Archives » History

Cloth Hall, Ypres: In Flanders Fields Museum

With the possible exception of Saint Martin’s Cathedral, the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) is the most imposing building in the city of Ypres (Ieper) in Flanders, Belgium. (The cathedral’s spire can be seen to the rear.)

Cloth Hall, Ypres

The mediæval Cloth Hall was all but totally destroyed by shelling during the Great War but lovingly restored in the years after.

There is now a lovely fountain in the paving at the front of the Hall.

Cloth Hall fountains

Flanking one of the doors to the Cloth Hall are two memorials. This one is to the French soldiers who died in defence of Ypres during the Great War:-

Ypres Memorial

And this commemorates the liberation of Ypres by Polish troops in 1944:-

WW 2 Liberation Plaque, Ypres

The Cloth Hall now houses In Flanders Fields Museum, formerly the Ypres Salient Memorial Museum:-

In Flanders Fields Museum

The Australians in Nine Wars by Peter Firkins

From Waikato to Long Tan, Pan, 1973, 524 p, including i p acknowledgements, ii p list of illustrations, i p list of maps, vi p index of military formations, xv p general index, vi p bibliography.

The Australians in Nine Wars cover

The book covers Australian soldiers’ exploits from a time when Australia wasn’t even Australia but only a collection of various separate colonies. Some of these first sent men overseas to New Zealand to assist against the Maoris, then to Sudan in the aftermath of Gordon’s death in Khartoum and to China during the Boxer Rebellion. Its military prowess came to flower in South Africa in the (Second) Boer War – during whose duration Australia as a country was constituted – where, being used to the bush, they were able to play the Boers at their own game blending in to the countryside and showed for the first time their flair for unconventional warfare. The other wars covered are of course the two World Wars, the Korean War, the “Malaysian Emergency” and Vietnam.

The book’s thrust is that the Australian fighting man is unique, forming a citizen army there to do a job and get back to normal life as soon as possible, consisting of individuals full of initiative. In it we discover that it was Australians who won in Palestine and on the Western Front in the First World War, were essential in holding Tobruk, won at El Alamein, were the first to defeat the Japanese on land in World War 2 (which General Slim wrote was an inspiration to those in Burma) and even won in Vietnam! British Generals were crap (due to the class system) and prejudiced to boot. Moreover they apparently systematically underappreciated and failed to give credit to Australian contributions and leadership due to the “Union of British Generals”. Douglas MacArthur comes in for equal criticism for being insufficiently grateful for and appreciative of their efforts.

There is considerable force to this argument when you consider General Hunter Weston’s reply to a comment at Gallipoli that a third attack on Achi Baba peak was sure to cause heavy losses. “Casualties? What do I care for casualties?” he demanded, but Firkins’s strictures do no justice to the difficulties of prevailing in an age when defence had the advantage over attack and no-one involved had sufficient experience of the problems to be overcome. He asserts that the tank was at first “used so unskilfully that the one weapon which could have ended trench warfare was frittered away as an infantry support or wasted in its unsupported success at Cambrai.” Maybe so, but where were experienced tank generals to be found? Conjured out of thin air, perhaps? This point is ironically underlined later in the book when one of Firkins’s heroes of WW2, General Morshead, is quoted as saying of his early experiences in that war, “I didn’t handle my tanks well. I should have kept them concentrated and them all together. I didn’t know enough about tanks then as I do now.” Australian generals it would seem are to be cut slack not afforded to others.

In WW1 all Australians were volunteers, most of whom saw action in the frontline. Support services were provided by the British army as a whole as was the greater part of their weapons, ammunition and supplies. In the next paragraph Firkins says their “contribution to the successes of the British army was quite disproportionate to the numbers involved” and they, along with the New Zealanders and Canadians, did not receive due credit for their deeds till late in the war. Notwithstanding their valour and the very real downplaying of their role, how much could they have achieved without support, weapons, supplies and ammunition? But they were used as the spearhead of every attack after Gallipoli. The Australian casualty rate was 68½%; double that of the British Empire’s troops as a whole. They did however develop the tactic of peaceful penetration which dispensed with the usual preliminary heavy artillery bombardment.
Australians were “accustomed to judging their officers by their personal qualities and not by their badges of rank” and gained a reputation for indiscipline among British officers, an attitude which Firkins says was a main factor in their contributions being undervalued.

