Fort Vaux

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pre-war aerial photo. Shows clear fields of view.

Could any contrast be more stark, than the stories of two neighbouring Forts, Douaumont and Vaux? The stronger, higher, more important, more heavily armed Douaumont was captured by a few without a shot being fired. Fort Vaux was defended gloriously, metre by metre, in conditions of indescribable awfulness, quite beyond our powers of fully imaging, for fully five days. Such contrasts depend in large part on individuals; leaders to whom the desperate turn and who elevate the dreadful, in the end, to the glorious.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

75mm gun in restored casemate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

75mm quick firing cannon in a casement mount.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fort Vaux had been stripped of its four 75mm cannon in the flanking casemates leaving only one in a forward turret. Otherwise, it had only machine guns, none mounted in turrets. Situated on high ground 4km south east of Douaumont, with commanding views over the line of German approach, Vaux dominated the approaches to Douaumont through the deep valley that separated the two forts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

The 75mm was destroyed in late February or early March, when a German one tonne shell from a 420mm ‘heavy’ detonated its magazine slicing the enormous carapace in fragments.

640px-Le_commandant_Raynal

 

On 24th March, a tough, 49 year old Colonial soldier, Major Sylvain-Eugene Raynal arrived to take command of the Fort. He had already been seriously wounded twice and was on convalescence pending being invalided out of the army. He volunteered to command a Fort, in preference, as it was thought to be less demanding.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Remains of the north-east blockhouse. These could fire along the ditch to prevent access to the glacis.

The Fort was overcrowded. Its complement of men was 250. When Raynal arrived, there were 600, many of them wounded. He had 8 days to understand his command and his men. On the day after the capture of Douaumont, Raynal sensed their moment had arrived. All night there was a fearful bombardment and at dawn the attack began. Quickly the German assault troops were over the fence and into the moat. However, both corner garrisons were in place and were able to rake the moat with machine gun fire. The struggle to neutralise these blockhouses went on for 12 hours until by 4pm both had been captured. The blockhouses were joined to the fort by underground passages not more than 3 feet wide and 5 feet high. These now became the battlefield as troops fought through defences of rubble and sand-bags that had been hurriedly erected, fighting at point blank in pitch darkness.

By the 3rd June, the fort was surrounded and being attacked from all sides. The next day, a new tactic was deployed. Flame-throwers were modified to pour out dense black smoke and this was fed into the fort by longer hoses. The effect was devastating; candles went out, men lay on the floor to breathe, the wounded just suffered. Worse, that afternoon the NCO responsible for provisions reported to Raynal that the fort was almost out of water. The ration was immediately cut and the men had no water that day. The following day it was issued at a quarter of a pint per person. The situation was desperate. A brave, and lucky, officer cadet called Buffet managed to make his way back to Divisonal HQ with a report of how grave things were. He was told a counter-attack would be mounted next day. Somehow he managed to make it back to the fort with his news. However, the counter-attacks did not materialise.

Raynal after capture

Commandant Reynal after capture.

By the 7th, men were mad with thirst and utterly exhausted. Early that morning, the fort surrendered. In a display of chivalry as delightful as it was unexpected, the surrender was accepted with formality. The garrison had suffered about 100 casualties with 20 killed. The assaulting troops had lost 64 officers and 2,648 soldiers (Horne, 1993 p.264). Commandant Reynal was honoured with one of the highest degrees of the Legion d’Honneur and was also congratulated on their valiant struggle by none other than Crown Prince William at his HQ in Stenay (ibid).

They then spent the rest of the war in captivity in Germany.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Central Gallery

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

First Aid Post.


 

 

 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Powder Room; Main magazine. Opposite toilets. Both captured on 4th June.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Main gallery showing ‘bomb-proof’ red line. Roof collapse caused by German 420mm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

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

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

Fort Douaumont

800px-Douaumontfort

The Fort before 1914

Douaumont

The Fort late March 1916

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fort Douaumont was an extraordinary paradox. It was the highest of the series of forts around Verdun with the best fields of fire; it was the most strongly fortified. It was the most heavily gunned and had the largest garrison. Yet it was captured by one man and was subsequently attacked as fiercely by the French as it had been by the Germans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rear of the Fort showing the original stone construction overlaid with concrete.

It was built after the fiasco of the defeat by Prussia in 1870, as one of a string of forts to protect the French border with Germany. As understanding of modern firepower developed, it was reinforced with huge layers of concrete in the form of a sandwich with layers of compacted sand and earth. It had a garrison of 500, part of the 66,000 men responsible for the defence of Verdun. Unlike today, the area surrounding it for some miles was clear and so it had excellent fields of fire over likely German approaches (See photos above). The Germans were aware of it and considerably daunted by the prospect of attacking it.

Since their humiliation forty years before, the French Army had made a remarkable recovery. They had resolved never to be caught again sitting and waiting for a German attack. The spirit of the offensive had been inculcated in all ranks and this had led to the development of strategy that owed nothing to the intentions of the enemy. Whatever the Germans were going to do, the French were going to mount an offensive into their flanks, at the outset. This worthy élan had permeated even the officers of the Deuxieme Bureau (Intelligence or G2) who seemed to look for evidence to support their pre-conceptions rather than understand what the enemy was doing. The result was a General Staff that was blissfully unaware.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The 155mm turret with the smaller observation post behind and slightly left.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Twin Hotchkiss machine gun turret with fine fields of fire.

