Friday, 31 May 2013

Totalitarian regimes - the Wall

First of at least two posts on the unfortunate history Berlin is associated with. Both have to do with totalitarian regimes and the extreme results that come from them. This first one is about the Berlin Wall. I am old enough to remember the effect the end of the Berlin Wall had on many of us - I could not really believe I was seeing it coming down.

If you are my age you grew up with it. A visible symbol of how the world was divided into free countries and those that were not free.

This is a vast mural on the side of a wall along Bernauer Strasse - the image shows actual houses on the street from 1961 just before the barrier was started. These desperate people are taking a last chance to escape. A few years later the street would have looked like this along it's length. The houses were pulled down.

This is one the preserved sections - the wall facing us is the view from the West. In the middle the 'deadground' watched over by the sinister looking tower. At the back, the wall that would face you from the East.

This is not a wall to keep you out. It is a wall to keep you in.

How morally bankrupt must your government be to have to do this?

So desperate were the citizens of both sides to overcome this barrier they went to incredible lengths to escape or to create a means for escape. This is tunnel 57 - so named for the number of people who managed to get out in it's short lived life before it was betrayed and the East German police ambushed the last set of rescuers and escapees.

Makes you think - especially as this was only just over 20 years ago that the Wall came down.

Keep vigilant - there are always idiots trying to build barriers to keep people out - why?

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Je ne regret rien...

Leaving France and Flanders fields behind me today - heading for Berlin and the culmination of the tour. So today is mostly a travel day. The tour through Normandy and then the WW1 fields on the Somme, Meuse-Argonne, Verdun and Ypres salient was a tremendously rewarding experience. It was made all the richer and more personal by the emerging story around my great uncle and his exploits on some of those fields in 1917 and 1918. As the title says, I regret nothing...but when time permits here is what I would like to go back and do more on!

Two other great uncles fought in the First World War - it would be interesting to see their stories and follow in their footsteps. Sound like more work for Chris Baker at Fourteen-eighteen!

Verdun - incredible place. So much more to see down there.

Maginot Line - a series of post WW1 fortifications that were meant to deter another invasion (by the Germans) and famously did not. I drove past one the the Forts that is open to the public at certain times (I was driving by when it wasn't). Looked fascinating.

Reims - champagne capital but also right on the frontline for most of the war. Some interesting French and American battles to explore down there.

So there you have it - the beginnings of another series of tours and blogs!

See you in Berlin.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Counter attack de les vaches...

The cows drive off the author after his brief conquest of bunker three...

Fortunately my great uncle was more successful.

Great Uncle James Evans, First MC, Irles 1917

As promised here is the second long posting on my great uncle's military cross awards. This is his first one. I am going to quote verbatim from Chris Baker's excellent report on his record. The first bit in italics is the London Gazette entry on his MC.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led his men forward

in a most gallant manner, and succeeded in capturing two enemy

machine guns. He set a splendid example to his men, and rendered

invaluable assistance throughout.”

The war diary gives us more detail about this operation. The context is that the German Army had begun a strategic withdrawal from the Somme, and eventually moved rearward many miles to the prepared and formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line. Once this movement was detected the
British Fifth Army pursued the withdrawal. On 10 March 1917 James’s company was in the area of Petit Miraumont; James commanded Number 2 Section of two gun teams under Sergeants Beswick and Miller, and was initially in Resurrection Trench. At 5.30am (the war diary records)

"Lt Evans gun[s] moved via orchards, quarry in 26.a and houses NE of village to strong point in
26.c.75.25. Several Germans killed during advance"

It appears that James also directed one of his other guns (his section totalled four) under Sergeant

Chenery to an alternative position when he found a post he was supposed to be occupying was not constructed; Sergeant Miller’s team also advanced and killed four German snipers. In general this had been a highly successful

Operation by the company and was virtually without cost to themselves. The war diary entry for 2 April 1917 confirms that James had been awarded the
Military Cross and Sergeant Beswick the Distinguished Conduct Medal for their parts in the operation.

Apologies for any formating issues in copying this across from the PDF!

Once again Chris had great maps to go with this text.

This is an original trench map! The red line is the British 'Resurection' trench. The Red triangle is the German strongpoint captured. The orchards and quarry from the war diary can be identified. Superimposed on a modern map...

Virtually identical! The orchards have gone and the old quarry has been filled in. The roads are exactly as indicated and as you will see, the strongpoint is still there!

This panorama is looking back at the British trench line with Irles behind me.

From the same spot, looking at Irles and it's church. The orchards would have been where those two little trees are.

Moving ahead to the quarry..

This must have been roughly where it was - you can see the back of the cemetery in this shot.

And these are the actual strongpoints - taken from my first scouting trip when I did not know about the details of James' actions.

