A Different View

Almost a year after my great-uncle, Anson Silvester, died near Cuinchy, an officer from 1/7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment was killed near Ploegsteert.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe is buried at Louvencourt Military Cemetery. His name was Lieutenant Roland Leighton. He was a poet as well as a soldier. He wrote a poem that is recorded on an interpretive plaque beside the cemetery. It is a remarkable poem. It is remarkable for two reasons. First, he understood that the step from playground to battlefield is progression that a man can make. He saw it as a step possible when the circumstances allowed and one that he was proud to have taken. Second, though very much involved in the carnage that was 1915, he considered the call of duty a noble one and the work a suitable business for a man.

These sentiments, though much more widespread in their generation, are almost incomprehensible to subsequent generations brought up on a diet of anti-war, anti-establishment, self-preservation principles. Maybe, for that reason alone, I reproduce it  here. It is good to be reminded that most people in the first two decades of the last century, the people that fought the war, did not think as we do. To them, service, loyalty, and self-sacrifice were noble ideals that, applied to the business of war, produced remarkable men and great achievements.

In their honour, I reproduce Leighton’s 1915 poem.

“Ploegsteert

Love have I known, and dawn and gold of day time,

And wind and songs and all the joys that are,

And known once, and as a child that tires with playtime,

Leaped from them to the elemental dust of war.

I have seen blood and death, but all has ending,

And even horror is but made to cease.

I am sickened with love that lives only for lending,

And all the loathsome pettiness of peace.

Give me, God of battles, a field of death,

A hill of fire, a strong man’s agony.

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Battle of Festubert 15 – 25 May 1915

The strategic background to the Battle of Festubert was similar to Aubers Ridge. The French Tenth Army was mounting a major offensive on the ridge near Vimy and Joffre did not want German troops reinforcing that front from quiet sectors further north. Either the British had to attack in force or they should relieve the French corps so that they could take part. The latter would have been humiliating; the British were there to fight, not to make up numbers. Yet their numbers were still small, by comparison, and their logistic supply, particularly of ammunition, fragile. However, there was still a general feeling that it might be possible to break through the enemy line which might restore some mobility to the war.

Battle of Festubert - map

Opening positions showing 7 and 2 Divisions deployment. Coutesy of www.webmatters.net.

It was perhaps this optimism that caused the General Staff to doubt the intelligence they were receiving. It was also true that the German concept was to hold defensive positions on higher ground in strength and the Allies understood that they had to be ejected. There was no alternative to attacking. Having understood that they had to attack in force, it is less surprising that factors favouring the plan gained greater prominence.

The factors that should have caused greater concern were those they could not influence. The enemy had reinforced the sector following Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge. They accepted that the British were a force to be taken seriously and built strong defences. Because the land is crossed by substantial drainage ditches and the water table is high, these had to be built up,

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German breastworks at Neuve Chapelle March 1915.

They had done so using sandbags forming major breastworks. Designated North and South, these breastworks dominated the right half of the ground between Festubert and the La Bassée road just south of La Quinque Rue, First Army’s objective. Second, they had greatly improved their communication trenches back to prepared depth positions and they had located their reserves out of range of direct artillery fire.

British artillery was in a poor way although the figures sound impressive. There were 433 guns firing on a 5000 yard front. There were 36 six-inch howitzers firing high explosive at the enemy breastworks to create gaps for the infantry assault.

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4.5 inch howitzer in action 1916.

The 54 four and a half inch guns would fire high explosive onto the enemy support lines, as would some of the field guns.

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18 pounder howitzer showing crew. Courtesy of www.smnmcshannon.hubpages.com

The majority of the 210 eighteen pounder field guns would fire on the wire entanglements. The problem was that there were no high explosive shells and shrapnel was useless in clearing wire. The fire was closely observed and it was obvious that many of the howitzer HE shells were duds. In total, on the first day over 100,000 shells were fired.

Each division was attacking 2 brigades up, each with 2 battalions leading. On the left, 6 Brigade advance and capture the enemy trenches with few casualties. However, of their left 5 Brigade have a more difficult assault against a more alert enemy. Some men reach the enemy lines and the reserve battalion is sent forward to support them. But by now the enemy is responding sending reinforcements up to the strongpoints and bringing artillery fire onto the British trenches. The supporting battalions of 6 Brigade are unable to move forward from their start trenches to the captured German trenches due to machine gun cross-fire from the unsuppressed strongpoints. On 7 Division’s front, six field guns have been brought up to the front line to fire over open sights at the breastworks which in some places are only 80 yards in front. The assaulting troops of 20 Brigade advance too fast and many casualties are caused as they catch up with their own barrage. They are then held up crossing a deep ditch and from cross-fire from the Quadrilateral, which has seen no artillery suppression. On their right, 22 Brigade have crossed to the enemy trenches and are bombing their way along the system towards the northern breastworks. They continue fighting in the trench system and secure La Quinque Rue, in their area. The men in the most advanced positions of the Orchard and northern breastworks are now under intense German artillery fire.

