WW1

March Guest Feature

This month I’m very pleased to be joined by Seb Neal, a History Teacher who’s led many guided school trips to the Western Front, A brave man indeed! So it’s over to you Seb with a fantastic feature on some of his experiences & why these trips are so important for young people. Trust me you’ll learn something new and he may just change your point of view for next time that you see that coach load of pesky kids show up!

Seb Neal (Own Photo)

A history teacher for longer than I care to remember, I was introduced to the battlefields by my first head of department from whom I learnt much about battlefield trips, not the least of which was the hazards of being the first off the coach to check the girls into the hostel, only to find the girls were expected to share a mixed dorm! I’ve been leading school battlefields trips to the Western Front and elsewhere since the 1990s, and have guided friends, family, colleagues, and adult groups. Pupils’ names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

School First World War Battlefield Trips: Switching on the Light

It was a scene that will be familiar to any teacher who has ever taken a school trip to the battlefields of the Western Front. After a brief talk at the Thiepval Memorial, I sent my students off to explore the panels for themselves, encouraging them to search for particular names, perhaps their own surname. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, they headed off, a few lads suspecting that rather than a fun school trip this was just a history lesson in disguise. Before long a small group of these sceptics rushed back, its leader breathlessly saying that he’d found a panel bearing line after line of his own surname among the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. I asked him if he had any connection with that part of the world. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘my dad comes from there.’ ‘Well, Brendan, some of those names may well be your relatives.’ That was it: Brendan’s lightbulb moment, when he realised that all this history that I’d been banging on about was his history.

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (Seb Neal)

This happened in the 1990s, when there was no CWGC website on which names could be looked up ahead of a trip; but, whilst the passing from an analogue to a digital age might have made such epiphanies rarer, they still happen, and they remain for me a prime reason for taking my school groups to the battlefields. Much about these trips has changed since I started going on them about thirty years ago, but what has emphatically not changed is their core purpose: to bridge the generations, to connect today’s young people with history – to catch the torch, as it were, and ‘pass it on’. Like all those for whom the battlefields are a second spiritual home, I have spent the past ten months dreaming of a return. Part coping mechanism, part solace, as a teacher there is also the constant inner drive to ‘pass it on’. Naturally, I was disappointed not to visit the battlefields myself last summer, but it was nothing to waking up on the first morning of the October half term and not having a school trip to go on. For the first time in seventeen years there was no getting up at silly o’clock, after a night of fitful sleep fearful that I would oversleep. No checking my mobile phone for last-minute messages. No triple checking that I’d remembered poppy wreaths, paperwork, passport. Instead, cold turkey for the school battlefield trip addict.

Somme view: From the tower at Villers-Bretonneux (Seb Neal)

School trips always begin at an ungodly hour. The parental handover at the school gate is always the same. Foil-wrapped sandwiches are thrust into reluctant teenage hands, a parent pushes forward their reluctant offspring who tells you that she has been looking into her great-great uncle’s history and he is buried in a cemetery somewhere in France or Belgium that may or may not be close to where you are going. You say you will squeeze in a visit if possible but can’t promise and secretly curse that you were not told this months ago – when you asked. Still, as parents can contact their children (and you) by smart phone at any time during trips these days, you tell yourself that you should be grateful to have this much notice. You make further checks that there are the right numbers of pupils – and teachers – and then, after making sure that the driver(s) – on whom the success of the trip can depend – is within earshot, you warn the pupils for the umpteenth time that anyone found with chewing gum on the coach will suffer Field Punishment No.1. As the coach heads towards France, excitement builds – a little too quickly for seasoned colleagues who try to doze off, knowing that sleep is about to be rationed. Just as they do, the driver announces that a service-station stop looms. Teachers are ‘on’, reassuring pupils that they don’t need Euros to buy things as they’re still in the UK and subbing those who have ‘forgotten’ to bring pounds and pence. Returning to the coach, and without so much as a morsel of hot food making it across the threshold (which earns an approving nod from the driver), we’re all aboard once more and heading for the port. Going over the Dartford Crossing, the coach driver joshes with the pupils that we’re about to enter France, a joke which in the light of recent events might be too close to the bone. As border control officers check passports on the coach, teachers’ hearts beat ten to the dozen in case one of our charges departs from the script to make an inappropriate ‘joke’. After this, the Channel crossing is, in every sense, a breeze. No one is sea-sick and, even more importantly, no one gets anything illicit past the hard-as-nails teacher posted by the duty-free check-out.

The twin pylons of the impressive Vimy Ridge Memorial just visible aganst a grey sky ( Seb Neal)

Once on French soil, the mood changes. Maybe it’s tiredness, but I like to think instead it’s a deeper connection with those who went before. At any rate, the strange seriousness which becalms the group is probably entirely in keeping with the feelings of so many soldiers, nurses and the rest who arrived in France during the Great War. Such a transformation is encouraged by a cemetery visit. As day one’s timings are always changeable, dependent on everything from the weather to a ferry-loader’s whim, cemeteries make an ideal opener to a trip because no fixed arrival time is necessary and most of them don’t close. The only constraint is daylight, although, armed with torches as if on night patrol, we have visited in the dark before now. For me, choosing a cemetery or memorial to visit on day one comes down to answering three questions. Is there a former pupil there? Have any of the pupils on the trip visited before? Is there a story to tell? As hundreds of former pupils from my school fought in the Great War and nearly sixty didn’t return, I’m sadly spoilt for choice, and there is almost always somewhere to visit that even return trippers have not been to before. As for their stories, I have learnt more over the years. They are the gateways to unlocking a wider history and are always a principal focus for my school trips. Of course, we visit cemeteries and memorials with no known connection to the school. Yet when there is that connection it is especially poignant. It is a powerful thing to say to a pupil, ‘He once wore the school uniform you do’ and to show a photograph of the man wearing it when he was a boy, or that ‘He lived in your village. Have you seen his name on the local memorial?

German trenches at Bayernwald (Seb Neal)

As well as similarities, the differences between them and us can be an equally important way of understanding their lives and reflecting on our own. Their backgrounds were wide and various and, while there are the sons of architects and accountants, there are also those of stationmasters and railway engineers, drapers and decorators, brick manufacturers and coal merchants. Some had started out on similar paths before the war, others went ‘from classroom to battlefield’. They speak of a different age, as do those who had left Britain before the war to start their lives abroad. These men’s stories offer a way in to discussing the role of Empire forces. Pupils are often puzzled when we pause in Tyne Cot Cemetery at a grave bearing a New Zealand fern. Surely, this man cannot have gone to our school. But, of course, he did. By the time of his death his parents had moved to Burley in Yorkshire. So in a sense, as Alan Bennett might say, he didn’t come ‘From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth’; he came from Leeds. Remembrance is universal and, for comparison and contrast, most school itineraries also feature other nations’ cemeteries. Our itineraries are no different. Over the years we have visited, among others, French, Belgian, American (an old boy lies at Meuse-Argonne – another reminder of the adopted nationality of many soldiers) and, importantly, German cemeteries, Langemark being a particular favourite.

Langemark German Cemetery (Seb Neal)

How different nations chose to commemorate their dead after the war tells us much about them just as today’s multi-national Ring of Remembrance, which lists names arranged purely alphabetically and without rank, nationality, gender, or religion, says much about our own time. Here too there have been several lightbulb moments as pupils find their surname and begin their own personal journeys into the past.

Some of the names on the Ring of Remembrance , the Notre Dame de Lorette lantern tower behind (Seb Neal)

Important as remembrance is, it also essential to contextualise the circumstances in which men ended up as names on a memorial or a headstone. They are called battlefield trips for a reason. Narrowing the focus to a particular battle or action through the prism of an old boy or his unit helps pupils to understand the wider picture. Sometimes this can be done from the cemetery or memorial itself, for example at Tyne Cot, the New Zealand Memorial at Messines, or St Mary’s ADS or Dud Corner at Loos. But pupils, like us, usually want to walk the ground if they can and need opportunities to do so. Whilst increased footfall has put a stop to wandering freely at Newfoundland Park or Hill 60, such visits are still of enormous value for understanding the nature of conflict in the Great War. Where better than Sheffield Memorial Park to tell the moving story of the Pals’ Battalions, ‘two years in the making, ten minutes in the destroying’? Or to survey Mametz Wood from the natural amphitheatre behind the defiant Welsh dragon and mentally follow the advance of the 38th (Welsh) Division, among their number one former pupil whose life ended there?

The Welsh Dragon facing Mametz Wood (Seb Neal)

Visits to battlefields and to trench systems such as Sanctuary Wood, Bayernwald or the Trenches of Death, or to mine craters such as Spanbroekmolen, Lochnagar and Hawthorn, or to tunnel systems such as those in Arras or at Vimy Ridge, help pupils visualise what they are learning about and, even more than that, they build lasting memories in pupils’ minds. Often, they want to return with their families. Museums, coming in many forms these days from the traditional ‘dioramas-and-detritus’ type to the bells-and-whistles virtual experience and everything in between, also contextualise what pupils see. Viewing the photographs on the what-the-butler-saw machines at Sanctuary Wood or the Otto Dix prints, Der Krieg, at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne, pupils are exposed to a grim, unsanitized version of the war on which school textbooks seldom dwell. This is also true of the medical treatment of the wounded. For the instruments used by medical teams, artificial limbs and photographs of pioneering cosmetic surgery, again the Historial is a good bet as is the Mémorial ‘14-18 Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.

The grim consequence of industrial warfare on display at the Historial, Peronne (Seb Neal)

Just as those caught up in the war often responded creatively to what they experienced, so too do pupils: sometimes writing prose or poetry, drawing or photographing, even film making. All this is welcome, as is pupil participation during the trips themselves so that trips are not simply done to them but things that they are part of. Reciting a poem at a graveside, laying a poppy cross or wreath, or participating in the Last Post ceremony all help to achieve this. And, like any school trips, battlefields trips provide those bonding and socialising opportunities that provide balance and relief – visits to the chocolate shop, for example, from which pupils (and teachers, let’s be honest) emerge with armfuls of pralines, games of pool and ‘chilling’ in the hostel. Everyone needs to unwind a little at the end of the day and, at the end of the trip, there is no better place for this than Toc H (Talbot House) in Poperinge (or Pops). For soldiers in the war a sanctuary from its horrors, today it performs a similar function for battlefield tourists and pilgrims. Seeing the pupils gathered around the piano, cups of tea in hand, taking it in turns to play and the bravest ones singing solo, is a great and most appropriate way to end a trip. As a fellow visitor said to me on our last visit: it’s exactly what it’s all about.

View from the window of the General’s Room taken at Talbot House, Toc H, when staying (Seb Neal)

Many things make up a good school history trip, and I make no claim to always get things right. Clearly, I don’t. After speaking to one group at Bourlon Wood in France, I was asked by a pupil in which direction France is. With another group at Vimy Ridge, I was asked where the ridge is. And at the Brooding Soldier I’ve been asked why he’s brooding. (Sites associated with the Canadians seem to be jinxed for me.) Such facepalm moments stop me from taking myself too seriously and I resolve to do better next time. And really the point of this blog post is to express the hope that there is a next time, and as soon as possible. In such dark times as these, school trips to the battlefields are not a priority, I know. But, while there is no denying that there are more important things in life – if nothing else, the pandemic has reminded us of this – it has also, I believe, confirmed the truth of Danton’s dictum that ‘After bread, education is the first need of the people’. For now, then, though school battlefields trips are not possible, I will return to planning my next one, hoping that at some point during it another Brendan will experience his lightbulb moment.

Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner (Seb Neal)

Editors Notes: An incredible insight into school trips with its many challenges but with so much hope & inspiration for our future generations to continue to remember when us older buggers are gone. We certainly should all give more respect & admiration to not only the pupils we see on these trips but of all the hardworking teachers as well. The article was written before the government published it’s roadmap out of Covid restrictions so let’s hope we can all return soon! Many Thanks Seb and if you’d like to give Seb a follow on twitter he can be found @snealspace . Don’t forget any feedback is always welcome to hear whether you’ve enjoyed it or it share your own experiences

WW1

A Young Mancunian

In a previous blog I shared with you the story of the memorial to the Railwaymen of Manchester employed by the LNWR at London Road Station ( Piccadilly). I mentioned that our youngest man to fall, James Alfred Connolly, was only 17 years old when he was killed.

So I thought I would research James some more and share his story with you.

James Alfred Connolly was born in Salford in the period October-December 1897 to parents James Connolly Aged 30, a Railway Goods Porter and Amelia Connolly Aged 27 a Housewife. His father had been born in the Ancoats area of Manchester in 1871 & his mother in Hulme in 1874 and they had married in the period May-July 1897, spot why they had to get married!

In the census of 1901 the family were living at 2 Croydon Street, Salford & James has been joined by a brother William born in 1900. The family would grow over the next few years adding Vincent in 1902, Agnes 1904, John 1906 & Francis 1908.

Sadly James’s mother Agnes dies in 1909 leaving James Senior a widower & holding down a job as a Railway Inspector, to look after 6 children so by 1911 the family have moved in with James’s Snr brother Anthony Connolly & his wife Lucy at 22 Clay Street Gorton, Manchester.

At some point after he leaves school and, most probably because of his father, James gets a job in the Goods Department at London Road station as a Clerk. He must have done well at school and certainly be very articulate for a job such as this.

Manchester London Road Station ( National Railway Museum)

With a name like Connolly there must be some Irish connection in the family so this may have influenced James’s decision to enlist in the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles in Manchester as Rifleman 3/1665. Like so many James’s service record sadly doesn’t survive & his medal indexes don’t state the exact date that he went abroad. But we can follow the Regiments story during 1915 from the War Diary and try to piece his story together.

The 2nd bn Royal Irish Rifles was a regular battalion of the British Army and they were at this point part of 7th Brigade 3rd Division. At the outbreak of war they were at Tidworth Barracks in Wiltshire close to Salisbury Plain. They shipped out to France over 2 days and n August 14th the first troops landed in France and mover to ROUEN before being billeted at MARBAIX. A few days later the battalion moved to HARMIGNIES but were relieved just as they were about to go into the lines. They moved around over the next few weeks & months and in September 1914 would become involved in the Battle of the Aisne around NEUVE CHAPELLE. I won’t go into detail here about this battle as to be honest with you I personally know very little about the era of the Great War but there are plenty of folks out there who have written excellent websites, blogs & books about it so it’s worth looking around yourself and getting the details.

November sees them transferred to the Ypres Salient arriving as many did at LOCRE before taking up positions in & around HOOGE, about 4 miles east of YPRES. They spend their days in the front line trenches, in support lines & as Brigade reserve, basically the average daily routine that most infantry Tommies experienced. Moving to billets at WESTOUTRE & again LOCRE after being taken out of the lines they dipped in & out of trenches at KEMMEL over the next few months. By April 1915 they are in the trenches at ELZENWALLE or in billets at LA CLYTTE. Interestingly the battalion records the loss of its 41 year old C.O Lt.Col (War Diary shows as Major) J.W Alston on 15th April. At 3.30pm he was visiting the trenches close to DICKEBUSCH and began observing the enemy’s positions through a telescope. A German sniper spotted him, fired but missed the telescope glass, however the bullet hit a sandbag on the parapet and deflected hitting Colonel Alston on his head above his left ear. He never recovered consciousness & died at 5.15pm. Lt. Col James William Alston is buried in DICKEBUSCH New Military Cemetery.

Lt. Col Alston grave (International Wargraves Photography Project)

The battalion suffered further losses & casualties over the coming weeks & months in everyday trench life whilst in & around YPRES, DICKEBUSCH, HILL 60 & VIERSTRAAT. Reinforcements arrived every few weeks. Was James Connolly was amongst these men? (Update thanks to Dave O’Mara, James is recorded as disembarking on 29th April 1915)

On 16th June 1915 the battalion of 21 Officers & 650 Other Ranks would see itself involved in an attack around BELLEWAARDE FARM. Originally due to support 9th Brigade the battalion found itself called forward to an area around CAMBRIDGE ROAD. They suffered heavy shelling throughout this time yet the war diary proudly states that “The Non Commissioned Officers & Men of all companies distinguished themselves by their discipline, coolness & steadiness under most trying circumstances. At no time during the day could it be said that they were in anyway shaken by their ordeal” 13 Officers and about 300 other Ranks were recorded as killed, wounded or missing. They were relieved at 1.29am on 17th and retuned to bivouacs located on the VLAMERTINGHE-POPERINGHE road.

A few days later on 25th June another batch of 142 reinforcements arrived including 18 machine gunners & 12 signallers. Again

Let’s now fast forward to September 1915 and on 5th we find James in the trenches at HOOGE. By this time he has been promoted to Lance Corporal which given the fact he is only 17 years old shows he must have had something about him. The weather is heavy rain all day made even more miserable by the Germans shelling the battalions dugouts which had been set up in the CRATER. By 9th they had been relieved by 1st bn Wiltshire Regiment and moved a few miles back to the ramparts at YPRES. They seemed to incur casualties most days whilst there before being relieved on 12th Sept by 4th Middlesex Regiment. Heading back to Bivouacs they remained there until moving on 23rd to KRUISTRAAT where the 650 men & 96 others (Orderlies, Signallers & Servants) were put into bivouacs again.

The day after the battalion received operational orders and plans were discussed for an impending attack the following day, the 25th September.

The orders were as follows ” V corps with XIV Division attached will attack an occupy the front J 19 a 6.8 to I.12.a.0.4. The front allotted to 2nd Royal Irish Rifles is from I.12.d.4.1 to point of BELLEWARDE LAKE due East from I.12.d.0.4. B & D Companies will carry out the assault and assemble in trenches C5, C6 & C7 “( See below)

Trench map from Battalion War Diary ( WO95/1415/1 Ancestry.com)

A bombardment would take place and 5 minutes before this the companies would leave their trenches and move into place opposite their front of attack. B company their right would be directed on I.18.b.2.9 to I.12.d.2.0, points 31 -41, and they were to keep in touch with 2nd South Lancs Regt. As for D Company their left was to be directed on I.12.c.9.3 to I.12.d.0.4 BELLEWARDE LAKE and keep in touch with the 5th Shropshire L.I of 14th Division.

The final line to be consolidated would be I.12.d.4.1 at point 31 on BELLEWARDE LAKE. C Company would be in support and 4 platoons would move forward and take the places vacated by B & D companies at C5,C6 & C7 points. A Company would be reserve and move up to assembly trenches left by C Company.

Trench Map although from Jan 1917 gives an idea of BELLEWAARDE & HOOGE area (Great War Digital)

The battalion paraded at 7.30pm and moved forward to HOOGE to relieve H.A.C of which they did this by 11.30pm.

At 3.50am on the 25th the artillery began a half hourly bombardment of the German Front Line gradually moving their focus to the Support Lines.

At 4.19am the British detonated 4 mines, 2 mines at 4.19am at J.19.6.8a which the 2nd bn Royal Scots immediately seized and 2 mines at 4.19 1/2am. This second detonation was the 7th Brigades signal to attack. At 4.14am the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles had moved as instructed across the parapet and deployed approx 30 yards in front on the blind end of point C6. They were accompanied by 6 sections of bombers and 2 machine gun teams.

The 1st & 2nd Royal Scots together with 4th Gordon Highlanders of 8th Brigade to the far right of the Royal Irish Rifles & South Lancs were tasked with the capture of the Fort south of the Menin Road which they initially successfully did. The 1st Gordon Highlanders immediately next to the South Lancs were tasked with capturing the Almshouses or Wall along the Menin Road before linking up with their 4th bn and forming a front across the road by joining with 7th Brigade on their left.

The attack by the Royal Irish reached the German Second Line between points 29 & 91 with little opposition but none of the bombers made it. A counter bomb attack by the Germans forced these men back to the German Front Line where an Officer & a few men managed to hold out till dark.

Things elsewhere however weren’t going to plan (How many times have we read that!). Opposite Point 29 & between 91-93, barbed wire & machine gun fire was holding up the attack and the men had to take cover in shell holes close up to the German Lines. Only a few would make it back to their own lines later that night. C Company at 4.30am left their support lines to help reinforce B & D Companies but were met with heavy rifle & machine gun fire and few if any made it to the enemy trenches. From the reserve A Company then moved up into their own Front Line trench.

By 6am men of the battalion could still be seen occupying the German Lines but after that hour nothing further could be seen of them. Several parties volunteered to go forward to find out what was happening but all failed in getting definitive information and Headquarters remained in the dark about the situation until evening. None of the Signallers who had gone forward in the attack managed to get back any messages. As darkness fell some men from the attacking companies made it back to their own lines. Casualties were around 15 Officers & 350 Other Ranks.

One machine gun had made it to the German Front Line at about Point 00 but the team were either killed or captured. A Rifleman found it abandoned and stated that he had destroyed it using the butt of his rifle on his way back to his own lines that evening.

The War Diary states that the attack was carried out with the greatest determination & gallantry and mentions that A Company, the Reserves, despite knowing that the attack was unsuccessful were eager to be given a chance to go forward.

The attack by the Royal Scots & Gordon Highlanders had also failed as well as the attack on the left by 14th Division around BELLEWAARDE FARM. The fort had been lost, the battalions pushed back across the Menin Road and casualties were high.

The remains of the battalion was relieved by a company of 1st Wiltshire’s by 2.15am on 26th. The diary records 4 Officers Killed, 5 Wounded, 4 Wounded & Missing and 1 Missing. Other Ranks were 46 Killed, 140 Wounded, 150 missing, 26 Wounded & Missing and the 2 machine guns & their teams all lost.

One of those missing was Lance Corporal James Alfred Connolly Aged 17. He remains missing to this day and his name appears on Panel 40 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing in Ypres. He could still lie under the earth of Flanders around the area which is now part of the Bellewaarde Theme Park or possibly he may be one of the over 3,500 unknowns buried in the nearby Hooge Crater Cemetery.

Menin Gate,Ypres ( Authors Own Photo)

Back in Manchester James’s family would have received information that he was missing on or since 25th September and finally that he was presumed killed. His father James received £4 16s 11d on 30th November 1916 & a further £3 on 19th August 1919.

His name together with those of the other 86 men of the Goods Department was inscribed on the memorial that his fellow workers of the depot had paid for and unveiled at Manchester London Road after the war and again his name features on the replacement memorial currently at Manchester Piccadilly Station, Platform 10.

His name also appears on Ireland’s memorial records, again suggesting an Irish family connection ( It incorrectly records him as being killed in France)

Memorial Record ( Ancestry.com)

Once again I hope you’ve found this blog and story interesting and it inspires you to want to learn more. Any comments always greatly received

Sources: Ancestry Com
Findagrave.com
National Railway Museum
Great War Digital

WW1

February Guest Feature

Welcome to the first guest feature of 2021! These features have been overwhelmingly welcomed last year (must be far more interesting than my posts!) so I’ll be continuing with them but this year on a Bi-monthly basis. I have some willing victims… sorry I mean volunteers.. and I look forward to sharing their pieces with you over the coming months ahead. So without further ado I’m very pleased to introduce my first guest of 2021, renowned & respected Battlefield Guide & Researcher Mark Banning with a few tales of those who literally came from the other side of the world, the Australians.

