WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


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Book Review: First World War For Dummies

513JTiulw1LFirst World War For Dummies by Dr Sean Lang (John Wiley & Sons 2014, ISBN 978 1 118 67999 9, 396pp, illustrated, index, £15.99)

Part of me thinks that any book which has ‘For Dummies’ in the title is something to be avoided but there is no doubting that this series of publications, covering everything from language to computers is highly popular and a brand that many people turn to for an introduction to a subject. So why not the same for the First World War?

And indeed, why not? This particular publication has been produced in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum and is written by Dr Sean Lang a university lecturer and author of other titles in the series. From the start you have to recognise this is broad-brush history but with moments of clarity and detail, and looking at the structure of the book its twenty-two chapters cover everything from the origins of the war to the big battles on land but does not neglect subjects like the war at sea, women at war and also life on the Home Front. The final section looks at ‘tens’ – ten key generals to ten enlightening places to visit. The generals section is interesting as it does not contain Haig, but Rawlinson and Plumer. The enlightening places section was pleasing to see but sadly full of mistakes; there is no mine crater at the Newfoundland Park as stated and the museum at Verdun is the Memorial not the Historial, that’s at Peronne. But these are just niggles which caught my eye, and were rare in the rest of the book.

The text throughout is ‘chatty’ – remember this is designed to be a gentle introduction for people who are ‘dummies’. But not dumb – and that is the key; there are some good pieces throughout the book and it is well written and thoughtfully structured. For sure ‘old hands’ to the subject of the Great War would find little of interest here but if you wanted a good single volume overview written in an accessible way this is it, and if you are researching WW1 ancestors and want to see the wider picture without going too deeply – again this fits the bill more than adequately. In addition it is well illustrated, with some good schematics and useful maps, and easy to dip in and out of. Much more of a welcome to the WW1 Centenary than I thought it would be.

The book is available from the publishers website.


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Book Review: Stemming The Tide

STEMMING THE TIDE. OFFICERS AND LEADERSHIP IN THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE 1914

By Spencer Jones (Helion 2014, ISBN9781909384453, 384 pages 15 b/w photos, 8pp colour maps, £29.95)

A century ago this week the men of the B ritish Expeditionary Force (BEF) went into action for the first time close to the Belgian mining town of Mons. We think we know a lot about the ‘Old Contemptibles’ but what do we really know of the officers who took them into battle in 1914?

This new book, edited by University of Wolverhampton’s Dr Spencer Jones, looks at the crucial question of leadership and officers in the BEF during the 1914 campaign though the work of a diverse collection of Great War academics. The book starts with an examination of the senior level of leadership at GHQ with articles on the CinC Sir John French and the BEF’s “big brain” Sir William Robertson. Command at Corps, Divisional and Brigade level is then discussed. Mark Connelly’s article on Lieutenant-General Grierson, the II Corps commander who died of a heart attack before a shot had been fired, was especially interesting as it casts light on a little known senior officer whose death led to the appointment of Smith-Dorrien and perhaps took II Corps on a different route than if Grierson had survived. I was pleased that Spencer Jones’ piece on one of my heroes, Charles Fitzclarence VC (who as ‘GOC Menin Road’ had shown outstanding leadership during First Ypres), showed clearly that Fitzclarence had made a crucial impact on the outcome of the fighting at Ypres in 1914 and demonstrated that even during the war his key role wasn’t properly recognised until some time after his death. The three chapters on ‘command at the sharp end’ were of particular interest with a good overview of battalion commanders and another on company commanders, and a fascinating piece on despatch riders, which hints at the wider subject of problematic communications in what was a very mobile war in 1914.

Although the book is the work of a number of contributors, it is clear these were carefully chosen; the whole publication reads well and is a testimony to Spencer’s editorship. This is not necessarily a book for the general reader but equally should be of interest to any serious student of the Great War wanting to discover how the training, skill, knowledge and experience of the officer class in 1914 contributed to the outcome of the BEF’s battles in the early months of the conflict. Highly recommended.

