Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Lance Serjeant Charles Stevens of the Cambs Suffolks - The Attack at Roeux, France (28th April, 1917)

The little village of Rouex in the Pas-de-Calais is a quiet backwater now but during the First World War it was the scene of heavy fighting – particularly during the Battle of Arras in April 1917. The Usine chimique Lesage (Chemical Factory) and the nearby Chateau Lesage are long gone and the area between the railway line to the North of the town and the River Scarpe to the South is now a residential area. The site of the chemical factory is now a car park and a small provincial supermarket. Behind the supermarket rough ground covers the remains of a vast complex of military bunkers and passageways unused and unseen for almost 100 years.
The site of the former Roeux Chemical Works
The author with Jean-Louis Bulcke (with shell) and friends
During the summer of 1992, a local resident, Jean-Louis Bulcke who was born in Douai, Northern France and still has family links in the area was erecting a new garden wall on his nephew’s property in Rue Guy Lemaire, Roeux. The property is situated 200 metres to the North West of where the Chateau Lesage once stood. Also there is a large German bunker built in 1917 which has been incorporated into a neighbour’s garden nearby. The digging of the foundation of a new wall at the nephew’s former home very quickly revealed evidence of the areas’ turbulent past.
Jean-Louis at the site of his discovery
Bunker in the Rue Guy Lemaire, Roeux
During the April 1917 Arras offensive the British Front Line just to the West of Rouex was held by 101st Brigade, 34th Division. On the 28th April 1917 the Division attacked the German lines to their East. In the village, the 11th Suffolks attacked the area of the old chemical works and the chateau. The 10th Lincolns were on their right and the 15th Royal Scots beyond them with the River on their flank. It was a difficult day. The initial attack faltered in the face of strong resistance and of the 17 officers and 610 men of the 11th Suffolks who went into the assault 7 officers and 325 other ranks became casualties. Of those 103 men were killed.
Plan of attack showing Cambs Suffolks front
The 34th Divisional history describes the 11th Battalion's efforts thus:

"The Suffolks met with the same fate as the 24th Northumberlands, being met by machine gun fire from a trench untouched by the barrage and from buildings. They made no progress, and at 5:30 A.M. Major Tuck, Second in Command, being sent up to reorganise the Battalion, found only five officers and about three hundred other ranks in our front line, including about sixty men from the 16th Royal Scots. Some of the Suffolks got as far as the houses near the Chemical Works, and Stayed till dark, when they returned with some prisoners."
Officer commanding Co. B sketch
Jean-Louis’ nephew’s former home on the modern day Rue Guy Lemaire was built dead centre to the 11th Suffolk line of attack – “near the chemical works”. Shortly after starting the work in his nephew’s garden, Jean Louis came across the remains of a British soldier. The body was in a contorted position and there were a number of artefacts in the immediate vicinity. These included a British helmet, a ‘Cambs Suffolks’ shoulder badge and a spoon on which the number ‘7203’ had been scratched. Also a pocket watch was found that still showed the time at 4:45am. Given the attack started at 4:25am the soldier had faced the danger of enemy fire for 20 minutes before he was killed.
The Doctor (right) who certified the exhumation
The body was exhumed and certified by a local doctor. The remains along with the spoon were handed over to the Gendarmerie who subsequently passed them onto the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Beaurins. Unfortunately documents concerning these transfers are not available but Jean Louis subsequently established that the soldier was buried as ‘unknown’ at Terlingthun British Cemetery near Boulogne St Mare. He believes that that the remains lie in Plot 20, 9th grave to the left. This follows a precedent since two Roeux casualties were buried in the same cemetery in 1984. Most of the artefacts had been retained by Jean-Louis who now wishes to return them to England and to the family of the brave soldier who was killed in action on the 28th April 1917.
Left hand side of Cambs Suffolks start line
Subsequent research of the 11th Battalion Suffolk casualties in Rouex revealed 79 ‘missing in action’. Of these Lance Serjeant Charles William Stevens of A Company proved to be a likely match for the man found by Jean Louis. His regimental number was 17203 which matches with the number on the spoon – ‘7203’. Lance Serjeant Stevens enlisted into the Cambs Suffolks in December 1914 and CWGC records show that he was the son of Susannah Louisa Stevens of Cavendish Road, Mill Road, Cambridge and the late Charles Stevens formerly of Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire whose ancestors were five generations of blacksmiths from that village. Lance Serjeant Stevens was 42 when he was killed and he left a widow, Susannah Jane Stevens of 18 Cyprus Road, Cambridge. He was also father to a son and three daughters.
Susannah & Charles Stevens