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British breastworks at Richebourg 1917.

The next day, the 17th, was a day of low cloud and heavy rain. The Germans planned to withdraw 1200m to support positions. They provided additional support troops and artillery fire to allow this, but combined with the British barrage on the Quadrilateral and German front line, those troops were unable to do so. Many were killed in the attempt and 450 men surrendered. German artillery barrage continues all morning. 7 Division pushes 21 Brigade forward into the gap caused by withdrawing German troops and clears the Quadrilateral. As 6 Brigade moves south towards La Quinque Rue, it comes under heavy machine gun fire from their left. They call for artillery which unfortunately also hits British troops in the Quadrilateral.

Festubert 17 May

Position on 17 May showing the new German front line (Brown). Courtesy of www.webmatters.net.

Around noon, Haig responds to reports of success and orders the 3rd Canadian Brigade to support I Corps and extends the Indian front in order to relieve 5 Brigade to continue their advance. He also swings the attack south-west toward the La Bassée canal and railway triangle. The first objectives is to be Violainnes and Chapelle St Roch. But further attempts to attack across La Quinque Rue towards the Orchard and that end of the northern breastworks are halted by artillery and machine gun fire. Movement of men and materiel across the open land behind the new British line is very difficult.

In the evening, 21 Brigade attacks eastwards against the southern breastworks facing Festubert. They are confronted by a deep ditch covered by fire that had not been visible. Some men drown in attempting to cross.

The next day saw no let-up in the rain. In the afternoon the Canadian and 51st Highland Divisions are ordered to relieve 2 and 7 Divisions and to continue the attack. Meanwhile, preparations are made and a new bombardment begins. When the attack is launched, it is immediately neutralised by machine gun and artillery fire. The Germans had completed their withdrawal establishing their new front line but it had not been noticed by the British and had not been affected by their artillery. Then during the evening Canadian and 51st Highland Divisions relieve 2 and 7 Divisions. Between 19th and 24th May the Canadians and Highlanders continue the assault and capture the Orchard, which became known as Canadian Orchard and the southern breastworks.

Joffre had been pressuring the British to relieve another French division south of the La Bassée canal so that it could take part in the continuing assault at Vimy. The 2nd Division was ordered to do so and it completed the relief by 31st May. In the meantime, Sir John French had ordered Haig to stop the attacks at Festubert as artillery ammunition was critically low and the Germans had reinforced their new line in considerable strength.

The pattern had been established that would last until 1918. But there were important lessons from the battle and there were far-reaching effects. On 15th May, there was an article in the Times reporting the shortage of shells and their poor quality. This directly led to the collapse of Asquith’s Liberal government and the appointment of Lloyd George as the first Minister of Munitions in a Coalition government. It was also understood that the British had insufficient heavy artillery with which to batter strongholds and the front line and the quality and supply of high explosive shells was hopelessly inadequate.

The Canadians were reporting serious problems with the standard-issue Ross rifle and British battalions had too few machine guns due to attrition in battle. There was also a serious shortage of trench weaponry with which to fight once trenches had been captured.

The casualty story was tragic. The French had lost over 102,000 men in their assaults on Vimy; the Germans had lost over 50,000 defending Vimy and Festubert. British and Empire losses at Festubert were just over 16,000 including the deaths of the commanding officers of 11 battalions and the Brigadier-General commanding 141st Brigade.

These were desperately hard lessons to learn but they had to be learnt as the British Army made the transition from colonial police force to continental army. It could not be done without the country moving onto a war production footing. Everything had to change. Over the next four years, everything did.

Lt John Kipling?

2Lt John Kipling

Rudyard Kipling was an ardent patriot who had come to see the war as a crusade against barbarism. He had to pull some strings to get his son into the Army. John had not been accepted by the Navy due to being very short-sighted. The Army took a similar view. Kipling then approached his friend Lord Roberts, who was commander of the Army, as well as being Colonel of the Irish Guards, to see if he could use his influence.

After completing his training, John was sent to France in August 1915. For the battle of Loos in September, the Guards Division were part of XI Corps, one of the three Corps that made up the Haig’s First Army. We know that he was killed by an artillery shell on 27th September 1915. His body was buried but the grid reference of the burial appears to have been wrong. From 1919 onwards, battlefield burials were exhumed and buried in the beautiful military cemeteries that grace this part of France.

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Inscription at the base of the Cross of Sacrifice, beside the road.

In 1992, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission announced that the unidentified body of an Irish Guards Lieutenant buried in St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station cemetery was that of the missing John Kipling. A gravestone was suitably inscribed and has been visited by many, your author included. However, in 2002 Major Tonie Holt and his wife Valmai, published a book, My Son Jack? which cast serious doubt on the identification. They showed convincingly that Kipling was a second lieutenant when he was killed. He was not gazetted Lieutenant until November, although back-dated to June 1915, and in letters written shortly before his death, he asked his father to have some ‘dog-tags’ made for him in the rank of second lieutenant. Rudyard Kipling did not know of his promotion, when he was killed.

