The Gas Attack at Caporetto, 24th October 1917

The Battle of Caporetto (12th Battle of the Isonzo) was a German – Austro-Hungarian attack against the Italian positions on the Upper Isonzo (Soča) river.  It was named after the town today known in Slovenian as Kobarid.

GE advances from PPTcr

The attackers achieved a break-in by twin advances along the valley floor to bypass the Italian front line defences.  In the ensuing break-through and retreat, the Italians lost 14,000 square kilometres of territory, making the gas attack the most successful ever staged.

Celo Mt Svinjak Bovec valley P1000976

The Bovec valley from Austrian positions at Čelo (Simon Jones).

The Austro-Hungarian artillery used large numbers of gas shells to penetrate Italian artillery batteries in tunnelled mountainside emplacements. In addition, on the northern valley floor, the Germans used a new type of gas weapon to break the Italian front line positions at Bovec (Plezzo in Italian, Flitsch in German). A ravine immediately behind the Italian front, inaccessible to field artillery, was targeted with gas in the first German use of a weapon copied from the British.

P1000510

The German 18cm Projector showing how it was partly sunk into the ground, with projectile, seen in Kobarid Museum.

26 Gas min Caporetto

The German 18cm gas smooth-bore mortar bomb, an existing design employed with the gas projector.  (From S.S. 420 Notes on German Shells, second edition, General Headquarters, 1918.)

Developed during the Somme, the British Livens projector was crude but highly effective, hurling cylinders of liquid gas from hundreds of steel tubes sunk into the ground.  Its devastating effect persuaded the Germans to adopt a version of the weapon, the 18cm Gas Projector, with its first use at Caporetto.

Q 48449 German projectors Feb 1918

18cm Projectors laid out before being dug in, these photographs, apparently taken on the Western Front, show the same configuration as used on 24th October 1917. (IWM Q 48449).

After transportation difficulties on the narrow mountain roads, on 23rd October 1917 912 projectors were dug in about 130 metres behind the Austrian lines by the 35th Pioneer Battalion, a specialist gas warfare unit.[1]

Q 88120 German projectors

German gas pioneers installing firing charges in 18cm Projectors. (IWM Q 88120)

Q 29949

Installing the electrical cabling for the simultaneous firing of the 18cm Projectors. (IWM Q 29949)

The entrances to the gorge were targeted, with the bulk aimed at the gorge itself.  Gas projectors were ideal for this position, which could only be reached by high trajectory weapons, and where the gas would form a dense concentration and penetrate many dugouts situated in the gorge.  This use of the weapon mirrored one of the earliest uses of the Livens projector during the Battle of the Somme when the British fired gas into Y Ravine prior to the assault on Beaumont Hamel on 13th November 1916.

Seesselberg-419

The shoot plan for the projectors installed between Bovec to the north and the Soča (Isonzo) river to the south.  From Friedrich Seesselberg, Der Stellungskrieg 1914-1918, (E S Mittler and Son, Berlin, 1926), p. 419.

The artillery gas bombardment began at 2am on 24th and the projectors were fired electrically five minutes later.  The simultaneous discharge was accompanied by a sheet of flame and a loud explosion. In flight, the bombs emitted a trail of sparks and made a loud whirring noise, before bursting with a sharp detonation, producing a thick white cloud.[2]

Of the total installed, 894 could be made ready for firing, and 818 bombs hurtled into the gorge filling it with about 6.5 tonnes of phosgene gas.[3] Twenty-nine projector barrels burst and seven pioneers were affected by gas; 47 failed charges were fired 35 minutes later.  The pioneers then attempted to re-lay the projectors and reload them with explosive bombs, but owing to the gas and barrel bursts, they were only able to fire 269, between 6.30am and 8.30am.

GE Seesselberg overlay2Crop

The shoot plan on a modern satellite photograph, showing the ravine behind the Italian lines targeted. (Simon Jones/GoogleEarth)

The Austro-Hungarian infantry attack was launched north of Bovec at 9am, seven hours after the gas attack. The gassed area to the south was assaulted by 140 Storm Troops from the 35th Pioneers.  They encountered no resistance, just some weak machine gun fire from the far side of the Soča river.

The Pioneers found the ravine clear of phosgene but the dense concentration of highly poisonous gas had done its work perfectly.  Just a few isolated Italians remained alive but badly injured.  The rest of the garrison, 600-800 men, were all found dead.  Only some had managed to put on their masks, after the bombs had landed amongst them.  The rest were in attitudes indicating sudden death.

The absence of any resistance on the left flank of the Austrian attack enabled the whole Bovec valley to be taken with remarkable rapidity.  The Italians had failed to create an in-depth defence and, within a few hours, the break-in developed into a break-through.

