Notes on German shells – (2nd Edition), May 1918

As far as I know this title is not available anywhere else on the web. “Notes on German Shells”  is a colour illustrated compendium of all shells in use by the German Army in early 1916. It was compiled from actual examples of the shells and from German pamphlets describing the use the shells were to be put to. Each shell is described in the text and with a coloured scale drawing of the shell itself. The calibres range from the 2cm and its variations through to the 42cm heavy shell. It also includes gas and shrapnel shells and mortar projectiles. The introduction is a table of all shells used with a description of their basic colour, the German name for the shell, and an index reference within the book. The description of the shells is extremely detailed, and includes a section on ‘Employment’ – where and when the German gunners would fire that particular shell.

NotesonGermanshells(1)-130

The next time you stumble over an unexploded shell when walking the Somme or other sectors of the front, this guide should be able to tell you what is lying at your feet 🙂

Next week I will upload a guide to German WW1 shell fuses!

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Hawthorn Ridge Mine – The German experience, Somme, 1st of July 1916

The account below is a translated extract from the regimental history of Infanterie-Regiment No. 119, which was published in 1920 and based on the regimental war diary kept by the Reichsarchiv in Potsdam. Written and compiled by former officers of the regiment, it contains a fascinating account on the fighting that took place on the first of July 1916. The regiment itself being the one affected by the explosion of the Hawthorn Ridge Mine. 

IR119, subordinated to 26th Reserve Division, spent World War I on the Western Front. It fought in the Battle of the Frontiers and then participated in the Race to the Sea, fighting in the Somme region. It occupied the line in the Somme/Artois region into 1916, facing the British offensive in the Battle of the Somme. It was relieved from the Somme in October 1916 and spent the winter of 1916-1917 in the Artois.

In 1917, it fought in the Battle of Arras. In 1918, it fought in the German Spring Offensive and against the subsequent Allied offensives and counteroffensives. Allied intelligence rated the division as first class.

This post is dedicated to the 8355 men of the Regiment who were killed or wounded in World War 1. 

Soldiers of IR119 in May 1915.

Soldiers of IR119 in May 1915.

Hawthorn Ridge Mine – The German experience, Somme, 1st of July 1916

Hawthorn Ridge Crater (trees at the right), photographed as seen from the German lines.  ©Nick J Stone

Hawthorn Ridge Crater (trees at the right), photographed as seen from the positions of IR119. ©Nick J Stone 2012

Looking down Hawthorn Ridge Crater ©Nick Stone 2012

Looking down Hawthorn Ridge Crater ©Nick Stone 2012

“All those who fought at the side of the comrades now dead, will remember them with the same unbreakable loyalty that tied us together in the field and in the face of the enemy” – Regimental history of IR119

Our regimental positions were ready to be stormed, but everyone was in cheerful spirits even if the preliminary bombardment, which had lasted 7 days, had left its mark on the nerves of the men. Many weeks of hard labour strengthening and reinforcing our positions had paid off. 7 days of constant shelling had cost the regiment only 20 dead and 83 wounded. A couple of days earlier 10th company had taken a prisoner who had told us about an impending attack that was going to start of the 1st of July.

The men spent an uneasy night under constant shelling. In the morning the artillery fire ceased. Enemy aerial activity began to increase as did the number of observation balloons on the horizon. The enemy trenches were bustling with activity.
At 0630h the enemy artillery opened up again with a force we had not yet experienced. Within minutes everything around us was covered in hot clouds of smoke, dust, screaming explosions and seething pieces of shrapnel. Everyone knew that the attack was about to begin.

The men were ordered to prepare themselves, check their rifles and supply themselves with ammunition and hand grenades. At 0800 hours the artillery stopped and silence settled around Beaumont-South. Whistles could be heard and the English started to advance in dense waves. The men left their dugouts and shelters and prepared to greet them.