Worse, when the Germans attacked the defensive forts in Belgium and at Mauberge they deployed siege weapons not before seen. Huge calibre 420 (17 inch) and 380mm canon had battered the forts which had crumbled under the weight of their shells. This suggested to the French General Staff that such defensive forts were no longer useful. Pressed hard further north, Joffre had authorised the removal of most of the guns and troops from the forts and their deployment to the field army. The result was that Fort Douaumont was held by the elderly Sergeant-Major Chenot and 56 Territorial gunners. There were no officers, no communications and no orders. Only the 155mm turret and the 75mm turrets remained. There were no observers and they had no idea where the enemy was. The barrage had been concussing and apart from the 155 turret which was firing on pre-registered targets, the rest were unmanned. The men were sheltering in the lower levels.

Into this contradiction, happened the adventurous Pioneer Sergeant Kunzefrom the 24th Brandenburg Regiment, who was commanding a section on the left of their line. Having entered the fort, he heard French voices in a room and promptly demanded their surrender. No shot was fired. He then locked them in the room and happened across a kitchen, from which he helped himself to a hearty meal. While he was feasting, two officers with their platoons, from the same regiment, also gained entry, via a different route. They organised the defence and sent triumphant messages back to their regiment. Still no shot had needed to be fired.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Rue du Rempart was walled up as final resting place for 679 officers and soldiers.

Fort Douaumont now became a German garrison, supply dump and hospital. It was to prove a mixed blessing. On 8th May, a cooking fire spread to flame-thrower fuel, ammunition and grenades and in the resulting inferno, 679 officers and soldiers were incinerated. They are interred in a tomb on part of the circular Rue du Rempart.

On 24th October General Mangin mounted an offensive to capture the fort. For two days, huge 400mm railway guns had bombarded the fort. One of these shells had penetrated and exploded in the area of the hospital killing all inside it. The Germans had abandoned the offensive against Verdun in July and, following this disaster, ordered the garrison to prepare to abandon the fort.

General Mangin ordered a Moroccan Infantry regiment, a battalion of Senegalese Tirailleurs and three companies of Somalis to recapture the fort. They did so in four hours taking 5000 prisoners but losing 23 officers and 829 soldiers. The original garrison was 500. That the Germans had ten times as many in the fort at its capture, shows how it had come to be seen as a refuge. They knew it affectionately as ‘Old Uncle Douaumont’.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Soldiers’ wash room. Note stalagmites forming.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Stalactites forming from roof of room.

Mort Homme and Cote 304

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mort Homme Monument

Falkenhayn’s plan for the defeat of France at Verdun made no attempt to win the left (west) bank of the Meuse. Open, rolling and not unlike Salisbury Plain, it was in complete contrast to the more wooded and steeper right (east) bank. Late in the attack, the Germans realised that the left bank provided cover for artillery and excellent observation positions. On March 6th, in the face of driving snow, they launched their attack. They were quickly across the Meuse in two places behind the French line. Inexperienced French infantry quickly surrendered, 1,200 men from the 211th Regiment alone making up nearly half the total (Horne, 1993, p.158).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Battle map showing progressive French and German lines. Germans are ‘blue’, French ‘red’. Shows full extent of German progress south.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Plaque commemorating summit of southern hill. Before war it was 295m. At the end of 1916, it was 285m. Fully 10m blasted off the summit.

However, the main assault onto the hills of Mort Homme had hardly moved. It was pinned down by a veritable wall of artillery from troops that had long expected the attack and had been able to prepare for it. On March 14th, a new German assault was launched. However, the pattern was the same. An immense bombardment followed by infantry assault by the six divisions allocated to the task. The infantry were then bombarded by French artillery which was followed by a French counter-attack. Each time, the Germans inched forward. The cost was staggering and, to modern minds, inconceivable. By the end of March the Germans had lost 81,607 men, the French 89,000 (ibid).

At this stage, the German Command conceded that they would have to take the next hill west, known simply as Cote 304, from which French gunners were still savaging their flank. However, the French 29th Division defending it at Avocourt, who had been too long OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAin the front line, effectively dissolved, resulting in the capture not only of the wood, but also an entire Brigade that was surrounded and forced to surrender. This disgrace was a great spur to the remaining troops on the left bank. On 22nd, a major German attempt to capitalise on their earlier success was neutralised with the loss of 2,400 men for absolutely no gain.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

‘The Magic Bus’ parked at the memorial to the destroyed village of Cumieres below Mort Homme.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The very imposing monument to the 10,000 fallen Frenchmen on the summit of Cote 304. General Petain was the patron as well as their commander.

A few days later on 1st April, the Kaiser declared, “The decision of the War of 1870 took place in Paris. This was will end at Verdun” (ibid p.165). Determined to finish the task, a full scale offensive was mounted on April 9th on both banks of the Meuse. Incredibly, 17 trainloads of ammunition were used to try to break through, but with tremendous fortitude, the line held. It was at the end of this day that General Petain coined the expression that became something of a catchphrase, “Courage, on les aura”. However, for the next twelve days it rained so heavily that offensive operations on both sides were suspended. The ground on Mort Homme became a quagmire and soldiers lived in appalling conditions clinging to life in shell holes, all trace of trenches having been obliterated.