Lt John Kipling IRISH GUARDS

The gravestone says, Lt John Kipling IRISH GUARDS.

So, maybe it is right that he is still recorded on the Loos Memorial to the Missing at Dud Corner along with more than 14,000 others who fell in that battle and have no known grave. And no doubt his grave in St Mary’s ADS Cemetery will continue to give pleasure to other battlefield pilgrims.

Aubers Ridge – 9 May 1915

The lessons learned by senior commanders following the tactical success of Neuve Chapelle were false friends. Surprise is a universally recognised virtue in a military plan; surprise had been achieved at Neuve Chapelle. The problem was that it was the wrong sort of surprise!

View south showing how ridge dominates

View south showing how ridge dominates

The sector was very lightly held as the Germans did not think the British capable of a major offensive, let alone operating independently. Their front-line trench systems were designed as a sort of sentry line. However, following the bombardment in March, they had worked hard. Brest works were built higher and wider and trenches were deepened. Parados were built on the rear of the trenches to provide improved protection from explosions to the rear. Barbed wire barriers were widened and thickened and, in front of their trenches, laid in wide ditches. Communications trenches were reinforced so that reserves could be deployed quickly from the rear and machine gun posts were built so that every sector could be swept from more than one position. Lastly, reserves were reinforced. The British appeared to be unaware of these changes as they planned their attack a couple of months later.

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One of a line of bunkers built in 1916 along Aubers Ridge. All had inter-locking fields of view and fire.

Because they misunderstood of the nature of the surprise they achieved, senior commanders thought that a brief bombardment was more effective than a long heavy one. They were helped to this conclusion by a serious shortage of artillery ammunition. British industry had not yet geared up to war-time production and would not do so for another year. Consumption of artillery ammunition had consistently exceeded the scales used to plan production. In demanding more from existing factories, quality had dropped. The fuses were particularly unreliable. The result was that many heavy HE shells were duds, particularly on soft ground. As if this were not serious enough, many of the artillery pieces had exceeded their barrel lives. This made them less accurate for both line and elevation causing them to drop short, often among our own troops.

Why there was such a critical failure of intelligence is not known. Having used the RFC to such good effect before Neuve Chapelle, they appear not to have played such a key role in May. Two factors dominated the thinking of senior commanders; communications and reserves. They were convinced that one of the main reasons troops had not been able to break through the line in March was poor communication, forward and backwards. They ensured that this would not blight May’s attack. Commanders were to be well forward, flags and signal lamps were to be used when telephone cables were cut. Reserves were identified – Haig had two brigades – and these were to leapfrog the assaulting troops when they flagged.

Commanders and staff had planned carefully, lessons had been learned and applied, troops were briefed and there was generally an air of cautious optimism that a successful break-through was possible. But the most important part of any military plan is the enemy and he had been insufficiently studied. His defences were under-estimated and his strength in depth not understood. To make matters worse, much of the ammunition available for the bombardment was shrapnel which had very little effect on wire or men in dug-outs.

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Re-creation of German communications dug-out showing equipment. From Museum at Fromelles.

The bombardment started at 5.00am and half an hour later, the troops went over the top, into withering machine gun and artillery fire. The Germans had sited their machine guns behind heavy steel plate at ground level. They swept the attacking infantry at about knee level so that there was no protection even for the fallen. No-man’s land was between 100 and 300m wide; very few of the troops made it across and none in the centre of the assault. The extent of the failure was not clear even as reports began to trickle back to Haig. He was convinced that a new artillery barrage could suppress the machine guns and so ordered another assault at noon. However, as the picture began to clear, he postponed that until mid-afternoon. Further south the French IX Army had had some success near Vimy and Haig was under considerable pressure to attack or relieve French units so they could attack. He therefore ordered another attack at 8.00pm. However, as it became clear that there was insufficient time to organise fresh troops, that too was postponed.

During the night he met with his Corps commanders to discuss whether to launch a night-time bayonet assault without preparatory artillery fire or to wait until morning. Even at this stage, the full extent of the disaster was not clear. They agreed to wait until morning and launch a full assault with artillery preparation. During the night reports from assaulting battalions filtered back to HQs, were consolidated and passed back. Gradually, the full horror of what had happened to the attack that morning became plain. When this was considered, along with the shortage of artillery rounds and the poor condition of many of the artillery pieces, Haig cancelled the planned assault. About 10,000 men had been lost, killed, wounded or missing, for no gain in territory or tactical advantage.

2 Royal Sussex was a battalion of about 850 men that morning. They were in the first wave of the assault. By sunset, they had lost 14 officers (2 KIA, 3 missing) and 583 men. Of the 282 killed, only 20 have known graves. The remainder are commemorated at Le Touret.

