WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


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Iconic WW1 Fresco Added to New Thiepval Museum

Joe Sacco Fresco [77185]

Construction of a new 400 square metre museum as an extension of the Thiepval Memorial Visitor Centre has been completed which will now see the installation of unique imagery, museum exhibits and multimedia displays.

The opening of the new museum is scheduled for 1 June 2016 and will be a prelude to the Centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme, the iconic battle on the 1 July 1916 which was the bloodiest day for the British Army, becoming a symbol of the First World War in Great Britain.

Installed this week will be one of the most prominent and key pieces of the exhibition being a 60 metre long illustrated panorama drawing depicting the first day of the Battle of the Somme, as an open imaginary window onto the battlefield on 1 July 1916.

The drawing The Great War, the first day of the Battle of the Somme is the work of Joe Sacco, an artist who lives in the United States, was born on the island of Malta and spent much of his childhood in Australia. It was during his upbringing in Australia that inspired his interest in the First World War hearing stories of the country’s disastrous involvement in the Dardanelles campaign of 1915, which is commemorated each year on ANZAC Day.

Joe Sacco says :

“The First World War had been in my mind for years. I began reading about the Somme, Verdun and became fascinated and horrified by the concept of trench warfare and the idea that so many men lost their lives fighting over such small area of ground. That fascination and horror manifested into the image I have created to depict the first day of the Battle of the Somme.”

The second key piece soon to be installed will be a large scale reproduction of the aeroplane used by Georges Guynemer, a French pilot during the Great War.

This will feature as part of the Heroic Figures aspect of the exhibition. From 1916, the role of aviation in the war increased and with this the emergence of great figures or “sky heroes”.

Further exhibits will include  : accounts and testimonies from missing soldiers of all nationalities giving perspectives of the battle ; display of items from the Historial’s collections, which are archaeological remains left by the war found during the construction process.

The Germans on the Somme  – a specific installation to explain the German experience of the Battles of the Somme ;

The Battles of the Somme ; Mourning and Missing – a comparison of two types of memories ; the massive loss of men in a total, destructive war symbolised by the fate of the Missing and the heroic figures.

The Mass of the Missing – a specific room “Chapel to the Missing” will be dedicated to those soldiers whose names adorn the Thiepval Monument of which there are 72,194 British and South African soldiers who fell and were declared missing on the Somme battlefields between July 1915 and March 1918.

When opened joint tickets will be available for entrance to the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne and the new museum at the Thiepval site.

For more information : www.historial.org ; email : info@historial.org or call : +33 (0) 3 22 83 14 18

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CWGC: Remember War Dead in the UK

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have launched a new appeal to the British public to remember the dead buried in more than 12,000 locations across the United Kingdom during the 141 days of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme. In doing so they have teamed up with British actor, Hugh Dennis, who has a personal interest in the Great War.

The CWGC state on their website:

The CWGC Living Memory Project aims to encourage UK community groups to discover, explore and remember the war grave heritage on their doorstep. The CWGC is looking for 141 UK groups, to hold 141 events, to mark the 141 days of the Somme offensive.

Hugh Dennis, Living Memory ambassador for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said: “I have a very personal connection with the First World War as both my grandfathers fought at the Western Front. My great uncles also fought and one, my great uncle Frank, died and is commemorated by the CWGC in Gallipoli, Turkey.

“I’d urge everyone to get involved in this initiative so we never forget those who died during the Great War and are buried and commemorated so close to us on the home front.”

The idea is to encourage groups to research and find Somme casualties buried in UK cemeteries and remember them as part of the centenary. CWGC are offering help, resources and some funding as part of the project. Any community group interested in participating in the project can register now by emailing livingmemory@cwgc.org or visiting www.cwgc.org/livingmemory.

This is a really excellent idea and superb project from CWGC and I look forward to reading about some of the results of it during the Somme100 period.


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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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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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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 Book Review – Before Action: William Noel Hodgson & The 9th Devons

105362Before Action: William Noel Hodgson & The 9th Devons by Charlotte Zeepvat
(Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 978 1 78346 375 6,237pp, hardback, illustrations, maps, £19.99)

Devonshire Cemetery on the Somme, which sits beneath the leafy glades of Mansel Copse opposite the village of Mametz, is probably one of the most visited on the battlefields of Picardy. The story of a lost poet and the man who made the plasticine model of the battlefield where he knew he would die, and the fact that the ‘Devonshire Regiment held this trench, they hold it still’ has resonated down the decades ever since Martin Middlebrook included it in his book on the First Day of the Somme in the 1970s. But what do we really know of these men and what happened here in 1916?

This new book is in essence a biography of the lost poet: William Noel Hodgson. The son of a vicar, the book takes us through Noel’s Edwardian childhood in Berwick-upon-Tweed to his education at Durham and later Oxford. Noel Hodgson wanted to write but the war interrupted his hopes and he was commissioned into the 9th Battalion Devonshire Regiment. Decorated for bravery at Loos in 1915, he was among the many officers of his regiment to fall in the Somme advance of 1st July 1916 having written a prophetic poem in which he asked God, “help me to die, O Lord”.

But that is not just the scope of this book; it tells a much wider story of the war itself and that eventful moment at Mametz at the start of the Battle of the Somme. Indeed I found the chapter on the attack quite riveting and the best, and most detailed account of the assault ever published. We learn about Duncan Martin, who had made a plasticine model of the battlefield showing where all the positions were, and we discover perhaps that much of what we thought we knew about this part of the Somme perhaps deserves to be challenged.

This was a book I was eagerly awaiting to read and proved not to be disappointing and while the WW1 Centenary has seen a huge number of titles published, this fine book is already in my top ten. A totally absorbing read.

The book is available from the Pen & Sword website.


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WW1 Book Review: Understanding The Somme 1916

9781909384422In the introduction to this book the authors state “This is a battlefield guide with a difference. It is not the usual itinerary of memorials and cemeteries.” It is a shame that this is the opening statement of the book because it is not really true; this book is only barely recognisable as ‘different’ from other Somme guides and it does, essentially, describe memorials and cemeteries while often containing a little more history than the average guide. I hope this statement won’t put some potential readers off as the book does have its merits and is a useful addition to our understanding of the Somme battlefields.

The book begins with a chapter setting the scene, giving some useful context. Fifteen further chapters break the Somme battlefields down into key areas with a lot of, understandable, focus on 1st July 1916 but it also looks at the later fighting and it was pleasing to see a chapter on Flers-Courcelette for example. A typical chapter takes an historical approach, describes the events, often in some detail, and then goes on to discuss cemeteries, memorials and battlefield sites in that key area. The maps which support it are good and there are colour modern photos throughout the book, which is most welcome.

The amount of detail, and it’s use in the field, varies greatly and this reflects badly on the authors’ initial claims as the visitor to the battlefield using this guide will visit many locations mentioned and struggle to find more than a bare mention of it in the book. So is it worth buying and taking with you on a trip to the Somme? Yes indeed; as it supplements a lot of other guidebooks but giving a wider historical context. And this is perhaps its problem; is it a history book or a guide book? In the end it is a little of both, but only a little so perhaps struggles to understand what its true purpose is. But for a true understanding a battle like the Somme no one book can ever help you; any visitor needs to arm themselves with a haversack full and this title should certainly be among them.

The book is available from the Helion Books website.