Mark Banning

Just before Christmas, I was looking at Twitter, when I noticed a request for help from Wayne McDonald. He was inviting those who were interested, to write a piece for his blog. Now, I’ve never actually met Wayne, but like a lot of folk on Twitter, you get a sense that they are decent sorts by the things they post and how they comment, and having already read some of his own pieces I thought it only fair to help a chap out.

After some brief comms, we agreed that I would write a piece that reflects on some of the many Australian guests I have had the pleasure of guiding across key parts of the Western Front over many years; their thoughts, their experiences and in some instances, their memories of a few days in special places.

It’s been an abysmal year for battlefield guides, with no immediate end in sight to the current travel restrictions, so this will also perhaps provide a taster for the experiences that myself and all my guide colleague friends, whether they live in Britain, France or Belgium can’t wait to re-experience.

A little about myself: like many, my interest in the Great War started at quite an early age and was due to the service of a relation, in this instance, my paternal grandfather, who served with the 13th (Royal Highlanders of Canada) battalion, and was taken as a prisoner of war in April 1915 during the first successful use of poison gas on the Western Front. Through a long and slightly convoluted sequence of events, my father and I visited Ypres in April 1984. We visited the Canadian Memorial at Vancouver Corner, Hill 60, the museum at Hill 62, Kemmel and attended the Last Post ceremony where we may have been the only people present.

Move forward a number of years to the desperate need to move from a job that didn’t suit, an increasing interest in the battlefields, fuelled by further visits and it was time to take the plunge, and attempt to be a battlefield guide. This is not a job that you often see advertised, and at that time the whole aspect of guiding seemed to be a closed shop; the only qualifications for success being that you had published umpteen books or had served for years in the correct regiment and spoke in the correct manner. I hadn’t done either, but through good fortune, I found a small advert for a travel business that were looking for guides for their one day battlefield trips. I applied, was invited for an interview, which quickly turned into one of those pleasant conversations and ended by me being told, ‘if you want to work with us, you’ll have to pass your bus test’. The reason for this was that not only would I be guiding, I’d be driving the guests in a 16-seater Mercedes mini-coach. This required an additional classification on my driving licence, so the process was gone through and I got the necessary qualification.

Then, the day came: I was told I would be looking after my first guests on the Western Front. I was to pick them up from where they were staying, in Ashford, Middlesex and look after them for three days. I had to go to certain places on each of the three days, and I had money for food and diesel. Hotel accommodation was booked. That was it: what I said, exactly where we went and most importantly, how we got there was up to me. So, thank you to Caroline and Peter Dixon from Auckland, who were my first ever guests. They were, like most New Zealanders, quiet, reserved, thoughtful but, as we got to know each other a bit, I realised they were very overawed with what they saw and with what I told them. I felt I was off to a good start.

The company I was working with went through some re-structuring at the end of that year, but it worked well from a personal point of view, as the tours I had done had all been well received by the clients, and my status rose a good bit: ‘here’s a chap who may be new to us, but he seems to know his stuff and the clients like him’.

And so, the years went on, in the run up to the centenary of the Great War. One of my good pieces of fortune was that what had been a privately owned UK company had now become part of a much larger Australian based travel business, although it was still located in West London. With growth in all areas, there was clearly a desire from the marketing people to promote Western Front battlefield trips in Australia, and the number of trips we were running increased three fold between 2012 and 2014, remaining at about 20 trips a year throughout the centenary period. I should say at this point that I was one of a team of guides, all of whom are friends, and I didn’t guide every single tour, but I was fortunate enough to be allocated a good percentage of these tours over this period.

Before I share some of my experiences with you all, I’d like to give you a general overview of the Aussie psyche. This is based on the interaction with many clients over a number of years, but there are themes that you can pretty well guarantee will emerge with each group.

‘You know, Mark, they all speak French in Paris…no one spoke English…’ Surely not, the French speak French in their own country? How very rude of them.

Me: so then, the Western Front was, give or take, 700 km long. The BEF, including the Australian divisions held, give or take, 160 km of it. Who do you think held the rest?

One guest: the French, with a quizzical expression.

Hey, Mark, these beer measures are a bit small’…

Me: ‘Take it easy, that beer is 8%. You don’t need too many…’

But, in amongst it all, Australians are great people. They are intensely proud of what their forebears did, and what is wrong with that? They have trouble with distances, not believing that taking an hour to drive from Arras to Amiens is a ‘long way’ and realise, very often, that what they knew or were told, if they were told anything at all, was not necessarily the total truth when any history was taught at school or college. Of course, amongst some of my guests have been exceptionally well read and highly educated individuals who have, for the first time, seen the landscapes that they have read about; again, none can fully grasp the intimate nature of many of the most horrific Australian battlefields: Pozières, Broodseinde, Bullecourt and Fromelles.

However, the most rewarding guests to have on any trip are those who want to follow a relatives action and if, as is sadly often the case, he was killed, then to visit the cemetery where he is buried or visit the memorial where is name is commemorated. If you are very lucky, you have been notified about this in advance, and can do the necessary research as part of your tour preparation. For Australian soldiers, this is comparatively easy, as there are great online resources, all totally free, via the Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia websites. These enable you to extract relevant war diary excerpts as well as the personal records of the man involved.

Sometimes, the guest is so well prepared that he or she has all this information with them, but they need guidance as to where the places are that are mentioned; sometimes, the information you are presented with at the beginning of the trip can be vague in the extreme. It’s my proud boast that I always been able to take a guest to an area where their relative served and I have always been able to take them to the cemetery where they are buried.

I’d like to share with you three stories that cover elements of all of the above and how, in each case, the modern family was able to pay proper respect to their forebears. I will mention the soldiers concerned, but not the individual guests by name. Before I commence, I should also like to make one very obvious point clear: when you are guiding a group, your responsibility is to all members of the group, to ensure that their individual needs and personal requirements are attended to, so it’s important not to allow one individual to dominate the tour. Having said that, Australians being the sort of people they are, are almost universally fascinated in their nation’s history, so focusing on the tale of a relative of one guest often stands as a leitmotif for all Australians, and therefore the soldier’s story is taken up by the whole group. The other very obvious thing to say is that it is almost impossible to carry out research whilst leading a tour. I could not have delivered the three stories I am about to share with you had I not had the most wonderful, diligent and timely research being carried out at home by my partner, Mary Freeman, who would then send me chunks of information in bite sized pieces by text or email. I also have to thank the hotel we use for printing off, at a moments notice, maps and photos of soldiers or trench positions that I had been sent overnight from home.

Sergeant Billy Willmott, 21st Battalion AIF

This story is our greatest triumph, in my opinion. Having met my guests, my routine was always to ask them, once we had covered the basic introductions, if any of them had anywhere that they especially wished to go. On this trip in May 2016, the couple sitting near the front asked me if they could go to the place written on the piece of paper I was handed. On the piece of paper was written one word: Vignacourt. I was aware that there was a military cemetery in the town, so assumed they had a relative buried there they wished to visit. This was correct, so I asked them what his name was. There was then a certain amount of concern, as neither could remember the name, but they had it in their bag, which was along with 15 others in the boot. I asked them to let me have it as soon as we checked in, which would be much later that day, as we had the Last Post to attend prior to check in. Anyway, once checked in to our overnight accommodation, I was given the name of Billy Willmott. The guests just knew he was a family member, nothing more.

Later that evening, I had a call back home and gave Mary the name. She promised that she would have a look, and see what she could come up with, because, as already mentioned, it’s always nice to put a bit of background to why a particular soldier has a grave in a particular cemetery. This was on a Tuesday evening. Our itinerary and route dictated that a visit to Vignacourt would be on Friday, the last day of the trip, so I thought that would be sufficient time for anything interesting to emerge.

It soon became apparent that Billy Willmott was no ordinary soldier. He’d been wounded at Pozières, his hospital ship had been torpedoed while he was being brought back to England for treatment and by the spring of 1918 he was a highly capable and respected NCO. It was also clear to me that being buried at Vignacourt, he must have been wounded in some action, as the location was well behind allied lines and a known medical location.

As the trip went on, my phone was pinging away with great rapidity. I was receiving text after text, as Mary’s research revealed the events that had resulted in Billy’s death. The time period is April 1918, when Australian troops are part of the massive effort being expended to hold the German advance at bay.  Across the high ground running above the village of Dernancourt, the Australians had been given orders to dig in and hold on to ground that German troops would have needed to take to press on towards Amiens. Digging in is one thing, but by this stage of the war the Australian divisions had honed their skills, and were prone to taking part in small scale raids against the enemy at any opportunity. This was to be the case on the night of 13th April, when a small party, led by Lt Sibbison were to raid the enemy lines and bring back anything useful. Sadly, the raid was not the success it was hoped to be, resulting in the death of the officer, last seen very near the enemy trench, and ultimately two others, Billy and his mate Hec, who sustained mortal injuries. They were brought in by another corporal, Cyril Ingle who was subsequently promoted and decorated.

All this information was being conveyed to me by Mary – then, at a brief break whilst the group were visiting the Thiepval Memorial, a call. ‘You can take them to the spot on your way to Amiens, it’s just off the main road, turn left, go down this road and stop near the little copse on the left. It all happened there…’

Across this ground is where the raid occurred

This is where there is a massive advantage to having a small group in a small vehicle and being the driver as well – you can just do it, so, on Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours from being given Billy’s name, I was able to take the relatives to the exact spot in Northern France where he had been badly wounded on the night of 13th April 1918. I could explain to the group what the objective was, what happened, the loss of the officer, who has no known grave and that tomorrow we would be able to visit Billy’s grave, as well as his cobber, Hec, who is buried next to him. But, more was to come – overnight, I had pictures sent to me by email of Billy and others in the raiding party. For a short period, Mary and I knew more about Billy’s history than his family!!

On the Friday morning, our first stop was at Vignacourt British Cemetery. This is a lovely location and Billy’s grave is just inside the entrance. My guests had poppies and we left an Australian flag as well as a copy of his picture at the headstone. My guests were quite overcome by how much we had been able to find out in such a short time and how this long dead relative had suddenly seemed to come alive.

Billy’s grave
Remembrance

I kept in touch for a bit after the trip and exchanged more detail with the family in Australia. They also sent me some further family detail. It must have made an impression, as three years later, the husband returned for another trip with his son, and yes, we replayed Billy’s story all over again.

Corporal Murray Elder MM, 23rd Battalion AIF

Corporal Murray Elder MM

Just a few weeks after the above story, I was leading another tour. On this occasion, there were fewer guests than usual, just five, but two of the five had direct family members that served, both sadly being killed, one at Bullecourt in 1917 and one in June 1918. This recollection concerns the soldier who is buried at Ribemont Communal Cemetery Extension on the Somme.

The guests concerned were both Australian by birth, but had met some many years ago whilst travelling in Canada and had decided that this was the place they wanted to live. Now officially Canadian by nationality, but with discernible Aussie undertones to their voices, it was an interesting accent!

Unlike Billy’s relatives, Murray Elder’s relative was aware of where he was buried and it would have been impossible not to visit the grave on the trip, but Mary was again to come up trumps in finding the back story which otherwise might never have been shared.

It’s all around that spring 1918 period, such a desperate time for the allies. We know that the Australians were instrumental in halting the German advance towards the end of April 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux (spoiler alert, the Poms were there too), but along the whole of the Somme frontage there were a series of ‘small scale’ operations which harassed the Germans and ensured that they were more than well aware that it was not over yet. One of these actions involved Murray Elder, the platoon Lewis gunner, as the Australians sent a small party out to investigate the German held village of Ville sur Ancre.

