The British Army First World War Battlefield Guide should be the background reading for any battlefield study to the western Front. It has been edited by retried major general Mungo Melvin, one of the leading practitioners in the art of the staff ride.
He has drawn on the resources of the British Commission for Military History, of which he is currently the Secretary General. The contributors are from across the spectrum of contemporary British military history, illustrated by Barbara Taylor.
This has been made widely available for the officers and NCOs accompanying the schools centenary programme.
Preface Lord Astor of Hever
Foreword Sir Hew Strachan
Introduction Mungo Melvin
The Principal Commanders, 1914-1918
Introduction to the Second Edition Mungo Melvin
1. The Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914 Mungo Melvin
2. The Battle of Le Cateau, 26 August 1914 Spencer Jones
3. The First Battle of the Marne, 5-12 September 1914 Tim Gale
4. The First Battle of the Aisne, 12 September — 15 October 1914 Frank Baldwin
5. The First Battle of Ypres, 19 October — 22 November 1914 John Lee
6. The Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 10-12 March 1915 Michael Orr
7. The Second Battle of Ypres, 22 April- 25 May 1915 John Lee
8. The Battles of Aubers Ridge and Festubert, 9 & 16-27 May 1915 Michael Orr
9. The Second and Third Battles of Artois, 9 May- 18 June & 25 September-15 October 1915 Christophe Gue
10. The Battle of Loos, 25 September — 15 October 1915 Michael Orr
11. The Battle ofVerdun, 21 February — 20 December 1916 Frank Baldwin
12. The Battle of the Somme, 1 July — 18 November 1916 John Ross
13. The Battle of Arras, 9 April- 16 May 1917, John Peaty
14. The Second Battle of the Aisne (the Nivelle Offensive), 16 April-9May 1917 Frank Baldwin
15. The Battle of Messines, 7-14 June 1917 Edward Madigan
16. The Third Battle ofYpres (Passchendaele) 31 July — 20 November 1917 Jeremy Pughe-Morgan
17. The Battle of la Malmaison, 17-25 October 1917 Christophe Gue
18. The Battle of Cambrai, 20 November — 6 December 1917 Charles Messenger
19. Operation MICHAEL, 21 March — 5 April 1918 David T. Zabecki
20. Operation GEORGETTE (The Battle of the Lys), 9-29 April 1918 David T. Zabecki
21. The First Tank vs. Tank Action in History, Villers-Bretonneux, 24 April 1918 Geoffrey Vesey Holt
22. Operation BLUCHER (The Third Battle of the Aisne), 27 May — 5 June 1918 David T. Zabecki
23. The Battle of Belleau Wood, 6-26 June 1918 David T. Zabecki
24. The Battle of le Hamel, 4 July 1918 Geoffrey Vesey Holt
25. The Second Battle of the Marne, 15 July — 6 August 1918 Tim Gale
26. The Battle of Amiens, 8-11 August 1918 Gary Sheffeld
27. The Meuse Argonne Offensive, 26 September — 11 November 1918 Douglas Mastriano
28. The Battles for the Hindenburg Line, 27 September — 9 October 1918 Jonathan Boff
29. The Royal Navy and the First World War Stephen Prince
30. The First World War — A Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and the Birth of the Modern Style ofWarfare Jonathan Bailey
31. The Development of Air Power, 1914-1918 Seb Cox
32. The Development of Artillery on the Western Front James Cook
33. Tanks in the First World War David Fletcher
34. The Development of Military Engineering on the Western Front Michael Crawshaw
35. Mapping and Survey on the Western Front John Peaty
36. Logistic and Medical Support on the Western Front Alistair McC|uskey
37. A Brief Overview of British Communications on the Western Front Bob Evans
38. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Colin Kerr
The past is a foreign Country they do things differently there. – LP Hartley The Go Between
There strong reasons for looking at running battlefield studies and staff rides on UK Battlefields. There are financial constraints on travel. But to have value, any military training needs to have demonstrable contemporary relevance. UK based staff rides and battlefield studies looking at land warfare will need to consider pre 20th Century Warfare. This poses some challenges, but can be overcome with a little thought. Using pre C20th Britain also offers opportunities use the cultural political and social differences between different periods of British history as a model for exploring conditions in different parts of the contemporary world.
