Text Box: June 2016

VERDUN - Part 2

The month of May has seen further commemorations at Verdun.  It appears to have become a focal point for gestures of reconciliation between France and Germany, a process started by President Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1984.

The anniversary of the outbreak of the Battle of Verdun, a battle that was to continue for 300 days, was marked by two excellent programmes on Radio 4.  One comment by David Reynolds was to provide a focus for discussion on Twitter.  He said ‘Verdun was the only big battle of the Great War which the French fought alone’

The word ‘fought ‘  is critical, because I am sure we can all think of non-combatant roles  which were taken on by British and American men and women.  These are covered in some detail in Lyn Macdonald’s excellent book, ‘The Roses of No Man’s Land ‘

The Chateau at Revigny had been turned into a hospital, and it was here that the British Volunteer Nurse Winifred Kenyon was based.  She had witnessed the downing of a Zeppelin on February 21st, but after the attack on Verdun on the following day she would be very busy.

The American Field Service Ambulance No2 Section was also on its way from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun.  With the congestion on what was to become ‘La Voie Sacre’ it took six hours to cover 40 miles.  In the first 20 days these Ford Ambulances carried over 2,000 wounded.

The French were badly in need of the help these volunteers provided as their medical services were unable to cope with the level of casualties. Over 400,000 of the French war dead were to die of wounds, and only one in three of those who made it to a hospital would survive.

Most of the French soldiers destined for Verdun would arrive at the railway station at Revigny, and it was here that the ‘Dame Anglaises’ set up a free canteen in what had been the waiting room.  The ‘Cantine’ was financed entirely from donations, one of the most generous contributors being John Summers, a steel magnate.  His daughter Maud and her friend Lorna Neill, not long out of Bentley Priory boarding school, dressed in French Red Cross uniforms set to work in the ‘Cantine Anglaise’. Lorna Neill’s journal indicates that on any one day as many as 10,000 men would pass through the station.  In February, a short month, they dispensed over 250,000 cups of coffee and 63,000 cigarettes, as well as cups of tea, chocolate and soup.

I have no evidence that British forces were involved in the Battle, but American volunteers were to play a part. In April 1916, the Escadrille Americaine the brainchild of two Americans Dr Edmund Goss and Norman Prince, were deployed close to Bar-le-Duc.  The Germans objected to the actions of a supposed neutral country and their name was changed to the Lafayette Escadrille. There was a core of 38 American pilots, and eleven were killed in action.  Victor Chapman was the first casualty being shot down in June over Douaumont.  The units’ aircraft, mechanics and uniforms were French, as was their commander, Captain George Thenault.  There was never a shortage of American volunteers to fight for France and as a result the Lafayette Flying Corps was also created.


A recent blog on the National Archives website described some research into the popularity of naming children after battles of the First World War.  The research covering the period 1914 to 1939 indicates that Verdun was the most popular name with over 901 babies given that name.  Areas in South Wales had the greatest concentration of Verdun as a first name with 50 in Pontypridd, 32 in Bedwellty and 27 in Merthyr Tydfil. Across the country Ypres with 71, Mons with 58 and Arras with 42 also proved popular names.  One of my father’s friends and colleagues in Aberystwyth, a First World War baby, was called John Mons Roberts.  Other parents chose to name their children after prominent persons, with Kitchener having 166 babies named after him.  Cavell was the chosen name for 25 babies but Haig only inspired 11 parents.


Fricourt today is a peaceful little village, but in 1916 it was just inside the German lines and every ruin had been heavily fortified and the cellars extended to provide shelter for the German defenders.

Fricourt British Cemetery (Bray Road) is in the centre of the village.  Many of the graves are of men of the 7th Green Howards.  Some were killed when the Commanding Officer of A Company, despite orders to the contrary, gave the order to attack.  Their advance was soon halted by machine gun fire, and of the 140 men who attacked, there were 108 casualties.  The remaining Companies attacked in the middle of the afternoon following a previous attack over the same ground by the 7th East Yorkshire Regiment.  It was another costly failure with over 400 casualties.  Also buried at Bray Road is Major R.G.Raper 8th South Staffs. His family contributed towards the rebuilding of the church in the village and Raper now has a road in the village named after him.

Fricourt New Military Cemetery is sited on what was No Man’s Land.  Today after a narrow country road, and a walk up a dirt track, you see a ribbon of grass fit for a bowling green, crossing a field to the cemetery.  Many of the burials are from the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment whose attack on Fricourt during the morning of July 1st had been repulsed with over 700 casualties.

From Fricourt New Military Cemetery one can look across to the site of the Tambour Mines exploded on July 1st.  The area is now fenced off as apparently it is private land, but it is also believed that one of the three mines laid was not detonated.

The British had first moved into the area in July 1915 when 174 Tunnelling Company took over from the French.  There were as many as 66 shafts in the area and the Germans were just as active, firing camouflets to try and destroy the British galleries and shafts.  When the Third Army moved into the area, 178 Tunnelling Company was formed under the command of Captain E. V. C. Wellesley. They started work on Tambour Duclos at Fricourt under the supervision of Commandant Thomas, as at this time the shortage of British Engineers meant there were still over a thousand French in support in this area of the Somme.

Conditions in this area were new to the British miners, who had to adapt their mining techniques.  The chalk was so hard that a substance called ‘blastine’ was used to break it up.  This was an added challenge as mining operations were unavoidably noisy, as was the disposal of the brilliant white chalk.  As in other areas the Germans held the higher ground along the whole of this front and in consequence the Tambour came in for a good deal of heavy shelling.  When the British entered the German tunnels after July 1st. a German diary indicated they had problems picking up the sound of the British miners.  They also found that the Germans always used timbering in their tunnels, something the British did rarely in chalk tunnels.

The German Military Cemetery at Fricourt has a very stark appearance compared to Commonwealth Cemeteries.  Until 1925 it was the site of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s grave.  There remain over 5,000 individual burials, and a mass grave for over 12,000. The Jewish headstones stand out against the crosses that mark up to four burials.  There appear to be few German visitors to these cemeteries, and I always make a point of visiting the Jewish graves as there are probably no relatives left to visit them.                                                                                             


Richard Lloyd



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Text Box: The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA
June 2016
Compiled by Richard Lloyd