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

Discover the most disputed battlefield of the Great War by walking the ground.  These six walks will enable both first-time and more experienced visitors to gain a deep understanding of the changing nature of the fighting, and the conditions endured.

Kemmel ypres battlefield tour

Mont Kemmel, from the 4th Ypres walk. (Simon Jones)

We explore the sacrifice of the ‘Old Contemptibles’ in 1914, the terrible first gas attacks of 1915, Passchendaele in 1917, and the dramatic ebb and flow of 1918.  Based in Ypres, the tour also includes an exploration of the history of this tragic yet beautiful town.  Traveller numbers are usually around a dozen, see The Cultural Experience website for full specifications including prices.  After travel by Eurostar from St. Pancras London to Lille, we are met by our vehicle and driver and keep travel time to the minimum.

Ypres Battlefield Walking tour Cloth Hall

The rebuilt Cloth Hall, St Martin’s Church and market square, Ypres.

Briefly occupied by the Germans in 1914, Ypres was desperately held by the Allies for four years.  Until the Allied advance in the final Fifth Battle, the Salient became a mass grave of first German and then British hopes of a breakthrough.  By walking the ground we discover the real human experience of the fighting, grasp the significance of the terrain, and understand the revolutionary changes in fighting methods during these five battles.

Ypres battlefield walking tour Gheluvelt shells

Shells at Gheluvelt (Simon Jones)

Day 1 – Ypres

Depart London St Pancras for Lille on the Eurostar arriving about midday.  This afternoon we walk the town of Ypres itself, see the Cathedral and Cloth Hall, and to hear of its remarkable survival and reconstruction.

We learn of the dangerous daily life of soldiers and a handful of civilians under fire, the soldiers’ canteen at ‘Little Toc H’, the Ramparts dressing station and cemetery, and the casemates which concealed the printing press of the ‘Wipers Times’.

Wipers Times Battlefield Tour

Day 2 – First and Second Ypres

This morning we follow the First Battle of Ypres during the autumn of 1914 and the desperate last push by the Germans following the ‘Race to the Sea’.

Gheluvelt Ypres Battlefield Walking Tour

The Worcesters aimed for Gheluvelt Church. (Simon Jones)

Starting at Black Watch Corner, we follow the Worcesters’ epic counterattack from Polygon Wood to Gheluvelt on 31st October 1914.

Worcesters Gheluvelt Ypres battlefield walking tour

The meeting of the 2nd Worcestershire with the 1st South Wales Borderers in the grounds of the Chateau, 31st October 1914 (J. P. Beadle).

Ypres Battlefield tour Gheluvelt

The rebuilt chateau at Gheluvelt which was the focus of the Worcesters’ counterattack (Simon Jones).

After lunch we turn to the Second Battle in the spring of 1915, following the first gas attack at Langemarck on 22nd April, from the German cemetery into the village.

Langemark Ypres Battlefield Walking Tour

Restored bunkers and a memorial wall in Langemark German Cemetery mark the front line from which chlorine gas was first used on 22nd April 1915 (Simon Jones).

We then look at the heroic stand by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry on Bellewaarde Ridge on 8th May and the German advance to Railway Wood.

PPCLI Ypres battlefield tour

The memorial to Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry with maple tree behind (Simon Jones).

In the evening we attend the moving Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate before dinner.

Menin Gate Ypres Battlefield tour

The Missing of the Ypres Salient on the Menin Gate.

Day 3 – Third and Fourth Ypres

Meagher Tyne Cot Ypres battlefield walking tour

Lt. Norman Meagher was killed in the fighting for the ground on which Tyne Cot Cemetery now stands. (Simon Jones)

The Third Battle of Ypres, commonly known as Passchendaele, was one of the bloodiest and controversial of the war.  We start with the successful Australian attack at Broodseinde on 4th October 1917, following the advance up the ridge and the capture of the ground that became the vast Tyne Cot Cemetery.  When the Canadians took over the attack on Passchendaele, the fighting during November bogged down in the mud.

Passchendaele Ypres battlefield walking tour

A 1917 trench map and Passchendaele today.

In the afternoon we walk ‘Fourth Ypres’ with a short but steep ascent to follow the route of the German Alpine Corps in the rapid capture of Mont Kemmel during the Kaiser’s Offensive in April 1918.