Our own artillery was called in by telephone and by firing red signal flares. The effect of our rifle and machine gun fire was lethal, cutting down the first wave of attackers and sending the others diving into cover. In section B5 the English managed to break into our trench, but a counter attack from the flank threw them out again. Two Lewis machine guns were captured and were at once set into use against their former owners. Another breakthrough down in the Ancre valley was repelled after an intense fighting with hand grenades.
The enemy had now taken cover in shell holes and a firefight had developed, during which the English sent wave after wave against our trenches. By now our artillery had increased its activity sending the enemy to take cover in the hollow that led down toward the Ancre. When this hollow was targeted by our heavy mortars the attackers finally started to retreat towards their initial positions. At 1000h the attack on 1st Batallion had been repelled.

Beaumont (North)

Beaumont-North was the scene of brutal fighting as the village had been designated to be the primary target of the English attacks. When the attack in the south started our positions in the north were still being pounded with artillery.

At 0815h a huge explosion occurred, the earth was shaking and it was clear that this was not a result of the shelling. A terrible rain of earth and stone was coming down on us and a gigantic cloud of dust and smoke was rising into the air, just in front of where 9th company was positioned. The English had dug a tunnel towards a protruding corner of our defences which they called the Hawthorn redoubt and had blown a huge mine below it.

More than three groups of the 1st Platoon of 9th company were killed outright. The dugouts next to them collapsed, trapping the men of four other groups inside. Only two groups could be rescued in time.  (a German platoon/Zug had a strength of 30 to 40 men. A group consisted of 10-12 men)  The explosion had left a crater with a diameter of 50 to 60 meters and a depth of 30 Meters and had set the signal for the start of the attack.

Visibility was good. The sun could be seen reflecting on English bayonets. Their columns advancing down from Auchonvillers, carrying bridges and wooden planks with them to cross our trenches with. Eight dense waves were coming towards us. Horse artillery and Cavalry could be observed around Auchonvillers ready to pursue us once the attack of the infantry had been successful. Near the sugar factory English staff officers were observing the assault.

10th and 11th company greeted the English with a withering hail of machine gun and rifle fire, effectively stalling the attack. In the section of 9th company, which had been taken out of action by the mine, brave English bomb-throwers and machine gunners managed to break into our trenches towards the left of the huge crater.
Here, 3rd platoon was still trapped inside a large dug-out whose four exits had collapsed when the mine was blown. One of these exists was just being opened up by one of the men. Behind this man were Leutnant Breitmeier and Oberleutnant Mühlbayer.

Vizefeldwebel Davidsohn described what happened next :

“The English had managed to break into our trench. We had only just opened the exit of the dug-out when they were upon us. A bayonet thrust killed the man who was holding the shovel, his body fell down the stairs of the dug-out tearing the men that were just in the process of getting out down again. I had no rifle with me but managed to fire a signal flare into the face of one of the attackers. The English answered by throwing some hand grenades which forced us to withdraw”.

In the hope of getting rescued by their comrades the men inside the dug-out ignored all calls to surrender. Unteroffizer Aicheler, of 2nd MG-company, holding his machine gun now threw himself onto the attackers. The English fought him back with hand grenades, but Aicheler did not retreat. He managed to pin the English down and to take two light machine guns, which the enemy tried to set up, out of action. For this deed Aicheler was later awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class.

The situation at the mine crater was critical as there were no reserves left inside the village. If the English would manage to break through the whole position north and south of Beaumont was about to fall, but help was on the way.
In the second trench two platoons (7th and 12th company) received the order to reinforce the endangered section. They hurried forward, took cover inside some shell craters and opened fire on the enemy. To the right of the mine crater the English attack stalled in the crossfire put up by the riflemen and machine guns of IR121 who fired across the trenches, being in a flanking position, behind the village, in an area known as the “Bergwerk” (Mine/Pit) . Their fire did not stay without effect. The attack began to stall, the English hesitated and started opened fire on the new threat in their flank. An enemy plane dropped bombs on 12th company which exploded without doing any harm.

In the meantime the English still occupied the trench section left of the mine crater. Vizefeldwebel Mögle of 7th company tried to push them out by the use of hand grenades, but was unsuccessful. An English machine gun, positioned on the lip of the crater overlooking our trench, fired on everything that moved. A number of comrades had already been killed by headshots. It was silenced when Unteroffizier Heß and Rapp managed to shoot its crew.