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Le Touret Military Cemetery has the names of over 13,000 men who have no known grave as well as those buried there.

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Le Touret Military Cemetery

R SUSSEX names at Le Touret

R SUSSEX names at Le Touret

Neuve Chapelle – 10-13 March 1915

The winter of 1914 had been miserable. The troops in the south of the British sector near La Bassée found themselves in water-logged trenches, often standing up to their knees in water. Trench foot and ague were widespread causing more casualties than the enemy. However, in early 1915 fresh divisions were beginning to arrive from England and the Empire, and British troops were re-organised into two armies; Haig’s Corps became First Army and Sir Herbert Smith-Dorrien’s, the Second. Haig had two corps to command; Rawlinson’s IV Corps consisting of 7th and 8th Divisions and Willcocks’ Indian Division, consisting of Lahore and Meerut Divisions.

The French and Germans both had a low opinion of the BEF. Because it was so small initially, most French assumed that it would be used to relieve French forces by holding quieter sectors. The Germans had similar views and so the ground opposite the British was lightly held. General Joffre was determined to seize the moment when the Germans were fighting in Russia to reduce the bulge into France left following the invasion the previous year. He planned a major offensive attacking from Verdun in the south, from Rheims northward and in the Artois region eastwards onto the plain of Douai. The British were to form the northern part of the attack in the Artois region with a view to capturing the Aubers ridge between La Bassée to Lille. However, French involvement in the offensive was cancelled because the British were unable to relieve French IX Corps north of Ypres. The subsequent battle was, therefore, a British affair.

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The battle was meticulously planned by Haig’s staff. For the first time, aircraft from the RFC had photo-mapped to a depth of 1,400m the ground over which the attack would travel. 1,500 copies of the map were produced at 1:5000 scale. Although there was a general shortage of ammunition, especially HE, Haig was able to deploy an artillery piece every 6m along the front.

View towards Bois de Biez from Neuve Chapelle

View towards Bois de Biez from Neuve Chapelle

A short 35 minute bombardment of the front line was planned, followed by a 30 minute bombardment of the village and reserve positions in the area of Bois de Biez. On a weight per yard of enemy front basis, this would be the heaviest bombardment by British troops until 1917!

Three brigades from the Indian Corps advanced quickly as the barrage lifted and by nightfall they were in possession of the village. Some advanced units were as far forward as Layes Brook. On a front of about 2km, the Indian Corps’ 8th Division had advanced about 1500m. Overnight the Germans reinforced their second line in the area of Bois de Biez and no further progress could be made, though not for the want of trying.

It was at this point that the fragilities of this new form of warfare began to make themselves felt. Once troops advanced from their trenches, there was little or no communication with their command HQs. Up to that point, communication was done by field telephone connected to switches by cable. The cable was laid along communication trenches but was vulnerable to artillery fire. New cable to the village could be laid but the men doing so were vulnerable to artillery and sniper fire so it was normally done at night. Runners could be sent with written messages, but they were also vulnerable to enemy fire and they often got lost. The result was that commanders often had a very tenuous grasp on the battle and were unable to react to developments. The result was that orders could not be got to the troops in the village nor could reinforcements be quickly sent forward.

Another effect of the difficulties with communication was that contact was lost with the artillery batteries. There was therefore little supporting fire when the inevitable enemy counter-attack came. All artillery fire was pre-planned and registered before the battle. This often sacrificed an element of surprise as well as being inflexible after the attack had gone in.

This operation was a success. A carefully planned operation had achieved many of its objectives and Neuve Chapelle had been wrested from the enemy. It would be held until the German Spring Offensive in 1918.

Indian Memorial to the missing

Indian Memorial to the missing

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The tactical success was not without a heavy cost. Haig’s four attacking divisions lost 544 officers and 11,108 men, killed, wounded and missing. The commanding officers of seven battalions were killed. The Germans are estimated to have suffered similar losses.

The battle reinforced the lesson that it was possible to break into the enemy lines but that it was another thing to break through them. The depth of the enemy defences made counter-attack inevitable, at which point the absence of artillery support was crucial. The challenges of communication back to the HQs and forward to the troops once they attacked made subsequent planning and coordination almost impossible. Another lesson was the very great challenge of having sufficient reserves and of moving them up in a timely manner to cope with the enemy counter-attack. Very difficult if commanders do not know how the battle is going.

Before Action

William_Noel_Hodgson_(For_Remembrance)_cropped_and_retouched

Edward Noel Hodgson was a young man, like so many of his generation, of exceptional ability who died in France during WW1. He was educated at Durham and Christ Church,Oxford. There he gained a first class degree in Classics. Though he wanted to stay on and read Greats, on the outbreak of war, he joined up. He was posted to the Devonshire Regiment. He joined the 9th Battalion at Festubert in July 1915 and took part in the Battle of Loos in September of that year. He was Mentioned in Dispatches and was awarded the MC for holding a captured trench without reinforcement for 36 hours.