Finally, on May 3rd the Germans mounted a huge offensive. The attack on Cote 304 was to be an artillery attack; 500 heavy guns would concentrate their fire on a front of just over a mile for two days and nights! Still the French held on. It took three further days of bitter close combat before the hill was lost (ibid p.170). After the war it was estimated that 10,000 Frenchmen had died fighting for this small hill. But, perhaps for the first time, it became apparent that German losses might be greater than French.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View from near the top of Mort Homme showing how it dominated the German approaches.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View from near the top of Mort Homme showing how it dominated the German approaches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It had taken three months to solve the irritating problem of the left bank. Now the full force of German arms in the West could focus of Verdun.

Bibliography

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

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

The Bois des Caures battle

For nearly two weeks, Chasseurs from 56th and 59th Battalions (Bn) had huddled from the bitter cold in muddy, wet strongholds sited throughout the Bois des Caures, about 14km north of Verdun, as the carrier pigeon flies. They were the front line and their orders were simple: to hold at all costs.

Emile_Driant_1Sensing that they were on the eve of trouble, on the 20th February, Col Driant, commanding both battalions, sent a dispatch that revealed he understood how difficult life was about to become.

The time has come for officers and men of both battalions to prepare for action, and for each to reflect on the role that will be his. At every level, we have to feel that we have a sacred duty and that, in a struggle as divided as that which is about to be fought, no-one remains inert on the grounds that there were no orders to the contrary.

There will be many breaks in communications, many occasions on which groups of men will be left to fend for themselves. Resistance and halting the enemy by every possible means must be the thought uppermost in everybody’s mind.

Chasseurs should remember, in particular, that in the battles that they have taken part over the past seventeen months, they left no prisoners in enemy hands other than wounded soldiers. Chasseurs do not surrender.”

Early in the morning of the 21st February, it became that difficult. German artillery preparations had been awesome. The plan was based on the premise that the artillery would blast a gap in the French line that the infantry among the 140,000 men assembled for the attack would simply occupy (Horne, 1993, p.41). Over 300 field guns and 542 heavy artillery pieces were concentrated on the 8 mile front. These were backed up by mine-throwers and finally flame-throwers. Two and a half million shells had been stockpiled for the six day plan (ibid).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Observation post in the front line, on the edge of the wood.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Communication trench

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

R2. Col Driant’s command post

Col Driant had planned the defence as a series of strongholds joined by communication trenches. In the front line outposts were lightly held. In the centre of that line, the Chasseurs were in a wood-line on one side of a field, across which in a wood-line 200m away, facing them were the enemy. Further east, the lines were only 30m apart.

 

These outposts were joined to the Grandes-gardes, strongholds that were company command posts and were manned by a platoon of about 30.

 

 

 

 

Behind these was a support line and 500m further back, the R line with concrete bunkers, the final line of resistance.

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

First Aid Post

 

 

Yet further back was the First Aid Post in another small concrete bunker, seen to the right, and the supplies.

 

 

 

 

These trenches, though neglected for 98 years, are strikingly visible in the woods that have grown up over the battlefield.

The Chasseurs survived the initial bombardment, somehow. On the German left and centre, they were hardly able to advance, so fierce was the fighting. But on their right they made better progress and reached the R line with little difficulty. However, without reinforcements, and with daylight closing in, they withdrew. Col Driant had little idea of how the day had gone as the bombardment had cut all telephone lines. In the evening he went forward to speak to the troops. He found them in good spirits and confident of the morrow, despite heavy casualties. All he could do was to encourage them.

At 7.00am the next morning, the bombardment began again. It lasted for 5 hours. It was focussed on the front line in order to prevent any thought of counter-attack. Gradually, despite deploying every spare man, the Chasseurs were beaten back. By mid-afternoon, largely out of ammunition and fighting with bombs and bayonets, they had been forced back to the area of R2, Col Driant’s command post. A German 77mm was brought up to fire over open sights at the command post’s troops. It was desperate. Driant ordered the withdrawal. After taking farewell of the troops in the First Aid Post, Driant crossed the road. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShortly further on, he stopped to tend a wounded Chasseur. Standing up from doing so, he was hit in the head by a bullet. His last words, recorded by a Chasseur who was with him, were,

“Oh, la la. Mon Dieu!”

This monument marks the place where Col Driant was killed.

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

He was subsequently buried by the Germans in this field grave with one of his battalion commanders.

 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

After the war his body was moved and this simple grave marks where he used to be buried.

This picture is taken from the same spot as the one above. It is striking how different is the terrain.

 

 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

He was reinterred here, under this memorial to him and his Chasseurs. He is buried with 13 unknown Chasseurs, each of whom have a cross round the edge of the monument.

 

 

 

Very few Chasseurs survived but they had delayed the German advance by 48 hours. This was crucial. They had done all that had been asked of them.

 

Bibliography

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

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

Verdun? Why?

So, why Verdun? I consider that the defence of Verdun between February and July 1916 by the French army was one of the crucial battles of World War 1. Its importance completely eclipses other battles of 1916 and without it, there would probably have been no hundred days to final victory in 1918, the glorious series of victories that were the zenith of British arms.