Having realized what was happening near the crater, Leutnant Blessing of 10th company who was watching from the second trench, assembled a handgrenade-squad (Schütze Brose, Fauser, Hermann Lutz, Gottlob Lutz and Kappelmann) and led the men against the enemy. When Vizefeldwebel Mögle saw the 6 men of 10th company advancing he also led his remaining men (of 7th and 12th company) into the attack. A short and intense close combat developed in which the English were annihilated. Their leader, a most brave Lieutenant was wounded and taken prisoner. The soldiers of 3rd Platoon, still trapped in their dug-out were finally rescued.

An enemy machine gun was now getting into position not 15 meters from the trench. Schütze Hermann (7th company), who had first noticed it, jumped out of the trench, killed its crew with 5 shots from his pistol and captured the enemy machine gun.
The platoon of 9th company, who had just escaped from the collapsed dug-out now fanned out to man the defences. Just in time to open fire on yet another wave of attacking english infantry supported by machine-guns. On a stretch of not even 100 meters in width the enemy had assembled 10 Maxim and Lewis machine guns and at least one mortar.

In the combined fire of 7th, 9th, 10th and 12th company the final enemy attack broke down. The English fell back behind the cover of the mine crater. They had just reached the safety of cover when a machine-gun of 5./IR121 opened up on them from the valley. It was then the enemy broke and started to retreat towards his lines. At 1130h everything was over…

On the first of July the regiment lost 101 dead (including 8 officers) and 191 wounded.

The officers killed were:

Oberleutnant Anton Mühlbayer, Leutnant Karl Sieber, Leutnant Otto Schrempf, Leutnant Karl Sütterlin, Leutnant Otto Frech, Leutnant Erwin Rothacker and Leutnant Hermann Moll

In the course of World War 1 the regiment lost 8355 men killed, wounded or missing.
The account now switches its attention to the fighting near Y-Sap, but I am going to stop here. Locating the regimental histories, transcribing and translating these reports eats up a massive amount of time. I have access to about 200 regimental histories like this. I have always wondered if there would be a market if I were to offer some of them in an English version, as it would give the English-speaking reader a chance to have a look across No Man’s Land. Any feedback about this would be most welcome. 

Men of IR119 in Summer 1915

Men of IR119 in Summer 1915

Germany and the Centenary 1914/2014 – The forgotten war

It’s important that we remember the war dead on both sides of the line – the Germans suffered the same as we did.” – Harry Patch

I watched the funeral service of Harry Patch, when he was laid to rest in August 2009.

Due to the high levels of interest in the funeral, which was broadcast live on TV and radio, a total of 1,050 tickets were made available for the service. Some, wanting to pay their respects, slept overnight on the Cathedral Green in order to get tickets. Those who did not manage to get one watched the whole ceremony on TV or on huge video screens that were errected on the streets. The bells of Wells Cathedral were rung 111 times to mark each year of his life. In addition to pallbearers from The Rifles, Patch’s coffin was accompanied by two private soldiers from each of the armies of Belgium, France and Germany and an official of the German embassy is reading from the bible. A country in mourning, remembering the “last Tommy”.

When Dr Erich Kästner, the last German veteran of World War One died in 2008 no one took any notice. It was only due to an entry on Wikipedia, which was written by a German amateur historian that someone noticed his obituary in a German newspaper (which said nothing about his service in WW1) and edited the Wikipedia accordingly. Finally, three weeks after Kästners death, the first article about him was published in Der Spiegel.

Dr Erich Kästner (1900-2008)  and his wife

Dr Erich Kästner (1900-2008) and his wife

Germany kept no lists of surviving veterans of the Great War. Even the Ministry of Defence, the Bundeswehr or the German Armed Forces Military History Research Office had any idea how many of these men, who had taken part in the great slaughter between the North Sea and the Alps where still alive. And due to this nobody took any notice when one of these men joined the ranks of the Great Army.

The German veterans  and even World War One itself, have disappeared from the collective memory of the German people. They are a “lost generation” indeed, a generation whose suffering and dying in the trenches of the Marne and the Somme has been lost in the shadows of World War Two.

