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

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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”

“The Battle of Flanders is the worst I can remember” – Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 162 in the Great War.

In front of me a small collection of photographs taken by a member of Infanterie-Regiment „Lübeck“ (3. Hanseatisches) Nr. 162 or better (and shorter) I.R.162. I.R.162 was a “Hanseatic” Regiment, the officers and men being citizens of the Hanseatic Free City of Lübeck.  There is not many photographs in it, but it has some rare images taken shortly after combat and these just need to be shared. 

Some photos were taken from the regimental history published in the late 1920s.

Epaulettes of I.R.162

I.R.162 was a so-called “Young Regiment” (A regiment without any merits / battle-honors). It was one of 33 “young” regiments raised in January 1896. During the Great War it fought on Western Front, where in 1914 it received its baptism of fire in the Battle of Noyon (15.09.-18.09.1914).

I.R.162 – Reservists 1902/1904

The states which made up the German Empire each had their own separate armies. Within the German Confederation, formed after the Napoleonic Wars, each state was responsible for maintaining certain units to be put at the disposal of the Confederation in case of conflict. When operating together, these units were known as the Federal Army (Bundesheer). The Federal Army system functioned during various conflicts of the 19th century, such as the First Schleswig War in 1848-50, but by the time of the Second Schleswig War of 1864, strains were showing, mainly between the major powers of the confederation, the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. The end of the German Confederation was sealed by the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

Regiment leaving Lübeck in 1914

After this war, a victorious and much enlarged Prussia formed a new confederation, the North German Confederation, which included the states of northern Germany. The treaty which formed the North German Federation provided for the maintenance of a Federal Army and a Federal Navy (Bundesmarine or Bundeskriegsmarine). Further laws on military duty also used these terms. Conventions (some later amended) were entered into between the North German Confederation and its member states (including Lübeck), effectively subordinating their armies to Prussia’s in time of war, and giving the Prussian Army control over training, doctrine and equipment. According to §9of this Convention every conscript citizen of the city of Lübeck could choose if he wanted to serve in the Lübeck Infantry or in the Prussian infantry. Men unfit for infantry service in the Lübeck infantry could still be drafted into other branches of the prussian military (baggage train, cavalry, artillery etc).

Officers of I.R.162 (1917)

I.R.162 – Ypres

Now to some dry facts. When war broke out in 1914 the “Lübeck” Regiment was attached to 17. Reserve-Division (XI. Reserve-Korps) and was part of 1. Armee.  By the end of September 1915 XI. Reserve-Korps was transfered to 6. Armee “Kronprinz Rupprecht”, belonging to Armeegruppe Gallwitz. After the Battle of the Somme, in October 1916, it was put under the command of 4. Armee (commanded by Herzog Albrecht von Württemberg). During the Battle of Arras it again fought as part 6. Armee. On the 14th of November 17. Reserve-Division was put under the command of Gruppe Wytschaete. It

I.R.162 – Somme

fought in the Battle of Ypres, this time under control of XVIII. Reserve-Korps (General Sieger). During the March Offensive the Division was part of I. Reserve-Korps (18. Armee under General von Hutier). In September 1918 it was part of the reserves for Gruppe Combres and Gruppe Mihiel. It was disbanded on the 25th of October 1918.

I.R.162 – Wytschaete

After the Battle of Noyons the regiment crossed the border into France reaching Hamel on the 19th of September. Up to October 1915 remained locked in the trench-war between Roye and Noyon. In Winter 1915/1916 the 162s fortified their positions on the heights of Givenchy before commencing their successful assault to take the Gießler-Heights near Angres. In Spring 1916 the regiment saw action on Vimy-Ridge, Lens St.-Pierre and Loos. On the 18th of June most soldiers of the regiment were witness of the fatal crash of the legendary Max Immelmann between Sallaumines and Avion.