Jean-Louis and his English speaking friend Maurice Vallat who sadly died last August confirmed the soldiers identity via the ‘Walking the Battlefields’ Cambs Suffolks online archive. Using this information Jean-Louis and Maurice found a link to Colin Fakes of Hauxton. Colin is the grandson of Lance Serjeant Stevens and in 2011 had been instrumental in the re-dedication of a WW1 memorial found in a damaged state in the cellar of the former Methodist Church in Mill Road, Cambridge - now called Romsey Mill. Charles William Stevens' name is commemorated along with 13 others. This project was publicised on the internet and Colin's name and contact details were quickly discovered.
Colin Fakes and John Mills with the Romsey Mill memorial
In April 2013 Colin received a phone call from Maurice in France who said, “we have found your Grandfather”. Colin’s mother, Ida was the youngest daughter of Lance Serjeant Stevens. Colin subsequently visited the site of his Grandfather’s action in France with Jean Louis as a guide. He described the experience as a “sad but incredible pilgrimage”.
Former location of Stevens' body in Roeux

Despite the wholehearted support of Lance Serjeant Stevens’ Grandson, Colin Fakes of Hauxton Cambridge together with his relations, the CWGC have so far declined to reclassify Stevens’ grave as ‘known’. Furthermore the CWGC have refused to review their files for 1992 on the grounds that to do so would ‘Set an unhelpful precedent’. A ‘Freedom of Information’ request for details of the small number of burials in 1992 was rejected by the CWGC on the grounds that they are exempt from the Act. Sadly, a DNA test involving small quantities of hair and bone from the original gravesite in Rouex has proved to be inconclusive. The small and contaminated sample simply wasn't enough to produce a definitive result.
Some of the relics found at the grave site
28th April 2017 will be the 100th Anniversary of Lance Serjeant Steven’s death during the Battle of Arras. Colin, his wider family, Jean Louis and myself are determined that Lance Serjeant Stevens should be accorded the rightful honour of a named CWGC headstone.

12th November 2016. Phil Curme & Gerald Main talk about the Cambs Suffolks on Radio Cambridgeshire.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Imjin River, Korea (1951)

Name changed to protect privacy ...
I just want to recount a conversation I had with a Korean War veteran last Friday. I'm still thinking about what was said.