We still have time, a little time. It‘s not about an 11th hour decision which would demand a rapid change of direction to save mankind. The humble truth is that it‘s all about a wiser and not even germanocentric rememberance, reflecting on our role in European history.

We still have more then one year to think about how we will remember the fact that in August 2014 it will be 100 years since a chain of messy coincidences, lies, bad-, good-, and best intentions led to a war that would throw the 20th century off its course. Time to remember a war that was to trigger the tragedy of a century.

Not a day goes by on German TV without showing images of Adolf Hitler, proof of the dull power to fascinate still emanating from the man from Braunau and also proof that Germans take the accounting for their past seriously. You just have to compare Germany to Japan to see how successfully Germany managed to confront itself with its National Socialist past (after some hesitation and hushing-up).

Germans do not talk about “the dark years” anymore, like they used to do in the 60s and 70s when the curtains were down and plenty of drink on the table. The days of “don’t mention the war” are over once and for all. The facts are accessible to anyone, they are in our school books and most Germans know that it was Germans that commited the most terrible, racial holocaust the world has ever seen. I think it‘s ok to say that we in Germany have quarrelled more with our own dirty past than any other nation. We have looked into Evil‘s blue eyes and that is a good thing!

The problem about all this quarrelling and self-reflecting is that it has effectively severed the German citizens‘ link to the earlier past no matter if good or bad. Tons of surveys show how little “ze German” knows about the Thirty Years War, the old Empire, Prussia, The German Empire or the Republic of Weimar. These pasts are incredibily far away; they do not talk to us anymore, they have vanished in the Orcus of history.

This makes us Germans special. No other country has a long-term memory as damaged as ours and no other country has such problems to incorporate its history into its self-perception. It stops us from looking at German history in a European context. A context that was already firmly in place in the decades before the start of World War 1.

The assassination in Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914, the hectic negotiations of the diplomats wearing stiff suits and monocles, young German soldiers going happily to war with flowers in their rifle barrels. This war seems to be much further than 100 years ago. It has disappeared from our conscience.

In World War 2 we saw an historical battle between the republican idea and the two major ideologies of national socialism and communism. What was World War 1 about? Certainly it was not about ideals…or was it? Was it not just about small quarrels and vanities, about some colonies in countries whose names we can‘t pronounce? Problems that useless diplomats could not solve?

We still have time to start planning the centenary of 2014. The others do it aswell: the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Belgium and Italy. We should be doing the same as equals. Our government has decided to stay in the background and to yield precedence on the big stage to the victors. There are supposed to be some congresses, some local events and maybe even a small international one, but Germany has decided to stay in the second rank.

A cowardly and wrong decision. We hide in that part of history which we think is our own: 1933 to 1945.

But it is not like that. The terrible years of 1933 to 1945 were preceeded by other terrible years and we have to include these to get the whole picture. It’s not about seeking rehablilitation or to transfer the guilt to somebody else. It‘s all about realising that there was no mandatory road leading into the German catastrophy. It‘s about keeping German and European history before 1933 alive. And we need Germany to do that…don’t we?

School trip to the Western Front – The History department of Manor Church of England Academy

Every Easter the History Department of the Manor Church of England Academy embarks on a journey to guide Year Ten History GCSE students around the battlefields of France and Belgium. When I met one of their history teachers on Twitter and he told me that they were going to visit the German cemetery of Neuville St Vaast (also called La Maison Blanche because of a nearby farm with that name) I took the opportunity to offer a few bits of material to show the students the human side of the Kraut, the Boche, the Hun…the German soldier.

I was moved when I saw the students talking about their feelings and their thoughts on the enemies of their Grandfathers. Even more so when I watched Adam (their teacher) recite Uhlands poem of the “Good Comrade”.
Realizing that 99% of German students will not know if their ancestors fought in World War 1, will never have heard of Uhland and most will probably not even know when the Great War took place makes me sad. I have never seen a group of German students coming to visit the graves of the Western Front. No one remembers, our dead are left alone.
What I found interesting is that the students were very keen to point how different the German cemetery looked when compared to the British ones.