Oberstleutnant Hauß. Last commander of I.R.162

From July to November the regiment went through the hell that was the Battle of the Somme only seeing a short break when it was sent to fight near the La Bassée Canal and at Liévin. Allied intelligence classed the regiment as “Regiment of the first rank”. Winter 1916/1917 was spent near Ypres in St. Julien. This position would later become the frontline during the Third Battle of Ypres. From the 16th of January to the 20th of February the regiment was sent of leave to Brügge, returning just in time to participate in the Battle of Arras (9 April to 16 May 1917) and the defence of the Siegfridstellung in November 1917.

From 8 to 10 a.m. there is cease-fire to see to the wounded in no-mans-land and to pick up the fallen to transport them away. The tommy (the english) is precisely on time. The railway embankment close to Miraumont looks the worst. Overturned ambulance carts, destroyed wagons, wounded men make their way back to our lines on foot; some of them drowning in shell-holes. In pairs we use the time to look for damaged telephone cables. Everything is in shambles. A single cable is destroyed in 8 places – Diary of a soldier of I.R.162
 

Photo of the actual event

Corpses on the Kemmel – Messines Ridge 1917

By the end 1917 the Division was moved to Flanders. Shortly before the start of the Battle of Cambrai the Division was pulled out and moved back to the Siegfriedline. I.R.162 stayed, this time under the command of Gruppe Wytschaete near Gheluvelt.

IR162 – Flanders

It is simply impossible to keep the line of communication operating both t the front and towards the rear. All of them are just shredded again and again. As soon as we repair a cut cable it gets broken, again and again. On several occasions, I work my way towards the regimental lines under raging shellfire. There should be some comrades detached to search for damaged cables. No sight of them. I am surprised to find them sleeping in their little bunker and to hear them admit that they wont carry out any patrols under such hail of gunfire, and that they won’t do any night patrols anyway. I am out working day and night. Our uniforms and boots are cut to shreds by the barbed wire which is everywhere, and our feet are constantly wet. Things are so bad that even our corporal has to come out with us one night to patrol for breaks. One night he fell into a shell-hole and ended up to his belly in water completely soaked through. The Division eventually has to accept that it’s not possible to keep all communication lines operational, we are ordered to make sure that just one line is kept operational, the so-called rear link to the I.R.31. That alone is quite a job! It leads to West-Roosebeke railway station, a really dangerous spot.
The Battle of Flanders is the worst I can remember. We have never before come under a continuous hail of such large-caliber artillery (38cm) as in Houthulst wood. I am simply amazed that I come out of this hell unharmed! Diary of a signals soldier of I.R.162:

Kemmel in 1918

In January 1918 the regiment was on R&R in Kortrijk before being moved to Houthem, centre of the Battle of Messines Ridge. On the 6th of April 1918 the regiment fought with distinction in the 4th Battle of Ypres (Battle of the Lys – Battles of the Kemmelberg) where it attacked and took the Meesen and later Wijtschaete.

Defence on the Kemmelberg

I.R.162 – March Offensive

Down in strength the regiment was refreshed by soldiers transferred from the former Eastern-Front (which had ceased to exist) near Knocke. During the Kaiserschlacht (Kaisers Battle) it took part in the March-Offensive where it took and held positions near Lataule, Ressons and Canny-sur-Matz. As Korps reserve it was posted to Ligny en Cambresis near Cambrai to Briey near Metz (close to the battlegrounds of St. Mihiel) and finally to Thielt in Flanders. From here it was sent to defend the Hermannstellung which was the final line of defence after the fall of the Siegfriedstellung. Close to Le Câteau the regiment prepared for the defence. This was to be its final battle before being moved back into germany, where it was disbanded.

85 officers and 1755 men of I.R.162 were killed in battle in World War 1. A much larger number was badly wounded and scarred for life (physically and mentally).

The fallen of the regiment are commemorated on the regimental memorial which can be found in the city of Lübeck:

Photos of an unknown soldier of I.R.162 – As far as available I have used the original captions.

