Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mons August 1914 - August 2014 (Part III)

Saturday, my second day in Mons, dawned damp and drizzly but cleared up as the morning drew on.

After checking out of my hotel, my first stop was a return to the Grand Place to say hello to the Guard House Monkey, who I’d missed the previous day.

For those unfamiliar, this little bronze scamp has crouched outside the city’s town hall for centuries. Tradition holds that anyone passing has to rub the top of his head with their left hand for good luck.

After paying my due respects to the monkey, my next stop was St Symphorien Military Cemetery, on the eastern outskirts of the city. This, as it turned out, was comfortably the most moving site I was to visit during my time in Mons.

Wary after getting lost more than once the previous day, and unable to find a bus route that seemed to be heading in that direction, I took the easy (and lazy!) option of hailing a taxi for the couple of kilometres out to St Symphorien.

The cemetery had been the scene of international media coverage a fortnight earlier, when dignitaries like our own President Michael D Higgins and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had attended a sunset ceremony to mark the British declaration of war on Germany on 4 August. I’d watched the live coverage of the event at home on that Bank Holiday Monday, and had been struck immediately by just how beautiful a place the cemetery seemed to be. The reality was even more so.

St Symphorien was originally established by the Germans while the war was still in progress, being inaugurated in 1917. A local Belgian landowner, Jean Houzeau de Lehaie, granted the land to the occupiers on the condition that the dead of both sides would be interred on the site with equal respect.

Most of the burials in the cemetery date to August 1914 and the battle of Mons itself; casualties of both sides originally interred in local civilian cemeteries and plots. Some, however, are from the other end of the war, when the great Allied advance at the end of 1918 had just liberated Mons when the Armistice came into effect.

Although now administrated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, St Symphorien’s unusual origins made it utterly different from any other CWGC site I’d previously visited in Europe, not least in the fact that both British and German casualties are buried together in almost equal numbers – in some cases literally side by side in the same row:

Rather than walking through neat and orderly ranks of headstones standing against immaculate lawns, entering St Symphorien is almost like stepping into a forest glade. The cemetery is designed on Germanic ideals: set on multiple levels, with small wooded hillocks rising and falling.

On a sunny August morning, with birds singing in the trees and shafts of sunlight piercing through the branches, it was a heartbreakingly pretty and poignant place.

I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that some deaths are more important than others, but St Symphorien does contain a number of burials with particular historical significance.

Lieutenant Maurice Dease of the Royal Fusiliers, posthumous Irish receipient of the First World War’s first Victoria Cross.

Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment – missing believed killed on 21 August 1914, and generally considered the first British service fatality on land of the First World War.

Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers, killed on the morning of 11 November 1918, the last known British fatality of the First World War. Only a few metres separate Parr and Ellison’s graves, facing each other.

Private George Lawrence Price of the 28th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force – killed at approximately 10.58 on the morning of 11 November 1918, and the final Commonwealth fatality of the war.

Musketier Oskar Niemeyer of Infanterie Regiment 84, a German hero of the Battle of Mons. From Lower Saxony, Niemeyer was killed on 23 August in the vicinity of the Nimy railway bridge while attempting to move a swing bridge across the canal so his comrades could cross.

Quite a number of the British graves at St Symphorien bear the grenade badge of the Royal Fusiliers, the feathers and laurel of the Middlesex Regiment, or the crowned harp of the Royal Irish Regiment – telling evidence of the desperate fighting that battalions from these regiments experienced in and around the Nimy Salient.

One large group of Middlesex casualties were interred together by the Germans in the cemetery, together with a memorial commemorating the ‘Royal’ Middlesex Regiment. The misnomer apparently stems from a German belief that the stubborn defence displayed by the unit during the battle must have been carried out by a prestigious royal regiment, rather than an ordinary infantry regiment of the line.

The respect and care of a gesture like this, like the cemetery as a whole, is quite remarkable when considered in the context of St Symphorien being established by the Germans while hostilities were still very much ongoing.

Earlier that morning, I’d picked up a small cross of remembrance in the tourist information office at Mons, which I decided to leave at the grave of an unknown casualty of the Royal Irish Regiment killed on 23 August. There’s something uniquely sad about graves like this, where the dead lack even their identities for posterity.

Leaving St Symphorien and walking back towards Mons, I was able to visit a site with special significance for Irish involvement in the BEF.

On the afternoon of 23 August, with German pressure against the salient at Nimy becoming unbearable, the British units holding the sector were beginning to withdraw back into Mons. Advancing enemy infantry pressed hard at their heels.