February 1916 found the battalion at Fricourt and in April it moved to trenches opposite to the town of Mametz. The British offensive to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun had been scheduled for August 1916. After considerable persuasion from Gen Joffre, Gen Haig agreed to bring it forward to 29th June. The week long artillery bombardment had already began when, on 28th June, H hour was delayed until 1st July, due to bad weather.

On that 29th June, Hodgson wrote this beautiful prayer poem. It reveals that he knew the following day was likely to be his last. It serves as a fine epitaph.

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, O Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

The battalions of the Devonshires lost heavily that day, but succeeded in capturing Mametz. After the battle they collected their dead and buried them in the trench from which the attack had been launched. A wooden cross was erected on which was carved,

“The Devonshires held this trench. They hold it still.”

That inscription was transferred onto the CWGC headstone that replaced it.

A Royal Sussex Hero

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Anson Lloyd Silvester was 26 when war broke out in August 1914. Having read History at Jesus College Oxford and been a member of the Officers’ Training Corps, in 1913 he had received a commission in the Royal Sussex Regiment. He joined his Regiment in Dover. After training, he was shipped over to France with seven other officers and 124 men.

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Troyon nestles in wooded valley to left. La Sucrerie at Cerny is where road on right meets horizon.

They joined the 2nd Battalion on the 8th October in the front line just north of the River Aisne. The battalion HQ was in a tiny hamlet called Troyon just below the Chemin des Dames. He took command of 9th Platoon of C Company with Sergeant W Smethurst as his Platoon Sergeant.

This part of the line was not very active although company level attacks by the Germans and daily exchanges of artillery fire made it dangerous enough. It was a good time to get to know his men and to begin becoming accustomed to life in the field.

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The sidings at Fismes.

On the 15th October, the Brigade was relieved by French troops and was withdrawn as part of the overall repositioning of the British Expeditionary Force further north to the area of Ypres. He embarked with his battalion at Fismes after a night march for 15 miles across the steep ridges south of the River Aisne. The journey by train took over three days, and they eventually reached Cassel at 3.00am on the 19th October and marched into the town where they were billeted.

At 5.00am on 20th October, the Brigade began a route march into Belgium. As they marched they could hear heavy artillery fire, a sound that was to become a familiar accompaniment to their lives. They billeted in Elverdinghe and then Boesinghe, where they remained for four days. On 23rd October, the new Commanding Officer, Lt Col Crispin, arrived from India and took over command. Two days later, the battalion moved off again on a route march to Ypres which they reached three hours later and found billets. On the morning of 26th October, the battalion moved east of Ypres and formed a bivouac in the area of Haalte. Although fighting could be heard, the Brigade was not involved as it was being held in reserve. The next day, another tentative advance of several kilometres took them into the wood belonging to Herenthage Chateau, which became known as Chateau Wood.

On 28th October the battalion again advanced a couple of kilometres crossing the Menin Road and taking up a position in Polygon Wood. They encountered a bit of desultory shelling that killed two officers’ horses and one man. The battalion diary also records that Sgt Burgess was knocked off his horse, though not injured, bringing up supplies of ammunition and three men were wounded. The following day the Brigade withdrew to their old positions in Chateau Wood and the troops learned that a big German assault was expected the following morning on Gheluvelt. Shelling began in earnest at 10.00am and seemed to them to focus on Chateau Wood.

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The field over which the battalion marched and in which Lt Col Crispin was killed. Chateau Wood is at rear.

The battalion was ordered to move round to the south towards Zandevoorde. As they set off across fields to the west of Chateau Wood, Col Crispin was killed by an artillery shell that exploded close by. His horse was terrified and galloped off towards Hooge. The battalion continued under the command of Major Green, the second-in-command and took up a position on the eastern edge of what became known as Sanctuary Wood. Over the next two days, the battalion defended various positions around the wood during which time, unknown to them, the most brutal assault was being mounted on Gheluvelt, to their east, and Zandevoorde, to their south. During the fights on 30th and 31st October the battalion lost 5 officers killed and 394 men, killed, wounded or missing.

By the 3rd November, miraculously, Gheluvelt had been held and the sector began to quieten. The battalion was deployed in another wood and, as some of the men had not had water or food for 48 hours, the focus was on administration. With some sense of irony, the battalion received heavy shelling on the 5th November although there was no attack. On 9th November, the battalion was relieved by the London Scottish and moved off to a bivouac at Hooge. For the next nine days, there was almost constant shelling and many low level attacks which, though critical on the 9th, were all held.

On 15th November, 1st Division, of which 2nd Brigade and the battalion was a part, were ordered out of the line. Six days later, in a blizzard, they arrived in Hazebrouck where they received one officer and 86 men as reinforcements. The good news was that officers were permitted 96 hours leave. ALS spent the leave with his parents in Great Clacton, where his father was Rector. Returning on the 23rd, he joined the battalion on route march and rifle training. He may have been surprised two days later to receive a telegram from his mother asking whether he could get to Boulogne to meet her at the Hotel Bourgogne. History does not record whether he made it, although it is not inconceivable.