Kemmel Ypres Battlefield Walking Tour

Mont Kemmel. (Simon Jones)

Day 4 – Fifth Ypres

The final battle of Ypres which opened on 28th September 1918 was part of the ‘Hundred Days’ which led to Allied victory on the Western Front.  Astonishingly, the whole Ypres Salient battlefield was re-captured in three days.  Exactly a century on, we focus on the capture by the 9th Scottish Division of the village of Ledeghem, today still dotted with concrete bunkers.

Ledegem bunker Ypres battlefield walking tour

The Ledegem bunker which we visit on the Fifth Ypres walk.

The war came full circle at Ledeghem: the cemetery contains the graves of cavalrymen who fell at the opening of the First Battle in October 1914.  Four years later, Second Lieutenant Gorle received the Victoria Cross for bringing his field guns to within 50 yards of the Germans, just as they had fought in 1914.

Gorle VC Ypres battlefield walking tour

Robert Gorle, who was awarded the VC for bravery at Ledegem, 1st October 1918.

Return to Lille for Eurostar back to London St Pancras.


I have been designing and guiding battlefield tours since 1997 and have taken well over a hundred groups to France, Belgium, Italy, Egypt, Libya, Britain, Canada and the USA. The Cultural Experience is a highly experienced tour operator which is ATOL Protected and a Travel Trust Association Member.

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Feedback from four of the travellers on my ‘Medics & Padres’ tour, August 2018:

It truly was the best and most informative tour we have been on.

It was a marvelous trip and gave us both new friends and a perspective on an aspect of the Great War of which we were ignorant.

Another excellent Great War tour… which was well-researched and presented.

I thoroughly enjoyed the trip and learned so much – thank you to you all for making it such a memorable few days.

Ypres Battlefield tour Ariane Hotel

‘Medics & Padres’ group in the private dining room of the Ariane Hotel, Ypres, August 2018.


Photo credit: Robert Gorle VC https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/8543779.


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Myths of Messines: The Lost Mines


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Who was Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’? The night attack by the 2/5th Glosters, 6-7 April 1917


 

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1915: The First British Gas Masks

How the deadly effects of chlorine and phosgene gas were defeated by British scientists.  Researched using records in the UK National Archives and illustrated with exhibits from the Royal Engineers Museum, this two-part article ‘The First BEF Gas Respirators, 1915’ appeared in Military Illustrated, January & February 1991.

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See below for part two of the ‘First Gas Respirators, 1915.’


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Medics & Padres battlefield tour: Ypres & the French Coast, 2nd-5th August 2018


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


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Understanding Chemical Warfare in the First World War


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Edward Harrison, who gave his life to protect against poison gas


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Yellow Cross: Measures to protect against Mustard Gas


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‘Pure murder’: John Nash’s ‘Over the Top’

John Nash Over the Top SimonJonesHistorian

In John Nash’s painting ‘Over The Top’ 1st Artists’ Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917, the artist depicted a disastrous attack in which he himself took part.  A painting bereft of glory, it remains ‘an acknowledged masterpiece’ of war art.[1]  When John Nash later contrasted his work as an official War Artist in two conflicts he described his paintings from the First World War as ‘the result of actual vivid experience’, whereas those from the Second, ‘were really more commissioned and hadn’t a very warlike aspect at all’. [2]

Study for Over the Top Art.IWM ART 3908 SimonJonesHistorian

The smaller of two studies by John Nash for ‘Over the Top’ in the Imperial War Museum, this was entitled ‘The Counter Attack’.  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3908)

Though not formally trained, Nash was a successful artist when he enlisted at the age of 23 as a private soldier in September 1916.  He joined the Artists’ Rifles, although by this time, Nash recalled, there weren’t any other artists serving in the Regiment. He was posted to the Western Front in November.

John Nash service record SimonJonesHistorian

Part of John Nash’s enlistment document in the Artists Rifles, September 1915 (UK National Archives WO363).

Nash described the attack in 1974 to Joseph Darracott, Keeper of Art and Design History at the Imperial War Museum, both in a letter and during a long, recorded conversation but, by this time, as he himself acknowledged, his memories were uncertain.[3]  Not all of his recollections correspond either with contemporary official records, or with accounts by two other members of the Artists Rifles dating from the 1930s, but it is still possible to clearly match the painting with the recorded events of the brief but disastrous action.