The Imjin River Valley, Korea

I broke off my studies at lunchtime in order to deliver a thirty-minute talk on Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift at the Retirement Home where my wife works. I showed a few images and for those residents who have impaired sight and took along a few artefacts which they could handle while I was talking. In order to entertain, I tend to get quite theatrical when I'm doing this stuff.
Anyway, I was describing, with all the drama I could muster, how one of Chelmsford’s scouts reported Zulu impis as looking like “silent, dark clouds drifting across the landscape”. As I went on I noticed an elderly gentlemen called Sidney suddenly becoming animated. I’d not met Sidney before and have since been told that he is a man of few words.
Sidney then went on to recount the following story from his days serving with the 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment on the Imjin River in Korea:
“We had a man out of front with an ‘88’ radio kit. When he first called in we were all laughing. Frank his name was. Frank said there was something big coming towards him – he said it wasn’t human and that it was very, very big. Then he said that it was actually lots of tiny people – thousands of them. We stopped laughing. The transmission ended as Frank scurried back to our position saying that he was being chased by thousands of Chinese”.
“I was in charge of twin Vickers. One to the left, one to the right. I had a Bren in the middle. They came in waves and my 12-man section poured 1,000 rounds per minute into their ranks. We traversed the two guns from the flanks, arcing into the centre and put down Bren fire through the middle. Hundreds fell. They just kept coming and coming”.
“After a while my mate saw the unit on our right flank running for their lives. We stuck to it though … until we were ordered to withdraw. But where to? We could see the Chinese working their way behind the hill we were on. I took the innards out of the two guns and threw the bits all over the bush. I pulled the rubbers down and smashed the stock of my rifle into the breeches. After that they weren’t any use to anyone”.
“ My men thought I was a bastard but do you know everyone one of ‘em – twelve in all – waited for me to destroy the guns before scarpering.”
At this point Sidney began to get emotional.
“We retreated in file and were taken prisoner by the Chinese. As long as we weren’t cheeky they treated us well. I spent two and a half years in a Korean PoW cage. The first four weeks were hard but after that it was alright. It was bloody difficult watching dead prisoners being taken up the hill for burial every day though. Most of ‘em were Yanks”.
Sidney then shed a few tears. "Those attacking Chinese - they all had mothers” he said. “Many were married”. “Why did they send so many against us?” “Why didn’t they just send a few companies?”. “Years ago I wouldn’t have cared. I was a hard bastard. But now it gets to me”.
This interaction reminded me about the duty of care we have towards veterans who have been traumatised by war.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Peenemunde Rocket Centre (1936 - 1945)

Until relatively recently parts of the Peenemunde peninsular in Northern Germany were closed to the public. However nowadays it is possible to explore all of the areas of interest - the harbour, the V2 development and test stand sites, the Luftwaffe jet and V1 establishment and the feeder town of Karlshagen.

Many of the original structures on the site were destroyed in bombing raids during WW2. In particular Operation Hydra when 596 RAF bombers targeted the V2 production facilities on the night of the 17 / 18 August 1943.
V2 rocket from the top of Peenemunde Power Station
However, there are a couple of very significant buildings that survived the bombing raid. The first is the Power Plant which is now an excellent museum documenting the early years of rocket development at Peenemunde. From the roof one can gain a really good view of the surrounding landscape. The second building of note can be seen on the drive up to the museum on the Eastern side of the peninsula. This is the WW2 era liquid oxygen plant which survived the bombing raids and remained operational until 1945.
Ground floor of liquid oxygen plant, Peenemund
The interior of the building was partially destroyed by the Soviet authorities in compliance with the 1945 Potsdam agreement. However the bulk of the massive structure defied attempts at demolition and is now accessible - albeit only by climbing a security fence. The effort of getting in is well worth it. Inside it is possible to see the huge gantries that were used to move the heavy oxygen cylinders and the fixings on the floor which originally secured massive storage tanks.
Soviet U461 in Peenemund Harbour
The nearby harbour served the entire Pennemunde site. The main point of interest nowadays is a 1980s era Juliett-class submarine. Decommissioned in the 1980s, this cold war relic is open for public tours.

Peenemunde is mainly remembered for the development of ballistic missile capability the fulmination of which was the terrifying V2 rocket. However, at the end of the peninsular the Luftwaffe had an entirely separate research and development facility based around the airfield. On the Western side one can find the remains of V1 test ramps. On the airfield, the Luftwaffe tested early jet aircraft such as the Messerschmitt 162, the Arado Ar 234 and the Heinkel He 162. The original control tower can be seen across the runway which is still used for recreational flights.
Command Bunker & Control Tower at Peenemunde Airfield
MiG Fighter at Peenemunde Airfield
At the main entrance to the airfield there are a couple of cold war era MiG fighters. On the right hand side of the approach road there is a wall behind which there are a number of camouflaged cold war era barrack buildings and hangers.