P1000908

A small cavern in the ravine in which the gas victims were caught is now a monument. (Simon Jones)

P1000901cr

P1000906

P1000903crop

 


References.

[1] This account is drawn from Rudolf Hanslian, Der Chemische Krieg, (E S Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, 1937), pp. 178-182.  Hanslian cites as his sources Friedrich Seesselberg, Der Stellungskrieg 1914-1918, (E S Mittler and Son, Berlin, 1926) and W. Heydendorff, ‘Der Gaswerferangriff bei Flitsch am 24. Oktober 1917’ in Militärwissenschaftliche Mitteilungen, 65. Jahrgang, 1934.

[2] S.S. 420 Notes on German Shells (Second edition), General Headquarters, 1918, p. 454.

[3] Hanslian, p. 178 states that the projectiles for the 18cm Projector contained 12-15 litres of liquid gas but the British manual, S.S. 420 Notes on German Shells, second edition, (General Headquarters, 1918), reported from examination of the 18cm projectile that it contained 5.23 litres.


1st Shots Memorial Mons 1914 Simon Jones

My ‘First & Last Shots’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 20-23 August 2019


Isaac Rosenberg

My ‘War Poets’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 26-29 July 2019


e4 105mm mustard

Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas in 1917


sawyer-spence

Understanding Chemical Warfare in the First World War


Slovenia P1000723

Trenches and Memorials on the Italian Front around Caporetto – 1


 

Advertisements

Shirebrook Miners in the Tunnelling Companies

Shirebrook was in the news in the UK owing to the working conditions in a warehouse operated by a retail company.  At the beginning of the twentieth century Shirebrook was notorious in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire owing to the thousands of miners drawn to its vast colliery.  During the First World War, many of these miners joined specially formed Tunnelling Companies to dig deep beneath no man’s land and the German lines.  I have gathered the stories below for my book on Tunnellers at La Boisselle in 1915-1916. 

A large group of miners recruited from collieries around Chesterfield and Mansfield crossed to France on 23 September 1915 and many were posted to 185th Tunnelling Company. The most notorious mining centre in the region was Shirebrook which had grown rapidly after a pit was sunk in 1896 and in fifteen years the population had risen from 600 to 11,000. It gained a reputation for immorality, drunkenness and violence with the newspapers filled with reports of attacks on the police, armed poachers and closing-time fights outside the pubs.[1] John Flowers, a 37 year old miner well-known to the police and courts, appeared before magistrates on 4 September 1915 for being drunk and disorderly in Shirebrook, during which he had offered his wife for sale. Although already under a bond of good behaviour, he was let off on the condition that he enlisted. [2]

sheffield-evening-telegraph-september-4-1915

Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 4 September 1915.

Three weeks later he was at the Rouen Base Camp allotted to the 185th. Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts, good friends in their late twenties, enlisted as Tunnellers on the same day as Flowers. Despite the chaotic picture of Shirebrook depicted in the local press, it was a comparatively small number of miners who regularly appeared before the courts. Eight years before, an encounter with one such individual had serious consequences for Joe and Tom when, one night after closing time, Hodgetts, a keen amateur boxer, agreed to fight the man. He produced a knife and stabbed Tom and Joe in the head and neck.[3]

sheffield-evening-telegraph-march-19-1907

Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 19 March 1907.

Joe and Tom survived serious injuries and it may have been this experience that moved Joe to begin organising meetings at the Pentecostal Mission.

joe-cox-and-tom-hodgettsres

Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts, 185th Tunnelling Company photographed on the Somme in Albert. (c) Duncan Hunting

In a photograph taken in Albert in the winter of 1915-1916, Tom rests his arm on Joe’s shoulder; only one would survive the war.

derbyshire-courier-tuesday-24-april-1917

The Derbyshire Courier, 24 April 1917.

joe-cox-grave-c-duncan-huntingres

Joe Cox’s grave in Lapugnoy Military Cemetery, France. (c) Duncan Hunting.

A group of miners from the Shirebrook area would excel in driving tunnels though the hard chalk of the Somme and Vimy Ridge. In 1916 they were awarded silver medals by 185th Tunnelling Company for a record drive of 127 feet 4 inches in 120 hours, including Harry Richardson (whose name was given in the press as J. Richardson).

derbyshire-courier-october-12-1918

derbyshire-courier-october-17-1916acontr

Derbyshire Courier, 17 October 1916.

John Flowers, Tom Hodgetts and Harry Richardson survived the war but Flowers was soon in court again for drunkenness, this time blaming wartime gas poisoning for his conduct. The gas he referred to was carbon monoxide, released in large quantities in the underground galleries by the detonation of massive explosive charges. It could cause violent behaviour and permanent mental impairment.

derbyshire-courier-october-11-1919

Derbyshire Courier, 11 October 1919.