The German plan was to bypass the border defences that had been established after the defeat of France by Prussia in 1870. It planned to hit France with a right hook passing through Belgium, swinging west of Paris and wrapping the French Army up by enveloping them from behind. The plan was brilliant, but made insufficient allowance for the distance that would have to be marched opposed, nor the logistic difficulty of supplying the huge number of troops and horses with food, ammunition and fodder. By September 1914 the German army had pulled the hook, swung to the east of Paris and been held by the French, with little help from Sir John French’s BEF, on the Marne. Realising that the much vaunted 1906 ‘Schlieffen Plan’, subsequently modified by more a timorous General Staff, had failed and having beaten the Russians soundly at Tannenburg in East Prussia, von Falkenhayn, the War Minister and Chief of Staff, sought a new plan for the west.

The Germans had a low opinion of French military capabilities, having humiliated them in 1870. The French revered Verdun as it had made a heroic stand against the Germans and was the lynchpin of their frontier defence. Falkenhayn considered that the French would throw everything at the defence of Verdun and this would allow him ‘to bleed them white’. This was perhaps the Germany’s first articulation of the understanding that the nature of war had changed and that it would now be won by ‘attrition’; the terrifying logic of killing and maiming so many of the enemy that they could not continue fighting.

France has remarkable powers of recovery. Out of the humiliation of 1870, the nation of Napoleon had rebuilt the army, introduced conscription for three years to ensure sufficient trained population to match more populous Germany, and recreated a spirit of elan. A major programme of fortification had built, and then improved, strong defensive forts along the new frontier with Germany. Their strategic thinking was not passive, not hiding behind their fortresses; the offensive spirit was dominant. In the decade before 1914, France had developed a plan to attack into Alsace at the first sign of war. They were not going to allow the German army to march into France again and would mount huge pre-emptive attacks into their flanks as they assembled. However, over a similar period, the German General Staff, realising that the route west into France was now substantially blocked, decided to outflank it to the north, through neutral Belgium.

In the autumn of 1914 the German army retreated from the Marne where it had been held both by inspired French manoeuvre and by coming to the end of their logistic leash. They withdrew to a line of defensive positions on high ground where they could remain and establish strongholds. For the next three and a half years, they fought a defensive, positional war. If they were to be defeated, the Allies would have to dislodge them. In many senses, the Germans had the initiative. They were on French soil, they could not be outflanked and the longer they remained in position, the stronger they would make their line. All that remained was for the French and British to continue attacking and incurring such heavy losses that soon they would run out of men, lose heart and sue for peace.

The single major exception to this philosophy was Verdun, which became the longest battle of the war. The attack was scheduled to start on 12th February but fog, sleet and snow prevented the artillery observers from seeing their targets. For nine long, cold days the troops prepared for the attack and then had to stand down. German preparation had been excellent. Their pioneers had built underground concrete shelters about 300m behind their front line, called Stollen, that could hold about a company. These kept them out of sight and out of danger from French artillery, had there been any. However, they could not sleep in them nor was there any drainage. The result was that they filled with icy cold water and much of the day was spent standing in it, bailing them out. Worse, their billets were up to 7km behind the line and morning and evening they had to march back to them (Horne, 1993).

The French front-line was held by a combination of regulars and reservists. The German build-up had not been detected and the General Staff had no plan to reinforce Verdun. Worse, during 1915 as the nature of the conflict had become clearer, forts were thought to have lost their utility. As a result, most of the artillery pieces that had given the forts ‘teeth’ had been withdrawn and issued to the field army. Of the 66,000 that were supposed to garrison Verdun, only a few thousand remained. Fort Duaumont, when captured on day 5, was garrisoned by an elderly Sergeant-Major and 56 Territorial gunners, the original garrison having been destroyed in the fighting in the Bois des Caures on the first two days of the assault (ibid).

Finally, on 21st February, the weather cleared and, for the French soldiers shivering in their trenches, Armageddon began.

 

Bibliography

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

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

Amazing Secret Gardens of Broadway

This week has seen the biennial Arts Festival taking place in Broadway. For a small village in the Cotswolds, the range of activities and the quality of the exhibitions has been extraordinary. We have had art workshops and exhibitions from leading commercial artists, historical talks from eminent authorities and we have been privileged to be shown around some absolutely amazing private gardens. It is two of the gardens that I would like to share.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first is the garden of Court Farm. The original farm house was bought by Mary Anderson de Navarro in 1895. She was an eminent Shakespearian actor who had married Antonio Fernando de Navarro, a barrister and Papal Privy Chamberlain. She set about developing the extensive garden. Alfred Parsons RA, who was a famous garden designer, was a friend and had a great influence on her OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdesign. A few years later, she bought the farm next door and proceeded to join the two. She then set about incorporating the garden which, by about 1905, was laid out as she wished. It is one of the best preserved Edwardian gardens in England.

 

Mary died in 1940 and her daughter took on the house and garden. She OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcontinued to develop the garden in line with what Mary had started, preserving its ‘Arts & Crafts’ nature. It is now in the capable hands of the well-known barrister and QC, Michael de Navarro, who, with his gardener work hard to preserve and develop the beautiful, serene space.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe second of these quite exceptional gardens is at The Orchard Farm. Like Court Farm, this started life as a collection of small farm dwellings and buildings. In 1911, Lady Maud Bowes-Lyon, Aunt of the late Queen Mother, bought the houses and extensively redesigned them to be a single house. The Queen Mother was a frequent visitor up to the Second World War. After the war it was bought by Sir Gerald Nabarro, the Conservative MP and noted eccentric. It now belongs to Colin and Sue Entinknap. They bought it about five years ago for about £5m. They spent the same amount modernising the house and then about half again on developing the gardens. Those gardens cover seven acres and include parkland and a lake, fruit cages and box beds as well as a delightful Rosemary Verey designed ‘knot garden’.