Nearby, on the old military road that runs around the penisular the old railway siding can be seen alongside the site of the old Karlshagen concentration camp. 

The perimeter of the latter was marked out by four blockhouses - two of which (at least) survive. Little is known about the various populations interned in the camp. However it is clear that many died at this site - some as a result of the first Allied bombing raid in 1943 when a significant proportion of bombs fell short of the primary target area.
Railway Station - Peenemunde Airfield

Continuing the drive around the perimeter road, the areas once dominated by ten V2 test stands is now forested. Further on the housing estate originally built to house the rocket scientists and their families is now part of the enlarged Karlshagen village. On the left hand side, tucked away off the road, is the WW2 era cemetery. This sad place contains a number of monuments and two burial areas (one for German nationals and the other for foreign workers and camp internees). The vast majority were victims of the 1943 Operation Hydra raid.
Guardhouse at Karlshagen Camp

As an aside, two members of my family became fatal casualties on 1st February 1945 when a V2 fell on group of houses behind West Ham Town Hall in London. Matilda and Dennis Curme (mother & son) were amongst 30 people killed by this particular explosion. 

To see photographs of a V1 launch ramp taken by my Great Aunt, Joan Curme, on a school visit a couple of years after the end of WW2 click here.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Bunkers of Zossen (1936 - 2004)

For anyone interested in 20th century military history the Zossen / Wunsdorf area holds a particular fascination. Zossen itself was home to the German General Staff throughout World War II. Later, following the post war division of Germany, it was home to the primary air force arm of the Warsaw Pact in europe - the Soviet 16th Air Arm.

Entrance to Zossen Bunker Complex

Our investigation of the site started at the Maybach I bunker complex which was built between 1936 and 1939 in anticipation of of the coming conflict. The 12 bunkers consist of four levels above ground and two below. These bunkers, camouflaged to look like domestic houses, were home to the German General Staff throughout WWII. It was here that Barbarossa was planned and the complex was the heart of German military planning right up until 20th July 1945 when Koniev's tanks arrived en-route for Berlin.

Maybach 1 - Bunker A3

The buildings were destroyed by the Russians post war in accordance with the agreement made at the Potsdam conference. However, the shattered structures remain and it is still possible to traverse part of the underground link tunnel which circumvents the site. Each of the twelve buildings had a designated purpose.

Maybach I - Bunker A5

For example the second on the left from the entrance (A2) was the centre for liaison with foreign armies in the West. The quartermaster is the building known as A4 and it is here that General Eduard Wagner shot himself after being implicated in the July 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler. Every building tells a story - for example, A6 was the Chief of the General Staff building - occupied by General Franz Halder amongst others. Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch worked in building A5 until his resignation from the post of Commander in Chief in late 1941.

Maybach 1 - Bunker A4

The main path from Maybach I leads to the Maybach II complex which was adapted for use by the Russians post war. There is a small bunker to the right known as 'panzir'. This is worth a quick look with the aid of a torch. Ahead is the substantial two level Russian bunker known as UK20. This is where the Soviet 16th Air Force was head quartered and it is possible to explore the whole complex. The ops room is intact though the wall maps have long since gone.

16th Air Force Ops Room - UK20 Bunker
Entrance to Zeppelin bunker (Exchange X500)

The jewel in the crown is what is known as the Zeppelin bunker. It was originally Exchange X500, the primary hub comms centre for the Wehrmacht. The remains of the nearby barracks where many of the operators were billeted can be seen in the nearby woods. Until 2004 this was a Russian facility. A major part of the four level complex was given NBC protection with the addition of double entry steel doors and stepped shower installations.

NBC Door - Zeppelin Bunker
Inside, it's as if the Russians have only just left and in the lower levels many of the offices are littered with discarded documents. Part of the complex is outside of the NBC zone and remains as it was during German occupation in WW2. There are two traversable tunnels leading out of the secure zone - the North Tunnel is 220m and the Western Tunnel is 260m. Both lead to secure buildings disguised as cottages.