The Australian force numbered just less than 30, led by two officers. The village was fully occupied by recently arrived German troops. By a combination of surprise, good soldiering and the inevitable touch of luck, the majority of German troops were taken prisoner or killed very quickly. However, a small group had taken cover in a farmhouse in the village, and were determined to stay there. The Australians were determined they wouldn’t. After half an hour of vicious rifle and machine gun fire, the latter being skilfully aimed by Murray, the German troops surrendered. The white flag was raised, the firing stopped and an orderly procession started to emerge from the farm building, led by the German officer. He was approached by his Australian opposite number, when suddenly, he withdrew his revolver and aimed. Quick as a flash, Corporal William Flinn threw himself across his officer, taking the bullet which killed him, the only Australian death of the raid. Of the Germans taken prisoner post surrender, the war diary simply states that they were severely dealt with, following the ‘foul tactics’ perpetrated by the officer.

The Farmhouse where the German were held for half an hour

The farmhouse is still there, and therefore, after more assistance from Mary, we were able to park up and walk the approach route the advancing Murray would have taken. Although trespass would never be encouraged, we managed to get as close as we could to the farmhouse, by looking through the typical big wrought metal gates in the outer yard. We visited Corporal Flinn’s grave in nearby Mericourt-l’Abbe Communal Cemetery Extension. There was more to come from Mary, in the shape of articles written about the raid in the trench papers and the award to Murray of the Military Medal as a result of his solid performance on the Lewis gun that day, 19th May 1918.

Grave of William Flinn

It’s a strange fact of war that once a man has achieved some great feat on the field of battle, he often feels he is invincible. So, just three weeks later, in a similar operation a little further up the Ancre Valley towards Albert, Murray was involved; sadly, his luck had run out, and during this operation, he was killed. His body was taken back for burial and then subsequently reburied in 1919 at what is now Ribemont Communal Cemetery Extension, just a few kilometres north of where his mate, Corporal Flinn lies. Taking the family to the military cemetery, and allowing them time to leave a tribute is something many guides do as a matter of course: having the ability to provide the story where it is not known previously is a great honour, and gives all involved a greater sense of the wider impact that an individual had as part of this great conflict.

At Murrays Grave
Family at Murrays Grave
Epitaph

Lieutenant Cliff Burge, 24th Battalion AIF

Cliff Burge

My final story contains many of the themes already identified above, but there was an additional twist to proceedings. The guests had previously requested, and reconfirmed with me as soon as they met me that they had to be at Cliff’s grave on 14th August, which was the centenary of his death. The way the itinerary was written lead them to believe that they would have to break from the tour for a day, and get to Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery under their own power, as we weren’t supposed to visit this important Australian battlefield location until the 15th August. What they were not aware of is that I had already decided to swap the official itinerary about, meaning that the request they had made could be honoured with no inconvenience to themselves.

I had already done a small amount of research myself between my previous trip and this one, but again, Mary was able to provide a lot more detail to me whilst I was on the tour.

Cliff Burge had recently been commissioned, as the need for junior officers increased in the AIF throughout 1918. Many believe Australia’s finest hour during the Great War was in the period August to October 1918, as the Australian Corps under Lt General Monash scored decisive victory after decisive victory during what is commonly known as the 100 Days. This was not without loss of front line infantry, both officers and men, and replacements were not able to keep up with the casualties being inflicted. Promotion from the ranks was the only answer.

By all accounts, Cliff was a fine junior officer, but naturally looked up to fellow officer, Eric Edgerton for guidance in this challenging role. Eric had been decorated with the Military Medal twice and had also been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, unusual for a junior officer. Imagine Cliff’s shock when, on 11th August, Eric was killed during an attack. Now the responsibility for the whole platoon’s well-being rested on Cliff’s shoulders.

Australian forces were in the vanguard of the advance from east of Amiens towards Peronne. As the days went by, Australian troops were forcing the enemy back in great numbers but at cost, as we have seen. It was perhaps inevitable that Cliff would be killed. The battalion had set up forward company headquarters in a sheltered position in an old quarry. Even at this stage of the war, with so much going on, the battalion war diary contains a vast amount of information, including the exact map reference of the headquarters. This is important, as it was on the periphery of the HQ that Cliff was hit by rifle fire, dying almost immediately.

The forward HQ position
Found at the quarry
At Cliffs HQ location

Having visited the grave earlier, and allowed my guests the time they needed to remember Cliff, including leaving a handmade personal tribute, I was then able to take them and the rest of the group to the exact location of the HQ, and where Cliff had met his end. I very much doubt that any battlefield group has ever visited the location, and the look of surprise from the tractor driver we passed near the spot very much confirmed this. However, once there, it was immediately apparent why such a location had been chosen, and the debris of war was still in evidence on the ground. Needless to say, it was Mary’s interpretation of the evidence and ability to translate that into easily understandable directions that allowed me to achieve this.

At the grave 100 years on
From Home
Grave of Cliff Burge

Leading tour groups is not always as fulfilling as this: there are the occasional individuals who have travelled with me whose reasons for so doing are beyond my comprehension, but in the overwhelming majority of instances, Australian guests are very humbled by what they see and very appreciative of gaining an additional understanding of what I believe was the most defining period of their nation’s history. The current suspension on travel and tourism across the globe has been a disaster for so many, including every battlefield guide I know. Whether the business I have enjoyed working for since 2008 will be able to ride out the current storm, I don’t know, hence I haven’t mentioned the company by name. However, as soon as it is safe to do so I will be visiting the old Western Front battlefields, and would be happy to guide you.

You can contact me via email through www.bespokewesternfronttours.com or directly, through Twitter at @MGBTours

Battlefield Debris

Editor: Well I must thank Mark very much for sharing those incredible stories with us all and for giving us an insight into his life as a Battlefield Guide. I really hope going forward it’s a better year for all Guides out there & that we can all return to those hallowed grounds once more.

WW1

Private James Thomas Winder

In an earlier blog I told the story of the Memorial at Manchester to the fallen railwaymen of Manchester London Road & shared some of the stories of those men.

Original London Road Memorial (Author’s Collection)

A couple of years ago whilst attending a service of remembrance at the memorial I met a lady whose relative was named on the memorial. We got talking as you do and she told me it was a chap called James Thomas Winder and that he was her Grandfather. She knew little about him except that he’d died in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. So want that I am I offered to try and find some more information for her and contact her with anything I could find.

So what follows is James’s story that I could piece together & I hope by sharing with you that it helps to bring another lost soul into the fold & ensures that James Winder isn’t forgotten.

James Thomas Winder was born on the 9th February 1886 in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. The trail goes a little cold then I can’t seem to find the family in 1891 or 1901. However on 29th September 1898 a James Winder, 42 years old & a widower & employed as a Steel Dresser, marries a Jane Shepard, a 37 year old widow and they show their addresses as 67 & 70 Kendall Street, Openshaw, Manchester. Guessing this is how they met! This I believe to be James’s father & the Winder family next shows up in 1911 living at 8 Goole Street, Openshaw, Manchester. A Joseph Winder is shown as being born in 1897 in Bradford, Manchester so it’s a strong possibility that James’s mother died in childbirth giving birth to Joseph. ( Interestingly in April 1915 Joseph at only 5′ 2 1/2″ enlists in the 3rd Welch Regiment but is discharged 3 weeks later as unfit for service) James & a sister Elizabeth however don’t live with the family at this point.

In the 1911 census James is shown as living as a boarder at 212 Ridgway Street, Bradford, Manchester. This street still exists but the houses of old have been replaced in recent years by social housing. It’s still very much a working class area of Manchester to this day. James is shown working as a Capstanman for the Railway. He was employed by the London & North Western Railway Company at the nearby Manchester London Road, a 10 min walk away, in the Goods department which was under the station approximately where the Metrolink station now is. A capstan is a large revolving cylinder with a vertical axis used to wind rope/cable. He would have operated this most probably to lower railway wagons and/or goods to & from the tracks upstairs which sit now approximately where the DHL building and Upper Deck car park now are.

The next record I found for James was his marriage certificate for 18th November 1911 when he marries Sarah Harriet Acton at St Cross Church, Clayton, Manchester. James is shown Aged 24 & is employed as a Railway Porter and living at 8 Gamma Street, Clayton. Sarah is Aged 23, No employment & living at 95 Clayton Lane. His father is shown as James Winder, a steel dresser hence my link earlier.

James & Sarah’s Marriage certificate ( © Ancestry.com)

On 8th August 1913 they have a son, also named James Thomas, who is baptised on 7th September 1913 at St Cross Church where his father is shown as a Railway Man & 2 years later on 26th August 1915 another son ,Albert Edward, is born.

Like so many Thomas’s service record doesn’t survive but from his entry in SDGW ( Soldier’s Died in the Great War) it states that he was originally in the Royal Army Medical Corps as Pvt 70817 but I can find no other evidence of this as his medal index card & medal roll makes no mention of this previous service. Incidentally on his Pension records there are several transcription errors, for example on one he’s 25526 & 15516 on another.

At the time of his death he was a Private (25516) in the 17th Battalion ( 1st South East Lancashire) Lancashire Fusiliers. This battalion was one of the service or Pals battalion’s formed at the beginning of the war. This battalion originally had been formed in Bury in 1914 as a Bantam battalion, Men who were under the required height 5′ 3″for military service. This particular battalion was posted to the Western Front in January of 1916 as part of 35th Division. Originally in the Richebourg St Vaast area they would move to the Somme on 10th July at Aveluy Wood & over the next few months would be involved in various activities around Maricourt & Montauban (The Battle of Bazentin Ridge, The fighting for Arrow Head Copse, Maltz Horn Farm, and Falfemont Farm). In September the moved to Arras where they would stay till February of 1917. In early 1917 they ceased to be a purely Bantam battalion. From the War Diary of the 17th Bn it does appear that at the end of September 1917 they received 264 new reinforcements so it is quite possible that James only transferred to the battalion then .Reports by HQ suggest these were men from a variety of units many without infantry experience. Below is a link I found by Terry Dean of the North Lancashire branch of The Western Front Association with some more information on the 17th Bn if you’d like to read more.

17thBnLancsFus (lancs-fusiliers.co.uk)

In September 1917 the Battalion were at Templeux-La-Fosse in France before at the end of the month being billeted in Peronne on the Somme. They were then in training before being moved up to Proven by rail crossing into Belgium. At this time the battle officially known as Third Battle of Ypres but more commonly known today as Battle of Passchendaele had been going on since 31st July 1917.

They proceeded to Boesinghe on 13th October 1917 before relieving the front line in an area called Houthulst Forest , North East of Ypres on 16th October. At this stage it wasn’t trenches as we commonly see them depicted but mostly just a serious of shell holes surrounded by a quagmire of mud & water made worse by the awful weather conditions that had occurred. Men were waist deep in water in many of these shell holes. At this point they were only in the line for 2 days before being relieved & headed back to rest at ‘H’ Camp.

On the 20th at 11.30am they marched from camp to Boesinghe where they had dinner and were issued with 2 days rations, stores, extra grenades etc. After orders were received they moved at 4.00pm via Hunters Trench to the sector at Egypt House. They were shelled all the way & suffered 10 casualties before arriving at their sector and forming up with the 5 Chemins to Columbo House road on their left. ‘W’ & ‘X’ companies took a 400 yd front. ‘Y’ Company were in shell holes North of Egypt House with ‘Z’ Company in holes South West of Egypt House.