The book is available from the Helion & Co website.


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Book Review: New Edition of Holts Battlefield Guides

Major and Mrs Holt have spent much of the past thirty years building a reputation as battlefield experts first with their battlefield tours and since they left that company, in the form of their guidebooks and maps. As the centenary of the Great war begins two new editions of their guidebooks have just been published.

Western Front North (Pen & Sword Military 2014, ISBN 978 178159 397 4, 367pp, fully illustrated, £16.99)

This is part of a two-volume set covering most of the Western Front from the Belgian coast to beyond Verdun, splitting the battlefields between ‘North’ and ‘South’. This North volume covers Flanders down as far as Arras but also Mons and Le Cateau and some of the final battlefield areas of November 1918. The book begins with sections on practical information and how to use the guidebook and then follows a series of chapters covering the battles from Mons to the fighting in Flanders. Each of these chapters has one or more battlefield tour of the related areas and while there is some cross-over, for example with Aubers Ridge and Fromelles, generally this works well. The text of the guidebook is well written, as one would expect with the Holts, and there is sufficient detail for each location. The maps within the book are clear and relate to the text, and the images throughout are modern day colour illustrations which help visualise the guidebook.

While not everything in these battlefield areas is covered in this guidebook – when is it ever, in any such guide? – this is a good overall study of what is largely a neglected area of the Western Front and as such is recommended for anyone considering a trip to the ‘forgotten front’. My only criticism would be is that I would have liked to see less on Ypres, which the authors have covered in the volume below, and more on the other sectors but as this is a guidebook to the whole front from Nieuport to Arras, it did need some coverage of Wipers.

The book can be purchased from the Pen & Sword website.

Ypres: Salient & Passchendaele (Pen & Sword reprinted edition 2014, ISBN 978n0 85052 551 9, 288pp, fully illustrated, bundled with a full-colour map, £16.99)

This is not a new 2014 edition of this guidebook but a reprint of one compiled a few years ago, and in that respect it is a shame as some of the detail contained in this edition is now out of date or incorrect, given the changes in the last eighteen months leading up to the WW1 Centenary.

Having said that this is still a very useful guidebook to the battlefields around Ypres and covers a wide area in some depth, and also includes a full colour A2 map showing all the locations mentioned, battle lines and other information. As with all the Holts guidebooks it is fully illustrated in colour and easy to use and digest.

The book itself is divided up into several sections: approaches to Ypres, and what there is to see en-route, and then three main itineraries around the Salient covering all the key battle sites. There are other chapters with suggested visits up to the Flanders coast where the Western Front ended near Nieuport as well as a focus on the mine craters along the Messines Ridge. Overall an excellent Ypres guidebook and well worth packing on any visit to Flanders, and I look forward to a Centenary update in due course.

The book can be purchased from the Pen & Sword website.

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BBC Our World War: Review of Ep1 – Mons

Having read a lot of negative press in the Great war Community about the BBC3 series Our World War, even before it was broadcast and no-one had seen it, I was very interested to finally watch it. With rumours of indie pop, odd camera angles and ‘Call of Duty’ style graphics I had feared the worst but actually… I really rather enjoyed it. In fact second only to the superb ‘The Somme: From Defeat To Victory‘ this is a very fine piece of docudrama from the BBC and a fitting addition to their WW1 Centenary season.

The film is sixty minutes of television and does raise a lot of points; I don’t intend to discuss them all here but I will make a few.

The Filming: this I thought was one of the things that made it for me. Far from odd camera angles the use of cameras giving different perspectives was very effective and much like ‘helmet cams’ as seen in Afghan war documentaries in recent years; I suspect that was the inspiration for this and in my opinion it worked. The graded colour was also a clever touch and gave the film a ‘dirty’ look, which again I think added to the structure of the film. The ‘Call of Duty’ style aerial graphics were clever too and well used; and will be recognisable and understandable to a generation looking at a WW1 docudrama perhaps for the first time. All of this made it a powerful film indeed.

