Commemorating the First World War Centennial in Kansas

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The Hindenburg Line

One hundred three years ago in France, the German Army performed Operation Alberich, a withdrawal to their newly constructed defenses known as the Siegfried Stellung or, to the British, the Hindenburg Line. This new fortress work was a masterpiece of military engineering that made the British positions in the Loos sector that were discussed in the previous article look rather ordinary. Read the Wikipedia entry on The Hindenburg Line by clicking here. ...read more

The Riqueval Bridge photograph

Riqueval Bridge May 2011

Many have seen this iconic image  of British soldiers lining the bank of the St. Quentin Canal in France, listening to the words of their Brig. J.V. Campbell, who must have had quite a loud voice, especially considering that after long exposure to artillery the soldiers probably didn’t have keen ears.

The story is not as familiar as the photograph. The canal was a part of the Siegfriedstellung, called by the Allies the Hindenburg Line.

British engineers inspect the bridge after capture

On September 29th, 1918 this brigade, a part of the 46th (North Midlands) Division, had the task of protecting the left flank of the American-Australian attack over the canal tunnel, but when they observed that the Germans were slow in demolishing the bridge over the canal at Riqueval they saw an opportunity and captured the bridge intact (it’s still intact today).

Who were these guys? Experienced but not elite, they were all Territorial Force soldiers from the County of Staffordshire, who had arrived on the Western Front just in time for the Loos offensive in the fall of 1915, where they took heavy casualties in a futile attack against a German strong point. Later, at the Somme on July 1st 1916, they once again suffered greatly and failed to capture their objective at Gommecourt, thereby being tagged by the General Staff as a ‘poor’ formation. On this day in 1918, though, they were superstars.

The infantry battalions of the 137th Brigade were: 1/5th and 1/6th South Staffordshire Regiment and1/6th Prince of Wales’s (North Staffordshire) Regiment.

The South Staffs were raised in 1705 and the North Staffs in 1758. Both regimental  insignia bear the curious symbol known as ‘The Staffordshire Knot’ which is ancient in origin but mysterious as to significance.  Both regiments passed from existence in 1959 in the first of several amalgamations and today their heritage is with The Mercian Regiment.

Memorials to the Missing – Caterpillar Valley and New Zealand in the War

Lying squarely in the middle of the 1916 Somme Battlefield, Caterpillar Valley was the name given by the army to the long swale which rises eastwards, past “Caterpillar Wood”, to the high ground at Guillemont. Longueval village is on the northern edge of the feature and 500 meters west of the village, on the south side of the road, is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing and Cemetery.

Caterpillar Valley was captured during a successful night assault by the British 3rd, 7th and 9th Divisions on Bazentin Ridge on July 14th, 1916. It was lost in the German advance of March 1918 and recovered by the 38th (Welsh) Division on August 28th, 1918, at which time the cemetery was started (now Plot 1 of this cemetery) containing 25 graves of the 38th Division and the 6th Dragoon Guards. Post-Armistice, the cemetery was expanded when remains were recovered from other burial sites on the battlefields of the Somme. The great majority of these soldiers died in the autumn of 1916 and almost all the rest in August or September 1918.

The cemetery now contains 4,358 Commonwealth burials, 3,796 of which unidentified; there are special memorials to 32 men known or believed to be buried somewhere on the site and to three men buried in the closed McCormick’s Post Cemetery whose graves were destroyed by shell fire.

On a terrace on the east side of the cemetery is the Caterpillar Valley (New Zealand) Memorial, commemorating the men of the New Zealand Division who died in the Battles of the Somme in 1916, and whose graves are not known. This is one of seven memorials in France and Belgium to New Zealand‘s missing soldiers. These are all in CWGC cemeteries chosen as appropriate to the fighting in which the men died.

The monument is on the eastern wall of the cemetery and was designed by Sir Herbert Baker (1862 – 1946), one of the four principal architects employed by the CWGC and the designer of the memorials at Tyne Cot, Loos, Neuve Chapelle and VC Corner plus ten other cemeteries. Baker also created many important buildings in India and Africa.

This structure is quite like a small version of the Tyne Cot Memorial without the faux-chapels and wing walls at the ends.  It consists of a straight wall of natural pebble-dash stone masonry on which ten large white Portland stone panels bear the names of 1,205 missing New Zealand soldiers. These men fell between August and October 1916 during the Battles of the Somme, and due to the conditions of the battle ground it was a long time until remains could be located and recovered for burial.

In 1914 the Dominion of New Zealand raised the ‘New Zealand Expeditionary Force’ (NZEF) from its militia, which during the Gallipoli campaign was two brigades strong and served  with the Australian 4th Brigade to complete the ANZAC division. After arrival in France, reinforcements enabled the New Zealanders to form a third brigade, and so the NZEF became the NZ Division, which was assigned to the British XV Corps. By mid-1917, the NZ Division was one of the largest in the British Expeditionary Force, having grown to four brigades, and was serving in the Australian Corps.