For the next two weeks the battalion remained out of the line. During this time Gen Sir John French visited to express his thanks for their efforts around Ypres at the end of October and HM The King visited and the battalion lined the streets. On 6th December three officers and 138 men joined the battalion as reinforcements. Training continued intensely until the 20th December when the battalion received orders to move south to Cambrin. Initially, the journey was made on buses, which must have been a novel experience as well as uncomfortable, as they were carrying all their tools and equipment. They continued the march on foot and between 21st and 23rd December taking part in a number of skirmishes during which one officer was killed, two wounded and 28 men killed, wounded or missing.

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The canal looking west towards Pont Fixe. Battalion was on right bank.

They reached Cambrin on 26th December and took up a position on the right of the British line. The battalion was immediately north of the La Bassée canal just south of Givenchy. The conditions for most of the battalion were appalling, living in shallow trenches half full of water. The 60th Rifles (KRRC) were slightly forward of the battalion to the south of the canal facing the Brickstacks. C Company had ceased to exist due to 90 men being hospitalised with ‘cold injuries’ and so one hundred men of the Northants had been sent to strengthen the battalion. One platoon was held in reserve. Lt Anson Silvester was commanding that platoon.

Brickstacks at Cuinchy

The Brickstacks 1917 from Robert Graves ‘Goodbye to all That’. They remained in German hands until 1918 providing excellent observation.

In the evening of 31st December, the Germans captured the observation position and machine gun post belonging to 60th Rifles forward on the south bank of the canal. A counter-attack to recapture it was planned for 10.30pm that night. B Company plus 9 Platoon (ALS) were detailed. They crossed the bridge to the south bank and patrolled east towards the position with 9 Platoon leading. The Germans had very good observation from the Brickstacks. When they were about 30m from the enemy, they came under heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Anson was hit immediately as were eleven of his twenty men. The fire was too heavy to continue and the troops withdrew. Later that night, another attack was launched by B Company reinforced by 3 companies of Scots Guards and two of Loyal North Lancs. It was successful, although the enemy subsequently mounted another successful counter-attack.

The situation remained static for several weeks and it was not until 11th January 1915, that Anson’s body was recovered. It was buried in the Communal Cemetery at Cuinchy, just behind where he fell. It is still there.

ALS

Anson Lloyd Silvester

So ended the short and gallant military career of this young man. An hour or so later, the year ended; the year in which the original British Expeditionary Force had ceased to exist and manoeuvre had become all but impossible. Armies were now locked in a struggle of attrition; of men against artillery and machine guns. Now was the turn of the civilian volunteer army. From now on, for the most part, the Germans would defend high ground, in depth. The British would have to attack.

Verdun Trenches

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The battlefields around Verdun are still criss-crossed by trenches. Communication trenches can be seen everywhere. They were essential to enable troops and supplies to be moved up to the front line. Casualties were moved back through them.

 

 

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Trench showing concrete rivetting.

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Trench showing concrete posts used to hold rivetting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the October offensive, many were improved. The ‘London Trench’ is an example. The sides were reinforced in 1917 with concrete slabs that were held in place by concrete posts. There is a stretch beside the road on the way to Fort Douaumont. However, it can be followed through the woods and seen at other places, unmaintained. It is striking that these have survived almost 100 years.

Lower picture illustrates design of following trenches.

Lower illustration shows principle of armoured shields.

Remaining firing plate showing shell damage and rifle port.

Only remaining armoured shield showing blast damage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Entrenchment showing hinges for armoured shields.

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Rifle slot in armoured shield, with bullet hole.

 

 

 

Before the war began, defensive positions had been prepared around the forts. These were of two different types. I do not know whether this reflected different philosophies or just that different companies had made them. The first example is from the defensive position south-west of Froideterre. It consists of a concrete wall with small partitions facing the enemy. On top of these were armoured steel plates that were raised into position and allowed two rifle positions behind each plate. There was no overhead protection clearly reflecting the idea that the position would be assaulted by infantry alone.

 

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Same trench showing partitions and overhead cover.

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Contemporary photo of French soldiers in trench.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second example is from Trench system X & Y.between Triaumont and Froideterre. It is facing west and so envisaging the same enemy approach. The structure is different. Gone are the armoured plates and they are replaced by 20cm of overhead protection that extends for about 70cm. Otherwise they are similar.

There is no sign of any dug-outs at either location, but they may well have existed and would have increased both protection and comfort.

Just one Final Push …..

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Memorial to the destroyed village of Fleury erected by the Touring Club of France in 1920.

An impasse had been reached on 24th June. German forces were unable to consolidate their gains. They were clinging on, unable to be reinforced, resupplied or relieved. Particularly around Fleury, trenches had been bombarded out of existence and soldiers lived, fought and died in shell holes, the only feature of the terrain. However, they were on forward slopes and every move could be observed and drew instant artillery fire.