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery was established at the end of the Great War, between 1919 and 1923, by the French authorities. The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 provided for the shared maintenance of war cemeteries and so, in 1922, France granted her ‘ex-enemies’ who fell on her soil the right in perpetuity to a grave.

Neuville St. Vaast in World War 1

Neuville St. Vaast in World War 1

Neuville-Saint-Vaast

Maison Blanche in 1959

Maison Blanche in 1959

Maison2

Maison Blanche in 1959

“Mourning and universal life” – German cemeteries

The German war graves commission, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK), was finally allowed to intervene in German military cemeteries in France in 1926. Starting in 1919, the French War Graves Department demolished a large number of small cemeteries close to the front and concentrated the graves in larger cemeteries. At that time, these military graveyards were simple unfenced fields with wooden crosses; however in areas of the front where the death rate had been particularly high the VDK decided to establish new cemeteries and one of these was at Neuville-Saint-Vaast, the largest of them all with 36,000 graves.

The Treaty of Versailles had provided for German cemeteries to be placed under the guardianship of the French authorities (a state of affairs which lasted until 1966) which meant they had control over all the developments or permanent buildings undertaken by the VDK. The French authorities refused to return the bodies to their families. The German cemeteries were designed in the interwar years by architect Robert Tischler, a veteran of the Great War. He based his designs on two major principles: mourning and universal life. Due to the cramped nature of the concessions allocated by France, burials were carried out in large communal graves called “Comrades’ Graves”. Tischler took care to make the German cemeteries blend in with their environment, in particular fitting in with relief, as is clearly visible at Neuville-Saint-Vaast. Plants grow freely and trees are not pollarded. His choices were influenced by German mythology’s concept of communion between Man and Nature The architecture of these cemeteries is austere but leaves a lot of room for trees to “watch over the eternal rest of the soldiers”.

The cemeteries often give the impression of being in a forest. They feature stone walls and wrought iron gates and, in many cases, large stone crosses. Communal graves are marked by engraved slabs often combined with rough stone crosses. In the 1920s the VDK used wooden crosses with a zinc plate, and sometimes stone slabs laid on the ground, to mark individual graves. In the 1950s the decision was taken to generalize the use of erect crosses to give a better visual portrayal of the extent of the slaughter, and for these to be made from durable materials (aluminium, cast iron or stone). Each cross or headstone bears the surname, first name, rank, date of birth and date of death of the soldier concerned.

maison_blanche-08

It has often been suggested that it was the Treaty of Versailles which obliged the Germans to choose dark-coloured crosses for their military cemeteries; however if this was the case the rule was not strictly applied because in many cases white crosses were used. A more practical analysis suggests that the dark colour of many of the crosses in German military cemeteries corresponds to the need to protect the original wooden crosses with tar-based paints.
Many of the crosses which can be seen today, made from stone or steel, were installed in the 1950s and 1960s. As soon as Hitler rose to power the VDK was placed under official supervision. Remembrance of the Great War was a significant political issue for the new regime and it shifted emphasis on to the heroism of the soldiers and any aspect of reconciliation was removed. Furthermore the architect Tischler made no attempt to hide his strong sympathy for the Nazi regime. During the Second World War the VDK was placed at the disposal of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and in 1941 placed, albeit implicitly, under the guardianship of the Hitlerjugend or Hitler Youth.

The VDK was quickly reorganized after the chaos of 1945 and, in spite of his pro-Nazi stance, Tischler returned to his post. The German cemeteries which can be visited today are the fruit of structural work carried out in the 1920s but the main “funerary objects”, the crosses, were for the most part designed after the Second World War. At the entrance to the largest graveyards stands a “memorial hall” which is in some cases decorated with sculptures or mosaics.

A wonderful, valuable and worthwile project. I am proud to have been able to support it. 

Make sure to visit their “official” site here and you can follow them on Twitter too (@manorhistory)

Memorial at Langemarck -   "I have called you by name and you are mine"

Memorial at Langemarck –
“I have called you by name and you are mine”