Throughout the 21st men lay in shell holes avoiding low flying enemy aircraft circling above the front line. Overnight Battalion HQ moved to Egypt House from Pascal Farm and in the early hours of the 22nd October the battalion moved forward approx 100yds ahead of the Front Line ready to attack the German 120th (2nd Württemberg) Regiment who were in the forest (or what remained of it) ahead with an objective of taking & holding a line from Marechal Farm & to the right of 400yds. On the 17th battalions left was the 105th Infantry Brigade with the 16th bn Cheshire Regiment directly next to them, 14th Gloucester to the Cheshires left, 15th Sherwood Foresters in close support & 15th Cheshires in Reserve, and on the 17th bn right, as part of the same 104th Infantry Brigade, the 18th Lancashire Fusiliers then 23rd bn Manchester Regiment. The support would be from the 20th bn Lancashire Fusiliers with 17th Royal Scots in Reserve. The 101st Brigade,34th Division would be to the right and were supposed to make contact with the Manchesters before Zero Hour but this wasn’t achieved. To the left of the Gloucesters would be French troops of the 201st regiment, 1st French Division. The whole Divisional front would be some 2,000 yds reaching 2,500 yds at the final objective.

Divisional map WO95/2469/1-6 (Ancestry.Com)

At 5.35am Zero Hour, British Artillery opened fire on the German lines and James and his comrades advanced forward. By 6am a message was received from Captain Heape M.C ,commanding ‘W’ Company ,that they had captured their objective, Columbo House, ” Have captured Columbo House. Best sport going- right in our own barrage” and by 6.45am all commanders reported that their objectives had been captured and that the battalion was starting to consolidate it’s positions.

Map taken from War Diary WO95/2484/1Ancestry.com)

An enemy machine gun and approx 20 German prisoners had been captured during their attack. They then advanced further and took Marechal Farm as there was no sign of the 16th Cheshire’s at that point on their left.

At around 8.30am Battalion HQ received a message from advance companies of the 17th Bn that they were uneasy at the situation on their flanks on both the right & left side as no contact had been made at all with Cheshire’s or Manchester’s. Indeed some elements of the Manchester’s & elements of the 16th Royal Scots from the 34th Division on the right had already retreated back towards the HQ from the direction of the Ypres-Staden railway line. These men were put into shell hole trenches in front of Egypt House & it was learnt form them that the left flank of the Division on the right had failed to come up for whatever reason thus exposing the right flank of the Manchesters who had then gone wide & lost contact with the 18th Lancashires who they themselves became disorientated and the gap got wider with added problems of enemy troops being left behind of which some Germans took advantage of. The reserve 20th battalion was ordered up to fill the gaps left by the Manchesters and the 18th bn then began to consolidate to the right flank of 17th bn. Eventually the 16th Cheshire’s caught up with the 17th on the left. The right flank however still remained very precarious.

All day the battalion came under fire from snipers & machine guns inside the woods as well as German Artillery fire once the Germans knew that the British had captured these new positions.

At 4.15pm a message was received at HQ from ‘Y’ Company of the 17th that the Germans were amassing troops in the wood on their right flank.

At 4.31pm an SOS flare was sent up by the 17th bn and messages were sent back that the enemy was attacking the Cheshire’s to their left flank and that artillery support was urgently needed. It appears that the Cheshire’s had lost most of their officer’s killed or wounded and they then began to retreat together with a company of Sherwood Foresters to Columbo House at 4.45pm. Only a score or so were able to be stopped by Captain Heape & officers of ‘Y’ company of 17th bn ,one of whom, 2nd Lt Crank, lost his life in trying to stop them.

Heavy Lewis gun & rifle fire as well as the artillery support managed to counter attack the Germans and pushed them back. ‘W’ & ‘Y’ Companies now held a line some 1000 yds deep & 300 yds wide! The men were exhausted due to the conditions and hard fighting, they had earlier failed to be able to keep up with the artillery barrage. But they had all fought with great courage & determination. By 6pm the decision was critical and the order to fall back to the support area around Columbo House and to maintain a line to the right to keep back the Germans was made.

This line was eventually consolidated during the night and the men issued with rations, water & fresh ammunition as well as a ration of rum which was brought up by men from HQ led by the Transport Officer. The rum was most welcome to those who had lain waist deep in shell holes all day.

Many wounded had lay out all due unable to be brought in due to snipers and also due to a shortage of stretcher bearer’s. Every effort however was made during the hours of darkness to try and bring as many in as possible.

British Artillery shelled all night and in the morning but no counter attack appeared until 4.30pm on the 23rd when the Germans attacked the left flank. This was eventually beaten back and the battalion was finally relieved by midnight by 17th Royal Scots.

Some men were so wet (It had been raining for 2 days) and weary struggled to make it back to Baboon camp not arriving back until 5am the next day.

The war diary for this battle states that the casualties sustained by the 17th bn were 4 Officers Killed, 8 Wounded, 32 Other Ranks Killed, 142 Wounded & 5 Missing.

James was one of those missing as his records show him as presumed killed. He could have lain out in no man’s land & died of his wounds there or his body, like so many, was lost to subsequent shell fire. Maybe he was hit by a shell and his death ,whilst dreadful, was instantaneous. We shall sadly never know. His wife Sarah would remarry by the time she & her 2 sons were awarded a pension in June 1918.

His name, along with 35,000 others who were lost in & around the area known as the Ypres Salient from 17th August 1917 and have no known grave, is inscribed on memorial panel 60 at Tyne Cot. A further 11900 are buried in the cemetery in front of the memorial with more than 8370 unknown. Just maybe one of these unknowns could be James.

Tyne Cot Memorial ( Authors Own Photo)

James is also named on the War memorial in Clayton Park, Manchester.

Clayton War Memorial (Manchester City Council)

Thank you as ever for taking the time to read James’s story. As ever if anyone can find any more info or a photo would be great then please do get in touch here or on twitter @Terriermcd

I must admit the Houlthurst Wood isn’t an area of the Salient that I haven’t really visited or for that matter know much about but once we can all return to the Salient it will certainly be a place on my list to visit.

Sources:- Ancestry.Com Census & War Diary records WO95/2484/1

http://www.lancs-fusiliers.co.uk

@Fairylight on Twitter

http://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk

WW1

Ghostly encounters

A subject that comes up every so often is one of people experiencing strange or supernatural goings on whilst visiting the battlefields.

Is it really the souls of the dead, many of whom still lay beneath our feet, reaching out to us? Are we transported back in time due to the events leaving behind like a piece of negative film that we then become a part of? Or is it simply because of our heightened emotions, of knowing what happened in these places, that then causes our minds to play tricks on us?

Whatever you think there’s no doubting that many of us have experienced things that can be difficult to explain or justify.

Of course supernatural links aren’t something new. Many of us have heard the story of the Angels of Mons. In 1914 faced with overwhelming German forces some British soldiers recounted seeing Angels appearing as Archers in the skies above or a cloud descend upon the battlefield keeping the German forces at bay & allowing the British to get away safely.

Angel of Mons by R.Crowhurst

Stories of mother’s & wives back home in blighty seeing their loved ones standing in front of them as clear as day, only days or weeks later receiving the telegram informing them of their sons or husbands death at more or less the same time as the vision had appeared.

Veterans & letters recount stories of men in the trenches before going ‘Over the top’ being overcome with a sense of doom. Somehow knowing that their time was up and that they wouldn’t be coming back. In letters men urging their families to look after the children or each other, to move on with their lives & not to grieve too much in the knowledge that they had died doing the right thing. Men sharing out their belongings or urging their pal to write to their mother’s or to look after their wives & children.

Spiritualism had been around since Victorian times, most notable of supporters being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes. Of course many would unscrupulously seek to make money out of all the grief & peoples losses by holding seances claiming to speak to those who had passed. Or then again were some of them just trying to provide some comfort to the bereaved?

Typical scene of a seance

Some modern day experiences that people recount are the feeling of bring watched, of seeing something in human form either clearly or as dark shadows. Other recount hearing voices,shouts or whispers in their ears when noone else is around. For some they experience overwhelming emotion and physically breakdown in tears or have an immense feeling of terror and they have to get away from the area right away.

Personally I have experienced a couple of things whilst out & about on the old front line that I can’t explain.

The first is at High Wood. I always park up outside London Cemetery & then decide which way to walk around the wood, either starting on the western side, round the back where the switch line came out before walking down the eastern side passing the craters & memorials or I’ll do it in reverse.

As soon as I pull up there always seems to be rooks flying above or in the trees making those distinctive haunting sounds. And there’s that constant feeling of being watched from inside the wood itself. It can be a glorious warm sunny day but the feeling I get is of cold & darkness as I look into the wood. Dark shadows seem to pass across the old trenches & shell holes that are still visible. Again it’s probably my senses & emotions knowing that hundreds if not thousands still lay beneath the ground as High Wood wasn’t cleared fully after the war so in fact it’s a mass grave containing men lost from both sides. My Great Grandfather served here as a Tunneller responsible for digging & laying the mines on the eastern side & was wounded here on 8th September 1916, so I have a connection with this place.But I’m definitely glad when I’m back in my car.

London Cemetery & Extension, High Wood ( Authors Own Photo)

My second experience is rather more a nicer one. A few years ago on a lads only trip myself, my best mate Andy & his dad Brian were at Sucerie Military Cemetery, Colincamps visiting one of our London Road memorial men Driver T.E Fitzgerald , C Bty 211th bde RFA. It was late March and a pleasantly warm day with sun shining and we had a wander as you do around the cemetery. We recounted the story of men marching down the tree lined avenue from Colincamps, which still exists to this day, on the eve of the Battle of the Somme and seeing grave pits being dug & piles of crosses in the cemetery in anticipation of expected losses.

After a while we left the cemetery and were walking back up the lane back to the car that we’d parked by the farm on the main road. The tune of ‘Pack up your troubles’ or ‘Its a long way to Tipperary’ , I can’t recall which, suddenly came into my head and I began to start whistling it. Trust me I’m far from musical at all so it was no Roger Whittaker rendition!

Almost immediately a beautiful red admiral butterfly appeared to my left and followed me as we walked up the path passing in front of me before taking its pamce at my side again. It was a goosebump moment but I didn’t feel any sense of dread or apprehension. As we neared the road it settled on some foilage. Again probably totally a coincidence but it felt so serene and peaceful.

Finally another occurrence was when on a visit to Talana Farm Cemetery with Andy & his family. We were there to visit Andy’s wife’s Great Uncle Herbert Sidebotham. His wife Helen was carrying their daughter Ellla,who was only 1 year old, when a field mouse ran across in front of us on the access path. Nothing unusual there I hear you say it is the middle of a field after all.

Fast forward to 2 years later, Ella is now 3 and of course can now walk herself and talk. As we walked along the familiar track she turned to her mum and said is the mouse still here? Helen and I just looked at each other and thought how on earth does she remember that when she was only 1 years old when she saw it!

Helen at her Great Uncles grave (Authors Own Photo)

Again those with far more knowledge about the human mind will most probably be able to explain it rationally. But how many times have many of us visited cemeteries and found ourselves drawn to a particular grave and found out it has a link to where we live or someone else we’ve researched. Or a family member visiting for the first time walks straight to the grave of their relative without any prior knowledge of where they lay.

I think there are things that we don’t know about that can’t be explained. Some moments can be chilling whilst others feel warming & are meant to be. Thanks for reading

I’d love to hear some of your own experiences so please feel free to share them on twitter @terriermcd

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2021 Blog update

Happy New Year everyone!

Well what a year 2020 was and certainly one which many of us will try and forget. It’s been a difficult one on many levels.
But one good thing to come out of it was all the great podcasts, blogs and history groups that many people set up, kindly sharing their knowledge & some amazing images & interesting facts. They have all been a lifeline in 2020 that’s for certain.