German Pneumatic Messaging System - Exchange X500

Nearby to the bunker complex we explored the tank training grounds and the two excellent museums housed in old military buildings. One is dedicated to Germany's 1930s / 40s panzer armies and the other covers the post war Russian cold war period. Outside there are numerous air raid shelters and military structures. The eighty five man, eight level cone shelters are something which I've not seen before.

Air Raid Shelter - Zossen

On the tank grounds there is a military cemetery which dates back to the First World War. It stands on the site of the Zehrensdorf Prisoner of War camp which housed captives from the French and British colonies. Many of the graves and memorials are Hindu or Islamic. This site and the nearby German military cemetery were destroyed during the cold war years. Both have been restored, the CWGC site with all of the original graves properly marked and the German cemetery commemorated with a simple memorial plus one or two named graves.

For the full photo set covering Zossen and Wunsdorf click here.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Spioen Kop and Ladysmith (1900)

In 1900 the town of Ladysmith was an important communication hub straddling the main route from Durban to the Boer Republics. In November 1899 the town was put under siege by the Boers. Lieutenant General Sir Georg White and the 12,500 men under his command were eventually relieved in Feb 1900 but not before a number of failed relief attempts had cost the lives and reputations of many brave men.
Boer 'Long Tom' gun - Ladysmith Town Hall
The Battle of Colenso in December 1899 was a failure which cost General Sir Redvers Buller his overall command. One month after Colenso, British confidence had begun to recover. Field Marshall Lord Roberts had taken overall command of the British forces in South Africa and the Ladysmith relief force had been reinforced by the addition of the 24,000 men of 5th division under General Sir Charles Warren. This time the Tugela was to be crossed some 18 miles upstream from Colenso. A set of strategically important hills occupied by the Boers were to be taken by two flanking forces. Warren's larger force would sweep left from Trichardt's Drift whilst a Brigade under General Neville Lyttelton would attack from the South in the direction of a hill called 'Twin Peaks' on the right of the Boer positions.
View from Spioen Kop facing South
The picture above shows a view towards the Tugela river and the British starting position. Notwithstanding Roberts' appointment as overall commander, Buller directed the British forces. He remained South of the river and communication with his two subordinates was often problematic. The body of water in the picture is a reservoir which was built relatively recently. On the night of the 23rd January Warren logged good progress. In particular Woodgate and Thorneycroft executed an uphill march to occupy what they thought was a commanding position on the plateau around Aloe Knoll on Spioenkop. The Boer pickets were overrun and today it is possible to track the route taken by the attacking British force and to see the grave of the first Boer sentry encountered.
British approach route on Spioenkop
Grave of first Boer casualty
Seeing the British on the hill spooked the Boers in the immediate vicinity and they moved off on the reverse slope to inform the Boer commander General Loius Botha of the British 'success'. However as the darkness of night was chased away by the rising sun on the next day the British positions were shown to be very poorly chosen. The barren top of Spioenkop was exposed to artillery fire from the nearby Tabanyama and Green Hills. In addition the batteries on Twin Peaks had not been neutralised by Lyttelton's Brigade.
Remains of British Sangar on Spioenkop
As Boer artillery and rifle fire began to build in intensity the situation on top of Spioenkop detioriated rapidly. Major General Woodgate was killed and there was a confusion as to who would take local command. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Thorneycroft lead a charge to take a key ridge line but casualties grew as the Boer's concentrated their fire. Inexplicably, a seemingly successful assault on Twin peaks was a lost opportunity as forces were not consolidated on the summit. As casualties mounted the British reinforced the defenders on the Spioenkop plateau and more and more men succumbed to wounds, exhaustion and the heat.
Field Hospital on Spioenkop
Casualties were treated in field hospitals on the reverse slope of the hill. It is at one of these that three great men were reputed to have been present during the period - Churchill as a newspaper correspondent, Botha as a military leader and Ghandi as a stretcher bearer. Today the summit is marked by numerous mass graves and individual memorials. One of the most poignant is 'Lancashire Trench' and the pictures below show the horror of Spioenkop in graphic detail.
Lancashire Trench - 25th Jan 1899
Lancashire Trench - August 2014
Eventually with both sides at breaking point, the British withdrew from Spioenkop under the cover of darkness. The next day the Boers found the summit empty apart from over 200 dead. Buller, meanwhile, had retreated back across the Tugela. The relief of Ladysmith would have to be achieved by other means.
Thorneycroft's Charge - Summit of Spioenkop
For other battlefield walks in Southern Africa please click on the links below:
Battle of Elandslaagte (1899)
Battle of Elandslaagte (1899) - Photos
Winston Churchill & The Armoured Train (1899)
Ulundi - End of the Old World Order (1879)
Battle of Ulundi (1879) - Photographs
Hlobane - Blood on the Painted Mountain (1879)
Hlobane Mountain (1879)  - Photographs
Kambula - Cetshwayo's Nemesis (1879)
Khambula (1879) - Photographs
Isandlwana - The Aftermath (1879)
Isandlwana (1879) - Photographs
Rorke's Drift (1879) - Photographs
The Fugitive's Trail (1879) - Photographs
Namibia (South West Africa) - Military History - Photographs
Battle of Colenso (1899) - Photographs
Fort Wynyard, Cape Town - Photographs
The Siege of Ladysmith (1899 / 1900) - Photographs
The Battle of Majuba (1881) - Photographs
The Battle of Spioenkop (1900) - Photographs
Utrecht, Kwazulu Natal (1899 / 1900) - Photographs
Nambiti Game Reserve
The Best of Walking the Battlefields (South Africa) - Photographs

