WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


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International Blacksmithing Event Ypres 2016

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A fascinating WW1 Centenary event is scheduled to take place at Ypres in Belgium on 1st-6th September 2016 involving blacksmiths from around the world. The website of the event explains:

In September 2016, a new World War 1 Cenotaph will be created at the Grote Markt, in front of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium. The Cenotaph will be located adjacant to the German War Cemetery at Langemarck-Poelkapelle.

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The Cenotaph will commemorate everyone involved in the conflict, both military and civilian on all sides – all those who died, all those wounded, all those displaced – and of equal importance, their families and their communities. In the War of 1914 -1918 blacksmiths and farriers were indispensable in sustaining the war effort on all sides. In September 2016, hundreds of blacksmiths from around the world will come together in Ypres to remember all those affected by the war and to create in one week, a Cenotaph based on the internationally recognised icon, the Flanders Field Poppy. This will make a unique contribution to the many commemorative sites and structures on the Western Front, serving to commemorate all involved in and affected by the conflict.

This is a great idea and diverse projects like this are exactly what the WW1 Centenary should be about. More on the project website: www.ypres2016.com

 

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WW1 Book Review: The Retreat From Mons 1914 – South

7716The Retreat From Mons 1914: South by Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland
(Pen & Sword Books 2015, ISBN 978 1 47382 336 5, 152pp, paperback, illustrations, maps, £14.99)

Authors Cooksey and Murland embarked on a series of battlefield guides for those wishing to visit the Western Front by car, on bike or on foot, in the approach to the WW1 Centenary. This latest offering in their ‘Battle Lines’ series follows on from a previous volume devoted to the 1914 battlefields at Mons, and looks at the battlefields from Etreux to the Marne. In doing so they cover a lot of ground, in some respects many forgotten battlefields of the Great War. Unjustly forgotten because, as the volume demonstrates, there is an awful lot to see in this area.

The book follows the format of previous volumes with useful background information and general battlefield visiting details. It then follows four stages breaking the considerable distance between Etreux and the Marne down into manageable chunks. Throughout the information is clear and text well written, and there are good, colour illustrations and useful maps not too crowded with detail.

This is an excellent guidebook to a neglected area of the Western Front and is highly recommended, as with all the volumes in the series.

The book is available from the Pen & Sword 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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BBC Our World War: Review of Ep1 – Mons

Having read a lot of negative press in the Great war Community about the BBC3 series Our World War, even before it was broadcast and no-one had seen it, I was very interested to finally watch it. With rumours of indie pop, odd camera angles and ‘Call of Duty’ style graphics I had feared the worst but actually… I really rather enjoyed it. In fact second only to the superb ‘The Somme: From Defeat To Victory‘ this is a very fine piece of docudrama from the BBC and a fitting addition to their WW1 Centenary season.

The film is sixty minutes of television and does raise a lot of points; I don’t intend to discuss them all here but I will make a few.

The Filming: this I thought was one of the things that made it for me. Far from odd camera angles the use of cameras giving different perspectives was very effective and much like ‘helmet cams’ as seen in Afghan war documentaries in recent years; I suspect that was the inspiration for this and in my opinion it worked. The graded colour was also a clever touch and gave the film a ‘dirty’ look, which again I think added to the structure of the film. The ‘Call of Duty’ style aerial graphics were clever too and well used; and will be recognisable and understandable to a generation looking at a WW1 docudrama perhaps for the first time. All of this made it a powerful film indeed.

The Music: yep, it was indie pop (rather nice to hear some PJ Harvey, who actually put out an album inspired by WW1 btw). Was it suitable? That will be up to personal taste but I think it certainly fitted in to the ‘modern’ approach the film makers took. The film was raw and so was the music.

The Sets: this aspect of it did not always work for me. The bridge at Nimy was a fair copy of the one there today but nothing like the low stone parapet railway bridge that was actually defended by the 4th Royal Fusiliers in August 1914. I know a little of this as I was contacted by the programme makers who were desperate to find some vaguely suitable bridge in the UK to film it. Unfortunately I couldn’t help and the one they did end up using, in a wooded setting with no buildings, was nothing like Nimy 1914 but I don’t think detracted too much from the drama, even if it did from the history. The Head Quarters the runner went back and forth to was the most disappointing of the sets as it looked far too ‘English’; I presume it was probably filmed at Chatham Dockyard? But even with this drama I think budgets were limited and for a general audience it would have worked, and few would have noticed.

