The battlefields of Verdun are among the most haunting on the Western Front: vast acres of forest with crumbling trenches, bunkers and shell holes. In 1916 more than 770,000 French and Germans became casualties here and more than a thousand high explosive shells fell for every square meter of the battlefield.
The French National Cemetery at Douaumont stands in the heart of the battlefield overlooking the scenes of some of its most bitter fighting in 1916. Here are the graves of more than 16,000 French soldiers and a mass grave of 592 burials. Among the dead are 1781 Muslim soldiers which highlight the heavy losses among French Colonial soldiers at Verdun.
The Indian Corps Memorial at Neuve-Chapelle is located at the heart of India’s sacrificial ground on the Western Front. The nearby village of Neuve-Chapelle saw some of the earliest fighting involving Indian troops in October 1914 and was the scene of the Indian Corps attacks in March and September of 1915.
The memorial was unveiled in October 1927 and aside from many Indian veterans who were present, Rudyard Kipling – the author who had done much to inspire popular interest in India amongst the British people – was also present. The memorial was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, one of the chief architects of the Imperial War Graves Commission.
The memorial commemorates more than 4,700 Indian Army soldiers who fell on the Western Front who have no known grave, many of who were cremated on the battlefield by their comrades, just as their religious beliefs dictated.
Today is the centenary of the Gallipoli landings which took place on this day in 1915. To Australian and New Zealand readers of this blog it is ANZAC when arguably their nation came of age as they fought in the first major conflict of their country’s history. Today we remember the British Tommies at Cape Helles, the French Poilus alongside them and the Diggers and Kiwis at ANZAC. But we must also remember Johnny Turk: initially thought as second rate by the War Office, those who fought at Gallipoli soon gained respect and admiration for their Turkish foe and post-war the government of Kemal Atatürk adopted the Allied dead as their own.
The Above The Battlefield project was back on the Somme over Easter photographing and filming various locations including some of the smaller battlefield cemeteries around Beaumont-Hamel.
New Munich Trench was a position prepared by British troops at the end of the Battle of the Somme: on 15th November 1916 units of the 51st (Highland) Division captured Munich Trench and 2/2nd Highland Field Company Royal Engineers and 1/8th Royal Scots dug New Munich Trench. The area remained in the forward zone of the battlefield during the very cold winter of 1916/17 and when the Germans retreated from the Somme in the Spring, the area was cleared and many of these cemeteries were made by clearance parties.
New Munich Trench cemetery has nearly 150 burials, with twenty unknowns and the majority are men from battalions of the Highland Light Infantry who fell in November 1916.
London Cemetery and Extension was made in the 1920s when the entire cemetery was made permanent; but the original burials by the main gate date back to the capture of High Wood by the 47th (London) Division on 15th September 1916 during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, when tanks were used for the first time. The cemetery was greatly enlarged in the 1920s and 30s from an area much wider than just the Somme and it was kept open into the late 1940s when Second World War burials were also added. London Cemetery & Extension is the third largest British and Commonwealth cemetery on the Somme with 3,873 First World War burials, 3,114 of them unidentified. Second World War burials number 165.
This time of year, as the days get ever shorter, my mind goes back to the many winters I have spent on the Somme. During the very first temperatures mirrored those of the coldest winter of the Great War, when it dropped to nearly -25 in the front line area. For Western Europe that was cold, and it gave me renewed respect for the men who lived in those muddy, often snow-filled ditches during that time.
Ovillers Military Cemetery was started during the winter of 1916/17 when dead from the front line between Thiepval and Courcelette were buried here, including the son of the then famous Music Hall star Sir Harry Lauder. His son, Captain John Lauder, was killed in the front line during a quiet period in December 1916. His grave is in the staggered collection of burials clearly visible on the right in this film. There are 3,440 burials here of which 2,480 are unidentified.
Filmed as usual with a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ drone.
Ovillers is a village on the Somme battlefields, taken by German troops in September 1914 and which later formed part of their defences in what would become Mash Valley on 1st July 1916; the First Day of the Battle of the Somme. The village was finally cleared more than a week later and during the winter of 1916/17 a cemetery was made here for casualties coming back from the front line between Thiepval and Courcelette. Ovillers Military Cemetery was enlarged after the war to 3,440 of which 2,480 were unidentified.
This aerial image of the cemetery was taken with the DJI Phantom as part of the Above The Battlefield project. Winter sunshine casts long shadows across the graves and even from this low-level the size of the cemetery is apparent.
Some film of the flights over the cemetery is coming up on the site next week.
This memorial to the Tank Corps commemorates their role in the Third Battle of Ypres but is part of a larger project to get a large scale replica of a First World War tank operational. The project has a fascinating blog that is worth reading and shows this framework tank replica going into place.
Located on the road between St Julien – Vancouver Corner and Poelcapelle and while it appears to be a temporary structure it apparently will be there for some time.
The First World War trenches at Main des Massiges have featured several times on this site recently and understandably so as they are among the most impressive anywhere on the Western Front. Here a local association has used experimental archaeology to recreate both French and German trenches from the early war period.
This was an area that saw heavy fighting in 1915 including some of the earliest examples of war underground with the explosion of several sizeable mines in February 1915. Two of these mine craters form part of the site.
The trenches here have been used by film companies and many magazines and publications. Great War re-enactors regularly use them for events and photo shoots.
The site is open to the public and is free to enter but as can be imagined it is under video surveillance and people in the nearby village keep watch on the site as well. It is a site little known by British visitors but is mentioned on the French WW1 Centenary site and also on the Reims WW1 pages for the Champagne battlefields.
There is no doubt this site gives a true insight into a Great War trench system in a way that few other sites do. With barbed wire defences, firing positions, dugouts and even an aid post it is certainly worth a visit.
Hooge Crater Cemetery has 5,923 graves; more than half of them are unknown soldiers. One of the great Silent Cites of Flanders it sits on a ridge astride the Menin Road close to where flame-throwers were used for the first time against British troops in July 1915 and was the scene of intensive mining activity as tunnellers fought beneath the Western Front.
Filming cemeteries like this for the Above The Battlefield project helps show the sheer scale of loss and the size of war cemeteries like this one.
The trench system at Main de Massiges, a hillside in the Champagne battlefields that was the scene of heavy fighting in 1915 and became almost a household name in France, is one of the most impressive on the Western Front today. Trenches have been excavated and restored by a local association as can be seen in this aerial image.
Known by very few visitors to the battlefields the Main de Massiges trenches feature on a new Leger Holidays battlefield tour and just last week were mentioned in a report on the Champagne battlefields in the Daily Mirror.
Some more photographs of the trenches here will follow on WW1 Revisited.