Google Translations of 'Are you the owner of the field with the German Fortifications in it' and other non-standard phrases I tracked down Mdm Philippe, the farmer's wife (or mother - not sure) and asked if I could get in the field to take some close ups.

Merci beaucoup Mdm Phillipe!
Again, almost standing in the footsteps of those incredible soldiers and their superhuman efforts.

A couple of the bunkers can still be entered - here is a look out from one of the vision slots.

And with the flash to illuminate the darkness

And one final shot looking down the Ancre valley towards - which presumably is why these were put where they are. There are about three remaining structures on this side of the valley in a 'complex' that was close together. One other can be made out but is either buried or destroyed. There is at lease on on the opposite side of the valley which overlooks these and is higher up. Probably part of the same overall defensive position.

A remarkable opportunity to in some way recognise the extraordinairy efforts of the people who fought in the Great War.

Waterloo - Part Deux

Hi there- before we get down to the main posting of the day back on the Somme with my great uncle here is an aperitif by way of a quick trip back to Waterloo.

I took the opportunity to further abuse a rental car by driving around the battlefield and getting up close to a few of the landmarks I mentioned in the fist post.

So straight away here is La Haye Sainte up close and personal - and looking remarkably like the old Airfix kit I had growing up...

If you were paying attention during the first post you will of course realise this was a key part of Wellington's centre and only fell after a long and heroic resistance by the German forces holding it when they ran out of ammunition.

This unassuming farm track heads away from the British centre on top of the ridge towards the French lines. If you had been here in 1815 you would have had a first class seat for the action to your left at La Haye Sainte and to your right at Hougoumont. You would have been bombarded by French artillery for hours and then had to defend yourself against two hours of repeated cavalry charges. Once you had seen those off there was more to come - hordes of huge mustachioed Frenchman in bearskins marching up in dense columns shouting 'Vive l'Empreur' and 'death to the roast beefs' (probably in French though). Yes - this was the last throw of the dice, the Old Guard itself.

Waiting until you could see the whites of theirs eyes (and the smell of the garlic...) you would have given them three volleys of musket shots in a minute and not soon after that they would have turned tail and fled. You pause and then when Wellington waves his hat, off you go, general advance and the end of the battle!

Off in the distance is la Belle Alliance where old Boney himself is directing things.

Zoomed in and looked for him but he had gone.

And finally here is Hougoumont - the key to the Allied right flank.

This is all that is left - the old Farmhouse part of the complex. The 'chateau' burned down in the fighting. This struggle here was the longest on the battlefield - pretty much all day once things got going around 11:30 so over nine hours of fighting. Held by the Guards it did not fall but it was a close run thing. At one point a side gate was breached by the French and the whole position was under threat. The Guards counter-attacked and closed the gate, saving the day and according to Wellington the battle itself!

This may (and I say may) be a monument to the French regiment that got inside. You cannot get into Hougoumont as it is private property so this needed a zoom and a bit of sneaking about in the woods to get a look. It may not be in the right place to be on the spot of the rear doorway - it is in the old walled gardens bit of the complex.

So there you have it - a bit more on Waterloo and despite the rain (again) it was great to walk the battlefield and see things from the ground.

More to come on the Somme now including some belligerent cows....

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Great Uncle James Evans - Second Military Cross, Somme 1918

This is the first of two long posts that will cover each of the Military Crosses awarded to my Great Uncle during his service on the Western Front. For logistical purposes (and the fact the weather is once again awful here on the Somme) I am doing the second award first if you follow...

Thanks again to Chris Baker for all of the detailed research on his record and for being able to provide such precise locations for the action - something that allowed me to stand on the same spot my relative did all those years ago. I'm telling you that really makes you think!

Here is the announcement in the London Gazette confirming his second MC.

For conspicuous gallantry and initiative when called upon to assume

command of a company at Tara Hill near Albert on 23-24 August 1918.

He handled is 16 guns with great skill during the attack, and later he led

four of the guns through very heavy artillery and machine gun fire and

occupied ground from which he was able to prevent the enemy from

consolidating a new line”.

This took place during the last great Allied offensive of the war in 1918 - but was fought back on ground initially won in the Somme offensive of 1916 (at such high cost) and then lost again to the Kaiser's offensive of early 1918. Thus my great uncle was back in the same general location as his initial service in 1916 and 1917.

The attack mentioned in the Gazette was part of a broad effort to push the Germans back from around Albert. My uncle was in charge of a company of machine guns in the machine gun battalion - a group used by Divisional leaders to support other units in the attack. This allowed concentration of resources to support specific tactical objectives.
This picture comes from Michael Stedman's Battleground Europe 'Advance to Victory 1918' Somme, Pg96. The action my uncle was involved in was broadly speaking around E and F. Chris Baker did a great job superimposing my uncles unit positions onto a modern map.
The four red flags are where my uncle had his guns positioned at various stages in the battle. I've called bottom left position one, top left position two, the one by 'Montalot' position three and the one right by 104 as position four.