[1] Belper News, Derbyshire Courier and Nottingham Evening Post, passim.

[2] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 4/9/1915; Belper News, 10/9/1915; Silver War Badge roll WO329/3002.

[3] Derbyshire Courier, 23/3/1907, Nottingham Evening Post, 11/4/1907, Derby Daily Telegraph, 11/4/1907.


1st Shots Memorial Mons 1914 Simon Jones

My ‘First & Last Shots’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 20-23 August 2019


Isaac Rosenberg

My ‘War Poets’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 26-29 July 2019


 

Hawtrey, Young, Bullock 28 June 1916res

The Men Who Dug The Lochnagar Mine


P1110007 CropRotResEnhcrop3

Where and how did Edward Brittain die?


Edward Harrison who gave his life to protect against poison gas


Contact me

Facebook

LinkedIn

 

Why the poet Isaac Rosenberg is not shown in First World War archive footage

A story in the Observer newspaper states that the poet Isaac Rosenberg has been identified in archive footage in which a stretcher bearer in the front right of the frame is ‘staring out at the camera with a haunted look’ (photo below). The article states that the date and location of the film are yet to be identified.

The soldier in the bottom righthand corner is believed to be first world war poet Isaac RosenbergHowever I recognised the still as showing the same scene as a photograph by the British official photographer J. Warwick Brooke (Q 5732) (below) which enables the footage to be identified as having been taken on 31 July 1917 at Pilckem, on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres.

Q 5732

Furthermore, the photograph caption identifies a wounded man being treated as an officer of the Irish Guards. The ‘Rosenberg’ figure is not in the Brooke photograph but another stretcher bearer is clearly recognisable (identified by the ‘S B’ armband) standing on the right. This man can also be seen to be wearing a distinctive cloth ‘Irish Guards’ badge on his shoulder and this badge can also just be discerned on the ‘Rosenberg’ figure. Rosenberg served with the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (attached for a time to the Royal Engineers) rather than the Irish Guards and whilst, on occasion, he did duty carrying wounded there is no evidence that he was a regimental stretcher bearer. On the day that the photograph was taken the 40th Division, in which Rosenberg was serving at the time, was about 60 miles to the south and did not take part in the Third Battle of Ypres.


Isaac Rosenberg

My ‘War Poets’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 26-29 July 2019


1st Shots Memorial Mons 1914 Simon Jones

My ‘First & Last Shots’ Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 20-23 August 2019

 


DSCN3059cr2

Who was Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’?


e4 105mm mustard

Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas in 1917


Eric Haydon DCM Citation London Gazette 2Dec1919

‘Anon.’ no longer: the author of ‘Man at Arms’ revealed


Home


Contact me

Twitter

Facebook

LinkedIn

‘Anon.’ no longer: the author of ‘Man at Arms’ revealed.

Over the past fifteen years, an anonymous poem has grown in popularity, especially with battlefield visitors who find that its sentiments strike a chord with them as they attend the evening sounding of the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.  The memorial, unveiled in 1927, bears the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient who have no known grave.

Menin Gate at midnight (1927) by Will Longstaff (Australian War Memorial/ Wikipedia commons)

Menin Gate at midnight (1927) by Will Longstaff (Australian War Memorial/ Wikimedia commons)

The poem appears to have been inspired by the Australian artist Will Longstaff’s painting  of 1927 ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ which shows the ghosts of the dead filling the battlefield around the newly built memorial. Entitled ‘Man at Arms’, the poem is always described as by an anonymous author. The writer addresses a soldier who tells how, just as in the painting, the dead will rise at midnight and march to the Menin Gate.

            Man at Arms
What are you guarding, Man-at-Arms?
Why do you watch and wait?
‘I guard the graves, said the Man-at-Arms,
I guard the graves by Flanders farms
Where the dead will rise at my call to arms,
And march to the Menin gate’.

‘When do they march then, Man-at-Arms?
Cold is the hour – and late’
‘They march tonight’ said the Man-at-Arms,
With the moon on the Menin gate.
They march when the midnight bids them go.
With their rifles slung and their pipes aglow,
Along the roads, the roads they know,
The roads to the Menin gate.

‘What are they singing, Man-at-Arms,
As they march to the Menin gate?’
‘The Marching songs’, said the Man-at-Arms,
That let them laugh at fate.
No more will the night be cold for them,
For the last tattoo has rolled for them,
And their souls will sing as of old for them,
As they march to the Menin gate.

