WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


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Book Review: Forgotten Battlefields

The word ‘forgotten’ is probably the most over-used of the entire First World War Centenary but there are clearly forgotten aspects of that mighty conflict, and many forgotten battlefields – especially beyond the Somme. Military publishers Pen & Sword are to be congratulated for ensuring that new guidebooks to these areas are being published as well as Somme100 books and there are two new releases out.

10919David Blanchard’s Battleground Europe: Aisne 1918 (Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 978 1 78337 605 6, 280pp, paperback, £14.99) is a unique guidebook to the largely ignored British actions on the Chemin des Dames near Reims in May 1918 when British divisions sent their for a rest after actions on the Somme and Lys in March-April 1918 found themselves under attack for a third time. The author has been researching this for many years and this shows in the depth of knowledge in the book and the many never before seen images and accounts. The tour section is first class with some good leads on what to see and visit, excellent maps and information. Exactly what the centenary should be about: introducing us to areas that many have genuinely never before explored either in print or on the ground. Highly recommended.

11095Andrew Uffindell has written a number of books on the Great War and Napoleonic history, including a really good guidebook to the Marne 1914 battlefields which I used on the ground a while back. This new title The Nivelle Offensive & The Battle of the Aisne 1917 (Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 978 1 78303 034 7, 197pp, £14.99) is an in-depth battlefield guide to the battlefields where the Neville Offensive took place on the Chemin des Dames in 1917, and where the French Army mutinied. The book breaks the battlefield up into sectors from Laffaux in the west to Malmaison and Craonne. The maps and illustrations are excellent, and there is a good mix of history and battlefield information. The section on the first use of tanks by the French is especially interesting. Another great battlefield guide to a neglected aspect of the First World War.

 

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New Verdun Books from Pen & Sword

A century ago the Battle of Verdun was in its second month: a terrible battle, arguably one of the most terrible of the war which saw more than 770,000 and bombardments with unbelievable statistics: a thousand shells per square meter and barrages where nearly 5,000 shells fell every minute. Military publisher Pen & Sword have just published some new titles to co-incide with the centenary.

Ian Sumner’s Images: The French Army At Verdun (Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 97801047385 615 8, 121pp, paperback, £14.99) is an excellent overview of the battle from an author with a good track record of books on the French side of the Great War. There are brief chapter introductions but some good photo captions. The photographs themselves are well chosen and show both the French and German side of the battle. The air photos clearly show the destruction the bombardments caused and give an insight into the hell of Verdun: highly recommended.

12487Bob Caruthers is better known as a WW2 author but his new Images of War: The German Army on Campaign 1914-1918 (Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 9781473837829, 128pp, paperback, £14.99) offers his expertise on the German Army in the Great War. The book is not just about Verdun, covering the whole war, but it is certainly a theme. The images are drawn from private collections as well as official sources, so many of them are published for the first time. An excellent visual overview of the German Army in WW1.

12097Historian Christina Holstein is one of the foremost experts on Verdun so among this latest offering it is good to see a new guidebook from her: Verdun – The Left Bank (Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 978 1 47382 703 5, 190pp, paperback, £12.99). This is a really excellent guidebook covering Mort Homme and the Cote 304 area in some detail: the vital left bank is often neglected by historians, let along battlefield visitors. As one would expect with Holstein the work is very well researched, there are good illustrations and excellent maps. A real must for anyone going to Verdun this year.


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Verdun Centenary

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This week will mark the centenary of the Battle of Verdun; the longest, and perhaps arguably one of the most terrible battles of the Great War. From February to December 1916 there were an estimated 770,000 French and German casualties and it became known to the Poilus who fought there as the ‘mincing machine’ or the ‘mill on the Meuse’ in the way it chewed up men, with killing almost on an industrial scale.

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Poilus at Douaumont 1916 (Paul Reed)

The landscape at Verdun also struggled to survive: conservative estimates on the amount of shells fired from the huge quantity of artillery used at Verdun – everything from the French 75mms to the massive German 420mm Big Berthas – state that more than 1,000 shells fell for every square metre of the battlefield. This turned Verdun into a lunar landscape of shell holes; a smashed and tortured landscape still visible beneath the trees of the National Forest today.