The Music: yep, it was indie pop (rather nice to hear some PJ Harvey, who actually put out an album inspired by WW1 btw). Was it suitable? That will be up to personal taste but I think it certainly fitted in to the ‘modern’ approach the film makers took. The film was raw and so was the music.

The Sets: this aspect of it did not always work for me. The bridge at Nimy was a fair copy of the one there today but nothing like the low stone parapet railway bridge that was actually defended by the 4th Royal Fusiliers in August 1914. I know a little of this as I was contacted by the programme makers who were desperate to find some vaguely suitable bridge in the UK to film it. Unfortunately I couldn’t help and the one they did end up using, in a wooded setting with no buildings, was nothing like Nimy 1914 but I don’t think detracted too much from the drama, even if it did from the history. The Head Quarters the runner went back and forth to was the most disappointing of the sets as it looked far too ‘English'; I presume it was probably filmed at Chatham Dockyard? But even with this drama I think budgets were limited and for a general audience it would have worked, and few would have noticed.

Uniforms: for many who watch programmes like these misdemeanours in the costume department do get people hot under the collar. There were a few here, but only a few, and things that most would not notice. Did the officers of 4th Royal Fusiliers really wear Other Ranks shoulder titles on their tunics; probably not? Dease was wearing an Imperial Service badge above his right tunic pocket, only worn by Territorials and not regulars like him. Wrist/bracelet style identity disk were not common place in 1914 (Godley is seen wearing one) and I would go as far as saying probably not worn at all by the BEF. Told you these were small points! But otherwise the actors looked at home in their uniforms, they were dirty and well worn, and the soldiers were dirty too with far from perfect appearances and teeth. They really did look like soldiers of the BEF.

The Characters: for a drama this is one of the few that has made Great War soldiers appear as real men. There were not many stereotypes here and the language, with plenty of swear words, was well constructed. Officers and men were more familiar than the army of 1914 would have been, but I suspect this is a modern take on it. I liked the Australian character and at first wondered why he had been used but in fact he was based on a real person Lieutenant (later Captain) Frederick Wilberforce Alexander Steele, an Australian who served with the regiment as the AWM website shows. Whether he would have had a slouch hat and drover’s coat; that is another matter! The runner character I thought was excellent and gave an insight into a side of the Great War few consider; battlefield communications. I also liked the device of showing Godley as an under-performing soldier who came good, as that reflected what often happened in the midst of battle, but I fear there is little evidence of that in the story of the real Godley. Having said all that these were all believable characters and people you quickly got interested in; which is the sign of good, professional drama.

The History: at times good, often very good and occasionally bad, but for me not so bad as to diminish the impact of the whole film. A full rifle company supported by the battalion machine-gun section defended the real Nimy Bridge, but the film made it look like a skirmish at times. Dease was in command of the machine-guns not the company and that part of his relationship to the story was a little confused I felt. As was Godley’s; he was a soldier in a rifle section who had been trained on the Maxim gun and as I thought was the story only stepped in to help when others had been killed and wounded. The Sappers blowing the bridge at Jemappes was weak historically as it looked nothing like urban Jemappes and the constant use of ‘Sir’ for a Sapper addressing a Corporal was odd indeed; and their conversation, body language and actual language when speaking to a Royal Engineers officer earlier in the film way off the mark for 1914. The final comment about Mons being a ‘humiliation’ for the British was unfortunate, and not really explained. It was a shame as no doubt this will spoil it for many.

Yet despite all this the first episode of Our World War was for me a moving insight the British Army’s first engagement of the Great War. What it set out to do was re-tell this part of the war in a modern way, from a modern perspective. And that’s where many will have issue with it. It set the men in the film not as hapless pawns but real characters, real heroes and real soldiers. Ending it with Steele’s original recommendation for the Victoria Cross and the recording of Godley was a brilliant touch.