I set up this blog back in July after a lot of uncertainty about whether I was up to the job or that anyone would be interested. I have to say the kind comments & support I’ve received have been truly overwhelming. I’m grateful to all the wonderful folk who have agreed to be Guests and for the excellent work they put in. Saying thank you to everyone just doesn’t seem enough.

However as time as progressed I’ve found it more difficult to manage the blog on a weekly basis whist juggling a full time job, spending time with those around me and dealing with the shitshow around Covid. I’ve had too many sleepless nights with ideas or self doubt swirling around in my head, ( I’m to much of a perfectionist & worrier that I’ve got things right) & I’ve spent far too many hours buried in books,on the computer searching out sources instead of spending quality time with loved ones & taking time to look after myself.

So I’ve made the hard decision that for the future I will post blogs on a less regular basis , when time permits basis. Don’t worry Guest Features, which have proved very popular, will continue (And thanks to all the volunteers who’ve stepped forward for 2021) but every couple of months rather than on a monthly basis. I realise that my decision may lose me followers or people will move onto other things but if I’m totally honest it has never been about the amount of followers or likes I get. It was simply about sharing my stories & information and encouraging others especially fellow Amateurs to go out there and to get involved in their own research & share their stories, discover even more through books & with their own visits to cemeteries & the old front line.

Thank you again for all the support and I look forward to sharing some more stuff & welcoming more guests with you during 2021

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Festive Guest Feature

Welcome to a special Xmas edition of my Guest Feature where I’m gladly joined by Battlefield Guide, Author & Santa lookalike, Steve Smith, who’s here to dispel the myths & tell the real truths about the Christmas Truce of 1914. Anyone for a game of Footie?

Steve Smith

About me…

I’ve been a battlefield guide since 2004, having left the RAF in 2003, where I served for 18 years as an RAF Police NCO at various bases in the UK and abroad and completed tours in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and in Macedonia on a NATO Peace Keeping mission. At present I assist students in attaining diplomas at various levels of education.

I’ve had an interest in military history since the age of 13 when I was introduced to my Great Grandfather Private G/5203 Frank Smith who served in the 7th and 8th Buffs in the Great War, was killed in the last year of the war and who is commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial on the Somme. Since then I have traced his war from 1915 to 1918 and I now assist others in doing the same thing. It is both a passion and a calling to me.

I’m also lucky enough to conduct battlefield tours with school groups and I also specialise in taking adult groups across as well. One of my main areas of focus is taking families on small bespoke battlefield pilgrimages to locate where their family members served. It is something I love to do.

I’m an author having had two books on Norfolk in WW1 and WW2 published in 2012 and 2014 and one of my other passions is learning about Norfolk in both wars where living in the county provides me with access to these subjects. My next book will look at the Norfolk Regiment on the Western Front and will be published by Fonthill Media in 2021. Part of that will look at the Regiment’s participation in the Christmas Truce, where I separate the truth from myth surrounding the stories of football played during that time. Some of this blog comes from that research.

It’s December 2020 and here we are again…

Social Media is already beginning to fill up with duff history images of supposed evidence of football games played on Christmas Day 1914 and the usual suspect photos of Fritz and Tommy lighting up a smoke are doing the rounds.

From 2014 to the present I have made it a personal crusade to try and disprove these attempts of telling a story about the Truce that just did not happen in any massed way. I am not the only one who does this and people like Taff Gillingham and Simon Jones are also great crusaders in trying to put people on the right lines.

First of all, please don’t think that I’m challenging that it never happened, I’m not, I’m just challenging aspects of it.

British and German troops did come out of their trenches and meet in no-man’s land. This is fact and there are numerous accounts from the time that confirm this. One of the main reasons they did it was to bury the dead that had lain out in no-man’s land, especially when the British had launched a very localised attack around Ploegsteert on 18th December which had failed with heavy casualties. They also did it in order to repair their trenches due to the terrible weather they had experienced prior to Christmas Day. These reasons ended up with both sides fraternising and exchanging gifts.

There were also spontaneous meetings such as the one that happened between the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment and the Germans off the Messines-Wulverghem road. This is the report made by Lieutenant George Philip Burlton,

On December 25th I was in command of the right-hand fire trench of the Norfolk Regiment’s position. During the morning I noticed groups of the enemy and British Troops belonging to units if the 4th Division meeting half way between their trenches. At about 1 p.m., one of the enemy left the trench opposite our own and came unarmed toward us. I sent a Corporal to meet him half way. After a time more Germans crossed towards us and I allowed an equal number of my men to meet them. Seeing a German officer also out in the open I went to meet him myself. At about 2.30 p.m. all our men under my command were back in the trench.

But what is not as easy to confirm is the notion that both sides played football against each other. Certainly, many of the veterans who were there that day refute this and there are few primary sources that mention this occurring.

But we do have accounts from German soldiers, written soon after the truce, to state that they played against their British opponents. Johannes Niemann served in IR133 and he recounted his experiences whilst serving in trenches on a frozen meadow at Frelinghien.

… Then a Scot produced a football … a regular game of football began, with caps laid on the ground as goalposts. The frozen meadow was ideal [to play on].  One of us had a camera with us. Quickly the two sides gathered together in a group, all neatly lined up with the football in the middle … The game ended 3:2 to Fritz.

This comes from the History of the Saxon IR 133: Das 9. Koeniglich Saechsische Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 133 im Weltkrieg 1914-18 at p 32

The second account comes from a letter discovered more recently where another soldier from IR133 wrote to his Mother and mentioned, “playing ball with the English so this helps to confirm the account by Johannes Niemann and the position mentioned by Niemann correlates to his regiment playing against the 2nd Battalion Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders.

However, we do not have anything concrete from the 2/A&SH to confirm they played against the Germans and that is perhaps not enough to confirm football being played but there is more!

With that mentioned, it has not been helped because we also have accounts from veterans recorded later on, such as that made by Ernie Williams in 1983, who had served with the 1/6 Cheshire Regiment, where he states,

The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side – it wasn’t from our side that the ball came. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kick about. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melee – nothing like the soccer you see on television. The boots we wore were a menace – those great big boots we had on – and in those days the balls were made of leather and they soon got very soggy.

This is now widely considered by experts to be a fabrication of the truth where Ernie Williams was almost prompted into saying what he felt the interviewer, Malcolm Brown, wanted to hear. It is reputed that Malcolm Brown himself did not believe Ernie’s tale. And certainly, when he is trying to intimate that football was played by 100s of soldiers on both sides, surely if that were so there would have been more accounts about that from the time? So sadly, there is the misconception that this event occurred all over the line.

Albert Wyatt

But, with that said, Albert Wyatt’s account comes soon after the Truce occurred and he recounts that they went into the line on 24th December with no firing and began to hear Christmas hymns being sung which came from the German lines and that eventually they joined in with the singing. On Christmas morning with thick fog and frost on the ground the Germans called over to them to come over and that wouldn’t fire and that eventually both sides met up and ended up wishing each other Merry Christmas. To Wyatt’s surprise he noted that they had been facing men old enough to be their fathers. He ended the account by stating,

We finished up in the same old way, kicking footballs about between the firing lines. So, football in the firing line between the British and Germans is the truth as I was one that played.

In order for this to be corroborated, in my mind, you have to have at least one other account to back it up. And luckily, we do. In an interview at the end of December 1914 with Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden of the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment noted,

On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff.

The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.

This came from the Evening Mail in Newcastle on 31st December 1914. So again, soon after the event.

What is significant about this is that Wyatt and Naden would have been serving with the in the same place because the 1/6th Cheshires were attached to the 1/Norfolks to be trained in trench warfare. Naden’s accounts also backs up a lot of what Albert Wyatt stated and to me confirms this aspect of what occurred as being accurate and it has become very apparent that this battalion did play football in no-man’s land between the lines just to the north of the Wulverghem-Messines road.

No-man’s land and the view towards Mittel Farm, site of Truce which occured with 1st Norfolks

But there is one huge myth that still needs to be addressed whenever it rears its ugly head.

Bruce Bairnsfather

Bruce Bairnsfather was serving with the 1st Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment and provided a detailed account in ‘Bullets & Billets’ which gives a very clear account of what happened at St Yvon on and around Christmas 1914.

On Christmas morning I awoke very early and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist…. Walking about the trench a little later… we suddenly became aware of the fact we were seeing a lot of evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over the parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced…. A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet, and looked about itself….

This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by our men, until in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in no-man’s land. I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in a muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches.

Bullets & Billets

Note there is no mention of football and this is backed up by all the other accounts recorded from the Royal Warwickshires, men like Captain Robert Hamilton who noted that ‘A’ Company of the 1/R.Warwicks would have played the Saxons but were relieved, or CSM Beck who noted in his diary that the Germans shouted across a challenge to play football on Christmas Eve, but he doesn’t mention football again.

We know that ‘C’ Company of 1/R.Warwicks played a game among themselves before going to meet the Germans. This is almost certainly the game mentioned by Lt Kurt Zehmisch of IR134 whose diary actually says,

The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued.

And sadly, that one observation is where others keep on pushing that football was played at St Yvon between British and German soldiers.

But as Taff Gillingham notes,

On 20th March 2002 I was very fortunate to be able to meet with Rudolf Zehmisch and Barbara Littlejohn, the daughter of Bruce Bairnsfather, and show them the spot where their Fathers spent Christmas Day. The two men may have met but there is no evidence for that. However, both Rudolf and Barbie were very clear on one thing – that there was no football between 1/R Warwicks and IR134 at Plugstreet. Rudolf made it very clear that his Father’s diary refers to British soldiers playing a game amongst themselves. At no point does he refer to a game between the Warwicks and his own men. The German military historian Rob Schaefer agrees with Rudolf. The passage from Zehmisch’s diary has been continually misquoted (as at the National Memorial Arboretum’s new football memorial) to twist his words into saying something he did not write. Barbie was equally adamant. As she pointed out, had there been any football there her Father would have mentioned it in his book and almost certainly drawn a cartoon of it as, in her words, “My Father loved the absurd things in life”. Both were at St Yvon to be filmed for a documentary I was working on that was shown on Channel 5. As both were adamant that there was no football there, neither mentioned it in their interviews.

For me, there is one word that is used in another account and that’s the word ‘proposed’. Henry Williamson wrote about the Christmas Truce several times. He mentions football once in a fictional novel, ‘A Fox Under My Cloak’, published in 1955.

…a football was kicked into the air, and several men ran after it. The upshot was a match proposed between the two armies, to be held in a field between the German lines.

As we have seen all efforts to play football between the two sides at St Yvon were suggested or proposed but never actually happened. And yet all of these accounts have been leapt upon by others to prove that football was played at St Yvon. So much so that UEFA placed a memorial to this fictitious act at Prowse Point in 2014.

‘Rusty Bollard’

This memorial was put there against the advice of an expert and has now become a tacky shrine for people to lay footballs and team scarves at a site where no football was actually played and it has been given the nickname of the ‘Rusty Bollard’.

So, what we now have to do is challenge these duff history memorials and accounts about football and if this is mentioned then it goes to the accounts where we know it was played.

I have written about it purely because we must try to get this out to a wider audience. That, to me, is now predominantly football fans and teachers. The reason I say those two is because they seem to be the largest groups who still post up images of where they have either taught their class unwittingly duff history, or where a football fan or group post up the infamous picture of soldiers playing football in Salonika in 1915, or they post up a picture of the Rusty Bollard at Prowse Point as they proudly wrap a scarf around it or place a football in the tray below it.