John Nash NPG x127172 detail SimonJonesHistorian

John Nash (seated on ground) as a Private soldier with a bombing section of the Artists Rifles, possibly the same section he commanded as a Corporal at the time of the attack (detail, National Portrait Gallery x127172, Creative Commons licence).

On 20th November 1917, a major British surprise attack with massed tanks made deep advances into the German positions south of Cambrai, only for  much of the ground to be lost to a German counterattack ten days later.  A month afterwards, on the southern part of the battlefield the Germans made a further limited attack against a vulnerable salient held by the Royal Naval Division called ‘Welsh Ridge’.[4]  Beginning on Christmas Day, the Germans preceded the attack with heavy shelling which became intense at 6.30am on 30th December.  Fifteen minutes later they attacked, the leading waves, dressed in white overalls, advancing over the snow in long lines in the morning mist. Equipped with flamethrowers, the attackers quickly gained a hold on the front positions in the north and centre.

The Artists Rifles, in reserve (part of the 190th Infantry Brigade of the Royal Naval Division) behind the northern part of the salient, were ordered up to the front line to make a counterattack, led by A and B Companies.  This immediate and hasty assault, in daylight and without artillery support, will have had the aims of ejecting the Germans before they had consolidated their gains and of dislocating any further attempts to advance.

John Nash map Welsh Ridge SimonJonesHistorian

The Action at Welsh Ridge. The Artists’ Rifles attacked from the trench marked blue in a failed attempt to re-take Eagle Avenue. British-held trenches before the attack in red, dotted line shows the British front line at the end of the attack. German trenches not shown, German units in green. [Captain Wilfrid Miles, Military Operations France and Belgium 1917,vol. 3, (London, 1948)]

In ‘Over the Top’, British soldiers have just left a rough trench in which two men already lie dead, others fall after a few paces into no man’s land, the survivors plod fatalistically into no man’s land, their dark brown greatcoats contrasted with the white snow.  In his letter to Darracott, Nash explained why he depicted the attack:

It was in fact pure murder and I was lucky to escape untouched.  So you see I have very special memories as I was in charge of about fourteen men of the Bomber section… It was bitterly cold and we were easy targets against the snow and in daylight… I think the vivid memory of the occasion helped me when I painted the picture and provoked whatever intensity of feeling may be found in it… [5]

In an account of the attack published in the Artists’ Rifles Gazette in 1935, a sergeant of B Company, Reginald Lee, gave his reaction to Nash’s painting:

…the first time I saw it, …it immediately recalled in every detail the early morning scene at Welsh Ridge on December 30th 1917.[6]

Ordered to move forward to the make the attack ‘just before daybreak’, Lee described how the journey from the rear to the front line was rendered ‘very tedious and trying’ by the fatigue of the troops and the heavy German shelling.  By the time his Company reached the front line, it was already Zero hour, about 11.15am, and the exhausted men:

had to jump out ‘Over the Top’ immediately on arrival.  This is what you can actually see in Nash’s picture!  The snow and mist; men of ‘B’ Company characterized by the blue square on the upper arm of their greatcoats; the sergeant with a Lewis Gun, already the sole survivor of his Lewis Gun section, and later a casualty himself.

John Nash Over the Top-Detail Sgt SimonJonesHistorian

Detail from ‘Over the Top’. A man falls hit, behind a Sergeant Lewis machine gunner, said by Reginald Lee to be the sole survivor of his section. The blue square indicated B Company of the Artists’ Rifles.  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1656)

Lee was on the right of the attack, with a platoon of about fifteen men; after about thirty yards, they walked into heavy German machine gun fire which especially caught the men on his left.

Nash, also in B Company, was a corporal in command of a section of Bombers, men trained in the use of grenades. He was probably to the left of Lee and his account also describes the heavy fire as they tried to cross no man’s land:

There was not a shot for a while, suddenly the Germans opened up and that seemed to be every machine gun in Europe.

Lee edged to the right, away from the fire, after about fifty yards he could see the German barbed wire, 25 yards ahead, and beyond that:

somewhat distinctly through the mist – I could see the heads and shoulders of the German troops. They commenced to fire at us with their rifles, and before we could get down they had caused further casualties including my Nos. 1 and 2 Lewis Gunners. The remainder of my platoon, now only four men – two of whom were wounded – and myself, took cover in a shell hole. From this spot we were able to be of some use with our rifles, as we were able to make the Germans keep their heads down.