The book covers the heavy Australian involvement in the all but forgotten campaign against the Vichy French in Syria in WW2 – where more men were lost than in Greece and Crete combined.

Elsewhere the author pours scorn on “Churchill’s overriding concern for British Imperial interests, to the detriment of an Australia fighting for her life,” saying it “cast a grave reflection on his judgements.” It’s an odd injunction. Churchill wasn’t Australian; he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It was his responsibility to preserve British Imperial interests. Ultimately of course he failed in that, but the roots of that failure did not lie with him, they originated in the Great War, and perhaps in the tides of history. And has Australia’s subsequent cleaving to the US served it any better?

Firkins includes an illuminating aside uttered by a US liaison officer in Korea of the Australians’ former foes now allies, “When the Turks ran out of bullets they unsheathed their knives. They are as tough as their reputation. They obeyed only one order: Advance. Any other order confuses them,” and he sees the war in Vietnam as a necessary one against an enemy which perpetrated “vile cruelties and civilian slaughter” but he does predict (the book was first published in 1972) the final North Vietnamese victory when the US and its Allies‎ withdrew. He quotes approvingly Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies’s subscription to the domino theory. An additional forty-five years perhaps yields a different perspective.

Pedant’s corner:- Bridges’ (Bridges’s,) Gavril Princep (usually Gavrilo Princip,) Saint Stephens’ (Saint Stephens’s,) Colonel Holmes’ detachment (Holmes’s,) “until there were no infantry remaining to carry on” (Firkins has previously treated infantry as a singular noun, which it is; so, until no infantry was left,) Gheluvet (Gheluvelt, this was on a map,) Smuts’ (Smuts’s,) von Sanders’ (von Sanders’s,) Cairo headquarters were laying plans, (headquarters is usually treated as a singulsr noun,) the Australians forward positions (Australians’,) Larisa (Larissa,) Churchill’s staff were not enthused (staff was?) twleve (twelve,) Churchillean (usually Churchillian,) Mohne and Ede dams (Eder,) “it was estimated … about 5,000 Japanese had landed… In fact it was considerably less” (fewer,) Clowes’ (Clowes’s,) Potts’ (Potts’s,) of an enemy who were swarming past (was,) Japanese force with numbered more than (which numbered,) had showed (shown,) no more that a form flitting through foliage (than a form,) Mindano (Mindanao; on a map,) the rest were (was,) this area included……. and covers … (keep the tense the same.)

Ancient and Moderne

Just before the chapel’s entrance on the approach to Rosslyn Chapel stands the Old Rosslyn Inn.

Old Rosslyn Inn

The inn’s catalogue of great and good patrons is commemorated on a plaque by the arched gateway:-

Old Rosslyn Inn

Yet this obviously 20th century building (in the Art Deco/Moderne style) can also be seen from the access road.

Moderne Building

Black Watch Monument, Aberfeldy

Near to Wade’s Bridge in the south bank of the Tay at Aberfeldy stands this monument to one of the most famous Scottish military regiments The Black Watch, which like all historic Scottish regiments (which have been successively amalgamated till only one is left) now only exists as a battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

The statue depicts a Highlander drawing his sword:-

Black Watch Monument, Aberfeldy

As this detail shows the site was granted by the Marquis of Breadalbane in the year of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria 1887:-

Black Watch Monument Detail

The Monument commemorates the assembling together in 1733 of the six independent companies (afterwards increased to ten) of the Black Watch and a later plaque notes the granting of the freedom of the burgh of Aberfeldy to the regiment:-

Black Watch Monument, Detail 2

More general side view. A small part of Wade’s Bridge can be seen in the background:-

Black Watch Monument, Aberfeldy, from South

Theresa May Not

Of course I caught on the news Mr Irresponsible‘s last Prime Minister’s Questions. What a parade of sycophancy that was (with a few exceptions.) The man has been an absolute disaster for the country and he ended up being applauded for walking away from it! [On which note whatever happened to the convention that applause was unparliamentary? They just make it up as they go along.]