CHALLENGES OF RUNNING A STAFF RIDE USING A PRE C20TH BATTLEFIELD.
These are summarised as follows:-
Technology and minor tactics are far removed from modern experience.
Lack of information about the course of medieval battles
Changes to topography
Technology and Tactics.
The radical differences in accuracy, lethality and range between modern and pre 20th Century military technology means that the tactical level of warfare is very different. At first sight it is questionable how much relevance study of the pre 20th century warrior for the modern soldier. By comparison with the warriors of the past, modern combat is at a distance and the soldier is isolated from the immediate contact with comrades and from face to face contact with the foe.
Yet there is much in common. As ever, soldiers must face the hardships of campaign, the enemy in battle and their own mortality. Some pre modern engagements have a timeless feel. British soldiers have attacked at the point of cold steel on several occasions in the past ten years. Furthermore, changing modern circumstances can through the experience of ancient warriors into a new light. Thirty years ago, at the height of the cold war , we would not see the experience of the Norman mail clad warrior dominating the landscape from the security of the motte and Bailey castle. Now we have an army equipped with personal protection that would be the envy of the 15th Century r operating from Heskco forts that William the Conqueror would have recognised.
Many battlefield concepts are eternal. Tactical constraints that can be recognised across time include fire and manoeuvre, use of ground, tempo and the value of enfilading fire and defilading positions. Leadership is as eternal as the human spirit as is Moltke’s grit in the machine – the Realities of War
Lack of information about many early battles.
There is very little information about Pre 20th Century battles compared to more recent operations. There were no official histories, war diaries and definitely no army of military historians combing over the evidence for new interpretations. The documentary evidence for many battles can be fragmentary and unsubstantiated by archaeological evidence. There may be no “exercise Pink”.
Worse still the battlefield itself may have changed over time. Even if we know exactly where the battle was and what happened, the ground itself may have changed. The tactical significance of the ground may not be obvious from the current topography.
Some Battlefields have been preserved.
There are over 450 battlefields skirmishes and sieges in England alone. Not all of these can be located with certainty and in others the battlefield topography has changed beyond recognition. There are 43 battlefields on the English Heritage Battlefield Register. These are battlefields that a panel of experts has agreed can be identified with some certainty, have historic significance and can be viewed within their historic landscape.
The Battlefields Trust is a charity dedicated to preserving and developing battlefields for heritage purposes. Their Battlefield Resource centre was funded by the Heritage Lottery fund and has information on over 70 battlefields, collated by professional historians and archaeologists. These include the English Heritage Registered Battlefields. Information on each battle typically includes a reconstruction of the historic terrain, source material on each battle as well as an interpretation of what happened. This should be a key resource for anyone planning a visit to a UK battlefield.
LESSONS FOR CONTEMPORARY OPPORTUNITIES FROM PRE C20TH BRITISH HISTORY
What follows are some examples of transposing contemporary strategic settings onto Britain’s past. These are far from exhaustive.
The Age of Treason- Wars of the Roses 1453-85
Central government was paralysed. The hereditary ruler was ineffectual, even when not confined to his sick bed. Government appointments were made through nepotism within cliques and its business was notorious for inefficiency and corruption. The ruling elite was divided into factions with an opposition forming around one of the few military leaders to emerge with credit from the disastrous failure of a long war with a neighbour. Large parts of the country were in a state of anarchy, dominated by regional warlords who dispensed partisan justice. Pirates operated with impunity in the seas off its shores.
This could be a failing state in one of the hot spots of conflict in Africa. But it’s England in 1453 at the start of the Wars of the Roses. Technology may have developed, but political and military problems of rebuilding a state are recognisable across the years.
This is also an era that saw rapid development in military technology and in the evolution of weapons and tactics. At a low level campaigns and actions offer opportunities to view relevant ground. There are opportunities to explore doctrine through comparing and contrasting modern and medieval components of force, or different arms of service. .
The political and military leaders of this war deserve modern study as examples of leadership in battle and in conflict resolution. Some of these men were cable of major feats of arms including night marches and deployments and forced marches that would test a modern force.
