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Who wants to commemorate the First World War?

We should use the ‘connectedness’ of Web 2.0 to buddy up with six other people each from, for example, Germany, Russia, France, Serbia, Turkey, South Africa, Newfoundland, Belgium, Australia, Portugal, Japan, Italy … and more, to take in the 37 countries that threw their people at the artillery, machine gun fire, gas and barbed wire between 1914 and 1918 and then reflect on whether we are doing enough in 2014 to prevent violent conflict on any scale, anywhere. But we should not dictate, or tut tut if the response in Germany is different to ours. This has been the problem of the 20th century in families as in politics – expecting everyone to be like you, instead of recognising that we are each so different it makes me feel lonely to think about it.

 

Join me by making the commemoration ‘for the people, by the people’ – commemorate an ancestor or pick a name from a war memorial or from the records, and research their story. Post your content online then generate a Quick Response code and wear this. When people ask what it is say who you want to remember and how they can find out more … and even do the same themselves.

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How Geoffrey Malins filmed episodes of the First World War

20131016-173459.jpg My immediate thought here is that over 100 years
capturing events such as this have gone full circle – we are back
to one person and his kit trying to see the action. It also strikes
me as someone who is so familiar with activity on the Western Front
and action in the trenches that he misses much of the key action:
he cannot film at night, nor can he get in amongst the action, nor
of course is there any sound. Colour adds clarity as you can
differentiate more of the detail. In any one day at the end of June
and early July, the months that interest me, how much did his
cameras see? An hour one morning, a couple the following afternoon?
It is worth thinking how much wad going on when he was mot turning
the film through the camera. The kit was cumbersome and heavy. It
weighed 5 stone. Then there were cannisters of film he strung
around his neck. He has a canny turn of phrase. He describes the
Howitzers he films as a ‘horrible frog squatting on its haunches’.
p120. I wonder if the cameraman has as much of a story to tell
given the difficulties and dangers he must face getting into
position. There are many times when he describes what he hadn’t the
means to record: the frying bacon, the boiling water, the chat
between soldiers … laughing, swaering and humming songs. p132
What does war really mean? Is this a question such filmmaking hoped
to answer. There appears to be a niavety about the entire
enterprise.

I’m familiar with The Battle of the Somme footage so am delighted that it is brought to life by Malins’s words describing people and events before, during and after his bouts of filming. The dressing station sounds far more horrific than he feels. He must surely have fekt sensitive about filming people as they died.

Reading up on the First World War

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Although Kindle suggests otherwise I have read most of these. I have read Christopher Clark ‘The Sleepwalkers. How europe went to war in 1914’ twice and am now reducing copious notes down to a cribsheet or revision notes. In due course I want to generate a series of multiple-choice questions on the QStream patform and a SimpleMind mindmap. By then the info may have stuck. According to Kindle 70% read takes me to the reference section of this 600+ page book. A third complete read is likely as I feel I can trust this Cambridge professor of history to be accurate and up to date.

‘Boy Soldiers’ I have read as a paperback. I find the eBook version more versatile – not least having it in my pocket at all times to cross reference. If there is a way to interest teenage boys in the history of World War One this is it. ‘Meeting the Enemy’ I have just downloaded as Richard van Emden is an easy and authoritative voice. It’ll add colour and insight to my own grandfather’s recollections of how a ‘Jerry’ wandered into their pillbox one foggy October or November morning in 1917.

I have several books on women and the First World War – anthologies and diaries. Often revealing for the common experience rather than anything that is startlingly different.

Others I have read to hear the same narrative with a different voice.

Sean McMeekin on the July Crisis is thorough and more tightly chronological than Clark who spends more time with each country. Another way to do this might be as a kind of bibliography – each of the sixteen or so key players profiled in detail relating to decisions taken in 1914. By the time I have read Allan Mallinson the chronology and landscape of the events leading to conflict in 1914 ought to be clear in my mind. This is how I learn – multiple voices on the same material expressed in a slightly different way – what resonates are the moments and conclusions that they have in common, or something finally makes sense when I hear it expressed in a certain way, or a new insight or nugget of information is offered.