Soldiers playing football in Salonika in 1915

This has to stop because as Taff Gillingham noted last year,

This year, football has totally hijacked the true story of the Truce and the men who took part. In 1914, of the 30,000+ men who may have taken part in the Truce, maybe 20-30 may have had a kickabout with the Germans. After this December, the 1914 Truce will never be remembered for anything other than football, all the true stories will be totally wiped out and the participant’s real history robbed forever. That is utterly disgraceful.

I am sure the debate on all of this will rage on but ultimately as a battlefield guide and author I must try to ensure that what I am writing about this accurately and showing my groups what is the truth and myth about football and the Christmas Truce. So, I have every intention of doing that as much as I can.

Editor: Well wasn’t that a superb piece, so what some of you may have thought was true isn’t but as Steve has said some aspects did indeed occur and other bits have become twisted or embellished over the years

Thanks again to Steve for taking the time to share his work & for agreeing to take part in this blog. If you want to know more this blog links in nicely with daily posts that Steve has been doing on his twitter feed. Please do follow him @stevesmith1944

I’ll be taking a slight break over the festive period so until we meet in 2021, A very Merry Christmas to you all & your loved ones

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December Guest Feature

Welcome to this month’s Guest Feature, How on earth has it come to December already?

I’m immensely happy to be joined this month by fellow enthusiastic Amateur Historian Sandra Gittins who many of you will know from twitter @ypreswoman . Sandra regularly posts amongst other things information on employees of Great Western Railway lost in the Great War & also enjoys sharing the latest additions to her incredible postcard collection of original images of stations & railways on the Western Front, which I’m rather envious of I must say!!

So it’s over to Sandra with a great feature on the Railways on the Western Front & she shares some fantastic information that you may not have previously known.

Sandra Gittins

I was surprised, and somewhat flattered, when Wayne asked me to put together something for his guest feature so here goes.

Although I live in Devon I was born near Orpington Kent, and brought up listening to stories of Kent life during WW2, and I have had an interest in the Battle of Britain ever since. Other periods of history I find fascinating are the Tudor period and the English Civil War, but the First World War has taken precedence which came about, as it has with many others, by tracing my family history.  When I was a Pharmacy Technician at the Welsh Regional Burns and Plastic Surgery Unit at Chepstow a colleague and I worked on our respective family histories, and both of us had relatives who served in the First World War, which began our lifelong interest in the Western Front. At this point I should add that my head of department was an active member of the Monmouthshire Railway Society, and it was through him that I was introduced to the world of railways. It was during this time that I found details of relatives who had been employees of the Great Western Railway, and served in France and Belgium in the infantry and the railways.

My deep interest in the railways on the Western Front grew after writing the history of the Great Western railway in the First World War as so many of the men were working on the railways out there, but it wasn’t only the GWR as many employees of all the home railway companies found their way into the railway companies of the Royal Engineers.

At the start of the war the Royal Engineers had two regular railway companies and three reserve companies, which was considered sufficient prior to hostilities, but after the first couple of months it was realised that this was woefully inadequate, and there was no capability for expansion, coupled with the pre-war agreement with France that they would be responsible for the upkeep and running of the railways. In October Kitchener sent Sir Percy Girouard, who had been the Director of Railways during the South African War, to France to report on the situation and see what could be done to rectify the problem. Space here does not permit me to go into the outcome of the report and the negotiations with the French, suffice it to say that this was the beginning of what would be a fascinating period of railways and engineering.

On the 15 December 1914 Cecil Paget, Superintendent Midland Railway, was serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Air Service, and was transferred to the Royal Engineers becoming Deputy Assistant Director of Railway Transport; his RNAS Commission wasn’t terminated until January 1915.

Lieutenant Colonel Cecil Walter Paget (Hyla Cockram Collection) supplied by Trevor Edmonds

He was influential in the birth of the Railway Operating Division (ROD), and became the commanding officer of this often overlooked and efficient unit, and although he would eventually be commanding over 18,000 men, he declined any promotion above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

When the ROD first went to France in May 1915, they only had 35 Belgian engines that had been rescued and in an appalling state, and machinery to repair these was thin on the ground, so Paget went back to England and ‘borrowed’ what he could from the Midland Railway. Those were the early days, and by the end of the war depots and workshops had been built to service and build locomotives, of which there were 1,205 together with 54,000 wagons, and maintain ambulance trains, light railway tractor units, locos and wagons on the Western Front. The Broad Gauge (what we know as Standard gauge) traffic consisted of troop trains, leave trains, the transportation of Tanks, water, coal, horses and the running of Ambulance Trains. Divisional Supply Trains ran daily, with each one carrying all the supplies for two divisions, which amounted to around 40 wagons containing food, forage, petrol, coal/coke, ordnance and mail, and reached 30 of these supply trains running every day in the latter half of the war

There was a considerable amount of railway construction carried out during the war, which was not foreseen at the beginning as, again, the French were to carry out all of the work but as the war progressed the number of French railwaymen available diminished owing to their enlistment into the military, plus the expansion of British Military Lines, especially in Belgium, meant that many more lines had to be constructed for future engagements. The BEF also found themselves in a similar situation to the French, as it was becoming difficult to release any more experienced railwaymen from home without having a detrimental impact on the railways in the UK, and even with the arrival of Canadian construction companies more men were urgently needed. In February 1916 the Adjutant-General sent out some 6,000 application forms to railwaymen serving in the Army, and suitably qualified men such as platelayers, riggers, carpenters, blacksmiths, fitters, rivetters, electricians and machinists were transferred from regiments to the Royal Engineers. At the same time volunteers from the home railway companies were called for to form civilian companies of platelayers to work in France for three months, although the eight civilian companies raised, with an average of 250 men in each, were not sent to France until March 1917; some Irish companies also went to France. To give you some idea of the manpower required in the construction of a new railway line, in April 1916 the 110th Railway Company employed 1,350 infantrymen while constructing a line from Bray sur Somme.

The question of transportation on the Western Front came about after the Battle of the Somme when many weak areas needed urgent attention, and Lloyd George sent a three-man team headed by Sir Eric Geddes to investigate. Geddes had been the Deputy General Manager of the North Eastern Railway before leaving to become Deputy Director General of Munitions, and had a reputation of getting things done. Geddes arrived in France on the 7 August 1916, and with his knowledge, influence and power, things were done, and it was the ideal opportunity to tackle the pre-war French railway agreement, and the outcome, basically, was that the BEF would help and assist the French during their time of difficulty by supplying locomotives, and the BEF would repair and improve lines, and build all their own military lines within their area of control.

Geddes established various Directorates, one of which was the Director of Light Railways. Light railways were proving themselves indispensable by diverting heavy loads away from the crumbling roads, and although originally the domain of Corps commanders, this was to change. At this point I might add that, as far as I am aware, that there is no comprehensive list of the men of this directorate. The higher ranks are easy to find, but whenever there is a mention of one of the lower ranks in a war diary it is usually as ADLR etc, followed by a number and infrequently by a name, and I took on the challenge to list every man of the directorate…. Well, as many as I could find which is around 45 so far, but this is very much an on-going project.

Each Army was allocated an Assistant Director of Light Railways, who was responsible for the running and maintenance of the light railways within his allocated Army. The First Army one was known as ADLR 1, Second Army ADLR 2 and so on. 

Most ADLR’s moved around within the directorate, or left to be replaced by lower ranks. The ranks below ADLR were Deputy ADLR, and Assistant Deputy ADLR.  Some of the Army areas were divided into north and south, and when this happened two ADLR’s were allocated.

From the 26 August 1918 the responsibility for light railway construction and maintenance, in all Army areas, was transferred from ADLR’s to officers of the Canadian Railway Troops.

Light railways were important to carry ammunition, stores, troops etc forward towards the front line, and casualties and troops on the return trips, and connect to the broad-gauge lines to have continuous lines of communication from the rear to the front. As indispensable as these were it was calculated that, financially, the cost was nearly four and a half times of that incurred on broad-gauge lines.

Geddes ensured that locomotives, wagons and track, of both gauges were arriving in France; Metre gauge lines were common in France and Belgium before the war, and some were used during the war, together with the upkeep of rolling stock and track.

1917 was a year of rapid railway expansion on the Western Front, and was a contributory factor in the success of operations that year, but the spring of 1918 found the construction companies having to destroy many lines and bridges to stop them being of any use to the advancing Germans.

The 260th and 268th Railway Construction Companies constructed the line from Colincamps to Serre in March 1917during bitterly cold weather and hampered by shelling. The line was demolished by the Canadian Overseas Construction Corps on the 25 March 1918 as the Germans approached the area

When the Germans retreated it meant that all the destroyed British lines had to be rebuilt, and rebuild the German’s own railway lines as the BEF advanced. 1918 was the most intense year for railway work, and the total lines rebuilt or new lines built amounted to 1,298 miles of Broad-Gauge track, compared to 789 miles in 1917. In contrast, the miles of 60cm Light Railway track in 1917 was 1,022, and 768 miles in 1918, but 580 miles were reconstructed during the months of July to December.

It was often said that life in the railway companies was an easy one, and compared to Front Line infantry it was probably true, but railways are dangerous places, and in war time even more so. Railways were a target for enemy bombing and shelling, and many sappers laying lines during shelling suffered from shell-shock as they were working in the open and easily observed, with nowhere to take cover, and deaths in comparison to the infantry were low, but these were railwaymen doing railway work, and that was their mission. A sad example of enemy attacks, and there are many, was that of Albert Gainsford. Employed as a shunter with the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, was wounded while at Mons, gunshot wound and suffering from gas exposure in 1915, and in January 1918 transferred to the ROD, and was with the 47th Broad Gauge operating company. In July he was working on the line to St Pol, which was frequently shelled, and unfortunately Gainsford died of a bomb wound to the chest on the 18th.

Enemy damage and accidents that occurred is another area I have been working on, and they give a good idea of what it was like to work on the railways on the Western Front, and here is a small example:

The engine driver of this train must have been astounded when he stopped at the destination and found what had happened:

The story of railways on the Western Front isn’t just about locomotives, it’s about the phenomenal engineering which was carried out quickly and under difficult conditions. The British RE’s were not alone as they worked alongside Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Portuguese and Americans, as wells as the Pioneer and Labour Battalions, which all makes for a multinational and complex history, but they are all unsung heroes of the First World War.

EDITORS NOTE: Well wasn’t that a brilliant article, being a Railwayman myself I find that incredibly fascinating & one of those subjects not often discussed despite it’s importance.

My thanks to Sandra again for being my guest and if you’d like to learn some more then Sandra has two books out which you can see below & are available on Amazon or other retailers

Also maybe of interest to you Leger Holidays Battlefield Tours have a new railway themed tour planned for 2021 ( Covid-19 Permitting!) Click for details War by Timetable | Leger Holidays

Thanks for joining me again and till next time keep researching & engaging everyone!!

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Sharing my photographs of the Old Front Line

It’s been another difficult week in lockdown but hopefully better news will come in the New Year. Then maybe (Brexit Permitting!) we can all start planning our travels & pilgrimages to the Old Front Line once again. Until then we find that our minds continue drifting back to better times so I thought that I’d share with you just a few of the photos that I’ve taken on some of my visits over the past few years. I’m certainly no Paul Reed, Andrew Holmes or anyone else of you talented folks who take amazing images for that matter when it comes to my photography and I’ll be honest all of my images were just taken on a mobile phone without filters

But here below is a selection of my images. Please do enjoy them but don’t reproduce anywhere without permission (I know I shouldn’t have to ask but you know what some people are like!!)