There are many evocative locations from this era. Many of the most important battlefields are well preserved and accessible, including St Albans, Barnet, Towton Bloor Heath and Bosworth as well as many of the castles of the period. The battles of Barnet and Tewksbury are well documented and we have archaeological evidence for others…
The military and political careers of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII offer an opportunity to explore contrasting leadership styles. Several of the strategies used for nation building by these 15th Century leaders have a surprisingly modern flavour, including reconciliation parades, and unity governments of erstwhile enemies.
The social and economic world of the 15th Century allows modern Britons an opportunity to understand and empathise with people whose lives are dominated by different attitudes to loyalty, justice and faith.
When The King Comes Home in Peace Again – The British Civil Wars 1642-51
Some regarded the collapse of the state as inevitable. Creating a united country from two traditional enemies would be doomed to fail. Worse still, the state included four ethnic groups two of which were dominated by radically opposed religious sects. The fact that this artificial country had existed for over thirty years was a tribute to the political skill of the leader who created the country. His successor was less adept and less able to play the different factions off against each other. The situation spiraled out of control and entered into a series of civil wars lasting nearly a decade.
These wars were some of the bloodiest in the country’s history, with major pitched battles and sieges fought by the field armies, while local scores were settled between villages and individuals.
It could be the Balkans after Tito, but it’s Great Britain in the mid 17th Century. The English Civil War is an opportunity to look at warfare in a setting with a modern context. It has the ethnic and religious tensions that bedevil many nations. The atrocities of the war provide a context for a modern discussion about legal and moral issues. It is also the birthplace of the Modern British Army, formed from Cromwell’s new Model Army.
There are battlefields, sieges and skirmishes across the UK. Many of the battlefields can be easily interpreted and lend themselves for study. These include battles of Naseby, Marston Moor, Newbury, Cheriton, Lostwithieal, Roundway Down Adwalton Moors and Langport; Large scale sieges of York, Newark Hull, Bristol and Gloucester and small scale sieges at Tisbury and Basing House.
Regime Change: Monmouth’s Rebellion and the Glorious Revolution
Uneasy is the head on the throne. The authoritarian ruler is increasingly at odds with many of the key stakeholders in the country. He is introducing policies that seek to impose fundamentalist religious orthodoxy of one sect over that held by the majority. Exiled opposition groups are seeking allies and funding for an attempt to change the regime. This takes place against a back drop of a struggle for world dominance between the major power blocks of the time.
The events of 1685-90 in the British Isles offer an opportunity to explore the strategic and operational challenges of regime change.
Monmouth’s rebellion offers parallels with the abortive revolt against Saddam Hussein in 1991. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw an occupying power take control over England and Scotland with less resistance than that offered in the early stages of Gulf War 2. Even the protracted struggle in Ireland from 1690 and the influence of the events of the war on Ireland’s subsequent history parallel the later problems of post occupation Iraq.
Monmouth’s rebellion offers the best English battlefield of the era in Sedgemoor, with other battles taking place at Killicranckie and Dunkeld in Scotland. Other engagements of the war take place in Northern Ireland ;( e.g. the siege of Londonderry) and the Irish Republic, including the battles of Aughram and the Boyne and the siege of Athlone. However, a staff ride that contemplates Ireland or Central Scotland may also consider Flanders.
These battles are also inside the period of recorded history of the Regimental history. Several of the senior regiments were present at Sedgemoor, including the Life Guards Foot Guards and Royal Regiment of Scotland and the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment. The Royal Regiment of Scotland has forebears at both Scottish battles and Bonnie Dundee is immortalised in a rousing canter for several mounted units.
Almost every ruler from the Romans onwards has needed to undertake counter insurgency operations in some part of the British Isles. The problems of counter insurgency are eternal. Culture and technology evolve, but the problems of combating hostile elements within a population are eternal.
The Norman and Roman operations against the indigenous populations have left limited traces that can be directly linked to battlefields. There are better opportunities to explore counter insurgency campaigns in the pacification of Wales by Edward 1st and of Scotland after the 1745 rebellion.