The NZ Division entered the fight at the Somme on September 11th, 1916, taking over the tenuous line between Delville Wood and High Wood. They were a part of the British 4th Army’s attack on September 15th, the objective of which was to penetrate north and then east to capture the occupied city of Bapaume. The first part of this offensive became known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, and lasted from the 15th to the 22nd of September. On the first day the NZ and British 41st Divisions captured the village of Flers,

Auckland Battalion at Flers-Courcelette 1916 IWM Q194

and the Germans were slowly pushed back for several more days. After resting and regrouping the attack was renewed on September 25th in the Battle of Morval, and the New Zealand Division captured Factory Corner, on the road between Gueudecourt and Eaucourt-l’Abbaye. By October 1st, they had captured and held Gird Trench, Circus Trench and Gird Support Trench as well. They were withdrawn from the battle on October 4th, and on the 10th they were sent north to the Pas-de-Calais to regroup, although their Artillery remained on the Somme for the rest of the month.

In these battles of 1916, the NZ Division had fought for 23 consecutive days, advanced more than two miles deep along five miles of enemy front line. They captured nearly 1,000 prisoners and many machine guns; they lost none of their Vickers and Lewis guns, and less than twenty prisoners. Their casualties were about 7,000, and of these 2,111 were killed in action or died of wounds, just 168 less than New Zealand lost at Gallipoli.

NZ government records list the dominion’s population in 1914 at 1,089,825 persons, of which 220,089 were males of military age. Further detail lists 135,184 of these as ‘mobilized’, 117,175 found fit for service and 98,950 persons sent overseas, including 550 nurses. Conscription was introduced in August 1916 and 19,548 conscripts served overseas. 2,688 Maoris and Polynesians also served, and at least 3,370 New Zealanders served with other armies, 2,533 of them with the Australians.

NZEF overseas casualties for the war were 16,697 killed or died and 41,317 wounded. Another 507 died in New Zealand and an estimated 1,000 died from wounds after the war.

If you’ve been doing the arithmetic here you now know that nearly ten percent of the population of New Zealand served overseas and well over half of the eligible male population was mobilized. This was a significant commitment for such a small nation, and the ratios of loss against size of force are also high: 17% killed or died and 58 % total casualties.

Field Marshal HRH The Prince of Wales

Thus it is not surprising that WW1 is still a big deal in New Zealand. Every year there are remembrance events at the memorial sites, including Caterpillar Valley. Shown here is Charles, the Prince of Wales, in attendance at the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette which was held at Caterpillar Valley two years ago. Note that HRH exercised his sovereign right to ‘lead’ the NZ Forces and so was kitted out as a NZ Field Marshal, outranking the actual commander of the NZ Defence Force, Lt. General Timothy Keating, who was also present.

Memorials to the Missing – Vis-en-Artois

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Vis-en-Artois Memorial to the Missing and Cemetery are both located near the village of the same name in Pas-de-Calais, France. The memorial wall lists 9,843 British and South African soldiers with no known grave who were lost between August 8th and November 11th, 1918 in the area officially described as “Picardy and Artois, between the Somme and Loos”. Canadian, Australian and New Zealand missing in this area during the same period are commemorated elsewhere.

Unlike the sites of many other CWGC memorials, there was no particular battle fought here. The cemetery is a concentration site, with 2,369 burials of which 1,458 are unidentified.

The memorial has a screen wall divided in three parts. The middle part of the screen wall is concave and carries stone panels on which the names of the missing are carved, listed by regiment and rank. It is 26 feet high and flanked by pylons 70 feet high. The cemetery’s Stone of Remembrance stands in front of the wall exactly between the pylons, and behind the Stone, in the middle of the screen wall, is a carved relief of St. George fighting the Dragon. The flanks of the screen wall are also curved and carry stone panels bearing more names. Each of the flanks forms the back of a roofed colonnade, and at the far end of each flank is a small temple-like building. 

The site was designed by the architect John Reginald Truelove (1886 – 1942), a protégé of Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had served as an officer on the Western Front with the 1st /24th County of London (The Queen’s). Truelove also designed the Le Touret Memorial for the CWGC and was an assistant on 29 other CWGC cemeteries, working with Lutyens, Sir Reginald Blomfield and Sir Herbert Baker. The sculpture was by Ernest G. Gillick (1874 – 1951), who also created the Cenotaph in front of Glasgow’s City Hall, and Vis-en-Artois is his only work for the CWGC. The site was dedicated on August 4th, 1930.

Glasgow Cenotaph

 

Entered on Panel 3 of the wall is Pvt. Frederick C. Butcher, 7th The Buffs (Royal E. Kents), who was shot for desertion on August 27th, 1918. This is noteworthy because Butcher was one the last eight British soldiers executed for desertion and he is one of only 21 such soldiers who has no known grave.  