However, from the perspective of 5th Army HQ, the nearness of the breakthrough on the 23rd was taunting. Crown Prince William was only notionally commander. His father, the Kaiser, had given him the command with the following instruction:

“I’ve entrusted to you command of the Fifth Army.  Lt. General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf will accompany you as chief of staff…what he tells you, you must do.”

Knobelsdorf (1860-1936)Knobelsdorf was Prussian, stubborn and dogged. He was convinced that his divisions were on the brink of the breakthrough that would capture Verdun and then be able to march triumphantly on Paris. His view was not shared by the Crown Prince or, as far as one can discern, Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff. The omens were not good. Phosgene had lost its terror with the issue of new gas masks to the French; some of his artillery had already been withdrawn and sent to the Somme. His troops were exhausted and depleted and there were to be no fresh reinforcements.

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Remains of High Battery. Stone shelters for ammunition built in nineteenth century.

 

However, there had been some minor successes. Early on 3rd July, German 50th Division had captured the Damloups ‘High Battery’ by clever tactics and cunning. The battery was heavily fortified with concrete shelters that held over a company of infantry. They had repeatedly fought off German assaults but the Germans had gradually crept closer. During the night, the German troops started to bomb the battery with heavy mortars. As expected the French took cover and German infantry crept closer. At the appointed time, they fired the mortars with the fuses removed. Hearing the thuds, the defenders assumed they were duds. By the time they realised their mistake, German troops had captured the battery and its troops (Horne, 1993, p.296).

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Shell holed remains of Fleury. Crest of slope is line of road by memorial on right of picture showing forward slope position of village.

Then it started to rain. For three days the surviving troops from the Bavarian Lieb Regiment around Fleury lay in their sodden clothes, in waterlogged shell holes, among the dead and dying under intense French bombardment. They watched as German heavy artillery continued to shell Fort Souville and then at mid-night on the 10th, the Green Cross shelling started. Having learnt from their mistake of the 23rd, they continued to gas the artillery batteries until the troops started to advance at dawn. The French had also learnt from their experience and, having issued the new gas-masks, showed remarkable discipline. They waited until the troops were fully in the open before delivering withering fire from their massed guns. It was devastating.

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Entrance to Fort Souville.

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Dome of C19th twin 155mm guns on Fort Souville. Used more as command post than artillery piece.

German morale was faltering. The commanding officer of an already depleted battalion, tasked with the frontal assault on Souville reported that he could not continue to accept the consequences of attack and had ordered his men to dig in. By contrast, a Jager battalion had pushed south west from the ‘High Battery’ and captured 217th Regiment of Infantry; thirty three officers and 1,300 men had been captured or killed (ibid). By day’s end, 2,400 French prisoners had been taken.

A confused battle continued on the 12th. At one point, German troops were seen from their Division HQ waving the flag from the top of Fort Souville. Great excitement was followed by an artillery barrage south of the fort to keep French forces at bay. Yet, despite there being no French troops north of the Fort, neither were there any German troops able to exploit the success. Shortly, learning that there were Germans on the fort, a courageous young officer led out a fighting patrol and quickly rounded up the invaders. It turned out that they were a leaderless group who had moved onto the fort to escape their own shelling.

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Narrative plaque marking the ‘high-water’ mark of German advance, south of Fleury.

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The Wounded Lion monument. Between Fleury and Fort Souville, it marks the furthest advance of the Germans in the attacks of 11th & 12th July 1916.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That was the high-water mark. By the 14th French counter-attacks had pushed the German troops almost back to their July 10th starting line and the last gasp had failed.

The figures are stunningly awful. Between 21st February and 15th July, the French had lost 275,000 men and 6,563 officers. The Germans had lost just under 250,000 men, almost double the number of men in the nine divisions that Falkenhayn had been willing to commit to the battle. Between 65,000 and 70,000 Frenchmen had been killed and 64,000 men and 1,400 officers had been taken prisoner. Over 120,000 French casualties had occurred since the middle of May (ibid).

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The National Cemetery and Ossuary at Thiaumont.

German artillery had fired about 22,000,000 shells; the French about 15,000,000. The French had ninety six divisions on the Western Front; seventy of these were rotated through Verdun (ibid). Two and a half million men had been transported along the Voie Sacrée to the battlefield over ten months up to October.

To both sides, the ground had become hallowed with the blood of hundreds of thousands of their comrades. It was psychologically impossible for the Germans to withdraw and equally impossible for the French to let them remain there. So the carnage continued, albeit on a smaller scale, until October when France launched a major offensive to restore the line and recapture their forts.

 

Bibliography

Holstein, C. Walking Verdun, 2009, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley.

Horne, A., The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, 1993, Penguin Books, London

The Final Assault

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The orientation plate at Thiaumont.

