Tag Archives: World War I

South Africans on the Somme

 

100 years ago, the Battle of Delville Wood was being fought. It was one of the many engagements that made up the Battle of the Somme, and part of the wider Battle of Bazentin Ridge.

The battle saw the debut of the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. They took Delville Wood on the 15th of July 1916, and they held on grimly during numerous German counterattacks, until they were relieved.

The South Africans held the wood until 19 July, at a cost in casualties similar to those of many British brigades on 1 July. They lost 2,536 men in the attacks, counter-attacks, and defence in this small stretch of the front.

Delville Wood is now the site of the South African National Memorial, which was opened in 1926. There’s some great original footage here of the unveiling of the memorial – and you can really see the destruction of the wood as there are virtually no trees standing.

The memorial building itself is near the centre of the wood, with this rather moving inscription in English and Afrikaans:

Their ideal is our legacy.
Their Sacrifice our Inspiration.

The memorial commemorates not only the actions of the South Africans at Delville Wood, but also all those who fought and died in the battles of the First World War, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world. But it was only recently that the names of 1100 black and coloured troops from the South African Native Labour Corps who served as stretcher bearers and trench diggers were added to a remembrance wall.

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There is also a small museum designed to look like the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. Disappointingly, on my last two visits (even on 2 July 2016) the museum has been closed. I hope it is now open to tell the story of the South Africans at war.

Of the wood itself, while it looks full only one tree is an “original” hornbeam that survived the fighting. It is marked by a small plaque and shows battle damage. The rest of the hornbeam and beech trees were destroyed, and those there now are oak and birch trees planted by the South African government.

The wood is enormously peaceful, but it’s easy to see the scars of the war here. The trenches are still visible in the trees, and little memorials are still dotted around, such as pointing out where the South African HQ was.

Across the road is the Delville Wood Cemetery. It is the third largest British cemetery on the Somme, with 5,523 graves, and was created after the Armistice by concentrating a number of smaller cemeteries from the area, as well as those recovered from the battlefields. As a testament to the level of fighting here and in the immediate surrounds, two thirds of these are unidentified.

Delville Wood does not hold the same resonance for South Africans as Vimy Ridge for the Canadians, or Villers-Bretonneux or Gallipoli do for Australians. I think that is due to the contested and divided nature of South African 20th century history. Commemoration of these times remains difficult as it remains a painful issue about what is remembered – though it was good to see President Jacob Zuma lay a wreath at the memorial.

Delville Wood is an important site that helps people remember those who went before and fought for their country, and to my mind one of the most remarkable sites on the Western Front. I certainly recommend you visit it.

 

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The new Verdun Memorial Museum

Really excited to see the below video for the Verdun Memorial, which is due to open after an extensive redevelopment. It first opened in 1967, and has been extensively modernised to commemorate the centenary of one of the most famous battles of the First World War.

As I have more than a passing interest in redeveloped military museums, it’s exciting to see another project so close to completion! With its forts, trenches and cemeteries, the Verdun battlefield is an incredible site to visit. This looks like an exciting, modern museum that promises to deliver a great visitor experience. I’ll certainly be going back as soon as I can to see this new museum!

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New Military Museum!

I’ve just seen that a new military museum has opened in Mons in Belgium, which looks like a fantastic site!

A redevelopment of an older site, the Mons Memorial Museum has been (re)open since April 2015, and looks to cover the military history of the region from the Middle Ages to the end of the Second World War. I imagine their displays on the First World War, in particular, will be popular given the significance of the Mons region. It was the site of the BEFs first pitched battle in the First World War where on 23 August the first two VCs of the war were won by Sidney Godley and Maurice Dease of the Royal Fusiliers. It is also where the first and last British Commonwealth casualties of the First World War are buried (as I’ve previously blogged about) However, it is interesting to note that they also deal with the social history of Mons under occupation – an increasing trend amongst military museums that are looking to branch out from “traditional” military narratives and engage a wider audience.

Their philosophy is:

The history museum has therefore been transformed into a place where questions are asked and where new technologies (e.g. 3D projectors, “serious games”, interactive tables) are utilised to give form and depth to the historical content. The use of testimonies such as interviews and letters is also at the heart of the concept, which emphasises the notion of passing on the baton, of conveying history.

You can visit it’s website here. It certainly looks as if it will be an important place to visit on the heritage trail, and will no doubt become a mainstay in World War I battlefield tours. They have even put a special exhibition on about Napoleon, so clearly going for a broad remit. Certainly I’ll try and get a visit in soon!