Edward’s campaign from 1275-95 includes several engagements with a contemporary resonance. The battle of Llandeilo Fawr is an ambush of an All Arms Brigade sized force by Welsh insurgents as they return to their FOB. At the battle of Moel-y-don the Welsh surprise the English as they attempt to cross the Menai Strait on a pontoon bridge. Edward’s chain of castles across North Wales has a parallel with modern concepts of operating from bases.
The campaign also contains one of the good examples of tactical development. The battle of Orewin Bridge is one of the first to use the combination of firepower and manoeuvre, using the combination of archers and cavalry to defeat a strongly positioned Welsh force.
WHAT MIGHT A TOUR LOOK LIKE?
A pre C20th Battlefield Study will broadly follow good practice for staff rides or Battlefield Studies. The design should start with the aims in terms of training objectives. There are some implications for designing staff rides and battlefield studies using a pre 20th Century setting.
Introductory scene setting.
It is harder for modern soldiers to relate to pre 1914 weapons and tactics. If the essence of the tour is to consider counter insurgency or stabilisation operations, the social and political environment is important. It will take more preparation and time on scene setting than may be necessary with eras and battlefields familiar from screen and computer game. Ideas for bringing the era alive include the use of living history re-enactors and role play exercises as well as visits to suitable interpretation centres or museums. .
Making the Best Use of Battlefields and siege sites.
Visiting the ground is at the heart of a battlefield study or Staff ride. The challenge is to obtain contemporary lessons from actions that involve troops, weapons and tactics as alien as those of the pre gunpowder era.
The significance of the micro-terrain in influencing battle is independent of period. Indeed, the alien nature of the historic conflict should encourage the question: How would this be tackled today?
There are “eternal lessons” that can be extracted from our ancient past. For example, at the battle ot Barnet, 1471 Edward IV defeated his uncle Richard Neville Earl of Warwick in a battle that seems to have been a hand to hand melee of little modern relevance. However, it is possible to recognise Edward’s tactical skill and leadership in the night approach march to a few hundred metres of his enemy. The friendly fires incidents and situational awareness problems experienced by his enemy on a foggy day have a contemporary relevance.
Some historic actions have a contemporary flavour regardless of the differences in technology. For example, the battle of Llandeilo Fawr 1287 takes place when the Welsh ambush an English force returning on foot to their castle (FOB) Dinefwr Castle after an attack on Carreg Cennen Castle four miles away.
Exploring a modern problem based on the historic setting. Perhaps the historic landscape and limited industrial and economic infrastructure, but assuming modern technology.
Obtaining Value for Money.
In theory UK based tours should be cheaper than overseas tours. There are savings on accommodation if suitable military accommodation can be found and there is no need for ferry or air tickets or toll road fees. However, the travel costs to Scotland can be almost as expensive as NW Europe and will involve long transit times. Furthermore in some cases UK destinations impose higher costs:-
The UK does not have the hostels and hotels geared towards battlefield travel that can be found in Flanders and France.
The UK does not have the museums and interpretation centres that enable a group to quickly become familiar with the nature of warfare and society. In order to do so in the UK may require some expenditure of input from living history societies or hiring a handling collection.
If you would like to talk about any ideas inspired by this article, please drop me a line at email@example.com or call the office +44 207 387 6620 or my mobile +44 781 317 9668
The Battle of Waterloo is probably the most famous battle of the Napoleonic wars. But if you want to understand why Napoleon was so powerful you need to visit somewhere else. Within a couple of hours of Vienna you can find Austerlitz and Wagram; two of Napoleon’s key battles.
Austerlitz is regarded my many as seen as his masterpiece and genius for War. Wagram was Napoleon’s last decisive victory. These battles, four and a half years and 90 years apart marked the high points of Napoleon’s military career.