Study for 'Over The Top' Art.IWM ART 3907-SimonJonesHistorian

The larger of two studies by Nash for ‘Over the Top’, both include barbed wire on iron pickets which was omitted from the final painting. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3907)

Lee believed that, to their left, some men of A Company managed to get into the German front line.  A private in A Company, Alfred Burrage, was not one of them:

We scrambled over somehow when the whistle went, and it was a relief if anything to get out of that dreadful pelting of shells.  The air now was stung with all the queer and variegated sounds of bullets.  In the middle distance we saw the heads of our enemies, and a German officer standing up as large as life directing fire.[7]

Burrage took cover in a sunken lane in no man’s land with a handful of others:

I crouched where I was for what seemed hours, not daring to show my head and suffering agonies of terror lest the Boche should walk over and murder what remained of us.

Eventually  the survivors received orders to retire.  To Burrage’s right, Nash, Lee and a few others of B Company, remained in the shell holes until it was dark when they were able to withdraw.  Nash recalled:

We never got to grips with the enemy but were stopped in sight of them.  We had to ‘hole up’ in craters and shell holes till nightfall and then got back to our original line.

The Brigade Major recorded in the War Diary that ‘the attack was doomed before it commenced’, owing to the ground being so well commanded by the Germans who were already firmly established in their captured trench.[8]  The War Diary of the Artists’ Rifles recorded the casualties for the 30th – 31st December as about nine officers and 108 men.[9]  Lee’s recollection was that, of 80 officers and men of B Company who had answered the roll that morning, just two sergeants and ten men returned.  In an angry memoir published in 1930, entitled War is War, Burrage summed up the attack:

Of course we hadn’t a chance. We were the small cards in a game of bluff.  The handful of us – A and B Companies – were tossed at the enemy as a tacit way of saying: “We can counter-attack, you see.  We’ve got plenty of men.  Don’t you dare come any further.”

Burrage described seeing John Nash among the survivors of B Company, ‘badly shaken and blackened all over with explosive’.  He comments that shortly afterwards Nash went on leave and never returned as he obtained employment as an official War Artist.

John Nash Over the Top SimonJonesHistorian

John Nash, ‘Over The Top’. 1st Artists’ Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917, © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1656)

Nash painted ‘Over the Top’ in June 1918 after he had been commissioned by the Ministry of Information, working alongside his brother Paul in a large shed in Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire.  Here John also painted ‘Oppy Wood, 1917’, while Paul began one of his most famous war paintings ‘The Menin Road’.


Text © Simon Jones.  See below for Notes to this article.


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Who was Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’? The night attack by the 2/5th Glosters on 6-7 April 1917


Notes.

[1] Sir John Rothenstein, John Nash, (London, 1983), p. 51.

[2] Recorded conversation with J. C. Darracott [and D. Brown], 1974, Imperial War Museum Cat. 323. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80000322

[3] Recorded conversation with J. C. Darracott, op. cit.  Letter 15 January 1974 to Joseph Darracott, Keeper, Art and Design History, Imperial War Museum, quoted in Rothenstein, op. cit., p. 48.

[4] The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division was an infantry division formed in 1914, originally comprising many Royal Navy Reservists.

[5] Letter 15 January 1974 op. cit.

[6] Account by ‘R.A.L.’ (Reginald Alfred Lee), Artists’ Rifles Gazette, January 1935, p. 5, quoted and identified as Lee by Rothenstein, op. cit., and Patrick Baty, ‘Over the Top’, http://patrickbaty.co.uk/2017/12/16/over-the-top/ (accessed 30/12/2017).

[7] ‘Ex-Private X’ [A. M. Barrage], War is War, (London, 2010, originally published 1930), pp. 185-190.

[8] Captain C. H. Dowden, 190 Brigade War Diary, UK National Archives, WO95/3117.

[9] 1/28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment War Diary, UK National Archives, WO95/3119.

[10] Letter 15 January 1974 op. cit.

URLs for IWM online catalogue:

‘Over the Top’ Art.IWM ART 1656

Sketch for ‘Over the Top’ Art.IWM ART 3907

Sketch for ‘Over the Top’ Art.IWM ART 3908

URL for NPG photograph x127172


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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.


