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: Pale Battalions

9781784555009Pale Battalions: The Dark Land 

By David Swattridge (Austin Macauley 2015, ISBN 9781784555009, 459pp, £12.99)

This book, by new author David Swattridge, is a work of fiction using the Great War as a backdrop to a tale set in modern times. It follows the story of Sam Morbeck, an unhappily married man with a gambling addiction who hopes the acquisition of his wife’s aunt’s house might solve some of his monetary problems. The house is called ‘High Wood’ and it soon becomes apparent that there is much more to the property, which becomes the central drive of the book. In essence it looks at how the ghosts of the past still haunt us: whether they be those from our own past or that of the Great War.

I am not always a fan of modern fiction about the Great War, and while this book did not really do anything for me, it is an admirable work and an easy read. If you want to read some very different fiction with some Great War content, then this is for you.

The book is available from the publisher.


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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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Book Review: Flo of the Somme

51Lz9TSXRXL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Flo of the Somme

by Hilary Robinson & Martin Impey (Strauss House 2015, ISBN 978 0 9571245 7 8)

This is the third children’s book with a Great War theme produced by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey. It follows the story of stretcher bearer Ray and his dog Flo, who along with a little donkey go out to seek wounded on the High Wood battlefield during the Somme campaign in July 1916. That the book is set in a real framework, in a real time and space, makes it all the more engaging and remarkable.

Flo of the Somme is an absolutely stunning book: beautiful illustrations and a moving story told in a simple, meaningful way. The history of children’s literature tells us that young people are fascinated by stories of animals: and through the pages of this new book they will see the First World War in a very different way. I hope one day that it might inspire them to stand at Crucifix Corner, depicted in the book, look towards the dark mass of High Wood and imagine Flo there with them, and remember the millions of animals who were there because ‘they had no choice’.

Essential reading for young and old; and it will be the old, like me, who will no doubt shed a few tears over its pages.

The book is available from the publisher’s website.


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Book Review: The Leeds Pals

11548Leeds Pals by Laurie Milner

(Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 9781473841819, 410pp, profusely illustrated, hardback, £30,00)

The Leeds Pals were the 15th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment. Raised in Leeds in September 1914 their long war first took then to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal and from there to the Western Front. On 1st July 1916, the first day of the Somme, they were annihilated in the attack on Serre. But despite these heavy losses, they later served at Arras in 1917 and in the German offensives of early 1918, ending their war in Flanders. By the end of the war the battalion had suffered over 3,300 casualties.

This superb book was first published in 1991 in the then large format ‘Pals’ series by the Barnsley Chronicle. This new edition is a substantial hardback but still retains the profusion of excellent illustrations as well as a sound, and easily readable text. There are also useful appendices with a nominal roll, casualty lists, names of those taken prisoner and information on gallantry awards. As such it will be of great interest to family historians as well as those fascinated by the story of the Pals in the Great War.

Laurie Milner’s book is a classic account of the men from Yorkshire whose war was two years in the making and ten minutes in the destruction at Serre on that terrible day in 1916, and it also gives us a wider understanding of how a battalion formed like this managed to sustain the whole war. Highly recommended.

The book can be purchased from the Pen & Sword website.


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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.