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Battle of Elandslaagte (1899)

There can't be many battlefields that can be viewed from within the confines of an African Game Park - however, the field at Elandslaagte is one such place. The Nambiti Private Game Reserve is situated to the North East of Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal and represents a great place for a bit of recreation & relaxation for anyone touring the numerous battlefields in the immediate area.
White Rhinos at Nambiti
Elandslaagte was a rare outright British victory during the 1st phase of the 2nd Boer War. For the student of 20th Century military history it is particularly interesting because John French commanded the British Forces and one of his subordinate officers was Ian Hamilton. The former was to command the BEF in 1914 and the latter went on to lead the British & Commonwealth forces during the ill fated Gallipoli campaign a year later.
View of Elandslaagte Station from the South
On the day of the Battle of Talana Hill, two trainloads of British military stores were intercepted by a Boer force looking to cut the railway between Ladysmith and Dundee. The train was unloaded, prisoners taken and something of a party took place in the station compound. The next day, anticipating the arrival of a formidable number of British reinforcements, a mixed nationality Boer force numbering about 1,000 men (some with their sons) established themselves in a series of sangars on a 300 ft hill about 1.5 miles from the station.
Boer positions on the Heights near Elandslaagte 
The British attack was executed as planned. The 1st Battalion, Devonshire Regiment would attack the hill with artillery support. The 1st Battalion, Manchester Regiment, 2nd battalion, Gordon Highlanders and dismounted cavalrymen of the Imperial Light Horse would turn the Boer left flank. Two squadrons of cavalry (5th Lancers and 5th Dragoons) would disrupt any Boer withdrawal.
1st Devons start point - Boer sangars to the front.
The attack went in at about 15:30 on the 21st October with confidence and the Boers returned fire with deadly effect. Their rifles were supplemented by two artillery pieces. The attacking Devonshires had to traverse open ground and negotiate a barbed wire fence. Nevertheless they made the hills and despite a counter-attack lead by General Kock, resplendent in his Sunday best and top hat,  the Boer defenders stated to withdraw. The attack on the left flank had been critical and the combined pressure on both flanks had tipped the balance.
The saddle of the hill at Elandslaagte
With the Boers streaming off the hill towards their camp at the rear, the cavalry were ordered forward. The spectacle of horsemen armed with lances riding through the fleeing Boers three times in succession was one that left a stark impression on the survivors. By this time rain had set in and by dusk the plain to the South of the station was littered with the Boer dead - including, according to Kenneth Griffith (author of 'Thank God We Kept the Flag Flying' London: Hutchinsons, 1974), family members who had travelled with their fathers or menfolk. 
Sunset at Nambiti
Although a tactical victory for the British, the battle achieved little. French's surviving force fell back to Ladysmith - soon to be under siege, and the Boers reoccupied Elandslaagte three days later. The Times History of the War in South Africa gives 55 killed and 205 wounded for the British, and a slightly lower figure for the Boers. It is possible though that non combatant casualties were not included in the latter tally.
For Winston Churchill and the Armoured Train (1899) click here.
For the full photo set from our 2014 Walking the Battlefield Tour of KwaZulu-Natal click here.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The 46th Division at Gommecourt (1916)

