Buffnut's 2021 Tour of Great War Sites...And Other Animals

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Really like the composition of this image.

Thank you, Mark. It was taken at the giant memorial at Thiepval.

Great War Tour 26
Thank you, Mark. It was taken at the giant memorial at Thiepval.

View attachment 643205Great War Tour 26

Great segue into Day 5! Thanks for playing the straight man to my comedic inanities.

So, dear readers...if you've been paying attention (there will be a test at the end!), you'll recall that the weather forecast for Sunday and Monday was bad so I crammed in as many outdoor visits as I could on Saturday (Day 4). The next obvious question is what to do on Day 5. The forecast rain hadn't started when I awoke so, despite a cloudy start to the day, I decided to head out and see as much as I could before the rain set in. I'd already booked a visit to the Somme 1916 Museum in Albert but I expected that would only occupy an hour or so. Thiepval was one obvious place to visit (later in the day, as evidenced by the sunshine). Alas, my photo isn't as pretty as yours:


Yep...couldn't get near the monument at all...which is a shame given that it records another 72,337 missing soldiers. If you're keeping track, we've now easily exceeded 150,000 names of the missing at Menin Gate, Tyne Cot, Pozieres and Thiepval.

Earlier in the day, I dug out Rose Coombs' book and looked for interesting stuff to explore within a reasonable driving distance of Amiens. I think I came up with some beauties.

First off, there's the Red Baron's crash site. It's located east of Amiens and has a conveniently situated marker so you know when you've arrived:


Here's what the area looks like in the vicinity of the sign. Note the broken chimney stack...it'll come up again later:



A few km away is the Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel which commemorates the 100,000 Australian soldiers who served in France. It's located at the site of the final objective for the Battle of Hamel, the first attack planned and executed by General Sir John Monash. It was a remarkable success, integrating artillery, tanks, air and infantry to take an impressively steep-sided hill in just 93 minutes on 4 July 1918.


Right next to the Memorial are some original German trenches that were so successfully stormed by the Aussies during the Battle of Le Hamel:


At one spot in the trench system, I even found a couple of small poppies struggling through the chalky soil (I hope you can see them):


Going back to the Red Baron, it was from positions not too far from the site of the Aussie Memorial where the Australian soldiers who fired on von Richtofen's Fokker were entrenched. Looking across the Somme Valley from the memorial, you can just make out the broken chimney stack mentioned above in the centre of this image. The line of dark green trees in the base of the valley marks the line of the Somme River:

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Just further east from Le Hamel is another Red Baron site. The airfield from which he made his final flight lies just outside the village of Cappy. Again, there's a helpful marker to describe the location:


Today, the site is nothing more than a farmer's field, like so many of the largely temporary Great War aerodromes. The viewing angle for the photo below probable isn't too dissimilar to the wartime photo displayed on the notice board:


While the airfield has disappeared, a more permanent reminder of the Red Baron's presence is still nearby. Just behind the location where I was standing to take the above photos is Cappy Chateau, which was used as the officers' mess by the German pilots. It's strange to think that this building is the last place where von Richtofen slept on earth. I apologise for the rather poor quality of the photo but the Chateau is a private residence with a substantial metal fence...so it was hard to get a decent view of the place (plus I didn't want to appear like some weird peeping-tom):


Driving through the village of Cappy, I came across something I'd never seen before. As many of you will know, pretty much every town and village in Europe has memorials to local lads who died during the First World War. Cappy is no different. However, this is the first such memorial I've ever seen that has been painted. If others have seen anything like this before, I'd love to hear about it:


Rose Coombs came up with the goods again for my next stop, a place I'd never heard of before. As the Battle of the Somme was raging in 1916, the French elected to attack Soyecourt in a bid to draw German resources away from the British attacks further north. French forces took over some German trench positions in Wallieux Woods (Bois de Wallieux):



The trenches have been preserved as a memorial to the French soldiers who took them, and as a reminder of the impact of the Great War on the region:


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After Wallieux I headed into Albert to visit the Somme 1916 Museum. It's an impressive place established in tunnels beneath the central church in the town. Over the centuries, the tunnels have been used as shelters by civilians from shelling and bombing. It's a pretty long walk-through museum but there are a lot of artifacts, some of which are highly interesting. One thing that stood out for me was a panoramic view of the area near La Boisselle during the Battle of the Somme. You'll remember my Great-Great Uncle took a GSW to the chest while attacking that village. It was awesome to see the panorama with key locations labelled. I took a series of photos which don't do the panorama justice but I think you'll be able to piece it together:






This is my favourite because it gives a clear view of what La Boisselle looked like in July 1916. Note the white chalk where the ground has been disturbed. This wasn't the mud of Flanders. When artillery shells exploded, their innate shrapnel content was augmented by shards of chalk and flint from the ground. Note the reference to Glory Hole...we'll see that later:






The next stop was associated with La Boisselle and was one of the most amazing points on the journey.

On the morning of 1 July 1916, the opening day of the Somme offensive, the British exploded 2 huge mines under the German lines. The British tunnellers liked to give their digs names and so it was the case here. The two saps were called Lochnagar and Y Sap. The following, from Wikipedia, gives some indication of the effort that went into the Lochnagar mine...and the amount of explosive used:

The Lochnagar mine consisted of two chambers with a shared access tunnel. The shaft was sunk in the communication trench called Lochnagar Street. The Lochnagar mine probably had the first deep incline shaft, which sloped from 1:2 to 1:3 to a depth of about 95 ft (29 m). It was begun 300 ft (91 m) behind the British front line and 900 ft (270 m) away from the German front line. Starting from the inclined shaft, about 50 ft (15 m) below ground, a gallery was driven towards the German lines. For silence, the tunnellers used bayonets with spliced handles and worked barefoot on a floor covered with sandbags. Flints were carefully prised out of the chalk and laid on the floor; if the bayonet was manipulated two-handed, an assistant caught the dislodged material. Spoil was placed in sandbags and passed hand-by-hand along a row of miners sitting on the floor and stored along the side of the tunnel, later to be used to tamp the charge.

When about 135 ft (41 m) from the Schwabenhöhe, the tunnel was branched and the end of each branch was enlarged to form a chamber for the explosives, the chambers being about 60 ft (18 m) apart and 52 ft (16 m) deep. When finished, the access tunnel for the Lochnagar mine was 4.5 by 2.5 ft (1.37 by 0.76 m) and had been excavated at a rate of about 18 in (46 cm) per day, until about 1,030 ft (310 m) long, with the galleries ending beneath the Schwabenhöhe. The mine was loaded with 60,000 lb (27 long tons; 27,000 kg) of ammonal in two charges of 36,000 lb (16 long tons; 16,000 kg) and 24,000 lb (11 long tons; 11,000 kg). As the chambers were not big enough to hold all the explosive, the tunnels that branched to form the 'Y' were also filled with ammonal. One branch was 60 ft (18 m) long and the other 40 ft (12 m) long.

Y Sap was similarly in size and located north of the main Albert-Baupaume road but its crater was filled in after the war. Lochnagar's crater remains a truly awe-inspiring landmark to this day. The first image is a view to the north, taken just adjacent to Lochnagar, showing the main Albert-Baupaume road (you can just make out a vehicle at the top of the patch of green in the centre of the image). The photo I took looking into La Boisselle on Day 4 was taken at the top of the ridgeline there:


The following photos simply wont justice to the size and scale of the Lochnagar Crater. Bearing in mind that there's been over 100 years of rain, snow and wind affecting this place, with associated subsidence of soil into the base of the crater, the sides are still remarkably steep.




Maybe this GoogleEarth image of the area will help provide some scale for this "bluddy big 'ole". The grassy area between Rte de Becourt (near the "Old Blighty" Tea Room) and L'Illot de la Boisselle to the west is the site of the Glory Hole mentioned previously:


This image was taken from the southern end of the crater looking back towards the access road and carpark (the latter is adjacent to the location marker in the GoogleEarth image above). To give an idea of scale, the memorial cross that's standing against the skyline is about 15 ft high:


Just near where the above image was taken, there is a much smaller cross with a name plaque. It marks the place where the body of Private George James Nugent serving with 22nd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Scottish) was found on 31 October 1998. At that time, Lochnagar Crater had been a place of pilgrimage for Great War veterans and their families for over 70 years. It was a well-known and well-visited location, and yet it still held onto the secret of Pte Nugent's body until 1998. How many more remain to be found?