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Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas in 1917


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Trenches and Memorials on the Italian Front around Caporetto – 1


 

Myths of Messines: ‘The Big Bang Heard in Downing Street’

When nineteen underground mines were detonated at the opening of the Battle of Messines south of Ypres in Belgium, at 3.10 a.m. on 7 June 1917, the sound is frequently said to have been heard in 10 Downing Street by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.[1]  There is evidence that the earth tremor caused by the explosion of around one million pounds of explosives was felt at a great distance.  Charles Barrois, a geologist in Lille, 12 miles away, later told his Australian counterpart, Sir Edgworth David, that the effect was such that people rushed from their houses thinking that there was an earthquake.[2] Tremors were detected by seismographs near Utrecht, at 130 miles distance, and on the Isle of Wight, 180 miles away.[3]

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The Caterpillar Crater, the result of 70,000 pounds of explosives laid 100 feet beneath the German lines. It is one of the 19 Messines mines detonated at 3.10am on 7th June 1917.

The claim that the mines were heard in Downing Street appears to have originated as a report in The Times the following day which stated that Lloyd George heard them at his home at Walton Heath in Surrey. This was 140 miles from the mines and, by coincidence, the same distance as Downing Street. The Prime Minister was said to have given orders to be called at 3 a.m. and with others had ‘heard clearly the tremendous shock’.  The report further stated that at the same time ‘persons in the neighbourhood of the premier’s official residence in London also heard what they judged to be heavy guns across the Channel’.[4]

Times 08061917 LG claims to hear Messines mines

The Times, 8 June 1917.

The science journal Nature repeated the claim that the Prime Minister had heard the explosions but, a fortnight later, printed a correction after receiving information from two Royal Engineer officers who had witnessed the detonations. One, a mile away from the mines, described the noise as ‘not so very great’, while the other, eight miles away, ‘saw the flash, waited for the noise, and heard only a slight “phit.”‘[5]

Other observers left accounts which enable a clearer idea to be gained of what might have been heard in England, if it was not the sound of the mines. Another Royal Engineer officer, a Tunneller Brian Frayling, observing from Kemmel Hill two miles away, described the tremor as ‘a violent shaking of the ground’ with a distinct interval before columns of flame rose.[6]  The Tunnelling officer Hugh Kerr ‘saw the whole area leap into the air – a never to be forgotten sight.’ But he expressed the view that to have heard the mines in London was ‘bunkum or wishful thinking!’ and ‘due to lively imagination’. It was the guns, he said, which had made the sound: ‘What about the barrage! That was a noise!’[7]

Eyewitnesses describe a sequence of three events: a powerful earth tremor from the mines, flames streaking into the air, and then the artillery opening fire.  For the first time in an attack, the detonation of the mines was used by the gunners as the signal for the opening of the British barrage and, within a few seconds, more than 2,000 guns opened fire. Only in describing the guns do the eyewitnesses describe a noise.  An artillery officer, Ralph Hamilton, watching the detonation of the Hill 60 and Caterpillar mines, experienced the tremor, the flames and then the guns:

First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. [8]

DSCF6990 noiseCrop

The Daily Telegraph, 5 June 1917.

There is much evidence that gun fire from the Western Front was audible in England during the First World War, including in the days before the Messines attack was launched. The Daily Telegraph reported that one of their staff had heard it clearly, in a southeast London suburb at 2am of 4 June, resembling ‘the distant thudding of a steam-launch’s engines on the river upon a calm day’, punctuated by heavier sounds thought to be large howitzers which caused a ‘slight rattling of ill-fitting villa windows’.  In other parts of London, ‘from Hounslow to Highgate’, gunfire was plainly heard.[9]

If Lloyd George heard something at Walton Heath therefore, it seems more likely that it was the synchronised firing of more than 2,000 guns.

See below for references.


1st Shots Memorial Mons 1914 Simon Jones

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Isaac Rosenberg

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Hausler miner 9June1917

Myths of Messines: Did the Messines Mines Really Kill 10,000 Germans?


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Myths of Messines: The ‘Lost Mines’


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Myths of Messines: Killed by their own mine?


Underground Warfare

Buy a signed copy of Underground Warfare 1914-1918 at a reduced price


Notes to ‘The Big Bang Heard in Downing Street’:

[1] The internet, passim.

[2] Tunnellers’ Old Comrades Association Bulletin, No.  1, 1926, pp. 11-12.

[3] Koninklijk Nederlandsch Meteorologisch Instituut, Seismische Registrierungen in De Bilt, Vol. 5, 1917 (Utrecht, 1920), p. 41; Nature, No. 2485, Vol. 99, 14/6/1917, p. 312.

