Since it was a Sunday it gave me a chance to have one of the characters I am already developing, a chaplain for the 30th Division, offer prayers and deliver a short sermon, and reflect himself on the importance of this battle that was to take place on this Sunday morning.
While I continue working on the novel The Crowning Battle of the Great War: Bellicourt Tunnel(the title taken from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s personal account of the battle, at which he was present) I thought it might be good to show the monument that commemorates the fight. These are official photographs from the government website. Sadly, there are pictures of the map engraved on the floor or foot of the monument, but the picture did not do a good job of photographing it. It marks on a compass the direction and location of key sites in the day’s battle. The map in the first illustration is inscribed on the back of the monument.
The monument is on top of a berm the Germans built using the dirt they dug when making the trenches that stood atop the three-mile wide tunnel.
The monument itself is rather small. There is a bit of a grassy area in front of it, and a driveway with parking for a few cars. When I was there in 2015, I was the only visitor. The same was true when I visited the graveyard for Americans killed in the battle. Only a few more graves than a thousand. This has to do with, I think, with the relative obscurity of the battle. So why am I writing about it? There was a multitude of battles that were relatively obscure, with little written about them. So it was with Mons, about which I’ve already written. And Le Cateau, which is also part of the Angel of Mons novel. Traveling through the region of the Somme, I saw many places where heroism and gallantry met with trickery and guile. Each one has its book or two, and is compelling. Of course, the big fights—the Meuse-Argonne, Ypres (three times fought over), the Marne, twice, and many others stand out. But writing tends to bring the obscure, the seemingly insignificant, to light.
I plan to return to the battlefield to commemorate its centenary on September 29, 2018. On Armistice Day, November 11, 2018, I will be in Mons when that momentous event is commemorated. Mons is justly known by the appellation “The First and the Last” because the first British solider was killed there, as was the last soldier representing the British Empire—one of war’s many oddities, if not ironies.
In World War I many artists and writers were commissioned to produce memorial art to commemorate the glory, gallantry, sacrifice, and suffering of soldiers in the monumental struggle that cost the lives of so many and changed the world. One of the most remarkable is Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant. Though best known for his portraits, Sergeant also made several war painting, a vastly different subject.
At the age of 62, he was sent to the battlefield to observe first hand and paint a work for public display. He did several of smaller size. His study for this piece—his work, like that of so many artists, refers to several masterpieces. The picture was originally intended for display in a planned Hall of Remembrance. However, the hall was never built. Instead the picture was taken by the Imperial War Museum. Because of its massive size—7 ½ feet high and 20 feet long—the painting was not suited to any of the display areas in the museum. Instead, the work was placed in a room far from the normal flow of visitor viewing, hard to find.
I was fortunate in 2015 to visit the museum with my friends, Nick and Antony Bird, whose battlefield tour company took me and Sarah to important battlefield sites in Belgium and France in 2014. The brothers took me to see the painting. It is in a room where it is the only object. The room is narrow, so the view is rather close to the paining itself. I suspect that, seen from a greater distance, it would have a slightly different impact. In any case, it is stunning, one of the most impressive pieces of World War I art I wish that more people, especially those who visit the museum anyway, would get to see Gassed.
In a novel characters need to have a reasonable connection with each other. In The Angel of Mons the main characters among the soldiers were two Vickers Machine Gun squads who fought together at Nimy Bridge, defending it against the Germans.
The Crowning Battle of the Great War: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel will also have characters connected with a gun, this time the machine gun that was more widely used later in the war, the Lewis Automatic Machine Gun. The soldiers will be young men from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Having lives in South Carolina for nearly twenty years, I want to draw on the resources that surround me (seven military museums in Columbia, four of them at Fort Jackson.) and several experts on the battle.
The Lewis, fully manned, would have a crew of six soldiers: a gunner, a spotter, a guard, and three carrying ammunition. Though the gun could be handled by two, if it was necessary. This blog is to introduce you to the gun. Or it to you.
It will first be in action in the opening chapter. Later Tommy Atkins will present its fine points in a training session he leads for the Americans. Tommy was a major character in the earlier novel. Later still, when we return to the battle a second time we will meet it again, going about its murderous work.