 

I have frequently walked up and down the High Street past the frontages of these two farms. I knew something of their history, but the frontages give little clue to the delights of their gardens. To have been able to walk round these with a very knowledgeable guide, Marion Mako, has been both a delightful experience and a great privilege. I am very grateful to both Michael de Navarro and to Colin and Sue Entinknap for allowing us to do so.

Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola’

Last night we went to see an opera, Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola’. It was broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, one of the world’s great opera houses.(see below)

Metropolitan_Opera_auditorium[1]We are able to see operas in two places, The Regal Cinema in Evesham and Cineworld in Cheltenham. We chose the Regal as it is local, a delightful art deco cinema that has been given a new lease of life by a London based entrepreneur. It was an opera that neither Moira nor I had seen; itself a slightly surprising fact as it has been a staple of the repertoire for decades. We knew from reading about it and a few well chosen You Tube extracts that it was based on the story of Cinerella, it was a comic opera and that it was vocally challenging for the cast. We were not really prepared for such a sparkling, brilliant display of singing and acting.

The singing was remarkable as it is very difficult to get right. The reason is that it involves techniques developed as part of what is known as ‘bel canto’, an explanation for which can be found in this New York Times article. In essence it involves training singers to perform smoothly across the registers and ‘effortlessly’ to include all sorts of trills, scales and embellishments. In La Cenerentola, Angelina (Cenerentola or Cinderella) is the principal part and her role builds from smooth and subdued, as she observes her place in the ashes, to brilliant, sparkling, ornately decorated pieces at her wedding to the Prince, at the end. To show you what I mean, here Joyce DiDonato sings the final aria.

If her role was the only sparkling example of colorutura singing, it would have been special. However, it was not. Four men provided an astonishing accompaniment. They were the Prince, his valet Dandini, his tutor Alidoro, and Angelina’s step father Don Magnifico, a parody figure. They sang at various points in twos, threes and all together. Their arias were amazing for the way that they started steadily and became faster and faster. This technique is very difficult and I doubt could have been accomplished as well were they not all Italian.

Singing however brilliant, on its own, only makes a concert; combined with acting, it becomes an opera and the Cenerentola0809.14aacting by the cast was terrific. The two awful sisters provide an essential foil to the beauty and goodness of Angelina. With their fatuous father, they provide a genuinely comic sub-set to the piece. They inter-acted so well and continuously that they created a parody of the family we can all imagine, and some of us may even know! Their father’s vainglorious attempt at personal agrandisment through the marriage of one of his daughters to the Prince is comic in its hopelessness and pathetic in its attempt at undeserved fame.

The Prince’s entourage are excellent. There is a beautiful scene in which Alidoro, the tutor, disguised as a beggar is given food by Angelina. He then reveals himself in the guise of an angel, complete with golden wings, and explains that she will go to the ball, he will protect her from the ire of her family, and she will be richly rewarded for her kind and generous spirit. The valet plays an important role as he initially pretends to be the Prince. The awful sisters are smitten with him allowing the Prince to discover the girl his tutor has found. Even when Dandini reveals that he is only a valet, the girls and their pathetic father refuse to believe it until they are kicked out of the palace.

Layout 1Last, and easily overlooked are the chorus. Dressed in dark suits, red ties and sporting bowlers, they provide continuity and the men tasked with finding Angelina. They never occupy the foreground but play an essential role in making up the crowd. We thought that they looked like people from a Jack Vetriano painting!, such as this one!

In short, this was an utter revelation to us and one that we enjoyed enormously. Perhaps not an opera that one would use to introduce someone to the genre, but highly recommended for anyone who enjoys Rossini. Angelina said, at one point, that she did not want the Prince’s throne, she wanted to deserve it. On the basis of this performance, she deserves the highest accolades.

 

What a Contrast!


I sometimes wonder how it is that I find myself living in a place that is so quintessentially English when, for nearly a decade, my dream has been to live abroad. I find the fact so surprising that there is almost a disconnect between my reality and my perception of myself. It gives to life an almost dreamlike quality to which I am still adjusting. Not everyone will have heard of Broadway or know where it is. So I thought I would tell you something of it, through the words and thoughts of those to whom it represents the “ideal of the perfect English village”.

The village was named Broadway for the wide, yellowish road that used to be on the important route from Worcester to London. Sitting, as it does, just below the escarpment and climb up and over the Cotswolds, it was a useful point at which to change horses for both the coaches and wagon trains that daily passed through the village.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInevitably, this gave rise to all the trades needed to service the traffic and passengers, including, apparently, 33 public houses. This continued until the arrival of the railway in the 1850s, after which much of the traffic was diverted and, in the late 1800s, the village became a prized retreat for painters and writers who valued its rustic charm.