A screen shot of the museum's website

A screen shot of the museum’s website

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Russell Crowe’s New Australian World War 1 Epic ‘The Water Diviner’

Whilst it has been released in different parts of the world already, next week sees the UK release of Russell Crowe’s latest film ‘The Water Diviner.’ Set in the aftermath of Gallipoli, it follows one Australian man’s quest to find out what happened to his sons who, like 416,809 other young Australians, enlisted and left home to fight for Britain and the Empire in the First World War.

You can watch the trailer below, and the film is in UK cinemas from next week.

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“No Doubt They’ll Soon Get Well”: Social Class and Shell Shock in the First World War

I recently gave a talk as part of the National Army Museum’s Lunchtime Lecture series on social class and shell shock in the First World War in the rather wonderful surroundings of the Army and Navy Club in Piccadilly, which you can watch below:

Hope you enjoy it!

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Whatever happened to… The Archduke’s Children?

This week saw the 100 year anniversary of the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the assassination that sparked the First World War.

Killed alongside his wife, the global consequences of his death are well known. However, I was thinking recently – what happened to his children, orphaned after those events Sarajevo? Well, with a little bit of research I found out!

Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Duchess of Hohenberg, had three children, Princess Sophie of Hohenberg, Maximilian, Duke of Hohenberg, and Prince Ernst of Hohenberg.

After their parents’ death, the children were taken in by the family friend Prince Jaroslav von Thun und Hohenstein. They lived first in Konopiště, a chateau near Prague in the Czech Republic. However, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, their inherited lands were confiscated, and the children moved to to Vienna and the Schloß Artstetten.

The children, whilst undoubtedly wealthy, went on to lead far more “normal” lives. Maximilian, for example, received a law degree from the University of Graz in 1926, and became a lawyer, managing the family properties.

Following the Anschluss with Germany in March 1938, both Maximilian and Ernst were departed by to Dachau concentration camp for speaking out against the union, and were supposedly employed in cleaning the latrines. Maximilian was released after six months but Ernst was transferred to other concentration camps and only released only in 1943.

Following this, the Reich authorities also expropriated the family’s properties in Austria in 1939 – but they were returned following the end of the war in 1945. By that point the family had moved to Artstetten Castle, where their parents were buried. When the Allies occupied Austria at the end of the war, Maximilian was elected mayor of Artsteten, and he served two five-year terms.

Ernst died in 1954, Maximilian in 1962. Sophie lived to be 89 years old, dying in October 1990, and outliving both of her younger siblings. All had children, and so this famous line continued, and still endures today despite the torrid age they lived through.

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The Pity of War: A Review

Friday night saw the broadcast of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, an interesting Question Time-style debate in which the historical nature of the war was discussed, often vigorously, both in the studio but also online via Twitter. This was an opportunity to present a counter to Sir Max Hasting’s arguments earlier in the week that the Great War was a necessary conflict that Britain was compelled to fight. 

Following on from last month’s battle over interpretations of the war, this debate saw Ferguson put his 15 year-old thesis on the war to a panel of experts, as well as attempting to orchestrate and manage a studio audience. There were some big names included, such as Gary Sheffield, Sir Hew Strachan, David Reynolds, David Stevenson and Heather Jones – though the panel could certainly have been more diverse.

For the programme itself, there was a curious set-up. Ferguson seemed to stand alone, putting his arguments to an audience and the substantial panel, many of whom had already refuted these in their own scholarship. Whilst the point of the programme was to bring these debates to a wider audience, at times it meant that the discussion seemed to lack spontaneity and appeared a little rehearsed – an unavoidable consequence when re-treading old and familiar ground.

Ferguson is undoubtedly a skilled orator to go with his fine scholarship that has allowed him to achieve his level of recognition, both in and outside of academia. However, at many times during the programme it appeared that he was standing alone, unable to elicit much support either from a panel that has previously rebuffed him in print and an audience (whose role was never fully clear) who were well-read and held opinions that did not match his own. By the end of the programme, he certainly seemed to have lost the bought on points – not surprising given the odds he faced!

In terms of a concept of television, however, The Pity of War was certainly an exciting step forward. Historical debate on primetime television is a cause for celebration, let alone the enthusiastic discussions taking place on Twitter alongside it. I would have preferred to see a proper debate though, rather than Ferguson holding chair. To my mind it could easily have been a historical Question Time, even with Dimbleby chairing, allowing big debates about the war to be discussed in greater detail than was otherwise possible.

I would still hope the format is replicated throughout the Centenary period. It would be great, for example, to see a debate about the Battle of the Somme in 2016, with issues such as leadership, tactics and success or failure (in particular thinking of William Philpott) being discussed. Rather than having one historian make his case, it would be ideal to have questions coming directly from the audience, making it a form of televised seminar.

The Centenary programming has already delivered some thought-provoking material and high-quality output, and we haven’t even reached July yet!  The bar has been set high so far, so let us hope that later efforts continue to live up to the standards set! 

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