After leaving Lochnagar, I stopped by the Glory Hole. It's on private land and I hadn't made arrangements to visit, although clearly it's prepared for visitors. While much less awe-inspiring when compared to Lochnagar, the Glory Hole is a remarkable place in its own right. It became a focus of mining attention because of the close proximity of Allied and German front-line trenches in this area, at some points barely 50 m apart. Between April 1915 and January 1916, some 61 mines were exploded in this area, some loaded with 20,000–25,000 kg (20–25 long tons) of explosives. This is what the site looks like today:



That wraps up Day 5...so just one more day to go (although it will include images taken across multiple days). More to follow...


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That's one big hole! Apparently the loudest noise made by man at that time, that is until the Messines offensive when 19 mines went off around the same time...
Day 6 was all about Jim Gamble, the younger brother of George Gamble, who served in the RFC and RAF during the Great War. The next few posts will cover some of the sites where Jim served, although the chronology will be backwards simply because of the itinerary for my trip. Hopefully, by the end of the next few posts, you'll realize why I pulled together the information in the way I did. As before, I also hope you'll indulge a little background information first.

Jim joined up on 4 February 1915, another volunteer, and spent most of his service in the UK, almost certainly at Farnborough, the home of British military aviation. Here's a pic of the fresh-faced lad, almost certainly taken shortly after he enlisted – he would be 7 months shy of his 21st​ birthday at that time:

James Gamble - Royal Flying Corps Portrait (Cropped and Rotated).jpeg

In 1914, the British Army did not have an integrated process for allocating identification numbers. Each regiment had their own numbering system and when the RFC was formed in May 1912 as a distinct arm, it had to come up with its own "regimental" numbering system…so they started with No.1 and worked upwards. Jim Gamble's RFC number was 3594 so he's a rather early member of the force. For anyone interested, there's an excellent book about the first 150 RFC personnel entitled "A Contemptible Little Flying Corps".

Jim was a steam engineer in civvie street and joined up as a fitter. He was progressively promoted through the ranks and, by 1 July 1917, was promoted to substantive Sergeant rank with his character assessed as "Very Good" and Trade Proficiency as "Superior".

Jim's service record notes that on 9 November 1917 he was graded "Fit" as a pilot. This was less than 2 months after the death of his elder brother, George, and I can't help wondering if that event influenced Jim's decision to take a more active role in the War. It's conceivable that Jim wanted to avenge his brother's death but every picture of Jim show him as a fairly happy-go-lucky kind of bloke, so I doubt that "getting one back at the Hun" was his primary motivation. It seems that one of his mates at Farnborough, Sgt Arthur Simmons, also applied for pilot training around this time so perhaps Jim was simply attracted to the opportunity. Regardless, it would take him to places he would have never imagined prior to 1914.

Jim started flying training with the academic course at No.1 School of Aeronautics, Reading, on 24 November 1917 before proceeding to Netheravon to learn to fly. Netheravon is still there with many of its original buildings. I hope to visit the site again at some time, having spent a brief time there when I was in uniform. Here's a pic of one of the enlisted men's huts still there after over 100 years (Source: Bournmouth News):


Jim soloed for the first time in Airco DH6 C5475 on 12 March 1918 after some 9 hours and 30 minutes of dual instruction. He then broadened his flying experience on more advanced types including RE8s and eventually the Bristol F2b Fighter that he would fly operationally. On 30 June 1918, Jim remustered as a pilot. I presume this was the date when he was awarded his wings. Here's pic of Jim taken while on home leave, probably around this timeframe, with his new wings in place:

James Gamble RAF with Pilot Wings.jpg

Jim was eventually sent to France, posted to 11 Squadron flying Brisfits and completed 20 operational sorties before the end of the Great War, his last being on 10 November 1918. After the War, Jim attempted to continue flying by joining Handley Page South African Transports, one of many efforts by Handley Page to find a civilian use for their O/400 heavy bombers. The enterprise, which was based in Cape Town, didn't last long, although Jim did manage a few flights. He clearly enjoyed South Africa given the following comment in his logbook:

Beautiful country colours, gorgeous, thickly forested and scores of gullies. Sea, land, shores, everything magnificent. Country worth living in.