Now we can put ourselves (to a certain extent!) in my great uncle's shoes...

This is looking BACK towards positions one and two - so one is on the left of the photo and two is on the right. The road is the D108 to Becourt from Albert.
This is now looking towards the next positions of his guns - so towards Becourt and 'Sausage Valley'. We are standing on the summit of the 'Tara' Ridge.
This is machine gun position four! I am standing pretty much right on it. The valley below is 'Sausage Valley'. The high ground to the left is 'Tara' and in the distance in the middle as La Boiselle and the Lochnagar crater.
I believe the German front line would have been 'enfiladed' from this position - so the gunners could fire down and along the trench line. A powerful position to help prevent German defending actions and counter attacks.

Panorama from the same position showing Tara on the left and Sausage valley in the middle and Becourt Wood on the right. There is a cemetery in this one about 300 or 400 metres away.

This is the exact location of 'position four' if the overlay of WW1 details and modern map is correct!

To get a different perspective I then carried on towards La Boiselle and the Lochnagar crater (see earlier posts)

This is from the other side of 'Sausage' valley with Tara on the right. The edge of the trees is where I was at 'position four'. I zoomed in a bit - can't be more than 800-1000 metres as the crow flies.

I said earlier that this was like being in his shoes - but the conditions then were unimaginable. It is a gross simplification to describe it that way. The following picture is from Michael Stedman's book again - Advance to Victory 1918, Somme. Pg 99. It was taken just before the Allied attacks in 1918.

Contrast this with the 'battle map' and today's modern map and pictures. The ground my great uncle was fighting over was not the green and yellow Somme farmland complete with picturesque woods and valleys. It was blasted wasteland. Fought over for three years. Devastated. A burial ground.

The bottom left of this picture is the same one covered in my pictures in the post.

I have another powerful picture for the Web. Apologies for using without permission.

This is La Boiselle today and during the War. My uncles action supported taking this objective. There was no village - just rubble and trenches and bunkers.

So that covers one chapter from my great uncle's war time career. Tomorrow I will post on his first Military Cross earnt in 1917 at Irles.

In Bruges...

For a day anyway. Made the best of the sunniest and hottest weather so far to make a day trip to the ancient city of Bruges. A lesson for us all on the benefits of trade agreements I think - the town grew fantastically rich on trade as a member of the Hanseatic League. A sort of medieval forerunner of the EU but much more effective and without the madness of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Bruges looks fabulous in the sun, justifying it's reputation as the 'Venice of the North'. Technically Birmingham has many more miles of canals but even the most stout hearted of Anglophiles would have to say it compares poorly to both Bruges and Venice.

In Bruges with famous Bell tower behind us to prove it!

suitable example of canals - much prettier than Dudley in the Black Country...

Our transport in Bruges. I think he was called Findus or Bolgnese but I could be wrong.
And finally the imposing figure of Jan Van Eyck looking over his own 'plein' or square. A leading artist of the time it is a measure of how rich and important Bruges had become that it could support the work of artists like this.

Sunday, 26 May 2013


Just back in Brussels nursing a blonde (beer!) and a cherry beer for Darranda . Been out to Waterloo today which was a rewarding exercise . I'll post photos later tonight but you can pretty much see the whole battlefield from the top of the Lion monument.

This was erected in 1826 by the dutch to commemorate victory over the great 'Dictator' himself, Napoleon . Of course to the French it looks like the end of the emperor . There is a bit of a paradox to explain the admiration of the Emperor and the ideals of the French revolution but no denying he was a great leader and general .
He met his match with Wellington though . You can appreciate Wellington and his eye for good ground to fight on at Waterloo . He set it up in his favour and exploited it brilliantly.
This is the plinth on the top of the monument that shows the dispositions on the troops. From the monument we are facing the French lines. The crucuial Prussians are on the left of the British. The Allied forces (ie British, Dutch, Germans etc) are on a ridge. Most of them are 'hidden' on the reverse slope. This is classic Wellington. It helps to shield the troops from artillery fire (a French strong point) and allows you to hide your strength. At key points in front of these positions Wellington put some of his best troops to hold various farms - Hougomont on the British right. La Haye Sainte in the centre and Papelotte on the left. Hougoumont would see bloody action all day - held by elements on the Scotish and Coldstream Guards it was a desparate, close run thing. La Haye Sainte was almost as dramatic - held by Brunswickers from Germany it only fell once ammunition was exhausted. By that time the French had lost the initiative.
I also took away today more of a sense of how small the battlefield was in comparison to the WW1 and WW2 fields visited earlier. Up on the monuments you can see all the ground fought over and even Napoleon's HQ in the distance.
This is a panorama with La Haye Sainte and Papelotte in the left, the French centre and then Hougoumont on the right. The French essentially attacked in a style they were accustomed too and beaten off in a style Wellington was accustomed to. On they came in columns and off they went - beaten by superior firepower and the discipline the deliver it.