At this critical moment, Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas Fitzpatrick of 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment gathered together a scratch force of some forty to fifty rear line personnel like cooks, musicians and orderlies and led them in defending the crossroads of La Bascule, on the eastern outskirts of Mons. Fitzpatrick’s unlikely rear guard succeeded in holding their positions until late in the evening, before slipping away to rejoin the retreating BEF.

To commemorate the action, as well as the wider service of the Royal Irish Regiment during the First World War, a large Celtic cross now stands at the busy junction of La Bascule. Across the road is a memorial to the BEF as a whole, which I stupidly neglected to photograph while I was at the site.

Visiting Mons was a fantastic experience, and one which I won’t soon forget.

Although I didn’t cover anything close to the entire battlefield, I was still able to gain a very good flavour of the key locations from that fateful August day a century ago. Two sites which I had planned on visiting, the location of the very first British skirmish of the war at Casteau, north of Mons, and the nearby NATO SHAPE complex, proved impossible due to time and transport constraints.

St Symphorien in particular has left a huge impression on me, and I hope I can revisit the entire area again in the future, perhaps before the centenary of the Armistice in 2018.  
With the afternoon drawing on, I prepared to leave Mons and retune myself by 99 years to the last major British land battle in Europe before the First World War: Waterloo...

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mons August 1914 - August 2014 (Part II)

Having flown into Charleroi with Ryanair first thing on Friday morning, I immediately took a train for the relatively short journey to Mons.

Disembarking and strolling into the centre of the city from the railway station, I was struck straight away by just how beautiful Mons is – full of narrow, cobbled streets and centuries old architecture. Unlike many well-known First World War sites like Ypres or the villages and towns of the Somme, Mons itself was left relatively physically unscathed by the conflict. After the battle and the subsequent retreat of the BEF in August 1914, the city fell under German occupation and lay behind the lines until nearly the very end of the war in November 1918. 

The medieval Grand Place is the very heart of Mons, and is the scene of one of the most well-known and frequently reproduced photographs of the BEF, below, showing men of 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers having just arrived in the area on 22 August 1914, the eve of the battle. There’s something incredibly poignant about the picture, with many of the characterful faces featured destined to be killed, injured or in captivity by the close of the following day.

My comparison shot a century on includes entries in what seemed to be a vintage car rally. That particular Friday, as it transpired, was a public holiday in Belgium; which meant that both open shops and pedestrians to ask directions of proved in short supply as the day went on. My fault, ultimately, for failing to do my homework in advance. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted!

My guides for both days in and around Mons were the standard format Osprey primer on the campaign (left, with splendid colour plates as always), and a relatively new battlefield guide from Pen and Sword Books by Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland (right). The latter was incredibly detailed and useful throughout, but could, as a slight criticism, have done with slightly more elaborate maps.

After checking in to my hotel (the warmly recommended Hotel Le Terminus) and a wolfed lunch, I set off on foot for the northern suburb of Nimy. This portion of the battlefield saw some of the fiercest fighting on 23 August 1914, with the defensive position along the Mons- Condé Canal held by the BEF bulging outwards to form a salient which could be – and was – pressed hard by the Germans from its flanks.

Once I’d gotten through my first spot of navigational difficulty, hampered twice over by my woeful schoolboy French and the general quietness on the streets that Friday, I reached Nimy and the battlefield proper.

My first destination was the railway bridge over the canal, in a sector defended during the battle by 4th Royal Fusiliers. Here, County Westmeath officer Lieutenant Maurice Dease was killed after repeatedly exposing himself to German fire in an effort to keep his battalion’s two machine guns firing across the bridge; posthumously earning the very first Victoria Cross of the First World War. His fellow Fusilier, Private Sid Godley, earned the second VC of the conflict at the same spot for continuing to man a machine gun until wounded and eventually captured by the Germans.

The railway bridge that stands on the site today isn’t the original from 1914 – that was demolished by the retreating French army during another German invasion of Belgium in 1940, with its replacement destroyed in turn by German troops retreating in the opposite direction in 1944.

This did nothing to take away from the evocativeness of the spot, however. Scrambling up the railway embankment to stand beside the tracks and peer through the trestles of the bridge at the German side of the canal, it was instantly possible to imagine the noise, fright and confusion a century ago as the Londoners of the Royal Fusiliers fought their increasingly desperate battle against encroaching enemy troops.

It is worth noting, though, that any reverie is regularly – and noisily – punctuated by trains hurtling by. The railway line here is very much active in 2014, so caution is definitely advised!
While there, I took advantage of a relatively new iPhone to film the first of a couple of short videos that I made while touring the Mons battlefield.