Napoleon fought two campaigns in Austria as Emperor of France. The 1805 campaign led to the decisive battle of Austerlitz 2nd December 1805 near Brno. This was a remarkable battle in which Napoleon beat superior numbers of Austrian and Russian troops. It is the single battle which demonstrated his genius and the superiority of the Grande Armee over the outmoded continental armies. It was also the setting for some chapters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Four years later Napoleon again campaigned in the Danube valley. This time the Austrians were better prepared and prevented the French from crossing the river Danube. When Napoleon launched a river crossing, the Archduke Charles inflicted Napoleon’s first defeat at the battle of Aspern-Essling in May 1809 but prevailed over the Austrian Army at the battle of Wagram in July 1809. Wagram is a little overlooked. It was the second largest battle in the Napoleonic wars over a three hundred thousand combatants fought.
Each of these campaigns was the cumulation of a series of actions in the Danube Valley. In 1805 the Russians turned and defeated a French column at the battle of Durnstein and the action described by Tolstoy as Schoengraben. In 1809 there were battles at Ablesberg and Znaim as well as Bratislava.
There is a lot to see at these battlefields. Austellitz is well preserved and it is easy to see how the ground influenced the course of the battle. There is a lot to see at Wagram too. Despite being subsumed into the suburbs of Vienna there is a lot to see at Aspern and Esseling
Vienna is a good base for Lower Austria and the Danube valley, with Brno in the Czech Republic right next to Austerlitz. There are cheap flights to both destinations.
The Military history museum in Vienna is well worth visiting. The whole area has good food and drink.
If you would like to talk about any ideas inspired by this article, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the office +44 207 387 6620 or my mobile +44 781 317 9668.
For anyone wishing to explore the battlefields of the Cold War, we have probably the most extensive collection of material relating to the role of the British Army in Germany in the Cold War, including a copy of the reading pack for Ex United Shield 2009.
The US Army has been using battlefields and staff rides for over a century. The United States Army Combined Arms Centre, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas supports Military History, and publishes material on the US policy as well as staff rides to battles in the USA. Their website has a lot of useful information
Their view is that:-
• A staff‘ride is a historical study of acampaign or battle that envisions asystematic preliminary study phase, an extensive field study phase on the actual historic site , and an integration phase to capture the lessons derived from each.
• It is far more expansive than a tour or tactical exercise without troops (TEWT).
• It is a time and resource intensive event requiring a level of planning associated with major training missions.
• Poorly done, it wastes Soldiers’ time and taxpayer money.
• Well done, it is a powerful instrument for professional development and education of the Army’s leaders.
CSI_CMH_Pub_70-21 The Staff Ride by William G Robinson in 1987 set out how the US Army conducted staff rides. This influential pamphlet informed how the British Army’s approach to Battlefield Studies and Staff Rides. His pamphlet also demonstrates how they differ from battlefield tours,
Other armed forces of other countries undertake battlefield tours of various sorts. The Guild of Battlefield Guides International Armed Forces Study day included presentations on the British, German and Dutch use of staff rides and how the RAF undertake air power staff rides.
Dr Peter Caddick Adams presented on The German Approach to Staff Rides The Germans invented the concept of the Staff Ride in the early 19th century as part of the training methods of the professional Great general Staff.
The Royal Dutch Army have a staff ride programme. They can also supply high quality mapping for many second world war battlefields in the Netherlands.
Chris Finn from Kings College and RAF Cranwell
Battlefield guide Major Stuart Brown Royal Engineers presented the client’s point of view. This was subsequently published in the Guild of Battlefield Guides Journal.
SCSI Occasional Paper Number 48 – The relevance and Role of the Battlefield Tour and the Staff Ride for Armed Forces in the 21st century
This paper summarises thinking behind British policy towards Battlefield Studies and Staff Rides. It includes the following:-
Introduction: Professor RG Haycock, Former Dean of Arts Royal Military College of Canada
Footprints in the Mud: The British Army’s Approach to the Battlefield Tour Experience Peter Caddick-Adams, Cranfield University Royal Military College of Science
’One of the Greatest Moments in My Life’Lessons Learned On the Canadian Battle of Normandy Foundation Battlefield Study Tours Mike Bechthold, Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada
The Modern Model of the Battlefield Tour and Staff Ride Post-1815 Prussian and German Traditions Dr David Ian Hall, King’s College London Joint Services Command and Staff College, United Kingdom
The United States Army’s Historical Staff Rides History and Historiography Professor Eugenia C Kiesling, United States Military Academy
Contemporary Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides A Military Practitioner’s View Brigadier RAMS Melvin, British Army
The aim of this two day all ranks battlefield study was principally as a team building exercise for the Regiment’s Op Olympic contingent. The exercise was intended to achieve the the following:-
• Introducing and refreshing awareness of doctrinal concepts (Principles of war, defence and attack)
• Developing their understanding or the eternal truths about the reality of war, the relevance of the core values and the importance of logistics on operations.