Uniforms: for many who watch programmes like these misdemeanours in the costume department do get people hot under the collar. There were a few here, but only a few, and things that most would not notice. Did the officers of 4th Royal Fusiliers really wear Other Ranks shoulder titles on their tunics; probably not? Dease was wearing an Imperial Service badge above his right tunic pocket, only worn by Territorials and not regulars like him. Wrist/bracelet style identity disk were not common place in 1914 (Godley is seen wearing one) and I would go as far as saying probably not worn at all by the BEF. Told you these were small points! But otherwise the actors looked at home in their uniforms, they were dirty and well worn, and the soldiers were dirty too with far from perfect appearances and teeth. They really did look like soldiers of the BEF.

The Characters: for a drama this is one of the few that has made Great War soldiers appear as real men. There were not many stereotypes here and the language, with plenty of swear words, was well constructed. Officers and men were more familiar than the army of 1914 would have been, but I suspect this is a modern take on it. I liked the Australian character and at first wondered why he had been used but in fact he was based on a real person Lieutenant (later Captain) Frederick Wilberforce Alexander Steele, an Australian who served with the regiment as the AWM website shows. Whether he would have had a slouch hat and drover’s coat; that is another matter! The runner character I thought was excellent and gave an insight into a side of the Great War few consider; battlefield communications. I also liked the device of showing Godley as an under-performing soldier who came good, as that reflected what often happened in the midst of battle, but I fear there is little evidence of that in the story of the real Godley. Having said all that these were all believable characters and people you quickly got interested in; which is the sign of good, professional drama.

The History: at times good, often very good and occasionally bad, but for me not so bad as to diminish the impact of the whole film. A full rifle company supported by the battalion machine-gun section defended the real Nimy Bridge, but the film made it look like a skirmish at times. Dease was in command of the machine-guns not the company and that part of his relationship to the story was a little confused I felt. As was Godley’s; he was a soldier in a rifle section who had been trained on the Maxim gun and as I thought was the story only stepped in to help when others had been killed and wounded. The Sappers blowing the bridge at Jemappes was weak historically as it looked nothing like urban Jemappes and the constant use of ‘Sir’ for a Sapper addressing a Corporal was odd indeed; and their conversation, body language and actual language when speaking to a Royal Engineers officer earlier in the film way off the mark for 1914. The final comment about Mons being a ‘humiliation’ for the British was unfortunate, and not really explained. It was a shame as no doubt this will spoil it for many.

Yet despite all this the first episode of Our World War was for me a moving insight the British Army’s first engagement of the Great War. What it set out to do was re-tell this part of the war in a modern way, from a modern perspective. And that’s where many will have issue with it. It set the men in the film not as hapless pawns but real characters, real heroes and real soldiers. Ending it with Steele’s original recommendation for the Victoria Cross and the recording of Godley was a brilliant touch.

This was a good start to this series; and we can only hope it continues in the same vein.


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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.

 


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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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New Reconstructed Trenches at Zonnebeke

As the centenary of the Great War approaches new sites are beginning to open up on the battlefields in Belgium and France. At Zonnebeke the Passchendaele Memorial Museum will officially open a new wing to their museum displaying more than 5,000 objects and an extensive system of reconstructed trenches.

In a war dominated by trenches modern visitors to the battlefields of Flanders often find it hard to imagine them on the clean and tidy landscape they see today, and while an example of a post-war trench museum can be seen at Hill 62, reconstructed German trenches at Bayernwald and concrete Belgian trenches at Dixsmuide, this new set of trenches has a different approach.

British fire bay.

I was lucky to get a preview of the trenches last summer and they ended up being featured in the Channel 5 documentary WW1 Tunnels of Death we were filming at that time. When connected to the new museum this trench experience will begin in some early war German trenches with an infantry shelter and shallow dugout. These will then progress into later war German trenches with fire-steps  a larger shelter and a very ‘permanent’ feel to them. Seamlessly you then walk into the British trenches which have been modelled on mid-war trenches as were seen in the Ypres Salient in 1915-17 between the Second and Third Battles. They have duck-boards suspended on inverted A-frames, elephant iron supports to the walls and well defined fire bays and infantry shelters. You finally emerge from the British positions via a communication trench.

German trenches at Zonnebeke.

The trenches are not built on the mere whim of the museum but are essentially a form of experimental archaeology; staff members with battlefield archaeology experience spent some time working on them, and much of the design and form was based on wartime manuals or engineer drawings found in War Diaries at the National Archives. In that respect they represent the first historically correct attempt to re-create a Great War trench system.

The new version of the Passchendaele Museum and the trench system will open on Saturday 13 July 2013.