The smashed Verdun landscape at Fort Douaumont (Paul Reed)

The smashed Verdun landscape at Fort Douaumont (Paul Reed)

But more than the casualties, and the number of shells fired, is what Verdun came to mean, and still means. After the Great War Verdun was seen as a warning: that warfare on this scale should never happen again. This is what the ossuary at Douaumont was built for: a massive monument with the fragmented remains of those who had died in 1916 on display: look at war does to man, it must never happen again. The memories of Verdun were still fresh in the minds, the subconscious of the French nation when it found itself at war with Nazi Germany a generation later. Blitzkrieg shattered France’s armed forces and those left were faced with the cold, hard truth: fight on and face another Verdun, or capitulate. Even that hero of Verdun was wheeled out to unify France after the German victory: Marshall Philippe Pétain.

Kohl & Mitterrand at Verdun 1984 (©Wolfgang Eilmes/DPA/MAXPPP)

Kohl & Mitterrand at Verdun 1984 (©Wolfgang Eilmes/DPA/MAXPPP)

In the 1980s, at the height of a Cold War almost gone hot, Verdun surfaced once more as a way to bring France and Germany together: Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President François Mitterrand met, hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks at Verdun, even holding hands, during a time when an even more terrible conflict seemingly loomed close. The symbolism was obvious: Verdun was a warning once more.

Verdun today: Mort Homme 2016 (Paul Reed)

Verdun today: Mort Homme 2016 (Paul Reed)

A century on from 1916, Verdun emerges once more in France as the nation’s byword for the Great War. French people are remembering the Poilus of the Great War in a way that has not happened before, with superb projects like 1 Jour 1 Poilu, war memorials are being researched and the generation of the Great War is not some distant part of France’s past. The war touched all of France, and a century later it touches the nation once more: what modern France makes of Verdun today remains to be seen.


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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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Book Review: New WW1 Guide Books from Pen & Sword

The Retreat From Mons 1914: North by Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland (Pen & Sword 2014, ISBN 978 1 78303 038 5, 157pp, paperback, illustrated, £14.99)

Jon Cooksey is editor of Stand To! and Jerry Murland has written several books about the British Army in 1914 and this volume is part of a series the authors have been working on covering largely lesser known battlefields of the Great War. Starting with a brief background to the British Army in 1914, some historical context and visitors information, the bulk of the book covers four main tours looking at different aspects of the Mons battlefields. This takes in the Mons area itself but also the early stage of the Retreat From Mons down to the battlefield at Le Cateau. Text is clear and the book goes into some detail with lots of human interest stories. There are good, clear maps and is well supported by contemporary images as well as colour modern ones. Mons has lacked a good battlefield guide for some time and this certainly fills the gap taking the visitor to some well known sites and also some lesser known ones. A fantastic Mons battlefield guide and essential reading for anyone going to Mons for the Centenary this August.

The book is available from the publisher’s website.

Ypres 1914: Langemarck by Jack Sheldon & Nigel Cave (Pen & Sword 2014, ISBN 978 1 78159 199 4, 208pp, paperback, illustrated, £12.99)

The authors have produced a number of Battleground Europe books looking at familiar Great War battlefields from a German perspective based on the research done by Jack Sheldon in German archives and unit histories. This volume looks at Langemarck, a village associated with a great deal of myth when it comes to the German experience of WW1 as the Nazis peddled the myth that the cream of Germany’s youth suffered a futile death here in the First Battle of Ypres. The bulk of this book is history rather than guidebook and nearly 130 pages cover the fighting in some depth with insights from both the British and German perspective. It is well illustrated, with many photos from German sources and thus lesser known. The tour section suggests four battlefield routes which cover areas much wider than Langemarck itself, and again there are good illustrations and maps to accompany this. My only criticism is that I could not find any mention of the symbolism of Langemarck to the next generation, nor any debate about the Lanhemarck – which was odd considering the book is more history than battlefield guide. Having said that it is a useful book for anyone wanting to look at an aspect of First Ypres in depth or visit the battlefields from a different perspective.

The book is available from the publisher’s 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.