• Develop an understanding of the impact of ground on operations
• An opportunity to develop an understanding of all arms tactics
• Having fun.
The exercises was based at Swynnerton Training Camp in Staffordshire and the historical subject matter expertise was provided by Frank Baldwin and Julian Humphrys pro bono, for the Battlefields Trust.
While the technology of the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War are very different to today, the political setting of failed states, regime change civil war and religious extremism has a very modern context.
On each battlefield group discussions were focused on the similarities and differences between the armies and warfare of the 15th and 17th Centuries and those of today, combined with low level TEWTS based on the historic setting.
The exercises ended with an act of Remembrance at the Arm,ed Forces memorial at the National Memorial Arbouretum.
If you would like to talk about any ideas inspired by this article, please drop me a line at email@example.com or call the office +44 207 387 6620 or my mobile +44 781 317 9668.
The Aisne battlefields are in some ways a forgotten corner of the Western Front. Most British visitors to the Western Front tend to focus on the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, or hurtle across it en route to Verdun, the iconic French battle. Yet the battlefields in the Aisne, the bordering department south of the Somme Region, play a significant part in the development of the Western Front, have a special place in the story of the British Expeditionary force and are the resting place of several thousand British soldiers.
The Department of the Aisne forms an inverted triangle with St Quentin near the top left corner and the town of Château Thierry near the base. The northern half of the department is part of the Picardy plains. The southern half is much hillier and cut by the Oise, Aisne and Marne rivers flowing East to West. Battlefields tend to be determined by physical geography rather than administrative regions. Thus the department plays an significant role in several battlefields, only one of which takes its name from the department.
THE OTHER SOMME BATTLEFIELD
There are geographic and commercial reasons why British battlefield tourists tend to miss out the Aisne. The Somme is that bit closer, and even then most British visitors focus on the battlefields around Albert, the site of the dramatic and costly first day of the Somme, and popularised in literature from Siegfried Sassoon to Sebastian Faulks. There has also been a major investment in the Somme in heritage tourism, from the development of the Thiepval interpretation centre, to the establishment of the Museum of the Great War in Peronne, and there is the well organised support for British tourists and the tourist trade. There is a risk though, that the focus on that which is easiest to visit distorts our understanding of the history and what it means.
The Northern part of the Aisne department centres on the town of St Quentin. This area tells a different story of the battles we know as the Somme. The most obvious features are the remains of the Hindenburg line, the fortified line created due to the high cost to the Germans of the battle of the Somme. We don’t often see the 1916 Somme battle as a “victory”. The huge investment in developing the Hindenburg line and the spiteful destruction of everything of possible value in the land they evacuated indicates that the Germans saw the Somme as a defeat. This area included the sites of actions in the advance to the Hindenburg line in March 1917. The village of Francilly-Selency includes reminders of this in the monument to the 2nd Battalion the Manchester Regiment which liberated the village in March 1917, in the action during which one of their officers, the poet Wilfred Owen, was wounded.
If we relied purely on popular culture, the Great war was not won but fizzled out in an Armistice, whether in a hail of bullets in no man’s land in Blackadder or with the tunnellers still under the static trenches in Bird Song. However, a visit to the Battlefields around St Quentin bears witness to the violent climax to the First World War on the Western Front. In March 1918, Manchester Hill, captured by Wilfred Owen’s battalion the previous spring, was occupied by the 16th Battalion the Manchester Regiment, understrength and exhausted from the Passchendaele campaign. This was one of the British redoubts isolated by German storm troops on the first day of the Kaiserschlacht and where its commanding Officer fought to the death, and was subsequently
awarded the Victoria Cross. The Hindenburg Line positions north of St Quentin stormed by the British, Australian and American troops 28 September-3 October 1918, are still very visible and provide evidence of the story of the allied determination, skill and courage that overwhelmed the Germans in 1918. At this point the German defences were based on the Canal du Nord, a major obstacle protected by barbed wire and concrete bunkers. The tactical problem can be compared with the D Day landings. The bridge at Riqueval, seized by Captain Charlton and nine men can be compared to the capture of Pegasus Bridge on D Day. It is one of the most evocative places, and captured on a camera.