I then left the railway bridge to walk generally east along the line of the canal. This was the area held by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps during the battle, and saw the stiffest fighting for the BEF.

Although I believe that the actual canal itself has been widened since 1914, and certainly numerous more modern buildings now line either bank, it was still easy to appreciate the basic tactical geography of the battlefield. Looking across the canal from the southern bank, it was difficult not to envisage the din and chaos as attacking German infantry of the 8th Division in field grey uniforms and spiked helmets spilled down to the water’s edge, while all around British soldiers frantically worked Lee Enfield bolts, aiming and firing as rapidly as they could.

A long walk on a pleasantly drizzly August afternoon eventually took me to the village of Obourg, but not without slight confusion. Slightly west of Obourg, an enormous (and breathtakingly ugly) cement factory from much later than 1914 now dominates the southern side of the canal, blocking pedestrian progress on this side for a stretch.

With the wonders of hindsight, I know now that the easiest option is to temporarily cross to the northern bank, before recrossing the canal to go to Obourg. On the day, however, I arrived at the notion that I could cut around south behind the factory. An hour later, wetter and muddier than I began, I’d learned otherwise…

On 23 August, Obourg was defended by the 4th Middlesex Regiment, with the village seeing desperate fighting. The men of the Middlesex were eventually forced to withdraw, but an apocryphal incident from the battle here has an unknown British soldier clambering onto the roof of Obourg’s small railway station and remaining behind, firing to cover his retreating mates until overcome. Slightly despondently, there doesn’t actually seem to be any hard evidence for this occurring, but there’s something deeply touching about the story nonetheless. The original railway station was demolished in the 1980s, but bricks from the structure were preserved and used to create a small memorial to the Middlesex Regiment.

With night beginning to fall at the end of my first day in Mons, I trudged back into the city, footsore but happy. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mons August 1914 - August 2014 (Part I)

Just about getting this post up while it’s still actually August!

The middle of the month saw me leaving the normal summer routine at home behind for a long weekend in the cockpit of Europe.

Part of the trip saw me revisiting Waterloo (for the seventh time!), which I’ll cover in another entry. But the main purpose of my Belgian mini-break was to tour the First World War battlefield of Mons, scene of the British Army’s first engagement on the Western Front, in time for the battle’s centenary.

Now, my experience with visiting the Western Front has been quite limited so far. Five years ago, a summer driving holiday across Europe gave my Dad and I the opportunity to spend two days in and around Ypres, which was very memorable indeed. That’s really been it, though, as far as the main First World War sites in Europe are concerned.

The current centenary of the conflict is steadily serving to increase my interest in the 1914-18 period, however, and the early months of the war have always held a special curiosity for me.

There’s a tragic fascination to the fighting of late summer and early autumn 1914, which sees an essentially nineteenth-century style of warfare being waged – at dreadful cost – with twentieth-century technology.  For almost the very last time in western European warfare, there are multiple instances of infantry still manoeuvring on the battlefield in relatively close formations, with colours flying and bands playing; of cavalry performing their traditional mounted role with sword and lance; of artillery still firing over open sights at targets they can physically see in front of them.

Almost everthing about this early period, from the frequently splendidly impractical uniforms to the open nature of the battlefields, is at a striking remove from the mud, gas and barbed wire popular image of the First World War. By the winter of 1914, things had changed utterly, and the static attrition of trench warfare had firmly carved up the landscape of northern France and Belgium.

From a British and Irish perspective, the British Expeditionary Force that crosses the Channel in August 1914 to take part in this early fighting is an interesting body indeed. Rather than the massed citizen armies that the combination of popular enlistment and later conscription would combine to produce as Britain’s war progressed, the initial BEF was a very small, all-regular force. Tiny by the standards of European allies and adversaries like France and Germany, Britain’s field army was nonetheless well-trained and professional. Its men were khaki-clad, moustachioed regulars or else regular reservists recalled to the colours on the outbreak of hostilities.

This army acquitted itself well in its early defensive battles at Mons and Le Cateau in late August, and in September played its part with its French allies in the First Battle of the Marne, halting the German threat to Paris. Along the way, it endured a gruelling forced retreat from the scene of its first encounter with the German army at Mons on 23 August.

Irish service in the British armed forces is a particular interest of mine, and the BEF is anything but short of Irish connections. Nearly every existing Irish infantry and cavalry regiment in the British Army was represented amongst the force, with regiments like the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Munster Fusiliers all playing conspicuous roles at various points during the campaign. Irish soldiers were also plentifully represented in other arms and corps of the BEF.