There are reams and reams written on Waterloo -

So have your fill! It is a visit where you can genuinely still see what the Generals saw and how that influenced their decisions.

Few other points . The allied side really was diverse with Wellington in overall command of Dutch and German forces . The Prussian effort was immense to get forces into the battle late on and finish things off . The key farms of Hougomont and la Haye Sainte are still there and almost like they were 200 years ago .

Great visit . Looks like a new visitors centre in the works for 2015 which will be the bicentennial.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Brussels cheese and wine party

Strolling through Brussels and stumbled into a Bordeaux wine tasting event . Cheese shop included . Invested in a sauternes and a large wedge of beaufort .

Great Uncle James Evans - First Military Cross, Irles 1917

From the London Gazzette

Temp. Lt. James Oliver Richard Evans,


For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to

duty. He led his men forward in a most

gallant manner, and succeeded in capturing

two enemy machine guns. He set a splendid

example to his men, and rendered invaluable

assistance throughout.

This is extracted from Chris Baker's outstanding report on my great uncles war record in the First World War. Once I have worked out how to share the whole report I will post on that too!

Amazingly I have stood on the exact spot where this Irles action took place and have seen the same bunkers my great uncle captured way back then!

I will be going back to the Somme next week to see if I can get access to the land these bunkers are on and get even closer to the site - almost standing in the shoes so to speak!


Friday, 24 May 2013

Brussels, very surreal

Very wet and cold so museum day . Went to the museum of musical instruments and then the new margritte museum . Very surreal . Lots of fish , pipes (or maybe it is not a pipe ) and bower hats .

Apartment opposite fine emporium

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Mobile posting from Brussels

Quick update , now fully mobile on the phone too ! Waiting in Brussels for darranda to arrive so drinking a Belgian beer of course . Travel day to day from rheims to lille to Brussels . Not much action today but did find out Eisenhower took the unconditional surrender of the German forces in the west in rheims so champagne all round I'd say !

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Amidst the carnage..Bambi moment

Told you I was on my own up there...

Just off to at the end of the German front line...where the craters end

Not quite quick enough to get a good photo...

US M-A - Butte de Vauquois

I said in an earlier post that I have visited one of the most extraordinary sites so far - this is it. The Butte de Vauquois. So named because it rises up and overlooks the Meuse Valley. It's steep on both sides. If you hold the top ground you dominate the area. That is the basic geography - what then took place is the bit that takes some getting your hat round. Read the post and then check out the You tube clip.

The heights were fought over from early on in the War - from late 1914. There was a village at the top. Completely obliterated. The inhabitants did not leave - they stayed in natural underground caves. Both sides then copied this  - and expanded the natural network to an astonishing degree. There are now over 4.5 KM of underground galleries, 184 large rooms and four blockhouses that are safe to visit (so that means a lot is not!). There is a railway under the mountain!

On top it is an incredible landscape - because you could dig so easily there was lots of tunnelling and mine warfare - the gap between the two lines is a series of enormous craters. Once again the two sides are really close - maybe 50 metres at most.

The first mine crate I passed was blown up on 14 May 1916 with sixty tons of explosive! It killed 108 men of the French 46th RI.

The American forces eventually had to attack across this crater riven divide - I have no idea how they did it. It is difficult enough now with narrow tracks across.

I'll start the photo's from the French / American side of the Butte

When you watch the You Tube clip remember this exit / entrance...

with flash looking down into the entrance
Another entrance, higher up the slope
There is about 150 to 200 ft of uphill climb from the locations of these entrances to the top.

This is just the first of the huge craters that splits the top into two sides - it is this one that was blown on 14 May 1916.

Looking up on the French side to the monument - this is where the village once stood. There are barbed wire entanglements still.

Exit from the underground tunnels and galleries - French side

The village before it was obliterated.

This panorama is looking over to the German lines. The following shots come from their side of the battlefield.

This is looking back at the French lines - and does a fairly good job of showing how there were multiple craters from multiple mine explosions. The camera of course flattens things out a bit but these are big and deep holes.

This is from 'no-mans land' looking back to the Monument on the French side. Might  do a better job of showing the scale of the mine craters
Now in the German trenches with the edge of one of their tunnel entrances visible..

Incredible! Both sides tunnelling like moles under this terrain.

Again one last attempt to convey the magnitude of the devastation on no-man's land from mine explosions. Looking up from the bottom.

I did find this visit surreal. I was the only one there (and I will post something to prove that in a minute). It was quiet. It was green.

What must it have been like in those years? What kind of hell was it?

Here is the You Tube link