Take a look at it. You will learn more about it in later blogs.
The longer I research elements of World War I having to do with my novel The Crowning Battle of the Great War: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel, the more I run across information about items that 1) we never think of, having our minds on the big matters of war, and 2) ideas that make perfect sense when we think about them. Such is the invention of “The Dip Tank.” With all the horses and mules the war put to work, it was inevitable that diseases and infections, physical ailments, would spread throughout the animal world. The four-footed soldiers were prone to mange, a disease brought on by parasitic mites. The mites bury themselves in the animal’s hair follicles.
Canadian veterinarians developed “The Dip Tank” in 1915. Before this mange was fought by clipping the long winter hair of the animals. As a result many animals died from hyperthermia and equine influenza. “The Dip Tank” killed the parasites, leaving the long hair on the animals. “The Dip Tank” was of simple design. It was a long trench or dugout with boards on the bottom. The treatment consisted of water, sulphur, lime, carbonic acid, and creosote, heated to a certain temperature. The animal would walk though the tank, fully immersed in the liquid.
In the outskirts of Mons, Belgium is an unusual military cemetery. By way of contrast, I present a picture of the American military cemetery at Bony, France. The cemetery at Bony is typical of almost all Allied military cemeteries from World War I. Their organization is geometrically precise, graves arranged in horizontal, vertical, and diagonal rows. The ground is always flat.
The cemetery at Mons is slightly geometrical. In local spots the graves are in straight lines. The ground is uneven, the rise at the center being the principal feature. Also, St. Symphorien cemetery is unique in that there are German soldiers buried here along with British. The thick crosses carved in dark stone are German gravestones. The Germans began the cemetery during the war. The white headstones are over the graves of British soldiers. A feature the cemetery shares with all other WWI cemeteries is the cross of sacrifice, seen in background to the left. One final feature of the cemetery is the presence of the graves of John Parr, the first British soldier killed in the war. Facing his grave is the one of George Elliot, the last solider of the British Empire (Canadian.) The first and last British soldiers were killed at Mons. The city of Mons honors this fact, claiming itself as “Mons: the first and the last.” Standing between the two graves is deeply moving.
In the course of my research for Bellicourt Tunnel: The Crowning Battle of the Great War I run across oddities that have nothing to do with the subject, but are related remotely and fascinating anyway. Most of my nearly one hundred blogs have been of this nature. Here is another one.
We all know A.A. Milne as the author of the beloved Winnie the Pooh stories.
A poem written by Milne, recently discovered, praises the tank in World War One. He wrote the poem six years before he wrote any of his Pooh stories. It was for a fundraising performance to support the Tank Corps Prisoners of War Fund in November 1918. The poem praises the new British weapon which Milne describes as “those wonderful tanks.” He wrote the poem for a fundraising matinee which took place on November 7, 1918. (It is worth noting that the Armistice took place only four days later. Since it was not at all certain that an armistice would be reached, the war went on at full pitch until the last moments. Over 2,000 soldiers were killed or wounded on November 11, the day of the Armistice.)
Harry Tate, a popular music hall comedian, organized the show.
What makes it interesting is that most of us associate Milne only with Winnie the Pooh. This trivial piece takes us back and deeper, though only slightly deeper, into Milne’s life and history.
Alan Alexander Milne was an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Fusiliers Regiment in the First World War. In 1916 he was wounded seriously enough to be removed from active combat. Then he went to work at M17b – a secret propaganda unit.
He worked with other writers whose articles and pamphlets kept the morale for the nation and her troops up in the face of defeats, deaths, and the strength of the German defense. These writers included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Barrie, and many other writers of note.
You have head of the wonderful Tanks,
There are legends about them in plenty:
They will flatten a wood
If the cover’s too good,
Or recline on Hill 60 until it’s Hill 20.
There’s a story that one for a wager –
A matter of twenty-five francs –
Flew off on its own,
And just pushed down Cologne,
A proceeding which rather annoyed the Town Major.
Oh, they’re devils when once they get going,
They are up to the oddest of pranks;
There’s a patter – Mark III –
Which can swim in the sea,
And submerge until only its periscope’s showing.
Oh they’re wonderful, wonderful things are the Tanks!
