WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


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New Arras Books From Pen & Sword

The Battle of Arras is among one of the more neglected Great War battles and campaigns; while the Somme and Flanders have been swamped with publications, the number of books about Arras can be counted on one hand, so it is good to see Pen & Sword release some new titles in the approach to the 2017 centenary.

11580Peter Hughes’ Visiting The Fallen: Arras South (Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 978 1 47382 558 1, 335pp, hardback, £25.00) is the second volume in his study of the Great War cemeteries around Arras. This volume looks at the south-south-east area of the battlefield taking in the many small battlefield cemeteries in this area, many of which are well off the beaten track. For each cemetery there is normally some background to the burial ground then the author has selected a number of men buried there who are particularly interesting. Using their stories the book essentially retells the Battle of Arras through the men who fell there. It is a very useful book for visiting the ground and while it is more reference than a good read, it is well put together and superbly researched.

11845Peter Hughes’ latest work is to complete the two books on Arras North and South looking at the cemeteries, by devoting this one to the memorials to the missing that cover the area. Visiting The Fallen: Arras Memorials (Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 978 1 47382 557 4, 262pp, hardback, £25.00) looks are four of the massive memorials to the missing: the Arras Memorial, the Arras Flying Services Memorial, the Vimy Memorial and the Vis-en-Artois Memorial. The background and history of each memorial is explained and then by regiment and corps particular soldiers of interest are listed with their stories. Again, an excellent piece of research with many fascinating stories told for the first time, but I was surprised that the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial was not included as this includes Australian dead from Bullecourt and the early advance to the Hindenburg Line; a curious omission but it does not spoil an otherwise excellent work.

12180It is not often that books on trains in the Great War are published, or indeed that I read them, but Martin J.B. & Joan S. Fairbrother’s Narrow Gauge In The Arras Sector (Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 978 1 47382 118 2, 274pp, large format hardback, £30.00) is an excellent addition to our knowledge of the war at Arras. The Great War not just about bullets and bayonets, it was a war where the winner was the one who master logistics and the British use of trains was all part of the Allied Victory in 1918. The book looks in detail at the railway structure pre-1914 and then how it was expanded and adapted during the war. It is profusely illustrated with many rare images. The numerous excellent network maps show how extensive the use was by 1918. A fascinating ‘Things To See and Do Now’ chapter is also included which helps the battlefield visitor find some most unusual sites, not normally considered. A most unusual and superbly researched book for both the railway and Great War buff.


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Lowther’s Lambs Go To War

11 Bn Witley 1916

A century ago this weekend the men of the 11th, 12th and 13th (South Downs) Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment were on their way to France, finally about to begin their active service. They were part of the final wave of Kitchener’s Army making its way to the Western Front and for many men it had been a frustrating wait to do their ‘bit’ since enlisting in September 1914 in some cases. Raised by Lieutenant Claude Lowether MP they had been known locally in Sussex as ‘Lowther’s Lambs’ and were the Sussex equivalent of Pals battalions: the more than 3,000 men in the battalions represented almost every village and town in Sussex.

Lance Corporal Bob Short, of the 11th Battalion, recalled the reaction to being told that ‘this was it’:

“… Colonel Grisewood called the men on parade and told us we were going to France. Everyone cheered. This was it; we were finally at war!”

First to board their ship were the 11th Battalion, on S.S. ‘Viper’, and Lance Corporal Bob Short remembered being handed some tea in his Dixie as he mounted the steps up onto the ship. Meanwhile, the 13th Battalion were kept hanging around as Private Albert Banfield, from Hove, recalled:

“  The train ran right up to the quay. We got into  a large shed, where [there] was a canteen; here we could obtain hot coffee… and as we did not have to embark until 5.30pm we were at liberty to walk about the Docks.

There were two large Union Castle liners in the Dock, converted into Red Cross ships, having large red crosses painted on the sides and funnels. We also saw an armed merchantman, with several big guns.

About 5.30pm, we marched aboard and were taken down into the hold, which was low pitched, having fixed tables and forms. I did not stay there long – it seemed rather stuffy, so went on deck and had my last look at England. It was rather misty in the dusk, and I naturally wondered when and under what conditions I shall see it again.”

Researching the South Downs battalions have occupied more than thirty years of my time now; back in the 1980s I interviewed the last remaining veterans, Bob Short and Bert Banfield quoted here for example, and spent thousands of hours in archives and on the battlefields following their long war.

