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 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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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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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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WW1 Books: New Edition of A Tommy At Ypres

A new paperback edition of the superb A Tommy At Ypres has just come out published by Amberley Books.

The book follows the memoirs of Walter Williamson who served in the 1/6th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment at Ypres. I reviewed the book previously on the site but this new edition means the book is more widely available. It is highly recommended and one of the best of the recently published WW1 memoirs.


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Unknown New Zealander To Be Reburied at Messines

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have announced on their website that the remains of an unknown New Zealand soldier are to be buried at Messines British Cemetery on 25th February 2013. The New Zealand embassy reported:

A reburial service for the soldier will be held on the morning of Monday 25 February 2013 at the Messines Ridge British Cemetery in Mesen.  The service will commence at  9:30am.  New Zealand will have a high-level delegation  at the reburial led by New Zealand’s Chief of Defence Force, Lt Gen R. R. (Rhys) Jones and New Zealand’s Ambassador to Belgium, Paula Wilson.   The soldier will be reburied next to the grave of another unidentified New Zealand soldier whose remains were discovered in 2011 and for whom a similar reburial ceremony was held in February last year.

This soldier was actually found during the large-scale archaeology dig by Simon Verdegem and his team of professional archaeologists (seen in action above), a dig which later featured in Channel 5’s WW1 Tunnels of Death documentary last November.

I was present when the soldier was first discovered, just a few days prior to ANZAC Day last April. Just before lunch that day Simon and the team had found two army boots quite close together and when we returned a few hours later the complete remains had been uncovered. The soldier had been properly buried in a field grave and all his weaponry and equipment removed. Shoulder titles identified him as a New Zealander soldier and where he was found was on one of the first objectives of men from the New Zealand Division on 7th June 1917; the first day of the Battle of Messines. Although we had our filming kit with us, the CWGC request that the remains of British and Commonwealth soldiers should not be photographed or filmed, so this aspect of the dig did not feature in the final documentary and led to producer John Hayes-Fisher writing a thought-provoking article for the BBC News website.

A further report on the reburial will follow later this month.