WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed

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WW1 Books: World War I Battlefields Bradt Guide

bradtcoverWorld War 1 Battlefields: A Travel Guide to the Western Front by John Ruler & Emma Thomson

(Bradt Travel Guides 2014, ISBN 978 1 84162 484 6, 90pp. Illustrated, £6.99)

This new battlefield guide by the well known Bradt Travel Guides publishing company is an attractive and welcome addition to the books coming out for the WW1 Centenary this year. Clearly laid out and well illustrated in colour throughout, it is a handy pocket guide well worth taking on any trip to the Western Front.

The book starts with an overview map of the battlefields, some background information and general tour information, including details of battlefield tour companies. Part Two looks at the battlefields in Belgium from the coast at Nieuport to Ypres, and also taking in Mons. Part Three looks at France and covers Northern France, the Somme, the Aisne as well as the Marne, Champagne and Verdun. In each section not every location is covered but those mentioned are all good suggestions and do include some lesser known locations: the authors are to be congratulated for not just focussing on the obvious sites. There are also some good cameo stories about WW1 soldiers, including Jack Kipling for example.

An excellent overview of the Western Front battlefields and highly recommended for the new traveller to the Old Front Line as well as the seasoned battlefield veteran.

The book can be purchased from the publisher: World War I Battlefields Bradt Guide.


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Exploring The Western Front From End To End

The Western Front, established following the end of the mobile war in 1914, stretched for more than 450 miles from the Belgian coast in north Flanders to the border of Switzerland in the Vosges, in Eastern France. I have explored it from end to end a few times, the first time in the 1980s, and the last was in 2008. I am about to depart on the journey again as part of a Battlefield Recce for a new Leger Holidays Battlefield Tour I am running in 2014.

The majority of Western Front visitors never go beyond the Somme, except to venture perhaps to Verdun, but beyond Picardy is one of the most fascinating areas of the Old Front Line. In Eastern France there are vast areas of trenches preserved among the trees in the many forests and woods there, along with bunkers, mine craters and many other preserved area of battlefield. Some of the first shots of the war were fired here in the Battles of the Frontier and the first French and German fatalities occurred in this area on 2nd August 1914.

Over the next nine days I will be starting on the beaches of Flanders at Nieuport and working my way down the front, seeing many of these places. You can follow my journey on my Twitter account but I will also be using the trip to launch a new WW1 Centenary website called WW1 Revisited. This goes live properly on the morning of 1st March and will be a new site exploring my love of photography and the First World War battlefields.

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New WW1 Books From Pen & Sword

A round-up of some current WW1 books from military publishers Pen & Sword.

Breaking The Fortress Line 1914 by Clayton Donnell (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-84884-813-9, 225pp, Illustrated, £19.99)

For many British readers the Great War started at Mons on 23rd August 1914, but in fact the fighting started many weeks before as the German Schlieffen Plan took the conflict into Eastern France and Belgium. Both Belgium and France had invested heavily in fortifications before 1914 and these were considered state of the art and almost impregnable. German tactics and weaponry would prove otherwise and this new book looks at the battles for the forts in some details from the attack on the defences around Liege in the opening moves right up to the attack on Antwerp, which involved British troops from the Royal Naval Division in October 1914. A well written  and detailed account, illustrated with some superb photographs and good maps. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

Public Schools And The Great War by Anthony Seldon & David Walsh (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-78159-308-0,317pp, Illustrated, £25.00)

Recent newspaper articles and documentaries have focussed on what a catastrophe the Great War was for the middle and upper classes and this book looks in detail at how British public schools were affected by the events of the war and also the terrible scale of losses among old boys. It also looks at the service and death of schoolmasters, often forgotten among the long lists of old boys who died, and examines the question of the ‘Lost Generation’. A good contribution to our knowledge of this important aspect of Great War history. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

Teenage Tommy by Richard Van Emden (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-78303-278-7, 178pp, Illustrated, £19.99)

Richard Van Emden is one of our best oral historians having interviewed hundreds of Great War veterans and incorporated their memoirs into many of his excellent publications. This is a reprint of a book from 1996 but a most welcome one as it chronicles the story of Ben Clouting who was a young soldier in the 4th Dragoon Guards and fought in the campaign of 1914. This is a very engaging account of an important period of the Great War and one of the few ordinary soldiers voices from the ranks of a cavalry regiment. Highly recommended and essential reading for any student of WW1. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

Artillery In The Great War by Paul Strong & Sanders Marble (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-78303-012-5, 246pp, paperback £12.99)

Artillery was the kind and queen of the battlefield throughout the Great War. Most soldiers killed and wounded during the war were not shot down by machine-guns or killed with bayonets, but fell to shell fire which swept across the WW1 battlefields in ever increasing amounts by 1918. This excellent study of the use of artillery in the First World War takes a chronological approach and examines not just British artillery doctrine and weaponry, but of all the major combatant nations. It is fully referenced throughout and while not being an ‘easy’ read is recommended reading for anyone with a serious interest in the conduct of the Great War. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.