First up we’re in Ypres with the ever magnificent Menin Gate as well as the beautifully restored Cloth Hall

Menin Gate, Ypres 2019
Cloth Hall, Grote Markt, Ypres 2016

Staying on the Salient a pilgrimage wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Tyne Cot Cemetery & Memorial, there are 11,961 burials here,mostly unknowns, whilst just under 35,000 missing are named on the memorial

Storm clouds gather above Tyne Cot, 2016

Just South of Ypres, as we head on the N336 road towards Sint Eloi, we pass Bedford House Cemetery. Always a favourite place to wander around with it’s different sections of burials around the old Chateau & moat..it’s alot bigger than you first think!!

Bedford House, 2017

On my visits I always stay on the Somme but I always try and spend a day on the Salient. After a meal & the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate it’s a drive back across the border into France and it was on one of these evening drives that I just had to pull up at the side of the road outside I think Oosttaverne Wood (Please correct me if I’m wrong) and capture the most beautiful sunset. Definitely one of those right place,right time moments

Sunset on the Salient, 2018

West of Ypres in 2019 I found myself near Poperinge at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery,my first visit here. The site of several Casualty Clearing stations, Remy Sidings named after the railway here, and that’s why of the 9,901 commonwealth burials here only 24 are unknowns with a further 883 other nationalities mainly French & German buried also

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, 2019

Vimy Memorial to the Canadian missing is vast & certainly impressive. On a windy, showery day in March 2016 Mother Canada, mourning for her lost sons seemed even more sorrowful

Mother Canada, Vimy Memorial, 2016

Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery with it’s backdrop of the memorial is simply breathtaking. The stonework & sculpturing I think is certainly at its very best here

Vis-en-Artois, 2017

Whilst in the same area I visited for the first time the battlefields around Arras, especially Rouex & Monchy Le Preux. And I captured some of the iron harvest that had been left on the wall at Monchy British Cemetery

Monchy British Cemetery, 2017

Heading down to the Somme it wouldn’t be complete without a photo of the mighty Thiepval, but I don’t think I’ve ever managed to take an impressive photo of it that does it justice. Either the lights wrong or someone wanders into shot at the wrong time

Thiepval, 2018

Off the usual track that people take at Montauban I found myself in Quarry Cemetery many years ago on an errand for Conor Reeves who needed a photo of a particular headstone after researching the man who now rests there. I returned on a wonderful Summers day in 2018, a very peaceful location

Quarry Cemetery, Montauban, 2018

Not far away is Bernafay Wood, which I’ve featured in a Cemetery Focus blog and is most definitely a personal favourite

Bernafay Wood, 2019

Devonshire Trench, close to Mametz, is especially moving as those who fell here on 1st July 1916 are buried in literally the trench that they unsuccessfully started their advance from. With those immortal words inscribed on the entrance to the Cemetery ” The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still”

Devonshire Cemetery, 2018

Adanac Military Cemetery (the name was formed by reversing the name “Canada”) was made after the Armistice when graves were brought in from the Canadian battlefields around Courcelette and the small cemeteries surrounding Miraumont

One of the many Canadian Unknown soldiers in Adanac, 2019

And finally I’ll end our nostalgic trip to the old front line with two images that mean something personal. The first is at Roye New British Cemetery, South of Peronne and the place where my relative, Sjt James Lucas 6th Lancashire Fusiliers is remembered. A very rarely visited cemetery & close to a busy road with several HGVs passing on their way to nearby industry around Roye. The entrance I find is incredibly beautiful, very reminiscent of dry stone walling

Roye New British Cemetery, 2017

And the final one is of my best mate Andy & his dad Brian visiting their relative Edward Partington at Éterpigny British Cemetery. Edward was killed on 2nd September 1918 whilst serving with Kings Own Royal Lancashire Regiment. He was just 18 years old

Brian & Andy Partington,Éterpigny, 2018

As I said a the start of this blog these visits are pilgrimages and what more says that than the photo above

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing some of my images of the last few years and I hope it doesn’t cause any heartache for anyone. Enjoy until you can be there for yourself and see with your own eyes the beauty of these sacred places

WW1

Cemetery Focus: Guillemont Road

Welcome to another of my blogs where I focus on a particular cemetery & you might have noticed a recurring theme so far, they are all on the Somme. I spend most of my time there on my visits to the old front line and it’s become almost a second home to me over the last 20+ years. It’s an area I feel comfortable in and I know about many of the events that took place here. But as ever I’m still learning and something new out there is always waiting to be discovered!

So this week we find ourselves at Guillemont Road cemetery, located by the side of the road on the D64 which runs from Combles-Guillemont-Montauban-Mametz to Albert. It was on this road that on 29th August 1914 the German 4th Reserve Corps, part of Von Kluck’s First Army, passed through, quickly dealing with any of the French Army that were encountered. Interestingly this would be repeated in May 1940 as General Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps, specifically 2nd Panzer, motored down this road heading towards Albert where a small unit of British soldiers had been left to put up some kind of defence as the main bulk of the British Army moved back towards the coast. The 7th Royal West Kent’s a Territorials unit lasted less than an hour, lacking both training & anti tank weapons. 20 would give theirs lives with the remainder surrendering or managing to escape

Back to Guillemont Road of course and as we look at the magnificent entrance if we peer down the road to our left we see Trones Wood & to our right the village of Guillemont itself

Guillemont Road Cemetery entrance ( Authors Own Photo)

The village was taken briefly on 30th July 1916 by 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers of 90th Brigade, 30th Division but couldn’t be held due to high number of casualties & prisoners taken in a counter attack by the Germans. On the 8th August it would be the turn of 55th (West Lancashire) Division to attack & again after a brief occupation of the village they were pushed back. An attack by 2nd Division took place on 18th August & again they initially captured parts of the village. It wouldn’t be until 3rd September 1916 in what became known as the Battle of Guillemont that elements of 20th (Light) Divison as well as 16th (Irish) Division captured & cleared the village & pushed on to the Ginchy Road. Casualties again were high especially to the South with over half of the Irish battalions becoming casualties as well as losses by French forces further to the South around Hardecourt-aux- Bois. The objective was Leuze Wood but it would see days of fierce fighting before the tip of this would be taken

Shortly after this the cemetery was begun an Advanced Dressing Station had been set up here to treat the wounded of this battle & from further afield at Ginchy & Lesboefs where the Guards Divison were in action and initially 121 men were buried here when it was closed in March 1917

In March 1918 this area was lost in the German Kaiserschlacht before being retaken by the 18th Division, returning again to this area after spending the Summer of 1916 near here, & 38th (Welsh) Division on 29th August 1918

It became after the war a concentration cemetery,having been designed by Sir Herbert Baker, and it now contains 2,263 Commonwealth burials and commemorations. 1,523 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to 8 casualties known or believed to be buried among them. That’s just an incredible 744 identified! Many bodies were brought in from the surrounding fields where they had lain since July-September 1916

In April 2019 I was very privileged to attend the reburial service of an Unknown soldier of the Sherwood Foresters, Notts & Derby Regiment in this cemetery whose body had been found with, if I recall rightly, 12 others whilst building the new wind turbines just North East of Guillemont towards Ginchy. He was the 4th to be reburied I think. Attended by the modern day ancestor regiment, The Mercian Regiment, the Military Attaché from Paris & CWGC staff the coffin draped in the union flag was carried by pallbearers of the regiment and a beautiful service was conducted and the unknown laid to rest. It was an incredibly humbling experience & the first & up to now the only reburial I’ve attended

Burial Service of Unknown Soldier April 2019( Authors Own Photo)
Unknown Sherwood Forester later that day after headstone installation (Authors Own Photo)

Of course many of you will be aware that Lieutenant Raymond Asquith 3rd Grenadier Guards, the son of the then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who on 15th September 1916 was shot through the chest whist attacking between Ginchy & Lesboefs and who died before reaching the ADS here at Guillemont. His story can be found in several places so I won’t reproduce it here but what is interesting is on the same row is buried Lieutenant Honourable Edward Wyndham Tennant, 4th Grenadier Guards killed a week after Raymond Asquith and related by marriage. There are suggestions he was buried here on purpose but it could have just been coincidence

Two graves that I always visit and raise a smile at, which you may find strange in a cemetery, are those of Private G/79064 H J Claus 9th bn Royal Fusiliers & Private 781529 Thomas Edward Christmas 29th bn London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) who both were killed on 28th August 1918 and buried in Hardecourt French Military Cemetery before being concentrated here by 3rd Labour Company in the 1920’s

Grave of Pvt HJ Claus (Authors Own Photo)
Grave of Pvt TE Christmas (Authors Own Photo)

Between the cemetery and the village Captain Noel Chavasse would win his first Victoria Cross whilst serving as Medical Officer in 10th bn King’s Liverpool Regiment ( Liverpool Scottish) when he rescued wounded men from the battlefield after an unsuccessful attack. Of course less than a year later whilst near Ypres he would win his second VC sadly awarded posthumously

If we look to the North we can see Delville Wood and the Western edges of the village of Longueval and moving our eyes across the landscape to the West we can see some modern day farm silos where the railway line that came out of Trones Wood passed this farm into Guillemont Station a short distance away

If we leave the cemetery & head down the road towards Guillemont turning off to our left down a track, where the German front line later known as Park Lane was, there is a wonderful walk that takes you up literally following the old German front line to Delville Wood & Longueval. As we walk we pass the site close to the old Quarry of Guillemont we see on our right what is now a water overflow area. When this was dug in 1938 3 bodies were found and one of these was identified as Captain Charles Hindley Walton 19th bn Manchester Regiment killed on 23rd July 1916. He was identified by a engraved cigarette case and is now buried with the other 2 men in London Cemetery & Extension, High Wood. Below can be seen concentration report showing the other unknowns were also 4th City 19th Manchesters. My good friend Andy Partington with interest also from Jonathan Porter have tried to confirm the identity of one of these other men for a few years now

Burial return © CWGC
Captain Charles Walton’s grave (Image Andy Partington)

We follow the track to the left,Hoop Trench, and a little further on as we look towards Trones Wood we see a private memorial in a field surrounded by a brick wall. This memorial was placed here by the family of 2nd Lt George Marsden-Smedley of 3rd Rifle Brigade who aged just 19 & in his first action was killed near here on 18th August 1916. He was seen to have been shot by a German Officer on the parapet if a German trench near here. His body like so many was never identified

Marsden-Smedley Memorial (Authors Own Photo)

The railway line ran close to this memorial as it headed into Guillemont with a branch off to the left to Waterlot Farm, a sugar refinery, and into the centre of Longueval. The front line was above the slight embankment on our right before it jutted out slightly around the chimney from the old refinery. As you can see again the Germans had the advantage with this slightly elevated position. There are remains of old buildings at the site of Waterlot with some newer farm buildings still in use. Remember as ever this part is private land

Trench map 15/08/16 (Memory Map/Great War Digital)

As we go on further we’re at the back of modern day houses with a peek of Delville Wood & it’s cemetery just behind it. Entering the village down the D20 road now if you’re lucky you may find a stop at the Calypso II bar/ Tabac for some liquid refreshment is in order

Guillemont Road is certainly one of my favourite cemeteries with its wonderful views of the battlefields & villages and being in what was no mans land it gives you a real birds eye view of both the British lines in Trones Wood & the distance they had to cross to get the German lines. Although cleared after the war I’m sure that this area still has many secrets to reveal

Thanks again for joining me I hope you’ve found it informative or if you knew the stories & the area I hope it managed to somehow transport you back there until we can all return. As ever feel free to comment here or contact me via twitter @Terriermcd . Especially if you have any personal stories & connection to Guillemont

Sources:

Cwgc.org

Ancestry.com

Andy Partington

The Middlebrook Guide to the Somme Battlefields

IWM Resource