 

The crushed yellow Cotswold stone that preserved the road from becoming a quagmire, was replaced by the more familiar tarmac after the second world war. This was a time when many of the buildings fell into disrepair; the village suffered from the stringencies of those years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith returning prosperity and the ease of travel, came urban folk and some consider that it then lost the character of a village. The village benefitted from the enormous increase in property values as the Cotswolds became recognised as highly desirable for their beauty and convenience to both London and Birmingham.  More recently, it has attracted successful retired folk, giving it a renewed prosperity and attitude. The fine, old, Cotswold stone buildings are now daily photographed by coach-loads of tourists visiting this well preserved corner of England. It appears that it still represents an imagined ideal of what a village in England should look like.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch of what I have described would seem unremarkable to those used to the leafy, prosperous villages of southern England. The contrast with West Yorkshire could hardly be more stark. Much of what can now be seen in Yorkshire, owes its existence to the invention of industrialised spinning in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Mills were built in steep valleys where flowing water was available to power the mills. The villages that grew up around them, often built on the steep sides of the valleys, existed, through the 19th century, in a dense smog created by burning coal both for the mills and domestic use. Working six days a week from 6.00am to 6.00pm, the people seldom saw sunlight and lived in tall tenements without glass in the windows, piped water or sanitation. Lives were short and child mortality was high. In 1850, the average life expectancy in Bradford was 18.5 years.

In the 1930s, cloth was being produced in India more cheaply than in England and the mills began to struggle to be economic. After the second world war, returning servicemen were unwilling to accept the low wages and poor conditions in the mills. The result was that many mills were abandoned. Since there were few other opportunities to earn a living, there was an exodus from the valley towns, leaving them impoverished and the tenements derelict. In the early 1960s, one could have bought a tenement block in Hebden Bridge for £20.00. A three-storey terrace house with cellar cost £250.00.

In an attempt to recruit cheap labour, offices were set up in Pakistan and India to recruit workers to keep the cloth mills running. Many did come attracted by wages that could only be dreamed of in their native countries. They settled in many of the mill towns, particularly around Bradford and were, in time, joined by their families. Even this labour could not make the mills economic in the face of competition from abroad and the discovery of new materials, such as nylon. By the 1960s, almost all had closed down creating an industrial wasteland.

Though the smog has gone as coal has been replaced, many who live in West Yorkshire still live in the valley towns. It is a gritty and harsh existence whether in the valleys or on ‘the tops’. The weather combines with the landscape to provide a challenging back drop to earning a living. Little industry has returned to the valleys and most are employed in service industries and retail, though without the benefit of the prosperity that has blessed southern England.

Looking back I can see how the gritty, harsh environment breeds a resilient people. It has its effect on visitors, too. I cannot say that I cared for the area or enjoyed living there. In such circumstances one creates his own pleasures, but the abiding impression of ten years living there is one of darkness; rather as for the short, hard lives of the 19th century mill workers.

The green, open, gently rolling hills and ancient fields around Broadway are redolent of their pastoral history. They were used for a thousand years by the monks of the religious orders much as they are now, before the monasteries were destroyed (1538).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe village itself has preserved many of the fine Cotswolds buildings and, as a result, much of its impression of an ideal country village. Buildings on the High Street are set back on both sides, contributing to the impression of a ‘broadway’ through the village. In this, they were assisted by nature as two streams ran either side of the road. These were not piped underground until about 1900 by which time, all of the High Street buildings had been built.

So, desiring to live in the warmth and informality of southern Europe, I find myself settling in one of the most English of English villages. Wishing to bask in the heat of the Mediterranean, I find myself subjected to, what my uncle in the 1950s characterised as ‘the continuous natural disaster that the English call their weather’. Seeking the freedom of life on the road, I am involved in the politics of this lovely corner of the village.Instead of painting, I am studying with the Open University.

Life is indeed full of surprises.

 

Captain Frank Bethune, MC

(This article is taken from http://www.anzacday.org.au/justsoldiers/bethune.pdf)

With the collapse of the Russian Armies in 1917–18, more than seventy fresh German Divisions were deployed against the Allied front. In April of 1918, the German Army launched these troops in a last ditch effort to seize the Channel ports of France and cut off the British Expeditionary Force. If they were successful, they won the war, but standing between them and victory were determined Australian soldiers, who would rather die than admit defeat.

Capt FP Bethune MCFrank Pogson Bethune was a quiet, unassuming clergyman from Tasmania. He enlisted in the AIF in Hobart on the 1 July 1915 with the rank of second lieutenant.

For reasons of his own, Frank chose to take up arms instead of serving as a padre. He embarked for the training camps in Egypt in February 1916 and in late March, he boarded the troopship Transylvania bound for France. The reputation of the Australian Diggers’ passion for hard soldiering and even harder play, had preceded them. The ship’s captain was ordered to arrange not only for inoculations against typhoid, but was also directed to arrange inspections for venereal disease. The men were furious. They were here to fight, not to be treated like some second class citizen and the mood aboard ship became tense and uneasy.

With no padre aboard, Bethune requested permission to conduct a service for the troops.

G01527

 

 

 

 

 

 

AWM G01527. At sea. c. 30 March 1916. General William Riddell Birdwood (centre) talking to men (mostly reinforcements) on board the HMT Transylvania during the voyage from Alexandria, Egypt to Marseilles, France.