The fighting did not end at the canal. The concrete bunkers of the Hindenberg line are much better preserved than the earthworks of the Somme. The BBC TV Programme ”Who Do You Think You Are?” featured Matthew Davis the descendent of William Henry Johnson VC winner seeking the story of his ancestor. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23109590
Close to here, at Mannequin Hill, N.E. of Sequehart, Lance Corporal William Harold Coltman, of 1/6th Bn, North Staffordshire Regiment, carried out the actions for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. William Coltman, whose Christian beliefs would not allow him to kill another man was Britain’s most highly decorated serviceman of the First World War ( 1914-1918 ). In the last two years of the war he was awarded the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Conduct Medal twice, and Military Medal twice, acting as a stretcher-bearer.
THE AISNE – THE BIRTH OF TRENCH WARFARE
South of Laon is the area of the Aisne battlefields. The department included the battlefield is bordered by the city of Soissons in the West and Berry au Bac in the East, and stretches as far south as the River Marne and the city of Laon in the North. The countryside is a little more alien for the British visitor. The Somme Battlefields are geologically similar to Southern England and the rolling countryside and large fields are similar to the landscape of Hampshire. Much of the fighting centred on the high ground North of the river Aisne. The heights are often referred to by the name of the road along the heights, the Chemin des Dames.
The War first came to the area in September 1914 as the French and British armies fell back south pursued by the Germans. The German Schlieffen plan finally unravelled in the battle of the Marne between 5-12th September 1914 and the Germans pulled back. When the allies advanced north many could be forgiven for thinking that this war was nearly over. There had been an advance, a big battle and now the invaders were in full retreat. But, when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed the river Aisne, they found the Germans dug in on the spurs on the high ground overlooking the rive Aisne and supported by plentiful artillery. Despite heroic efforts in over a week of fighting, the BEF were unable to dislodge the Germans and both sides had started to dig trenches. Field Marshal Sir John French, the commander of the BEF wrote to the king “I think the battle of the Aisne is very typical of what battles in the future are most likely to resemble. Siege operations will enter largely into the tactical problems – the spade will be as great a necessity as a rifle”
There is a lot to see in the area from the BEF experience on the Aisne. The ground itself is evocative, and much as it was in 1914. You can still see the bridging site where the Royal Engineers bridged the river next to the damaged bridge. The story of the BEF can be traced on the landscape and past the cemeteries with the reminders of the costs.
THE CHEMIN DES DAMES –1917 THE CALVARY OF THE FRENCH ARMY
The Chemin des Dames area was the site of the disastrous Neville Offensive in May 1917. The newly appointed commander of the French Army, General Robert Neville, thought that he had discovered the secret of the offensive based on the experience of successful limited attacks on the Somme and Verdun. He massed hundreds of guns and the cream of the French army, including tens of thousands of African soldiers. Unfortunately for Neville and the French army, the Germans had tunnelled deep into the ground, developed defences in depth and found out when and where the attack would take place. After several days bombardment the attack started under atrocious weather conditions, for May. After 135,000 casualties the French troops had had enough. There were mutinies in several regiments. They were strikes really, with soldiers protesting about ill planned attacks, poor food and no leave.
The saviour of Verdun, General Petain was appointed as Commander in chief of the army. He is credited with restoring discipline and confidence to the French Army. He did so with a mixture of carrot and stick. He instigated improvements in pay and leave arrangement, and perhaps most significantly, he cancelled further major offensives. This allowed the French army to recover its confidence in its commanders through a series of carefully planned and executed limited offensives. One of these, in November 1917 took place in the area around Fort Malmaison on the Aisne and resulted in the Germans withdrawing from the Chemin des Dames, the objective on the first day of the Neville offensive. The other implication of the French Army mutinies was that the burden of warfare on the West would have to be borne by the British until the American army could be mobilised and brought to Europe.