And did anyone else notice the journalist’s comment that austerity was forced on him? Forced? FORCED? It was a choice, a political choice that could quite easily have been made otherwise. In all probability it contributed mightily to the situation we find ourselves in. They say journalism is history’s first draft. In this case it was history being rewritten before it was history. David Cameron’s place in history is of course utterly secure – as the worst Prime Minister since the office was instituted, with the possible exception of Neville Chamberlain (though even he managed to delay war with Hitler till the country’s defences, in the shape of the RAF, were just up to the task.)

Then there was the fawning over the new PM, Theresa May. Did nothing else happen in the world today?

I did notice her claim that her government will not be to the favour of the privileged few but for those who are struggling. This reminded me of “where there is discord may we bring harmony” and we know how well that worked out for the less privileged.

And in one of her first acts….. She has appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary!

Words fail me.

Apart from:- on this evidence, Theresa certainly won’t.

In Memoriam

The Battle of the Somme began 100 years ago today. That first day saw the British Army suffer 57,470 casualties, its greatest ever one day loss in battle.* 19,240 of these were killed. Overall the battle (really a series of battles) lasted for four and a half months and resulted in 1.120-1.215 million casualties over both sides. Only the Russian Front battles of the Second World War were bloodier.

Like the Ypres Salient, the countryside where the battle(s) took place is dotted with Commonwealth War Cemeteries.

There is a particularly striking memorial at Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel, in the form of a caribou.

Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel

Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel

The names of the British army dead who remained missing are engraved on the walls of the towering Memorial at Thiepval.

Thiepval Memorial

Visiting Thiepval is as sobering an experience as the Menin Gate.

The bagpipe tune below was composed by William Laurie who fought at the Somme. He was Pipe Major of the 8th Argyllshire Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Higlanders. He became ill as a result of trench conditions and died on Nov 28th 1916.

To all who fought:-

The Battle of the Somme

*More personnel (80,000) were lost by surrender at the Fall of Singapore in 1942.

Menin Road South Cemetery

The cemetery is well inside the boundaries of Ypres/Ieper and lies on the edge of the Menin Road. It contains the remains of 1,657 soldiers of whom 118 are unidentified but 24 of these are known or believed to be buried here.

Menin Road South Cemetery

This view from the east shows the Stone of Remembrance, the Cross of Sacrifice and (at the western end) the shelter building containing the cemetery register:-

Menin Road South Cemetery, View from West

Iron Fist by Bryan Perrett

Classic Armoured Warfare. Cassell & Co, 1998, 224p.

 Iron Fist cover

As the subtitle suggests in this book Perrett covers the history of armoured warfare from its beginnings in the Great War up to Operation Sabre during the first Gulf War.

In the beginning was the armoured car, whose first flourish in the British forces came in the form of a Royal Naval Air Service armoured car division. With the establishment of the Western Front’s trench system these quickly became unusable but squadrons of cars were subsequently sent to Libya, the Middle East and the Eastern Front and had notable success there.

The origins of the tank were less straightforward than just bolting armour to an existing chassis. An Australian, Mr Lancelot de Mole, in 1911 submitted to the War Office a design for an armed, tracked vehicle capable of crossing trenches. It was ignored; as it was by the Austro-Hungarian General Staff. Again it was the Navy, and the influence of Winston Churchill, a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence, which in 1915 set up a Landships Committee and the development of the tank began. (de Mole received recognition for his invention after the war in the form of an award.)

Perrett illustrates the development of armoured warfare by discussing representative engagements in the Great War, World War 2, the Arab-Israeli Wars, Vietnam and the liberation of Kuwait. He devotes a chapter to Hobo’s Funnies, the tanks adapted under the auspices of Major General P C S Hobart to “swim”, blow up mines, fill in anti-tank ditches etc, which contributed greatly to the success of the British and Canadian landings in Normandy and showed their worth as late as in the battles for Walcheren.

As well as Mr de Mole we find herein the fantastically named Count Hyazinth Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz who was a tactical genius with a seeming ability to read his Soviet enemies’ minds. Sometimes he had his tanks travel with their guns pointing backwards (traversed to the rear as the jargon has it) to fool the enemy into thinking they were friendly. In one such engagement he made his way behind Soviet lines with only four tanks. His tiny unit destroyed 105 Soviet tanks in one hour and made it back out intact.

For those, like myself, with a general interest in the military history of the twentieth century but perhaps lack in depth knowledge, the book illuminates some of its byways as well as giving an overview of its subject.