Addressing an assembly of at least a thousand men who gathered on the well deck, he gave the following speech:

We know what we have come for and we know that it is right. We have all read of the things that happened in France. We know that the Germans invaded a peaceful country and brought these horrors into it. We come of our own free wills—to say that this sort of thing shall not happen in the world as long as we are in it… And what if we die? If it were not for the dear ones whom he leaves behind, might not a man pray for death like that… We know we are not heroes and we do not want to be called heroes… Did not every one of us, as boys, long to go about the world as they did in the days of Raleigh or Drake and didn’t it seem beyond hope…? Here we are on that great enterprise and with no thought of gain or conquest, but to help to right a great wrong… With our dear ones behind and God above, and our friends on each side and only the enemy in front—what more do we wish than that?

At the end of the service, the troops, returned quietly to their bunks.

Bethune was promoted to lieutenant in August of 1916 and his unit was active in many of the campaigns on the Western Front. At times he was called upon to take temporary command of his company. BETHUNE-Frank-Pogson

In March of 1918, the German Army was on the move. The Australians were sure that a major enemy attack was brewing—and attack they did. As the Germans poured through gaps in the British and French fronts, some units were simply obliterated. The Allies suddenly faced new German tactics. The enemy advanced in a ‘flying wedge’ formation, with bombers and machine-gunners up front and specially trained ‘storm troopers’ deployed to encircle and wipe out their enemy from the flanks.

Many of the towns that earlier had been won with Allied blood were now lost to the enemy. When the city of Albert was seized by the German forces, they appeared invincible. The Australian Divisions were rushed to seal the breaches in the lines, but would it be too late?

One of the units at the fore was the 3 Machine Gun Company. Their mission was to defend an area of the Ypres Salient known as Spoil Bank. On his reconnaissance, Bethune, commanding the company’s No 1 Section, found his position to be untenable. His guns had a field of fire of no more than six metres and if the enemy attacked, the gun crews would be killed almost before they could bring their guns into action. Bethune complained to his commanding officer and asked to be allowed to choose a better position. His request was denied. Orders were orders. As a matter of honour, Bethune asked if he could be placed in charge of the most dangerous post. This was agreed

Lieutenant Bethune recorded:

Accordingly I ordered No 1 Section to be fallen in and told them that I was taking the guns to a position where there was no field of fire. I asked for volunteers to take a step forward. The only result was that the whole Section with soldierly precision, advanced with one step forward, so I was forced to make the selection. I am taking in three good men and three new ones, as I do not want too many of the old section to get scuppered if we get it in the neck, while at the same time we must be good enough to extract payment before we are blown out, and there are plenty of Mills grenades for the final flutter.

As they moved forward, the group was overtaken by a runner, who informed Bethune that his orders had been changed, his section was to defend Buff Bank. This area was more to Bethune’s liking. It was the perfect position for a gunfight.

At this time, the Australian and British infantry had been at strength near the guns, but they were moved back to prepare for the attack. This left Bethune’s guns dangerously exposed and on their own. With the responsibility for the safety of this section of the line in his hands, Bethune felt it necessary to issue his men with written orders. They read

Section OrdersSpecial Orders to No 1 Section 13/3/18

 (1) This position will be held, and the Section will remain here until relieved.

(2) The enemy cannot be allowed to interfere with this programme.

(3) If the Section cannot remain here alive, it will remain here dead, but in any case it will remain here.

(4) Should any man through shell-shock or other cause attempt to surrender, he will remain here dead.

(5) Should all guns be blown out, the Section will use Mills grenades and other novelties.

(6) Finally, the position as stated, will be held.

 F.P. Bethune Lt  

O/c No 1 Section.

And hold they did, for 18 days the section repulsed attack after attack. They were subjected to constant artillery barrages of high explosive, shrapnel and gas shells, but they held their ground. The headquarters of the 1 Division AIF, and later other staffs circulated Bethune’s Special Order. To the American forces undergoing training on the Western Front, copies of the order were distributed as ‘an admirable model of all that a set of standing trench orders should be’

military_cross_obverseLieutenant Bethune was awarded the Military Cross for…

“conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He carried out several daring reconnaissances and obtained most valuable information. Later he fought his machine-guns with great gallantry and fine example to his men.”

In the dying days of the great German offensive, Bethune was wounded in both the left knee and the left foot. He was transferred from the field hospital to the 5 Auxiliary Hospital, London where he recuperated well, but the wounds left him with a permanent limp. Lieutenant Bethune pestered the doctors to let him return to the front and in September of 1918 his persistence was rewarded and he embarked for France. He attended a course at the 4 Army Infantry School for which he received a personal letter from his divisional commander, congratulating him on his excellent report from the school.

He was promoted to temporary captain on 23 September 1918 and to substantive captain on 21 October. As the guns fell silent on 11 November, Captain Frank Bethune MC contemplated his future as a civilian.

On 28 December 1918, Frank was readmitted to hospital—his old wounds had become infected. On 3 January 1919 he was admitted to the 3 General Hospital and underwent surgery to amputate the big toe of his left foot. He was subsequently sent to No 2 Command Depot in preparation for his return to Australia.

On 16 May 1919, Bethune limped down the gangplank of the troopship Dongola . Home at last, his duty done.