Visiting Mons at some point during this centenary year had been on my mind for the last few months, and going during the actual month that the battle was fought seemed ideal. I had originally toyed with the idea of trying to coincide my visit with either the official commemorations of the war’s outbreak on 4 August, or else on the exact centenary of the battle itself on 23 August, but work commitments put paid to either plan. As it turned out, that was probably for the best. In the event, I was able to tour the battlefield freely, without access to any sites being impeded or overly crowded.

I’ll split my report on the battlefield itself into another post or two to avoid overcrowding things. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Normandy 1994

Not very much at all to report on the modelling and painting front over the last few weeks, I’m afraid! With the month that’s in it, however, I thought a quick – albeit slightly late – update with a D-Day theme might be in order.

Normandy has always held a very special place in my affections; above all else because it was the scene for me of an extremely formative introduction to military history. A rummage through the family photograph drawer this week has bought back some cherished memories.

I’d just turned six in June 1994 when my parents, sister and I decamped to France for a fortnight in a self-catering rental in the Norman countryside. This was fairly typical for us at the time: Mum is a French teacher and for as long as I can remember has had an affinity with the country that borders on passion. Quite a few summers saw us cram the family Golf with enough picnic supplies, stuffed toys and mutual patience to sustain us for a week or two of puttering around Gallic back lanes and town squares.

This particular trip saw us settling into a stone clad cottage just outside the village of Fierville Les Mines. In 2014, a little bit of armchair browsing with Google Earth allows me to confirm that Fierville lies inland from the western side of the Cotentin Peninsula. Potentially more significantly, the village is within reasonable driving distance of the main US sea and airborne landing zones of D-Day. And much more significantly again, that June of course marked precisely the fiftieth anniversary of those landings…

Now, this had been entirely coincidental as far as my parents were concerned. Neither have any especially profound interest in history; much less in the campaigns, cannon and colonels of military history. Regardless, the past was very hard to get away from that summer in Normandy.

Every last village and hamlet we visited during those two weeks seemed to be festooned in the bright blues, reds and whites of British, Canadian, American and French flags. War memorials had been cleaned, burnished and marked with wreathes.

We ended up visiting nearly every significant location of the US invasion sector, from the windy dunes of Utah and Omaha beaches to the central square of Sainte Mère Eglise. None of us can seem to remember visiting the British and Canadian sectors, further east – probably because they were too far away from our base. If we did, no photographs have survived.

As a young boy, this was heady stuff. The lifelike effigy of the 82nd Airborne’s Private John Steele hanging from the church steeple of Sainte Mère Eglise was a source of particular wonderment to me, and I became enthralled by the story of the paratrooper’s hapless ordeal during the early hours of D-Day. I was able to clamber on plinth-mounted Sherman tanks and peer through the gun slits of shattered concrete bunkers. Young though I was, it was impossible not to begin to perceive that something quite extraordinary had clearly happened here.

That trip to Normandy was a game changer for me. Exactly twenty years on, I have an MA in military history, an album of personal snapshots of battlefields from the Boyne to Passchendaele, and an enduring fascination with the history of conflict.

That passion might have developed anyway, but I’m able to tease my parents today that, but for their choice of location in the holiday brochure that year, I might still have grown up with slightly more conventional interests at heart. My television highlights this month might have featured overpaid athletes booting balls around Brazilian arenas, rather than pensioners in blazers and mounted medals taking perhaps a final opportunity to retrace their footsteps as young men seven decades ago.

I wouldn’t change a thing.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Arnhem and Oosterbeek - May 2013

Almost twelve months on and it occurs to me that I’ve never actually gotten around to posting these!

In May last year I spent a very enjoyable and memorable two days pottering around the Second World War battlefields of Arnhem and Oosterbeek.

It was an area I’d always wanted to visit since first seeing A Bridge Too Far and later reading Cornelius Ryan’s eponymous book, and I was delighted to finally make the trip.

Arnhem and its surroundings were absolutely beautiful in the early summer sunshine; so much so that it was difficult at times to recall the absolute ferocity of the fighting that raged amongst the streets, houses and gardens of the area in September 1944 as the British 1st Airborne Division fought for its life trying to hold on for XXX Corps.

Anyway, I’ll let the videos do the talking. Apologies in advance for the ever-so-slightly cheesy background music on the first slideshow – I couldn’t resist after having seen the film so many times!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Anzac Day 2014 Dublin

99 years on from the first landings at Gallipoli.

Pictures are from this morning’s dawn service at Grangegorman Military Cemetery here in Dublin. Today was my second time attending this annual event in the last few years and it’s been very moving on each occasion.

Wishing everyone reading, especially Down Under, a safe and peaceful Anzac Day.