Max Hastings, understandably given his journalism background, composes his narrative like a journalist dipping into anecdotes and gossip. Whilst adding colour and noise some of the history is wrong (the dates of and significance of Russia’s preparatory and pre-mobilization plans) and very little is referenced, which I find odd as he had to get his information from somewhere. Already I am hearing a phrase or fact here and there that I recognise from documenaries and the basic and sometimes dated texts – all should be properly cited but is not. This feels like an opportunity to cash in on 1914-1918 interest. However it does offer something new – largelly what the papers were reporting, with all the selection for sensationalism or curiosity, bias, hyperbole or fog that this means.

Richard Holmes I’ve read in print. Like Lyn Macdonald I find he offers an excellent perspective from the soldier’s point of view.

Paddy Griffith comes recommended courtesy of comments in an Amazon Review. Not this book in particular, but the author and the many books he has written.

Meanwhile I colour this with the Hew Strachan inspired documentary series on the First World War (on YouTube) and others, along with the film ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and visits to battlefields (Ypres) and museums.

Read on a period in history until you hear the people speak? I can listen to several hours of interviews with my grandfather – or those done with hundreds of veterans over the decades. I like my grandfather’s perspective – it was a job to be done and he wanted to get on with it until the job was done.

A couple of things I feel convinced of from the above reading:

Germany was hemmed in and ultimately left with no choice but to attack on all fronts – Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia and even France started this war.
Once in play the brutal behaviour of Austria in Serbia, and especially of Germany in Bulgaria, revealed a a national character, whether fed from the top or inculcated in the soldiers, that had to be stopped.

And the most trammeled and set upon?

Belgium

So much for neutrality. Did this make Germany (and potentially France) think of Begium as neutered?

As we approach the centenerary of the First World War what will each nation have to say?

Has Germany gone quiet?
What can Serbia say?
And the Turks?
Let alone Commonwealth and Colonial peoples and nations?

What does it say about humankind and nationhood?

It’s not as if we don’t still live with the consequences of that war and the second world war.

The Sleepwalkers: why Europe went to war in 1914

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A more thorough, comprehensive, balanced and relevant, detailed narrative of whst took place, how and why that led to conflict in 1914. Vital resding to anyone interested on why the world went to war in 1914, and background to many 20th and even 21sf century conflicts since from the Second World War, through the Cold War, Balkan War and even civil war in Syria. As the Ottoman Empire fell apart like a pair of unmendable trousers the Balkans became a collection of nations that the powers of the day wanted to influence – Russia eventually picking Serbia which was also the nemesis of Austria-Hungary. Britain was aligned with Russia to protect interests far further afield, such ad India, while France, still wounded from the loss of Alsace-Lorraine was more thsn prepared to fight Germany if first the alliance with Russia, and then that with Britain could be brought into play. Some three decades of taking an interest in the First War and this book is by far the best read on the causes and therefore the most important of anything I have read. Make it the first book of any you may wish to read as the centenary looms.

Slipping over the edge …

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In my youth, like an idiot, I would sometimes ski off trail heading towards a seemingly tame gully. There was this time as I descended with too much confidence into a steep funnel that I realised there was no safe way back … the snow was too deep, on too steep a slope so I had to go on. Worse, I knew that I would have to take a leap of faith to clear the edge and any rockfalls below. I love to ski but prefer to keep them on the ground whatever I do having smashed a leg badly in my teens doing this kind of thing.

A hundred years ago the world slipped over the edge, nations gathered on this slope and many ventured down to the edge to try and peak over, others took the brash view that whatever happened they’d be fine or that the shake up was necessary.

No book, of some 100 or more I must have read over a three decade period does more to set the scene – the mutiple players, the ambitions, the intrigues and affairs, the plots, plotting, murders, the arms race, the arrogance, the empire building, the lack of consideration by any of the players for the people they represented, claimed to represent, ruled or brutally exploited. Here we have an authoritaive and informed voice looking down from the moon observing as best as possible the events over the centuries, decades, then months and weeks that led to ‘Total War’. God forbid that we can ever be so foolish, collectively, again. Yet here we are about to take a part in Syria. Any action or in-action has consequences. So what is it to be? I wonder if now, as a hundred years ago, the wrong people, as ever, are running things.

