Battery. They might have been members of Y Battery, the Warwickshire TA RHA Battery or the Brigade Ammunition Train.
 Farndale The Royal Regiment of Artillery on the Western Front
 Esmond, J E. Military Operations France and Belgium 1917, The Battle of Cambrai CH XV HMSO 1934
 War Diary D Battery RHA quoted in Farndale The Royal Regiment of Artillery on nthe Western Front
 Esmond, J E. Military Operations France and Belgium 1918, the German March Offensive and its preliminaries, CH XV HMSO 1934
 WO/95-2291 15 Bde RHA War Diary Entry September 1918
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.
Military history, Battlefield heritage and Touring