Jim made several attempts to rejoin the RAF but none were successful, and so he settled down in our hometown and raised a family. As late as the Second World War, Jim was still writing to the Air Ministry asking if his pilot experience could be of service. Jim's entry in the 1939 Register, a one-off "census" of the British population at the outbreak of WW2, identifies that he was a pilot with 11 Sqn. He clearly still felt he had abilities to offer.

So…having provided some background, I decided that, during my various visits to places in Belgium and France, I'd take the opportunity to visit the sites of airfields where Jim Gamble flew from during and immediately after the First World War.

First visit on my trip was to Nivelles, Belgium, which was a minor diversion during my trip to Waterloo. Jim's squadron moved there on 16 January 1919. Here's a pic of Nivelles in late 1918 (Source: Nivelles Airfield, Belgium):


This pic of the airfield was taken at the time that Jim was there. It shows Bristol F2b Fighters in front of the large, main hangar (Source: Maj F W Smith Collection):


Looking at the area on GoogleEarth, most of the site has been redeveloped as an industrial park. However, the area to the left, which is blurred out because it's still a Belgian military facility, appears to have some long buildings next to the northern fence line which might, conceivably, be Unfortunately, that site has been built over with an industrial park, although part of the site is still in use by the Belgian military (the area is pixelated on GoogleEarth imagery). Some of the buildings near the northern boundary of the military site might have borne a resemblance to hangars that were at the airfield in 1919.


Alas, a personal inspection from outside the wire showed them to be more modern structures. Here are a few pics of the current buildings which clearly are not WW1 vintage and don't match any of the images I've seen of Nivelles Aerodrome:



The photo below of Jim (left) with Sgt Pilots William Anson Hutcheon (centre) and George Albert Wardale (right) was likely taken at/near Nivelles. Dating is based on the lack of foliage in the trees, the fact that Hutcheon and Wardale only joined 11 Sqn on 24 February 1919, and knowledge that the Sqn moved to Spich, Germany, on 20 May 1919 as part of the British occupation forces.


More to follow tomorrow.
Its hard to get or imagine a true perspective on this kind of thing.

Hawthorn mine exploding at Beaumont Hamel, Somme, France, 7.20 a.m. lst July 1916. The mine was exploded by 252 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers using about 40,000 lbs of ammonal. The resulting crater was 80ft deep and measured 150 yds by 100 yds.
Its hard to get or imagine a true perspective on this kind of thing.

Hawthorn mine exploding at Beaumont Hamel, Somme, France, 7.20 a.m. lst July 1916. The mine was exploded by 252 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers using about 40,000 lbs of ammonal. The resulting crater was 80ft deep and measured 150 yds by 100 yds.

Agreed. You might like this 2016 video I just found. We've all seen those haunting images that overlay an old, usually WW2 photo, ontop of a modern photo of the same location. Well this guy did the same thing with film. There's a wee bit of footage of La Boisselle in there, and the Beaumont-Hamel mine explosion is included.

They are so evocative and thought provoking. Years ago I stumbled across this in the Daily Mail of all places. The building on the right is the Louvre Museum now, the building on the left is the one I worked in for 2 years (known as "Le Louvre des antiquares" or the "Grand Hôtel du Louvre"). Its completely weird seeing a picture like that of the place and area that you worked in. Here is the punch line, when I worked there it was owned by my deceased fathers pension fund, he was a railway engine driver, they were paying my mothers pension but paying their concierge far, far more than is decent.

Agreed. You might like this 2016 video I just found. We've all seen those haunting images that overlay an old, usually WW2 photo, ontop of a modern photo of the same location. Well this guy did the same thing with film. There's a wee bit of footage of La Boisselle in there, and the Beaumont-Hamel mine explosion is included.