Popular as it has become, I have never included it in my literature and art battlefield tours because I had no evidence that it was the authentic testimony of someone who had experienced the war. Curiosity as to its origins however led to research its authorship.  Jeffrey Richards in  Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953 (2001) quotes the opening lines as being from a song The Menin Gate by Bowen.  This proves to have been by Lauri or Lori Bowen, published in 1930 by Boosey & Hawkes, with words by Eric Haydon.  A recording performed by Peter Dawson was released by His Master’s Voice in 1930. Following on from the success of Longstaff’s painting, the song achieved particular popularity in Australia. A first clue as to who Eric Haydon was comes from a brief article in an Australian newspaper, the Perth Daily News of  28 January 1936, which describes him as an English novelist and lyric writer, en route for Victoria on the liner Moldavia. Mr Haydon, the article notes, wrote ‘The Menin Gate’ lyrics.

The Daily News (Perth, WA), Tuesday 28 January 1936, page 5

The Perth Daily News, 28th January 1936, announcing the arrival of Eric Haydon.

The passenger list of the Moldavia includes Eric Haydon, age 42, en route for Melbourne, having previously lived at an address in London NW3.  Census returns and a 1939 militia attestation form show that he was born in Kensington, London, on 7 July 1895, the son of a cheesemonger’s assistant.  By 1911, age 16, he worked as a cashier’s clerk for a publisher and lived in Stoke Newington. In the 1930s, Haydon began to have some success as a song lyricist and novelist. In September 1939, when he enlisted in the Australian Militia, he lived at 30 Tivoli Road, South Yarra. Success however brought mixed blessings as the award for the best radio play in Australia of 1947 unfortunately seems to have drawn his financial affairs to the attention of tax officials who the following year fined him £70 for having failed to declare income from the play. He died in Parkville, Victoria, in 1971 at the age of 76.

There remains the question as to whether Eric Haydon’s experiences during the First World War might have inspired the lyrics to ‘The Menin Gate’.  Luckily, a service record survives enabling his military career to be reconstructed.  In February 1915 Haydon enlisted as a Private in the London Scottish, number 4359, and was posted to the 2nd Battalion with which he served for the whole war.

Eric Haydon Attestation form WO363

Eric Haydon’s attestation form showing his enlistment in the London Scottish on 4th February 1915. (National Archives WO363)

This battalion was to have a remarkably varied experience, being posted from Salisbury Plain to Ireland in April 1916 in the wake of the Easter Rising, then to the Western Front where it spent time on Vimy Ridge.  After five months in France, it was sent to Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece, then seven months later, in July 1917, to Egypt.  It was at this point that the one misdemeanour contained on Haydon’s crime sheet occurs, when he was found guilty of disobedience to a lawful command and insubordination resulting in a sentenced of seven days Field Punishment No. 1, the infamous tying of a soldier to a fixed object for several hours each day in place of detention in the guardroom.  The 2nd London Scottish spent ten months in Palestine, where it took part in the capture of Jerusalem in December.

Eric Haydon Crime Sheet WO363

Eric Haydon’s Crime sheet showing the award of 7 Days Field Punishment Number One in July 1917 and his mention for gallantry in October 1918. (National Archives WO363)

The German attacks in the Spring of 1918 led to Haydon’s battalion being sent to the Western Front in June: it is at this time that he would have first seen the future site of the Menin Gate at the eastern exit through the Ypres ramparts on the route taken by troops to the front line.  At the end of September his battalion retook Messines, then participated in a final advance, the forgotten ‘5th battle of Ypres’, to push the Germans back from Ypres and which by mid-October 1918 resulted in the Battle of Courtrai. During this fighting he was mentioned in a Brigade Order for Gallantry in the Field.  This resulted in the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, announced in the London Gazette of March 1919. It wasn’t until December 1919 that the citation was additionally published which reveals an astonishing action which in the earlier years of the war would have gained him the Victoria Cross:

Eric Haydon DCM Citation London Gazette 2Dec1919

Eric Haydon’s citation for the Distinguish Conduct Medal, published in the London Gazette, 2nd December 1919.

Private Eric Haydon was discharged in February 1919 unscathed physically by enemy action with a total of four years and 20 days service.

I can now include his poem in my tours as an authentic testimony by one who saw Ypres in its most devastated state, and who played a remarkable part in the fighting in the last days of the war.


Note: Since researching Eric Haydon, I’ve discovered that Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to Ypres Salient and Passchendaele (Pen & Sword, 2011 Ed.) also credits him as the author and acknowledges Martin Passande as the source of the information.


Gheluvelt Ypres Battlefield Walking Tour

Walking the Five Battles of Ypres, 28th September – 1st October 2018


H15258Myths of Messines: The Lost Mines


Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts (c) Duncan Hunting

The Lochnagar Mine


Q 11718

Understanding Football and the 1914 Christmas Truce


Contact me

Facebook

LinkedIn