Iron Crosses. Felix Schanz on the far right

No caption on this one – might be the owner of the album

Fallen in front of the English postions – Arras 1917

Englishmen killed by handgrenades – Arras 1917

1917

After the attack

Englishmen and Scots after the battle

Resting – Minutes after the battle

After Battle – 1917

English Tanks

Sources and further reading:

  1. Otto Dziobek: Geschichte des Infanterie-Regiments Lübeck (3. Hanseatisches) Nr. 162; erste Auflage 1922
    aus dem Vorwort:
    … Besonders dankbar sei des Herrn Oberleutnant Sander gedacht, der mit regstem Interesse die Arbeit gefördert hat. Mit […] hat er nicht nur […], sondern durch das mühsame Anfertigen der Karten und Skizzen sowie das Umzeichnen vieler Bilder sich hohe Verdienste um die Regimentsgeschichte erworben hat …
  2. Antjekathrin Graßmann: Lübeckische Geschichte, Verlag Schmidt-Römhild, 3. verbesserte und ergänzte Auflage 1997, ISBN 3-7950-3215-6
  3. Harboe Kardel: Das Reserve-Feldartillerie Regiment Nr. 17; Band 30 von Erinnerungsblätter deutscher Regimenter. Ehemals preuß. Truppenteile, mit 4 Karten, Verlag Gerhard Stalling, 1922 Oldenburg i. D., erste Auflage, 99 Seiten
  4. Kriegsbilder des Infanterie-Regiments Lübeck. 3. Hanseatisches Nr. 162; Lübeck, Offizier-Verein 1925
  5. Hugo Gropp: Hanseaten im Kampf; Klindworth & Neuenhaus, Hamburg 1932, 377 Seiten, Verein ehem. Angehöriger Reserve 76 e. V.
  6. Lübeckisches Adressbuch, Verlag Max Schmidt, div.
  7. Lyder Ramstad: Unter dem Banner der “Barbaren”; Verlag Ferdinand Hirt, übersetzt von Cecile Wedel (Gräfin), 1934, 167 Seiten

Dragons over the Western Front – German Feld-Luftschiffer units in World War 1

FLA1

Why I chose the title of “Dragons” over the Western Front will become clear when you have finished reading the article..

Balloons had been in use by the military since the wars of the coalition (1792-1815). In Prussia Balloon troops were became part of the regular army on the 9th of May 1884.

In February 1915 there were only 9 Balloons on the whole Western Front. Balloon troops (Feldluftschiffer) with their cumbersome and heavy equipment were thought to be quite useless in modern, mobile warfare and there were even tries to abolish this arm completely, but after the Battle of the Marne in September 1914 the front froze to a standstill. In Spring 1915 Major Hermann Thomsen, and old and experienced balloonist, wrote an exposé on the “Condition of the field aeronautical service” (“Denkschrift zur Lage der Feldluftschifferei”) which was very well within military circles and by the Kaiser himself. It was due to this that on the 11th of March 1915, by highest order of the cabinet (Allerhöchste Kabinettsorder / AKO), a new army department known as “Chef des Feldflugwesens” (Chief of Field Air Forces) was founded to which all Air Force units, planes, airships, balloons and also the meteorological services were subordinated.

FLA3

On the 21st of February 1916 the german army opened its attack on Verdun and the fortresses in front of it. For the first time 12 balloons were used together. AOK 5 built special lines of communications for the balloon units leading to a central “Ballonzentrale” (Ballooncentral) which utilized all incoming reconnaissance reports of the attached balloon units before passing them on to High Command. As every Balloon Platoon only had a single balloon the whole unit was wiped out when the balloon was shot down or damaged. Only after receiving a new one the unit was ready to get into action again. Due to this “Feldluftschiffer-Depots” were set up behind the front which stocked spare balloons and parts to be able to replenish losses fast and efficiently. It was also during the Battle of Verdun where the german Balloon troops suffered the first severe losses when the enemy introduced incendiary ammunition (one of the first victims of this new type of ammo was the airship LZ77 which was shot down on the 21st of February 1916).