Amongst the points raised by Sir Douglas Haig in his War Diary on the 1st July 1916 there is a highly critical reference to the 46th Division at Gommecourt. In recording the failure of this Division to break into the German third line and meet up with the 56th Division coming up from the south, Haig notes "the right Brigade of 46th Division did not press on". One can envisage the conversation with Plumer that left Haig with this impression and it was, of course, Major General Stuart-Wortley who was obliged to fall on his sword 'in penance'. Interestingly later editions of the diary toned down this passage to read "did not progress further" - a less critical form of words.

German Front Line on Left Flank of 46th Division Attack

Last weekend, armed with digitised trench maps and a GPS tracker a couple of us set out to explore this neglected part of the Somme battlefield. The Gommecourt attack was conceived as a diversionary effort. Two divisions converging from north and south would pinch out a German strongpoint called Gommecourt Park, take the village and meet up behind the German third line.

The 46th Division attack area was to the North of what is now the site of Gommecourt Wood Cemetery. Standing in the cemetery looking across the fields one can see Gommecourt Wood quite clearly. This was the second line. 100 yards to the front was the German front line. Because of a fold in the ground, the 46th Division would not have received enfilade fire from the Gommecourt Park machine gunners.

46th Division Memorial at Gommecourt Park Cemetery

Walking left from the Cemetery one can make out a rough hedge which marks the boundary between two fields. This hedge peters out and there is a 100 yard gap before one reaches a belt of trees in a zig zag pattern. The GPS showed that the frontline dog-legged forward to include this area which was termed the 'Little Z' and 'Big Z'. These were German strongpoints and the GPS enabled us to identify their exact location.

GPS showing Little and Big Z

The 7th (Robin Hood) Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters was on the right hand side of the attacking force and their flank would be vulnerable to machine gun fire in the event of the preliminary artillery barrage not neutralising the Zs. The trenches in the belt of trees marking the site of Little Z are remarkably well preserved. The main front line trench zig-zags through the trees and there are remains of dugouts and communication trenches.

Trenches at Little Z

It's only when you stand on the German positions in this area that you see how cleverly the German front line is positioned. The machine guns in the Little Z had a clear field of fire over the whole attack area. The guns in Big Z were positioned to cover the approaches to the strongpoint i.e. protecting the front line down to the area in front of the wood.

Ordnance at Gommecourt Wood
The Little Z from the German Line near Gommecourt Wood

The 46th Division War Diary paints a picture of poorly constructed trenches and appalling conditions underfoot. We visited on a dry day but evidently at the time of attack the area was a sea of mud. Furthermore, in the War Diary, mention is made of lethal German artillery fire and ineffective smoke screens. In walking the ground I couldn't help thinking that the positions at Little Z and Big Z would have been very  difficult to crack. It's difficult to draw a conclusion on the events of the 1st July from walking this battlefield but it is evident that Gommecourt was a difficult objective - certainly as difficult as those which were further south.