This year is not only the centenary of their active service but also their destruction at Richebourg on 30th June 1916 and on the Somme; thirty years ago in 1986 I self-published a little booklet about them, now long out of print, and for the centenary will be doing the digital version and release an e-book entitled ‘From Sussex to the Somme’. More details of this soon.


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Book Review: Visiting The Fallen – Arras North

Arras-North-Book-CoverVisiting The Fallen: Arras North

by Peter Hughes (Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 978 1 47382 556 7, 319pp, photos, £25.00)

As the author points out in the introduction to this book, Arras is something of a neglected battlefield. It sits within easy reach of the Somme and Ypres, but gets far fewer visitors compared to these areas of the old Western Front. The author, a former police officer who has been visiting the battlefields for over thirty years, hopes to redress this with this as the first of a trilogy of books looking at those buried and commemorated around the city of Arras.

The book is formed of a number of chapters and in each one several cemeteries are examined. These range from small communal cemeteries with only a handful of graves to large burial grounds like Cabaret Rouge with several thousand. The author has broken up the Great War battlefields around Arras into several areas which will form the trilogy of books and this volume looks at locations north/north-east of Arras itself. As such it covers the Vimy Ridge area in some detail and along with it the Canadian contribution to the 1917 battle.

For each cemetery background detail is given, often in some greater depth that the online Commonwealth War Graves Commission entries, which is to be welcomed. The author has picked a number of soldiers per cemetery and then discusses their life and war history. For some cemeteries there are a few such ‘cameos’ but for the larger ones, it can run to dozens. There are some great stories looking at men like Harvey-Kelly, the first RFC pilot to land in France to better known people like war poet Isaac Rosenberg. It really does give a good cross-section of the sort of men who fought and died at Arras in 1917.

This is a very interesting book and one I am sure I will look at often when visiting the cemeteries here, and the entries are all well written and full of detail. But I have to wonder at exactly who it is aimed at? Will the general public really buy three of these volumes to cover Arras? It will interest WW1 specialists and no doubt battlefield guides, but it surprises me that a publisher would publish several of them, when in some respect it is a book of ‘lists’ and not history as such. There is little context here, and I found the arrangement of chapters hard to fathom. The lack of maps is a serious omission in my mind as most people will have no idea where these cemeteries are or how the ones in the different chapters relate to each other. I hope they may think again on that aspect in future volumes as well as index of the names mentions as it is difficult to go back and find entries in some of the larger cemetery descriptions.

Having said that, this sort of publication certainly has its place. It adds a voice to the many white headstones in the silent cities around Arras and will be of benefit to anyone visiting the battlefields in this area. I look forward to future volumes, and perhaps some covering areas beyond Arras too.

The book can be purchased from the Pen & Sword website and the author also has a Visiting The Fallen website.


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Book Review: The Battles of French Flanders

11010Battle Lines: The Battles of French Flanders

by Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland (Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 978 1 47382 403 4, 232pp, illustrated, paperback, £14.99)

Readers of this blog will know that I very much like and enjoy the series of WW1 guidebooks by Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland, and there is no exception with this new title.

In this new book they cover another forgotten sector of the Great War, the battlefields in French Flanders from Neuve-Chapelle to Aubers Ridge, Festubert, Fromelles and Loos. In doing so they concentrate very much on events a century ago in 1915 but also dip into other periods of the conflict such as the Australian battle at Fromelles and the Royal Sussex attack at Richebourg, both in 1916. Some introductory chapters help explains some of the basics, while the rest of the book is broken down into twelve chapters each one devoted to a specific area, making it easy to use when travelling around. The book is well illustrated, with good, clear maps and is a joy to read and use. An absolutely essential book to have for exploring this part of the Western Front.


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Book Review: Between The Coast & The Western Front

9780750958431_3Between The Coast And The Western Front by Sandra Gittins (History Press 2014, ISBN 978 0 7509 5843 1, 96pp, paperback, fully illustrated, £16.99)

The recent flood of books about the Great War have often concentrated on events on the battlefield, in the trenches and shell holes of the Western Front, but life away from the fighting has been greatly neglected. This new title fills this gap nicely with a really superb volume looking at everything from the British Army Supply chain to the medical services and transportation including railways but also barges and the various types of transport used on the road. Chapters examine these subjects in detail and cover the work by units like the Army Service Corps, Royal Engineers, Labour Corps and also the work of women behind the lines.

The book is well illustrated with a fantastic array of images from official sources and also some from private collections, showing aspects of the Great War rarely covered in mainstream books. This was an excellent book I greatly enjoyed and sat down and read in one sitting. An engaging and original title covering little known aspects of the Great War.

The book is available from the History Press 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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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.