Arguably the 1917 mutinies had another legacy, in the French army of the Second World War. There is a comparison with Verdun. Verdun is a story of determination and sacrifice characterised by “They shall not pass”. The Chemin des Dames is where the French army reached the limits of endurance. It can be characterised by the bitter words of the Chanson de Craonne. ” It’s in Craonne up on the plateau That we’re leaving our hides ‘ Cause we’ve all been sentenced to die. We’re the ones that they’re sacrificing.”
There is a lot to see on the Aisne battlefield from the 1917 battles. The battlefield itself, like much of the
area around Verdun was deemed to be too devastated to be restored for agricultural use and designated a “Red Zone.” Although subsequently much agricultural land has been recovered, there are still tracts of the battlefield preserved as it was at the end of the First War, with the ruins of abandoned villages such as Craonne. There are also plentiful interpretive panels and panoramas relating the landscape of the battlefield. One focus for interpretation is the Cavern de Dragons, a quarry that became the scene of underground fighting. This contains an imaginative museum and guided tour.
There are also some evocative memorials each of which tells something of the French army. One memorial has a statue of a French soldier of 1814 alongside one of 1914; a reminder that this was also the site of one of Napoleon;’s last victories.
A group of elegant dark statues represents the spirits of the African soldiers who suffered so heavily in 1917. There is also a memorial to the first use of tanks by the French Army at Berry au Bac.
THE BRITISH ON THE AISNE IN 1918
The troops that made up the Ninth British Corps were singularly unlucky during 1918. As mentioned earlier, the Germans launched a series of offensives to try to win the war before the American Army appeared in numbers. The first offensive was between St Quentin and Arras on 21st March and took the Germans to within a few miles of Amiens. The second, the battle of the Lys, in April took the Germans close to undermining the Britsh in Flanders. In these five weeks the British Army had taken over 230,000 casualties, about the same as in the four month Passchendaele campaign. Five of the most battered British formations were transferred to the Aisne front, which had been a quiet sector since 1917. And so when the Aisne became the target of the German “operation Blucher.”, the plateau of California and Craonne was defended by the 4th Battalion the East Yorkshire Regiment of the 50th Northumberland Division. The resulting battle saw the British and French pushed back 25 miles to the river Marne. The 2nd Battalion the Devonshire Regiment and 5 Battery RFA distinguished themselves by the heroic defence of the Bois de Buttes despite being attacked by storm-troopers supported by tanks. Both units were awarded the Croix de Guerre which now is worn by all soldiers in 5 Gibraltar Battery RA and the Rifles. One of the best accounts of the fighting on the Aisne is published as “The Last of the Ebb:The Battle of the Aisne, 1918” by Sidney Rogerson Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal
BIG CASTLES AND BIG GUNS
The hilltop village of Coucey has a particularly fine ruined château and the remains of town walls. But it’s ruin is a story of the First World War. Before 1914 the château of Coucey was the largest in France and a major tourist destination. But in 1917 it lay in the zone that the Germans were planning to abandon and was destroyed in what in retrospect seems spiteful vandalism. On the outskirts of Coucey is a different sort of structure. In the forest is a concrete emplacement for a giant gun used by the Germans for shelling Compiegne 20 km away.
THE 1918 BATTLEFIELDS OF THE MARNE – WHEN THE AMERICANS SAVED PARIS FRANCE AND WON THE WAR
On two occasions in the First World War the Germans nearly reached Paris. It was the high point of the German advances in 1914 and in 1918. The battles which saw the repulse of these attacks are both known as the Battle of the Marne. The turning point was the deployment of American troops on the Marne in June and July 1918. The Americans played a big part in halting the Germans on the Marne at Château Thierry, which is home to the impressive US Châteaux Thierry monument. Not far away is Belleu wood, which is where the US marines attacked in 1918. This battlefield has been preserved and it and the neighbouring US American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery and the German cemetery are reminders of the part America played in the First World War.
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