WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


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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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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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Forgotten Heroes: North Africans in the Great War

A new website has been launched to highlight the role of North Africans in the Great War. Men from every part of North Africa fought in the conflict either in units of the British or French Armies. Among them were Egyptians in the Egyptian Labour Corps in the British sector and combat troops recruited in Algerian, Morocco and Senegal among many others.

The site is also a portal to a foundation which aims to send a ehibition highlighting the role of these men around the world. The site explains:

“Visitors to the Menin Gate in Ypres are often surprised to find the names of Muslim soldiers who died on the Western Front. The contributions and sacrifices of soldiers and workers from North Africa to the Great War have not been given the recognition which they are due. Colonial subjects worked, fought, were captured and died in their thousands between 1914 and 1918.

This is the first international exhibition to pay tribute to the citizens of North Africa who served in the Western Front. The men of North Africa, Berbers and Arabs alike, had no stake in the European war that erupted in August 1914.

Each North African country had a history of resistance to foreign rule.
It is a cruel irony of the Great War that colonial subjects were asked to serve their colonial rulers in a war not of their making.

Whatever their misgivings about fighting for France, the North African soldiers fought with courage and distinction by all accounts and played a decisive role in the ultimate Entente victory over Germany. During the war, North African loyalties were tested as the German government sought to turn Muslim prisoners of war to propaganda advantage.

The Great War also introduced North Africans to the European labour market, a trend that would develop over ensuing decades as workers from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia crossed the Mediterranean in search of gainful employment.

Over the years, many North Africans became naturalized citizens of Europe, where they are now in their third and fourth generation as European citizens. This exhibition is also intended to celebrate Europe’s citizens of North African origins and the contributions they have made to Europe in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.”

The site can be found here:- Forgotten Heroes: North Africa and The Great War.


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France May Pardon Executed WW1 Poilus

French Executions Memorial, Suippes (©Paul Reed)

During the Great War France is reported to have executed more than 600 soldiers for military crimes on and off the battlefield. A number were shot in response to the French Army Mutinies in 1917. France 24 reports a move to have these men pardoned:

A report delivered to France’s Ministry of Veteran Affairs on Tuesday has suggested the country officially review the history of First World War soldiers who refused to fight and were executed by the hundreds as an example for other troops.

As France prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the “Great War” next year, the new text highlights the double injustice suffered by many soldiers who were killed by firing squad and went down in history books as “cowards”.

One century after the start of the bloody conflict, “there is a large consensus in our society that the majority of them were not cowards, but decent soldiers, who performed their duties and did not deserve to die,” the report read.

It said that between 600 and 650 French soldiers were executed by their own side after disobeying orders from commanding officers, while around 100 others were put to death for espionage and other crimes.

It said that with 100 years of hindsight about the “dreadful circumstances” at the frontline, it was understandable that some men “broke down”.

The report discourages case-by-case probes to uncover the guilt or innocence of each executed WWI soldier, a process it said would have “disproportionate costs” and produce uncertain results.

Rather, it recommended a “formal declaration” by the state with perhaps a subsequent educational programme meant to clear the soldiers of dishonour.

“To declare that these soldiers also, in a certain way, ‘died protecting France’, would serve a sort of moral and civic pardon,” the report concluded.


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German Accounts Of Verdun: A Forgotten Resource

German military historian and blogger, Rob Schaefer, maintains one of the most fascinating military history blogs on the Net: Gott Mit Uns. He recently uncovered a VHS tape of a 1980s German television programme about Verdun; a programme unknown here in the UK and largely forgotten in Germany. It contains several interviews with German WW1 veterans of the battle at the age I remember most of ‘my’ veterans here in the UK; animated and vivid in their descriptions of the war.

The German side of the war has long fascinated English-language students of the conflict. I remember meeting German WW1 author Herbert Sulzbach in the 1980s, and being amazed to hear a voice from the other side of No Man’s Land. Of course I later read the works of Ernst Jünger and was lucky to get copies of Der Angriff, an American publication from the 80s translating German accounts of the trenches. In recent years work by authors like Jack Sheldon has highlighted much of what we did not know about the German side of the war, but I well remember from my own visits to German archives in the late 1980s that there is still much to uncover.

And this is where Rob Schaefer’s excellent work excels:  the web is the perfect place to share this new material and excellent place for historical collaboration. Finding a resource like these 1980s television interviews gives us an insight into what, potentially, the WW1 Centenary might achieve:  a greater dissemination of Great War resources and an increased understanding.

The interview above, which Rob kindly made specially available for this site, features Wilhelm Ritter von Schramm. Rob states:- He was born 20th April 1898 in Hersbruck; died 27th December 1983. Joined the Army as an ensign in 1915. Knighted when awarded the Military Order of Max Joseph in 1917 (only awarded 251 times). Severely wounded by Shrapnel in October 1918. In WW2 he was serving in the OKW and from September 1944 was responsible for compiling the “Wehrmachtsbericht”.

More interviews are available on Gott Mit Uns.