This is a great wee clip, I watched this a couple of years or so ago when I visited the area.
Going back to the trip, prior to Nivelles Jim Gamble's squadron was based at Aulnoye in Belgium where it spent a month. The Aulnoye Aerodrome location is entirely developed now and I simply didn't have time to visit. Prior to Aulnoye, 11 Squadron was at Bethencourt near Cambrai, an airfield that proved really hard to find because there were simply so many airfields in that area. I eventually came to the conclusion that Bethencourt was just north of the main Cambrai-Le Cateau road, as shown in this trench map, situated near a place called Le Jeune Bois. This location was later confirmed when Cross & Cockade International eventually got to this area in their serialized gazeteer of RFC/RAF/French airfield locations.

Bethencourt Airfield - Great War Trench Map.jpg

The road layouts are still quite similar, with a staggered junction of roads coming in from the north and south into the main Cambrai-Le Cateau road:


Bethencourt was my first stop on the Day 4 drive from Lille to Amiens. The following image was taken looking east from the road coming in from the north (D16A). It's just a farmer's field today but it's the place where Jim's Squadron was operating when the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918 and from where he flew his last operational sortie the preceding day. Jim moved there on 31 October 1918:


According to one account, there was quite a party at Bethencourt Aerodrome on the night of 11 November. A rather large bonfire was built and, later in the evening, some bright spark decided to throw petrol cans on the conflagration. Reportedly, the resultant explosions caused some nearby Army units to stand-to because they thought the ceasefire had broken down.

There is still a restaurant called "Le Jeune Bois" on the south side of the main road, although that location is changing. Website searches had me looking for an older building per the image below...which is followed by what I actually found there (I know which building I'd prefer to dine in!):



Prior to Bethencourt, 11 Squadron was based at Mory, an advanced landing ground that was only ever used briefly by 2 pairs of RAF squadrons. With the 100 Days Offensive in full swing, the RAF squadrons had a hard time keeping up with the Army's advances, so advanced landing grounds were developed for brief operations and to enable aircraft to refuel before heading back to their main operating base. In the case of 11 Sqn, they spent the last 2 weeks operating from Mory alongside 57 Sqn. The latter was a bomber squadron and it seems that the pairing was deliberate as a number of 11 Sqn operations involved providing fighter escort for 57 Sqn's DH9s. One of 57 Sqn's personnel provided a rather vivid account of conditions at Mory:

After a few days was collected by a Crossley Tender to join No.57 Day Bomber Squadron on a small airfield near a devastated village called Mory, between Baupaume and Combles. The driver lost his way in the dark and we spent the night trying to sleep on the floor of an empty house which was serving the purpose of Wing Headquarters. The telephone seemed to be ringing all night—this, and the rumble of gunfire in the distance, gun flashes and all, together with droves of prisoners-of-war being marched through the village—all made me feel that at last I had caught up with the war!

Mory was an example of a makeshift landing ground [located] in a section of the country that had been a battlefield several times during the past four years. The surface of the ground was composed of a series of shell holes filled in to make the landing area, which was a hazard to land on and an adventure even to taxi over.

Here we lived in bell tents, dark brown affairs, not very waterproof, surrounded by mud inches deep. To get to our Mess, housed in a marquee, we had to walk on duck boards which were placed over the mud. Some of the personnel preferred to build huts made from salvaged timber, or used dugouts that were found in the neighbourhood. Jock Wilson and I shared a tent as we disliked the idea of sharing our sleeping quarters with the rats that abounded among the deserted shacks and dugouts.

Unsurprisingly, today Mory is just another farmer's field:


And all of this brings us to Day 6, 27 September, which marked the 103rd anniversary of Jim Gamble's first operational sortie from Vert Galant Aerodrome. If the name Vert Galant sounds familiar, it's the airfield from which Albert Ball made his final flight on 5 May 1917. Ball had previously served with 11 Sqn and was a national hero. After his death, he'd be awarded the VC, in addition to his existing DSO with 2 Bars and MC. Ball was credited with 44 aerial victories and, while he has zero direct association with my family, I thought it appropriate to mention him here given the Squadron and location affiliations. Here's a pic of Albert Ball in the cockpit of an SE5a taken in the month before his death (Source: Wikipedia):


When Jim joined 11 Sqn, on 7 September 1918, it was based at Le Quesnoy (near Le Quesnoy-en-Artois). He spent about 20 days performing "gopher" duties (e.g. collecting aircraft from the depot), conducting familiarization flights and, presumably, being checked by his Flight Commander and CO to be sure he was ready for combat operations. The Sqn moved to Vert Galant on 19 September.