In a move from WW1 enthusiast to subject matter expert I begin a Masters Degree in First World War studies with the University of Birmigham next month. Over the next two years and during the duration of the centenary events to mark the 1914-18 conflict I hope to build this blog into a valuable resource with an emphasis on the lot of the person on the front line, man or woman, from all sides with a focus all the same on the British Machine Gun Corps and Royal Flying Corps.

A Blighty One

(The action described here took place in later October 1917, possibly around 26th. Egypt House, Nobles Farm and Colombo House are the pill boxes Jack was in. The ‘beck’ is most likely the Broembeck. These are narrow, but deeply set in the ground – possibly 12ft or more from the roadside to the water in peace time).

“We had another casualty, a Birmingham lad who was in charge of that gun … the engineers would rig up a bit of a dug out on a dry spot with corrugated sheeting. They’d been trench mortared and he was hit in the shoulder with a fragment. They brought him to my gun because it had the duckboard track leading from it, other than that you were walking through the mud. I kept him there until late. Blair got him away … but it was fatal. He died. “Thought he’d got a blighty’.”

Blair sent me to take over this gun, we were in another pill box higher up. That was when I heard this kid in this shell hole by the stream shouting for his mother.

I was running along the duckboards when I heard this voice. There was this beck which ran along one side, full of frogs … if it rained the thing turned into a torrent. I just stopped. I don’t know if he’d been hit or he’d just fallen in. All I could see was his head and shoulders sticking up above the mud. So I lean down, mind you with all the mud I might have slipt in with him. So I grab his shoulder belt and told him to help himself and he kicks about and I get him up onto the duckboards.

“I can’t wait”, I tell him.

You couldn’t stand around out there, and off I went.

This was % O’Clock in the morning. There’d been an attack and it failed. He was yelling for his mother. I saw him struggling in the mud and filth.

The most iconic image from the 1916 film of the Battle of the Somme

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The big push on the big screen of picture theatres across Great Britain in 1916

http://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/the-big-push-on-the-big-screen/

Henry Gartendfeld & Dick Piper R.I.P OCT 1917

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Fig.1. North of Poelcappelle approaching Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917.

(This action takes places around the pill boxes of Egypt House, a three compartment German concrete block house and Courage Post. It was becoming chilly – 13 C, and was overcast with a little rain).

When I arrived at the pill box (Courage Post) there were four of them.

‘Gartenfeld’s head was split right down the middle as if he’d been hit with an axe’.

They’d dragged him out round the side.

(Henry Godliph Gartenfeld died on Monday the 22nd October 1917)

Dick Piper was in the pill box.

‘Dick must have been standing with his head ducked down just outside the pill box’.

A piece of shrapnel had dented his helmet, scraped his face and gone into his guts.

Blair had dragged him into one corner of this pill box and put him on his trench coat. When I found him he had a sandbag tucked up under his legs so that his knees were up over his elbow.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked and took a look.

His guts were hanging out all over the place.

“How are things?” I asked Dick.

“Pull my legs up, Jack.” He said, “Pull my legs up.”

So I packed another sandbag under his legs to stop his guts falling out.

You had a bandage and a tube of iodine fixed into the tunic. Never much use.

He died some time in the afternoon.

I left him a bit ‘til he stiffened up; that’s what you did. They were easier to move like that. I got his pay book and credentials, dragged him out of the pill box and covered him up with some bits of rubble – whatever I could find. That’s all you could do. Imagine – having to bury your friends like that.

Terrible.

Dick Piper was 45 years old. He shouldn’t have been there.

He was from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Another one who died on the 22nd October 1917. His body was never found. I knew the spot though. It broke my heart to stand there 90 years on, dwelling on the lives they had missed, their families and how they had died like that all those years ago.

Such a waste.