This was a good start to this series; and we can only hope it continues in the same vein.

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Lights Out: Remembering The Start of the Great War

The next few days sees the final countdown to the start of the official commemoration of the actual Centenary of the Great War. On this day a hundred years ago German troops were mobilising for the invasion of France which would start the road to war for Great Britain when they passed through Belgium revoking that country’s neutrality, a neutrality safeguarded by Britain and the Treaty Of London. Britain’s upholding of that Treaty led to the declaration of war on 4th August 1914.

The first major event for the start of the British WW1 Centenary on 4th August is a multi-national service of remembrance at St Symphorien Cemetery near Mons, and later that evening the Lights Out event when,

“… everyone in the UK is invited to take part in LIGHTS OUT by turning off their lights from 10pm to 11pm on 4 August, leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection.

People can take part in whatever way they choose, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War either individually or by attending one of the many events being organised around the country for a collective experience.”

The Lights Out event has attracted a great deal of public interest and was even featured on the popular BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers, but not everyone has found the idea behind the event appealing. In a Blog post, Professor Gary Sheffield called it a ‘ludicrous gimmick’.

But what is clear the public seem highly engaged with projects like Lights Out and if nothing else it is a way for people to remember the Great War, and the people in their family affected by it, in their own personal way. What it tells us about the Great War remains to be seen.

Read more about Lights Out and follow the Twitter feed that supports the project. There is also an App that can be downloaded for smart phones.


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The Vosges & Alsace Battlefields: New French Magazines Review

Guest Post by Gwyneth Roberts : www.thebluelinefrontier.wordpress.com

Alsace Great War magazine covers 2014

Two magazines currently on sale in hypermarkets and bookshops in Alsace are very useful for anyone who is considering visiting this beautiful and interesting region to explore the impact of the Great War and the vestiges of warfare in the Vosges.

La Grande Guerre en Alsace (7,50€)

The cover of this magazine shows two brothers shaking hands next to a frontier post near Metz before the Great War. One is wearing a German uniform, the other a French one. This illustrates one of the themes of the magazine:  with a clear focus on Alsace, it looks at the ways in which the traumatic outcome of the Treaty of Frankfurt, 1871, resonated through the world wars of the twentieth century and, as the 14-18 Centenary approaches, how the psychology of the region was affected. It includes some of the issues particular to Alsace and Lorraine, such as the question of nationality, the effects on families of this very specific internal conflict, and the dilemmas faced by Alsaciens-Lorrains who liked the Germanic character which had developed in the region or those who yearned nostalgically for France.

Sections look at life in the trenches, the poet Ernst Stadler who was born in Alsace to German parents, served as German soldier and was killed by a French shell, prisoners and deserters (with a particular reference to Feldgrau-Alsaciens), Alaskan sled dogs, air warfare, civilians, religion at the Front, the post-victory problems of being initially neither German nor French and the predicament of families whose sons had died in German uniform. It’s well illustrated with contemporary photographs and images.

Published in November 2013 by DNA – Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace (dna.fr) -number 58 in the series called Les Saisons d’Alsace. (dna.fr)

Web: www.abo-online.fr/saisons-d-alsace-n-58-la-grande-guerre-en-alsace.html

Sentiers de mémoire de la Grande Guerre (7,00€)

The Massif des Vosges is especially interesting because it was the only mountain Front on French soil between 1914 and 1918. The difficulties of logistics, transport, construction of military buildings, managing an infrastructure and maintaining remnants of civilian life alongside the constraints of mountain terrain, altitude and climate were particular to this area.