In capturing the forts of Douaumont and Vaux, the Germans had established themselves at the base of both legs of a capital H of high ground. They also controlled the important valleys between, the Fumin Ravine, which ran from the village of Vaux up to the fort and the Chambitoux Ravine that ran up towards Fleury. It now appeared to the military strategists that a major offensive up the valleys between Forts Vaux and Douaumont could capture the village of Fleury situated mid-way across the cross-bar of the H. From there, it was less than 3 miles to the centre of Verdun, and downhill all the way with little in the way of defences.

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Thiaumont in June 1916.

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All that can be seen of Thiaumont today.

However, each end of this 2km cross-bar ridge was well defended with Fort Souville at the southern end and the strongholds of Thiaumont and Froideterre at the northern. Fleury was also conveniently on the reverse slope. In order to eliminate the dominant position of Thiaumont, an assault was launched soon after Vaux fell.

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Destroyed observation cupola.

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View inside the observation cupola.

It was captured the following day, 8th June, but almost immediately re-captured by the French. Over the summer, it was to change hands fourteen more times, which shows the horrific, intense, close-quarter melee that the battle had become (Horne, 1993, p.267). There was no longer a front line; troops fought from interlocking shells holes, half full of water and foul from the putrescent bodies of their comrades, while enduring the artillery bombardment of both sides.

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The barracks at Froideterre which remained in French hands throughout.

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The Bourges Casemate with two 75mm cannon. The camouflage painting dates from the next war with Germany.

For two weeks after the fall of Vaux, it rained. Apart from reducing the conditions under which the troops had to exist to indescribable, it had an important impact on the German plan. Fifth Army had scraped together about 30,000 troops for a final assault to capture Thiaumont, Fleury and Fort Souville. There was an air of confidence about the General Staff that was in no part shared by even the elite troops gathered for the task. Large stocks of a new gas, Phosgene, known to the Germans as Green Cross gas because of the shell markings, had been assembled. Trials had shown that the French gas-masks were ineffective against Phosgene, so a rapid breakthrough was expected. But Phosgene could not be used when it was wet (ibid).

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Command Post 120 was not much damaged and provides graphic evidence of the punishment suffered by PC 118 and 119.

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PC 118 was nearest to Thiaumont and suffered worst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 22nd June, the artillery bombardment began. It was a beautiful sunny day. That evening the bombardment stopped and was followed by a silent whooshing of shells that did not explode. Too soon it became clear that these were gas shells; it collected in the ravines where artillery batteries were concentrated. Horses broke loose and ran amok, frothing and dying; troops were spluttering. At first light the following morning, the main assault was launched and quickly over-ran Thiaumont and surrounded Froideterre. In the centre, the Bavarian Lieb Regiment captured Fleury and brought up its field guns. However, staggeringly, the French were not overcome. By about 9.00am, their batteries started to fire again, but not before the Bavarians were firing machine guns, at extreme range, into the centre of Verdun.

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The dominating skyline of Mort Homme from where observers could call fire on the Thiaumont defences.

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Entrenchment X. A forward position at Thiaumont. On a forward slope and observed from Mort Homme.

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Contemporary image of ‘Poilus’ in Entrenchment X. Concrete parapet was only 0.2m thick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Petain’s HQ in Bar-le-Duc, there seemed little to celebrate as bad news poured in. By the end of the 23rd, the position had stabilised but none of the French defenders could be confident about the next day. Again, he petitioned Joffre for the offensive on the Somme to be brought forward. Reluctantly, Joffre released four divisions that he was saving for the Somme offensive. However, despite gains and soaring morale, the German General Staff also had cause to reflect. They had no more Phosgene. French gas masks seemed to have coped with it better than they had anticipated. It had gathered in the valleys and in depressions but had not affected the batteries on high ground. Most critical of all, the Germans had not been prepared to depend on their new weapon and so continued an artillery barrage for three hours after the gas attack, before the assault. This gave defenders some time to gather themselves and prepare for the attack.

Fort Souville had not fallen and French artillery was able to harass the Bavarians in Fleury. Unable to be resupplied with either ammunition or, more critically, water, the Bavarians could not exploit their position. By the end of the 24th June, the Germans were unable to push further south. They were suffering from dehydration and exhaustion and were seriously exposed in a prominent salient. The struggle continued for a further week of fruitless attacks by both sides. Both armies suffered heavy casualties; no ground was gained by either side.

However, on the 24th June, the French Prime Minister, Briand, personally implored General Douglas Haig to launch the offensive. The bombardment began the next day and continued for a week. The Battle of the Somme had started.

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The undamaged interior of PC120. Imagine it full of command staff, wounded, stragglers and First Aid Post.

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Neglected memorial to Lt Col Charles Ridouard and his men of 317th Regiment of Infantry who were killed in a fire inside PC119 on 31st July 1916.

 

 

Bibliography

Holstein, C. Walking Verdun, 2009, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley.

Horne, A., The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, 1993, Penguin Books, London