Jim's logbook records a number of familiarization flights with an experienced observer to be sure he was ready for combat. His first operational sortie, on 27 September 1918, was with that same observer, Sgt Charles William Cooke, who would later be awarded the Military Medal, the enlisted soldiers' equivalent to the Military Cross, for services while on 11 Sqn. Ironically, the home address listed in Cooke's service record is barely 3 miles from where Jim Gamble grew up…and yet they met in France to fly combat operations together. Here's a pic of Sgt Cooke provided courtesy of his family:


Vert Galant was and is a farm located at a crossroads on the main Amiens-Arras road. The location resulted in 3 separate landing grounds being used: east and west landing grounds were both south of the crossroads, on either side of the Amiens-Arras road, while the north landing ground was in the northeast quadrant of the crossroads. The 1916-vintage map below shows trenches in close proximity to the airfield. It also shows the 3 distinct airfields associated with the site, which must have made it a busy place:


These photos courtesy of the Imperial War Museum show Vert Galant Aerodrome in 1916 and later. Note the barn located behind the row of tents in the first image, that's also visible just right of centre in the second image. The road to the left of the DH2s is the main north-south Amiens-Arras road:


Note the barn nestled in the crook of the junction, just to the right of a row of nissen huts (which suggests this image is more recent than the above 1916 pic). Also note the lines of trenches in the background, as well as some in the foreground.


And this is my pic on a rather soggy Monday morning, taken exactly 103 years after Jim's maiden operational sortie from Vert Galant:


Fortunately, I'd also made a stop here on Day 4 so I got some much better pics in the sunshine. Firstly that very distinctive barn:


The old farmhouse sits across the main road from the barn. It's the same building that can just be made out right at the very top right edge of the of the WW1-vintage aerial photo posted above:


I did pick up a new detail on that wet 27 September morning. Directly opposite the brick barn, and just south of the main farmhouse, is another barn. I had thought it was a newer structure but when I compare it to the aerial image with the trenches, the large main door and the smaller window to the right directly correspond with the appearance of the barn in the old photo. Also, at the gable end, one can see the old brickwork underneath. The structure has definitely been extended to the wet but it's pretty clear that it, too, was a witness to Jim's first operational flight:


As I wandered around the crossroads on Day 4, something caught my eye on the ground by the side of the road:

PXL_20210925_132923890 (Cropped).jpg

Now, I'm the first person to tell people not to go picking up unidentified munitions from battlefields. However, this was clearly a fragment of something that had already gone BNAG! (sorry, old habits die hard...I've been deliberately mispronouncing "bang" as "bnag" since my days in uniform) so I reckoned it was entirely safe. When I prised it out of the earth, this is what it looked like. For scale, it's about the height of a soda can:


Cleaned up a little, it seems to be a fragment from a British 4.5 inch high-explosive shell. I'm unaware of Vert Galant ever being fought over so it seems likely that this relic was brought into the area with a truckload of hard core for the roads or the farm. Regardless, it was a nice keepsake from a lovely, sunny day exploring Vert Galant aerodrome.

The romantic in me was also thrilled, despite the crappy weather, to visit the place where Jim took off on his first operational sortie on the 103rd anniversary.


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Well, folks, that about wraps up the account of my trip. To end on a more light-hearted note, I thought some might be interested in the fact that the French name for shopping carts/trolleys is "chariots". I think we should expand the usage...turn every supermarket trip into an excuse to behave like Ben Hur. I LIKE THAT IDEA!!! We could turn panic buying sprees into a spectator sport and sell tickets:


In closing, it was a truly lovely holiday. Apart from the final morning, the weather was unusually cooperative. I got to see some beautiful parts of France and Belgium, meet some friendly people, and visit a lot of places that have been on my bucket-list for a number of years now.

And on that note, adieu!
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