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WW1 DVD: Somme – 1st July 1916

The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916, in many ways dominates our popular understanding of the Great War. Eager volunteers walk into machine-gun hell in No Man’s Land with huge losses. But a subject that looks straight forward is far more complex, as a quick read of any book on the 1st July will demonstrate. What can a film on the day tell us?

In contrast to the Mons 1914 DVD I reviewed today, this is a very different film made available by Pen & Sword Digital. It is clear as soon as it starts that this is a film made by someone who understands how television works. It is presented by a professional presenter, which makes a great deal of difference, and the contributors talk well, in a way a general audience will understand. The focus of the film is about the story, with much less about the structure of the army and its units. In this way it presents the material well, with clarity and understanding. The film is well shot and the sound is excellent as well. It will appeal to the WW1 enthusiast of course, but is much more suited to a general public who want to understand more about the First Day of the Battle of the Somme and learn how it may have affected their ancestors.

Highly recommended from me and well worth the £16.99 price.

The DVD can be purchased from Pen & Sword: Somme 1st July 1916.

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WW1 DVD: Mons 1914

Mons 1914 coverThe Battle of Mons is an iconic engagement of the Great War when soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fired the opening shots in the west for the British Army. This 90 minute film follows the story of Mons from the mobilisation of the BEF in August 1914, to the first casualties, to the area where the fighting around Mons took place. Much of the filming is on-site in Belgium, seeing the famous locations from 1914 as they are today, interspersed with contemporary footage and interviews with experts.

The film was made by Battlefield History Television (BHTV) on behalf of Pen & Sword Digital. BHTV is a specialist video production company made up of largely retired British Army officers who are members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides, many of them working battlefield guides. At times the production is quite amateurish with video microphones on display, poor sound and some odd camera work. A few of the interviewees talk like they are on a Sandhurst staff ride with one commenting, for example, “the Germans continued their fighting in echelon” which will not mean much to most people. There are also too many references to Brigades, Divisions and Corps, which again means little to a general audience. Having said that, some interviewees like Paul Oldfield, Mike Peters and Ed Church do bring some of the stories to life and talk in terms most people can understand, and do it well.

This is the crux of this particular DVD: it is not really a film aimed at the general public, more the WW1 enthusiast. In that respect it does a good job in telling the Mons story and the 90 minutes are entertaining and interesting, covering some lesser known stories as well as the famous ones. The DVD retails for £16.99 but is currently under special offer on the P&S website.

The DVD can be purchased from Pen & Sword: Mons 1914.



New French IGN WW1 Map


The Institut Géographique Nationale, the French company that produces high quality maps of the whole of France, has produced a new map for the WW1 Centenary. The map covers a major portion of the Western Front battlefields in France.

A press release states:

This map features the main front lines in 1914, 1917 and 1918. It proposes a series of circuits in vehicles or on foot, and of course, the location of the main sites of memory (cemeteries, memorials, forts, places of battle, destroyed villages …). A complete legend relates the dates and locations of major battles (1914 to 1918). A “zoom” target main front lines and battles (Reims-Soissons, Verdun, Paris-Lens). This map was published in partnership with “Mission Centennial 14-18.” The scale is 1:410 000 (1cm represents 4.1 km). It is in three languages ​​(French, German, English).

The map cost 7.90€ and it is available in French bookstores, newsagents and many sites on the WW1 battlefields or via the IGN website.


Jeremy Paxman: Britain’s Great War

Tonight Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War starts on BBC1 at 21.00. It is being scheduled as the BBC’s flagship series for the WW1 Centenary and is certainly the start of a whole scope of programmes associated with the Great War which the BBC announced on their special WW1 Page.

I worked on this series for eleven months, with all four producers and of course Jeremy himself. My contribution was just on the WW1 battlefields themselves at locations like Mons, in Flanders, on the Somme or the Hindenburg Line. It has been interesting to read some of the comments about the series, mostly by people who have not even seen it yet. Was Jeremy the right one to present it? Why not an historian? Television is a costly process and networks want to ensure that as many people as possible watch the end result, which is why many of these type of programmes are presented by people like Jeremy Paxman. But Jeremy is a serious and enquiring journalist, certainly well read on the Great War from my experience, and from my own involvement in it, Britain’s Great War will bring some fresh perspectives and – more importantly I hope – many new people to the subject of the First World War, which can only be welcomed.

Britain’s Great War will no doubt not please everyone, and many will ask why aspects of the war have been included seemingly at the expense of others, but the next four years are about interpretation. No two people ever agree about almost any aspect of the Great War and no single programme or series will ever represent a global view of the subject; could it ever? But television like this will get an audience talking – whether people realise the merit and value of that remains to be seen.


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