Fig.2.  August 1992. Mr John A Wilson MM ‘Jack’ – recalling events north of Ypres on the Passchendaele Salient. He marked the spot where Henry Gartenfeld and Dick Piper died. He was a corporal in charge of two guns, one in a pill box constructed against Egypt Farm, known as Egypt House, the second called ‘Courage Post’.

Further north there were the remnants of the Belgium army … there had been this attack to try and get this forest. It was doomed to failure from the start.

Some Horrible Ways to go – October 1917

Two weeks before there’d been a lad stuck in one of these shell-holes; they couldn’t get to him. It was too exposed.

He must have drowned or died of his wounds.

A horrible way to go that. Not being able to help yourself and slipping into the mud. I wanted a clean end to it – a bullet through the head.

Your rations were mainly corned beef and a few dog biscuits.

When I say dog biscuits they were dog biscuits, they were like bricks. No bread. Your tea and sugar was tied into a corner of a sandbag. No milk. There might be two or three tins of beans and some jam. And you took your water in a two gallon petrol can.

Two days was the limit in there; I was in for a week.

You only went in with two day’s rations. It was so bad, the conditions, they couldn’t get anyone out … the shelling, the conditions …

We finished up there filtering shell-hole water through handkerchief.

They couldn’t send anyone in to relieve us.

The only thing that lived out there were rats and they had a feast of it – October 1917

Mother! Mother!

On the way in I came across these guardsmen, eight or nine, lying in a shell-hole as though they were asleep.

(They were Gough’s XIV Corps. Guards. From the 38 Division commanded by General Lord of Cavan. They’d been held up on the west bank of the Steenbeck. Gas had been used by Jerry on as attacks had been made on Houthulst Forrest)

Get a dose of that and your lungs were ruined.

They were not like an ordinary shell.

MGC 1915

Gas came over like a dud.

You could see down this path from Courage Post right into the forest. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. There was no barbed wire, just all shell-holes and mud.

It had been raining heavily since the beginning of October.

The ground was like porridge. Parts of the front and turned into a lake. Simply getting to a front position was exhausting as you had to wade through this ooze and negotiate the rims of shell-holes.

(The rainfall in August 1917 over Northern France and Belgium was twice the August average. In fact, there were only three days that entire month when there was no rain).

Streams pushed their way through the crumbling banks of the craters and linked into impassable lakes of liquid mud. On the surface of the water there’d be an iridescent smear of oil. or it was green from gas on a puddle.

The Morass of the Battlefield - Flanders

If you saw a film of red streaking the surface it didn’t take much imagination to guess what else was down there.

And the smell. It made you wretch.

You’d vomit.

There was no getting used to the stink from all the mess, body parts, rotting away … a lads inside, heads, limbs, hands … you can’t imagine the horror of it.

Even if you buried them it didn’t take much to blow them out of the ground.

Jerries, Tommies, mules and horses. The only thing that lived out there were rats and they had a feast of it.

1914-1918 (11)

This was when I heard this kid in this dung heap by the stream shouting for his mother.

I don’t know if he’d been hit or fallen in but it stopped me in my tracks.

There was a bit of an embankment down to the stream. When it rained it was like a river, full of frogs and all this filth. On the other side there was this shell hole. All I could see was his head and shoulders sticking up above the mud.

Shell holes could be 30-50ft deep.

They quickly filled with water which formed a muddy sludge of body bits, broken equipment and what not. This was behind the pill-box they named Egypt House 200-300 yards short of Houthulst Forest.

I leant down to get this lad, mind you with all that mud I might have slipped in myself. The remnants of the Belgian army were nearby.

The line faced the Ypres Canal with Houthulst Forest on the other side

There’d been this attack to try to get around Houthulst forest which the French had taken on the 9th October. Doomed to failure from the start. That July the French had held a short piece of the line between Boesinghe and the Yser after which the remnants of the Belgians took over.

“Mother, mother.” He was saying.

So I grabbed this lad’s shoulder-belt and told him to help himself.

“Kick man, kick. You’ll have to get yourself out of this one.” I said.

He kicks about and I get him onto the duckboards.

“I can’t wait.” I tell him.

You couldn’t stand around out there with all the shooting going on.

And off I went.

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