In the U.K. ‘Shot at Dawn’ has become just as synonymous with WW1 as trenches or gas. Starting in the late 1980’s public awareness became keen about the likelihood that these unfortunate men were victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and should have been hospitalized or discharged. In 2001 a memorial park was constructed at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, and books, stage plays, a documentary film and episodes of many popular British television series resulted in a symbolic Act of Parliament in 2007 that pardoned all of the men ‘Shot at Dawn’ (except the murderers).

It seems worthwhile to consider the statistics at this point. The total number of British, Colonial, Canadian and New Zealand soldiers shot (again excluding murderers), was 309, of which 281 were British, 22 were Canadian, 5 were New Zealanders and one was a Colonial. No Australians, Indians or South Africans were executed for offenses against military discipline.

In the course of the war, about 20,000 Commonwealth soldiers were found guilty of an offense that was subject to the death penalty and about 3,000 of these actually got the death penalty. However, most had their sentences suspended or commuted to a lesser punishment. Of the 309 who were shot, 266 were deserters and 91 of these had previously been court-martialed for desertion and received a lesser punishment.

While the British came to regard this as a national shame, it is worth mentioning that the record of other armies in the Great War was significantly worse. Just among the Allies, the Italians executed about 1,100 men for offenses against military discipline and the French over 900.

Memorials to the Missing – Le Touret and Sir John French

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Le Touret Memorial to the Missing is located in the cemetery of the same name near Richebourg, Pas-de-Calais, France. The memorial is a loggia surrounding an open rectangular court that dominates the eastern side of the site. The names of those commemorated are listed on panels set into the walls of the court and the gallery, arranged by regiment, rank and alphabetically by surname within the rank. The memorial was dedicated in 1930 and was designed by John Reginald Truelove (1886 – 1942), a protégé of Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had served as an officer with the 1st Battalion 24th County of London Regiment (The Queen’s). He also created the Vis-en-Artois Memorial to the Missing for the CWGC.

The entrances bear the following inscription in English and French:

To the Glory of God and in Memory of 13,482 British officers and men who fell fighting in this neighbourhood from October 1914 to September 1915 whose names are here recorded but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.

Indian Army missing are commemorated on the Neuve Chapelle Memorial and the Canadians on the Vimy Ridge Memorial.

The Le Touret cemetery has 912 individual burials original to the period, and it formerly had 264 Portuguese burials until these were relocated by their government.

The Memorial covers the period of these sectors, battles and actions:

La Bassée: October 10th – November 2nd 1914
The Defence of Festubert & Givenchy: November-December 1914
Cuinchy & First Givenchy: January-March 1915
Neuve Chapelle: March 10th – 13th 1915
Aubers Ridge: May 9th, 1915
Festubert: May 15th – 25th, 1915
Givenchy: June-September 1915 ...read more

Memorials to the Missing: La Ferté-sous-Jouarre & The Old Contemptibles

On August 4th, 1914 Britain reluctantly declared war on Germany. The War Ministry created The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under the command of Gen. Sir John French, to go to the aid of Belgium. Within the home islands there were enough units to form six infantry divisions, a cavalry division and a cavalry brigade. It was decided to hold back an infantry division against the unlikely possibility that Germany would try to invade the islands, and on August 9th the BEF began to arrive in France.

The BEF moved up into Belgium and, along with French forces, established a defensive line along a canal near the city of Mons. The British were placed there to block the advance of General von Kluck’s First Army, which was the right-hand wing of the German attack. This was a tall order, as the BEF was outnumbered by more than 4 to 1 and the German advantage in artillery was even greater.

On August 19th, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm allegedly issued an Order of the Day which read in part: “[I order] my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English; walk over Field Marshal French’s contemptible little Army…” The British took umbrage at this description and soon the BEF became known as the ‘Old Contemptibles’.

The BEF had an advantage over the attackers in that they were seasoned professional soldiers, well-trained and bloodied in dirty little conflicts in obscure places throughout Asia and Africa.

1914 Floating Bridge

On August 23rd von Kluck attacked the BEF’s defense line. The battle lasted only one day. The overwhelmed BEF fell back to their reserve position along the Valenciennes-Maubeuge Road, but this couldn’t be held and so the withdrawal called the Great Retreat began. Closely pursued for a while, the BEF fought several rearguard actions, most famously at Le Cateau, before moving down to the Seine River, a retreat of over 200 miles. But the BEF had stopped the Germans long enough to save the French Fifth Army from encirclement.

The Germans regarded the BEF as finished off but they reckoned without the caliber of these professional soldiers. They regrouped, refitted and about a week later moved forward to the Marne River, where a key bridgehead was here, at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, arriving in time to play a vital role in the desperate French-led counter-offensive called the Miracle of the Marne.

This Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing commemorates 3,740 officers and men of the BEF who were lost at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and the Aisne between the end of August and early October 1914 and have no known graves. Since the memorial was constructed the graves of 148 soldiers have been located.

The memorial is a rectangular block of white Massangis stone, 62 feet by 30 feet and 24 feet high, surmounted by a large stone sarcophagus. On top of the sarcophagus are carved representations of trophies of war, including a flag, bayonets, and a helmet. The year 1914 is carved below the sarcophagus, while the names of the dead are carved in panels on all four sides of the memorial. The two shorter sides of the memorial are decorated with a carved, downwards pointing sword, while the front and back of the memorial are carved with inscription panels surmounted by a carved wreath and a carved stone crown. The inscription on the river-facing side is in French, while the inscription on the other side is in English:

‘To the glory of God and the lasting memory of 3888 British officers and men whose graves are not known who landed in France in the month of August 1914 and between then and October fought at Mons and Le Cateau and on the Marne and the Aisne.’ ...read more

Memorials to the Missing – Neuve Chapelle

Khudadad Khan VC

On August 8th, 1914 two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade of the Indian Army were ordered to prepare for overseas service, following a plan devised by then-Maj. Gen. Sir Douglas Haig in 1910. Units of this ‘Indian Expeditionary Force’ began arriving in France in September and at the end of October they were rushed up to stop a German advance during the First Battle of Ypres in Belgium. It was here  that Sepoy Khudadad Khan (1888 – 1971), of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, performed the act of gallantry for which he later received the Victoria Cross, becoming the first Indian-born soldier and the first Muslim to be so honored.

129th Baluchis in Belgium1914

The 3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) divisions of the Indian Corps fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the first year of the war. At Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 Indian soldiers made up half of the attacking force and despite taking very heavy casualties succeeded in capturing important sections of the German line. The Corps further distinguished itself at St. Julien in the Ypres Salient in April 1915, at Aubers Ridge and Festubert in May, and at Loos in September. In December all of the Corps except the cavalry was withdrawn and replaced by New Army divisions. The infantry went to the Middle East while the cavalry remained behind until the spring of 1918, when they were also sent to the Middle East. Starting in 1917, Indian labor companies performed important and sometimes dangerous logistical work in France, continuing well after the Armistice.

The Western Front was a grim place to be in 1915, but the Indian soldiers faced some additional hardships. The Indians were assigned stretches of front of the same length as British units, although a full-strength Indian battalion was about 200 soldiers smaller than a British one. The Indian soldiers arrived with inadequate clothing, particularly winter gear, and older obsolescent weaponry.

Indians with a 1905 Benet -Mercier Machine Gun

It was a constant challenge for supply to satisfy Indian dietary requirements. Indian units were short on British officers as all those on home leave in the fall of 1914 had been stripped off as cadre for the New Army. The British army wasn’t tolerant of religious, linguistic and ethnic distinctions, or of caste rules and vedic medicine.  Even in the field, Indian units had civilian ’followers’ who performed tasks for the soldiers according to an intricate scheme which made little sense to the British.

India sent more than 140,000 men to the Western Front – 90,000 soldiers and about 50,000 non-combatant laborers. They represented a diverse range of religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups. More than 8,550 died and about 50,000 were wounded. Indians missing on the Western Front are commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres (Ieper) and at the Neuve Chapelle  Memorial. Indian Army missing in the Salonika Campaign are honored at Monastir Road in Greece, those lost at Gallipoli on the Helles Memorial and all the missing from elsewhere are listed on the India Gate in Delhi.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing at Neuve Chapelle is located near the village in France of the same name, on the site of the battle of the same name, which was waged from March 10th to March 13th, 1915. The memorial commemorates 4,742 Indian soldiers and civilians who died on the Western Front and have no known grave.

There are some atypical aspects to this site:

  • The only soldiers commemorated are from the Indian Army,
  • It also commemorates Indian civilian followers and
  • No cemetery is attached, so there is no Cross of Sacrifice or Stone of Remembrance.

The memorial was designed by Sir Herbert Baker KCIE FRIBA RA (1862 – 1946). He also designed the Tyne Cot and Loos Memorials and

his pedigree is detailed here ...read more

Memorials to the Missing: VC Corner

 

“We found a fine haul of wounded and brought them in, but it was not where I heard this fellow calling so I had another shot for it and came across a splendid specimen of humanity trying to wiggle into a trench with a big wound in his thigh: he was about 14 stone weight [196 pounds] and I could not lift him on my back, but I managed to get him into an old trench and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man about 30 yards out sang out ‘Don’t forget me cobber’. I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers and we got both men in safely.”  — Sgt. Simon Fraser, 57th Bn. AIF ...read more

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