This magazine is devoted to 31 walks which take in sites connected with the Great War in Alsace, underpinned by the theme of tourisme de mémoire. They include unexpected sites and lesser known places, vestiges and traces of the men’s presence, plus some unexpected museums. Indeed, some places are almost open-air museums themselves. The walks range from 2.5 km to 90 km and vary in difficulty from gentle strolls to serious hiking, for families or for energetic enthusiasts, from Kilomètre Zéro in the south (official inauguration 20.7.2014) to the sentier des casemates in the north. I have done a lot of exploring myself well before this publication appeared and I’m particularly enthusiastic about getting away from the crowded sites. I found some useful suggestions in this magazine.

It starts with some well-illustrated introductory articles and has a useful appendix with lots of exhibitions listed.

Published in May 2014 by DNA – Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace (dna.fr) – # 6 in the series called Passion Vosges.

Web: www.abo-online.fr/passion-vosges-memoire-grande-guerre.html
This link is also worth a visit:

14-18 Alsace, le centenaire:

http://www.region-alsace.eu/article/centenaire-de-la-premiere-guerre-mondiale

Strasbourg publisher le Nuée Bleu ( a partner of DNA) has some current offerings:

 La bataille des Frontières Vosges 1914-1915 (Jean-Paul Claudel) on promo in bookshops and on their website at 3€ instead of 18€

Les Alsaciens-Lorrains pendant la Grande Guerre (Jean-Noël & Francis Grandhomme)

Web: http://boutique.nueebleue.com/epages/NueeBleue.sf/fr_FR/?ObjectPath=/Shops/NueeBleue

 


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WW1 Book Review: Latest Titles from Pen & Sword

The Home Front In The Great War by David Bilton (Pen & Sword 2014, ISBN 978 1 78346 177 6, paperback, 256pp, fully illustrated, £14.99)

During the WW1 Centenary it is all too possible for the events on the battlefield to overshadow the Home Front. The Great War in some respects is not a conflict associated with a ‘Home Front’ in the same way WW2 is, and it is forgotten that the first Blitz was in WW1 and there was rationing by 1918. This superb new book covers life in wartime Britain in some depth and is broken into three sections, the first looking at the Home Front chronologically, then outlining a timeline of the war and finally a third section looks at particular aspects of Home Front history from the YMCA to Special Constables and the often forgotten Volunteer Force. This structure works really well and makes it a very accessible book, and the text is excellent and is accompanied by some superb photos, many of which are published for the first time. This is the best single volume I have read on the Home Front in the Great War and it is highly recommended.

The book is available from the Pen & Sword website.

Veteran Volunteer: Memoir of the trenches, tanks & captivity 1914-1919 Edited by Jamie Vans & Peter Widdowson (Pen & Sword 2014, ISBN 978 1 78346 277 3, hardback, 194pp, illustrations, £19.99)

I first came across the author of these memoirs, Frank Vans Agnew MC, when we were making WW1 Tunnels of Death for Channel 5 as we used one of his Messines battle maps in the programme. The diaries follow his war from service in the King Edward’s Horse to his transfer to the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps and later Tank Corps, serving with B Battalion at Messines and Cambrai, where he was taken prisoner. The second half of the book is a fascinating account of life as an officer prisoner of war in Germany. The diaries are well written and very readable and essential reference for anyone interested in the tanks, and there are some great images of the author as well as the tanks he commanded. A superb Great War memoir.

The book is available from the Pen & Sword website.

The Great War Explained by Philip Stevens (Pen & Sword 2014, ISBN 978 1 78346 186 8, paperback, 221pp, illustrated, £12.99)

This book states that it is ‘the essential starting point for all who want to understand the First World War’ and sets it out to be a single volume reference for the major aspects of the conflict aimed at the beginner who wants to understand the Great War. There is a section on why there was a war, and chronological chapters looking at various aspects of the war and its main battles. The appendices cover other areas such as information on the key generals, weapons and ideas on visiting the Western Front today. While I’m not convinced you can condense the Great War into one volume like this there is no doubt this book will be valuable to those conducting genealogical research who want an easy way to look at the wider picture or newcomers to the Great War who want a single volume to start their reading.

The book is available from the Pen & Sword website.

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