 

 

1 National Archives of Australia: B2455, WW1 Service Records, FP Bethune

2 Bean, CEW, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 , Volume llI, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1936

3 Laffin, J, Australians at War: Western Front 1917-1918 ,Time Life Books, Sydney, 1988

4 Coulthard-Clark, CD, (Ed) The Diggers: makers of the Australian military tradition , Melbourne University Press, 1993

5 AWM 28, Recommendation Files for Honours and Awards, AIF, 1914–1918 War

 

 

 

In Flanders Fields

The First World War (Aug 1914 to Nov 1918) is notable, in a literary context, for its considerable body of fine poetry. It is probable that the combination of the curriculum adopted by many schools which gave emphasis to English, Greek and Latin literature and the largely static nature of the war created the ability and opportunity to write. Certainly, the nature of warfare gave plenty of scope for content.

John_McCrae_in_uniform_circa_1914

 

One of the best known poems, ‘In Flanders Fields’, was written by a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, in 1915. It expresses his belief in the sanctity of duty. Written from the point of view of one of the dead, it encourages others to persevere in the struggle.

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This image is from the plaque at Essex Farm Cemetery near where John McCrae was serving.

To add to the poem’s mystique, there is some discussion about how it came to be written and over the first line’s ending. There appear to be three accounts of its origin.

 

 

 

story_of_the_poppy

 

 

 

 

Alexis Helmer 02

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, there is no doubt that its first incarnation followed the death and burial of a friend of McCrae’s, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer on May 2nd. Helmer was an artillery officer in 1st Brigade’s Field Artillery, 2nd Battery. He left his dug-out on Sunday 2nd May and was hit by a German 8in shell. Such body parts as could be recovered were placed in a sand-bag and set aside for burial. The Chaplain had been called away and so the regimental second-in-command, McCrae, was asked to carry out the burial. He recited passages from the service for the burial of the dead, as best he could remember them and afterwards sat down to write this poem.

An account by a Sergeant Major in the regiment holds that McCrae wrote the poem sitting on the rearstep of an ambulance looking at Helmer’s grave. Having written it, he passed it to the Sergeant Major to read. He was so impressed he committed it immediately to memory but that McCrae was not satisfied. Others claim that McCrae threw the paper away and that it was recovered and returned to him and that he was then persuaded to publish it. Yet another account holds that he wrote it in 20 minutes as he was recovering his composure, after the burial. Whatever the truth, McCrae continued to work on the poem for months before he considered it ready for publication. The Spectator declined to publish it, but in December that year it was published anonymously in Punch.

bruges-flanders-fieldsEver since it was published, there has been a debate over the last word of the first line. Both ‘blow’ and ‘grow’ have been used and it is ‘blow’ that seems to have won out. However, there is a strong argument that the context and image of the graves McCrae was looking at, favour ‘grow’. Many soldiers had noted that, where bodies were buried, poppies sprung up. Both the bodies and the bombardment contributed to a high lime content in the soil favouring the poppy; little else would grow. It is felt, however, that this creates a difficulty with the matching word in the penultimate line, where ‘grow’ is used.

I think that this is unimportant. McCrae chose to use the form of a ‘rondeau’ which had evolved by the 1500s into a 15 line form using a ‘rentrement’ at the beginning, the end of the second stanza and the end of the poem  Thus we get a form aabba aabR aabbaR. The R in this poem is ‘In Flanders fields’ and it was considered the skill of the form to make the ‘rentrement’ as poignant as possible.in-flanders-fields-museum ‘In Flanders fields’ achieves this, as is witnessed by its use as a short-hand for all that happened in the Salient around Ypres. It is the name of the Museum in Ypres’ Cloth Hall. As a result, I think that McCrae intended ‘grow’ at the end of line 1, because it made sense with the images he was looking at and that the use of grow in line 14 fits with the aabba form of the first and final stanza. However, as a maverick thought, ‘blow’ would make sense at the end of line 14 and remove the conflict, if there really is one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Helmer’s grave, marked only with a wooden cross, was subsequently lost and he is commemorated on Panel 10 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the nearly 55,000 who died in the Salient before August 1917 and have no known grave.

 

 

 

McCrae graveNot long after writing this poem, McCrae was promoted and moved to Boulogne and served with the Medical Corps at Canadian General Hospital No. 3. At the beginning of 1918, McCrae was promoted again to Colonel but he was worn out. The same day he was promoted he caught pneumonia and subsequently cerebral meningitis. He died on 28th January 1918 and was buried with full military honours at Wimereux. The following year, a book of his poems, including ‘In Flanders Fields’, was published. ‘In Flanders Fields’ has become perhaps the best known memorial poem among English speaking Canadians and is a staple of Remembrance Day celebrations.

Moina MichaelInterestingly, inspired by McCrae’s exhortation to hold the torch, an American professor, Moina Michael, in 1918 resolved to wear a poppy the year round. She campaigned to get it chosen as the American Legion’s emblem. A French lady who attended a Legion meeting was herself inspired to sell poppies to commemorate the dead. In 1921, she sent poppy sellers over to London where the idea caught the attention of Field Marshall Earl Haig, a co-founder of The British Legion. He supported and encouraged the sale of poppies, which quickly spread throughout the Empire. In addition, Moina Michael wrote a poem, ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’ which I reproduce here to honour her. Without her vision and tireless campaigning we would probably not have the poppy to wear for Remembrance.Moina michael stamp

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.