FLA6

During the Battle of the Somme (24th of June to 26th of November 1916) more than half of the total available FLAs Feldluftschifferabteilungen (Balloon units) were committed. Altogether 18 FLAs with a total of 50 Balloons. For the first time in the war each Army command (A.O.K.) had its own “Ballonzentrale” and for the first time the balloonists received the urgently needed cover by fighter planes as the enemy had finally recognised Balloons and their work as dangerous and important.
The year 1916 had firmly established the new german Luftwaffe and duly appropriated its use and tasks. The enemy aswell has the german army had recognised was Balloons and airships were able to do. On the 8th of October 1916 the german army had 53 FLA (Feldluftschifferabteilungen) with 128 Ballonzügen (Balloon platoons) and 7 Ballonzentralen (Balloon Centrals). FLAs and Balloonzüge were further divided into reconnaissance and combatgroups resulting in a massive rise of their effectiveness. When the use of german airships (Zeppelins) declined in Spring 1917, most of the now available ground personell was transfered to balloon units.  In Summer 1918 the army had 186 Ballonzüge (with 2 Balloons each). During their peak of their effectiveness the Feldluftschiffer units had to pay the ultimate price for it. Losses were brutal. As soon as a balloon was spotted it was fired upon by the enemy. The german Balloon service had risen from a unregarded arm to a much-noticed effective fighting force. Without them tactical close reconnaissance had become impossible.

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Tactical disposition of Balloon units, 1917

Recconaissance photos taken by a german Feldluftschiffer Abteilung

Recconaissance photos taken by a german Feldluftschiffer Abteilung

World War I observation crews, were the first to use parachutes on a wide scale, long before they were adopted by fixed wing aircraft. These were a primitive parachute type where the main part was in a bag suspended from the balloon with the pilot only wearing a simple body harness around his waist which lines from the harness attached to the main parachute in the bag. When the balloon crew jumped the main part of the parachute was pulled from the bag, with the shroud lines first, followed by the main canopy. This type of parachute was first adopted on a large-scale by the Germans, and then later by the British and French for their observation balloon crews.

The Germans made excellent use of observation balloons in several configurations. An early variety made by Parseval-Sigsfeldand called “Drachen” (Dragon), had a single fin, low centre, and was totally cylindrical, with rounded ends. The British called them sausages, for obvious reasons. The balloon’s shape gave it another nickname, “Nülle” or “Testicle”.

baloon

The Caquot was tear-drop shaped, with three stabilizing fins. The Germans used a copy of a French Caquot, the designation was “Type Ae 800” for Achthundert (800) which was a reference to the cubic meter capacity English, the reason for this being the design was stolen from a captured British balloon design. The improved Caquot could ride higher, and fly in higher winds than the Parseval-Sigsfeld, so it quickly replaced the Drachen, even among the Luftschiffertruppen.

fla7

The observer suspended in the wicker basket typically had a wireless set, binoculars and one or two long-range, cameras with him. Their job was to observe actions on the front and behind it, to spot enemy troop movements, unusual activity of any sort, and to call down artillery fire onto any worthy targets. They were targets of great importance to the British HQ, especially before any sort of infantry action, so squadrons were frequently ordered to target balloons.
This was especially risky as they were well guarded with AA guns, long-range machine guns and a fighter Screen. Getting to the balloon was easy, shooting it up was difficult and getting away was very difficult. It required good nerves, quick reactions, and an all round good pilot to fight their way through the defences, hit the balloon before it is pulled down and then get away again. It was a rule of thumb with British pilots to never go after balloons below 1,000 feet, the AA and mg fire was too dangerous. The balloons could be pulled down very quickly as they were tethered to a motorized winch, so that once a fighter was spotted the balloon could be down in under a minute.

Rare photograph taken by an officer of IR145 at the Somme in 1917, caption reads "One of our balloons under attack" - I would love to know what type of aircraft we have here.

Rare photograph taken by an officer of IR145 at the Somme in 1917, caption reads “One of our balloons under attack” – I would love to know what type of aircraft we have here. Click to enlarge

By the war’s end 241 German observation balloons had been shot down. As a sidenote, one of the last german WW1 veterans to pass away (in 2004), Arno Wagner, was a radio operator and artillery spotter serving a Feldluftschiffer unit.