Pedant’s corner:- the latest generation were (was,) produced in (produced, or resulted in,) not prepared the maintain (to maintain,) handed them over the Senussi (to the Senussi,) Sirelius’ (Sirelius’s,) coped with the mud better the heavier cars (better than,) gild the lily somewhat that by (gild the lily somewhat by,) on 8th January the Soames (no “the”,) set too (set to,) of which were never enough to fill the gaps (there were never enough,) have been in dominant element (a dominant element,) nor aware of (nor was aware of,) the line of German tanks form (forms,) were several of new corps (no “of”,) Kirponos’ (Kirponos’s,) overlaying its rear areas (overlying makes more sense,) the minefields gaps (minefields’) the first of a succession that were to continue (that was to continue,) Volgagrad (Volgograd,) that tide of war had turned (that the tide,) was all but isolated with due course it had to evacuated by sea (all but isolated and in due course,) breath in (breathe in,) an Small Box Girder Bridge (a,) floatation screen (I prefer flotation,) infantry were pinned down (was,) a paragraph break in the middle of a sentence, referred to a Kangaroos (as Kangaroos,) who he invited to surrender (whom,) phosphorous (phosphorus,) the division … and were (and was,) on the eastern sector the British Eighth Army (of the British Eighth Army,) one the best (one of the best,) the cavalry… were (was,) his map told (indicated?) Hollands’ (Hollands’s,) Grossstein (I assume Grosstein,) a variety of ingenious techniques were developed (a variety was,) like that other conventional armies (like that of,) around a arc (an arc.) Perrett describes the Gulf of Tonkin incident as an attack on US warships by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The USS Maddox fired first. The US authorities described these as warning shots.

Hooge Crater Cemetery

Almost the first thing we did after checking in to our hotel just 3 kilometres from Ypres was to visit Hooge Crater Cemetery which was literally just the other side of the Menin Road, and lies immediately below the Bellewaerde ridge. The circular area surrounding the cross represents the area’s many craters created by mines.

Hooge Crater Cemetery Entrance

The first graves we came up to are dedicated to men either known or believed to be buried in this cemetery but whose exact grave location is unknown:-

Hooge Crater Cemetery Memorial Stones

One known soldier of the Great War and two who are in Kipling’s memorable phrase “Known Unto God”:

Hooge Crater Cemetery Graves

A memorial stone to men whose previously known graves were destroyed in subsequent battles:-

Hooge Crater Cemetery Memorial

As in all Commonwealth War Cemeteries the graves are beautifully kept:-

Hooge Crater Cemetery Line of Graves

The gravestones with regimental insignia on them are for individuals. The ones to the front here commemorate respectively five, five, five, five and four soldiers “Known unto God”:-

Hooge Crater Cemetery Communal Graves

Grave Panorama. There are now 5916 Commonwealth soldiers buried in this cemetery of whom 3,570 are unidentified.

Hooge Crater Cemetery Panorama of Graves

As the inscription on the alcove where the register of graves is kept says the cemetery is the free gift of the Belgian people for those who fell:-

Hooge Crater Cemetery  Dedication

The now peaceful scene looking back over the cemetery boundary into what was the Ypres Salient:-

View from Hooge Crater Cemetery

The Menin Gate (iii), The Last Post

There is a stairway halfway along each internal wall of the Menin Gate leading to the upper level. Here are laid wreaths brought to the Gate by various organisations.

Menin Gate Wreath Holders

The evening we were there the representatives of several schools performed that duty during the nightly Last Post ceremony to which this flag bearer was the prelude:-

Prelude to Last Post Ceremony, Menin Gate

The Last Post is played every evening at 8pm by members of Ypres Fire Brigade, a ceremony only ever interrupted since its inception by the German Occupation in World War 2 when it was apparently conducted at Brookwood Military Cemetery, in Surrey, England. On the evening of liberation in 1944 the ceremony was resumed despite fighting still taking place elsewhere in the city. A photograph of the ceremony in 1964 in In Flanders Fields Museum had few onlookers in it. The Last Post now attracts large crowds no doubt due to the greater ease of travel to Ypres from Britain and the countries of the British Commonwealth:-

Last Post Ceremony, Menin Gate

Click on the picture below to go to a short video I shot of part of the ceremony:-

Last Post

free hit counter script