[4] The Times, 8/6/1917.

[5] Nature, No. 2485, Vol. 99, 14/6/1917, p. 312; Nature, No. 2487, Vol. 99, 28/6/1917, p. 350.

[6] Brian Frayling, ‘Back to Front’ by B.E.F. TS memoir Brian Frayling, Royal Engineers Museum and Archives.

[7] H. R. Kerr, letter to Alexander Barrie 8/3/1962, Barrie Papers, RE Museum & Archives.

[8] Ralph G. Hamilton, The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven (London 1924), p. 304; see also the account ‘Messines’ by ‘Tunneller’, Tunnellers’ Old Comrades Association Bulletin, No. 5, 1930, p. 23.

[9] The Daily Telegraph, 5/6/1917.


Q3999 cropThe Story of the Lochnagar Mine


Shirebrook Miners in the Tunnelling Companies

Shirebrook was in the news in the UK owing to the working conditions in a warehouse operated by the company Sports Direct. 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

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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


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Where and how did Edward Brittain die?


Edward Harrison who gave his life to protect against poison gas


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Col di Lana

Col di Lana and Monte Sief saw some of the most dramatic mine warfare of the fighting on the Dolomite front during the First World War. The Austro-Hungarians held the twin summits but the Italians sapped up the southeastern slope and used a mine to capture the Col di Lana summit on 17 April 1916. Underground fighting for the ridge connecting Col di Lana and Monte Sief culminated in a 45 tonne Austrian mine which cut a notch visible for miles.

Col di Lana from Passo Sief

Col di Lana and Monte Sief from the Passo Sief. The Col di Lana summit on the left was taken by the Italians on 17 April 1916. The summit on the right, Monte Sief, remained in Austrian hands. The notch in Monte Sief was caused by an Austrian mine of 45 tonnes.

Austrian trench with remains of timbers, Passo Sief

Austrian trench with remains of timbers, Passo Sief.

Austrian positions, Passo Sief

Austrian positions, Passo Sief.

Setsas from Monte Sief, cross with shell

Setsas from Monte Sief, shell fragment.

Austrian positions Monte Sief view to Setas

Austrian positions Monte Sief, view to Setas.

Setsas from Monte Sief

Setsas from Austrian positions on Monte Sief.


Monte Sief shell fragment

Shell fragment found in the Austrian positions, Monte Sief.

Monte Sief Austrian positions along the ridge

Austrian positions on the ridge leading to the summit of Monte Sief.

Monte Sief, Austrian positions

Austrian positions on the ridge leading to the summit of Monte Sief.

Austrian positions, Monte Sief2

Austrian positions, Monte Sief.

Austrian positions, Monte Sief view to Col di Lana

Austrian positions, Monte Sief, view towards Col di Lana.

Austrian loophole, Monte Sief

Austrian loophole, Monte Sief.

view from Austrian loophole, Monte Sief

Austrian loophole, Monte Sief.

Austrian positions, Monte Sief

Austrian positions, Monte Sief.

Austrian cavern

Austrian tunnelled observation posts, Monte Sief.

Austrian cavern and OP

Austrian tunnelled gallery, with later graffiti.

Austrian tunnelled gallery

Austrian tunnelled gallery.

Austrian tunnelled OP Monte Sief

Austrian tunnelled observation post, Monte Sief.

View into mine crater of 2 October 1917

View into the mine crater of 21 October 1917, caused by the detonation of 45 tonnes of explosives, looking towards Col di Lana.

Descent into crater of 2 October 1917

Descending into the crater of 21 October 1917.

Col di Lana crater of 17 April 1916

The summit of Col di Lana, captured by the Italians on 17 April 1916.

Col di Lana crater of 17 April 1916a

The crater formed by the Italian 5,000 kg mine of 17 April 1916.

Italian trench up the southeastern slope of Col di Lana

Italian trench up the southeastern slope of Col di Lana.

Marmot at the Sief Refugio

Marmot at the Sief Refugio.


Isaac Rosenberg

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


George_Edmund_Butler_-The_scaling_of_the_walls_of_Le_Quesnoy

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


Monte Zovetto OP 2The Italian Front in the First World War at Asiago: Monte Zovetto and Magnaboschi


Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts (c) Duncan Hunting

The men who laid the Lochnagar Mine


EB-Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library-CropBWenh

Where and how did Edward Brittain die?


 

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