You have heard of them?
You have read of the actual Tanks.
“At dawn we attacked on the So-and-So line,
Observation was good and the weather was fine.
On the right of the sector the Umptieth Blanks
Secured their objectives – assisted by Tanks”
With the co-operation of Tanks.
And perhaps you have pictured a Tank,
As it poised and pitches
Itself at the ditches,
And noses its way up the bank.
You can hear its machinery clank,
And its guns rat-tat-tat,
As it opens on Fritz,
And he runs like a rat;
But there’s no use in that.
He’s cornered “tat-tat” –
And shot as he sits…
So, perhaps you have pictured the Tanks,
The latest invention, the Tanks,
Then send for the Tanks!
Are machine-guns at play?
Then forward the Tanks!
The Tanks that go anywhere – Forward the Tanks!
The grim mechanical Tanks.
And you’re proud as you read of the wonderful Tanks.
You are proud of them?
But they’re not quite mechanical Tanks;
There are men at the wheel and the gun.
And the grim reputation of Tanks,
And the wonderful things that they’ve done,
And the battles they’ve won,
Are the work of the MEN in the Tanks.
And it isn’t all fun
For the men who sit tight in the Tanks.
No, it isn’t all fun in the Tanks:
You may read with a cheer
How they crashed down the wire,
But perhaps you don’t hear
That a couple caught fire –
Well, it’s one of the risks of the Tanks.
For the humans who sit in the Tanks:
The brain and the soul of the Tanks,
The Tanks that go anywhere. Anywhere, true,
If the men in the Tanks will go anywhere too –
As they do.
So remember, whenever you talk of the Tanks,
The newest invention, the wonderful Tanks –
The older invention – the men in the ranks;
The wonderful men of all ranks.
For they’re just the same men, only more so, in Tanks.
You’ll remember them?
After the war, Milne wrote a denunciation of war titled, Peace with Honor (1934.)
Camouflage is usually thought of as a means of avoiding detection in battle. The current camouflage pattern in today’s infantry uniform is suited to desert warfare. Similarly, the pattern of color and shapes of uniforms during the Vietnam War made soldiers difficult to detect in the heavy jungle vegetation.
Camouflage can also be used to attract enemy fire while keeping opposing soldiers safe. The Allies used these two examples in World War I. These clever examples are just a few of the many that were developed and used.
I was either insightful or lucky when I picked Lieutenant Maurice Dease to be the most important infantry solider in TheAngel of Mons: A World War I Legend. My early research and my knowledge of what a novel needs led me to the conclusion that Dease would be a fine choice for a major character.
This was confirmed over the years. In 2014 I was in Mons for commemorative events around the Battle of Mons. The night of the 24th Sarah and I attended a sound and light show that had been funded by the City of Mons and the province of Hainaut ($500,000) that had been shown since August 4, the date war had been declared. The narrative was in French, so I was especially attuned to the few words in English. Surprisingly, the name Dease was one of the few. (Others were Arthur Machen and Phyllis Campbell, who also are characters in the novel. There were no others, except a few major officers.)
A recent article in The Irish News tells the story of Dease again, this time to note a Victoria Cross Paving Stone being unveiled. See it on line or read the article here:
1 BRAVERY: Maurice Dease, who was killed in the Battle of Mons in August 1914
In the late summer of 1914 in Coole, Co Westmeath, the family of Lieutenant Maurice Dease received three telegrams from the British War Office in quick succession.
The first told them Maurice was wounded, the second that he was missing and the third that he was dead.
What the telegrams did not reveal was the extraordinary courage of Maurice Dease that led him to be awarded the first Victoria Cross of the Great War.
Next Tuesday, exactly 102 years after he died at the Battle of Mons, Lt Dease will be remembered in Coole in the country churchyard that stands on a plateau over the Bog of Allen and where his family worshipped for generations.
A Victoria Cross Paving Stone, similar to those in Glasnevin Cemetery, and a small VC cross will be unveiled at an existing cross which was erected by the Dease family after Maurice was killed in 1914.
On August 23, 1914, Maurice Dease was serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and in charge of a machine-gun section of the 4th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers.
It was the first day of combat and the unit was told to hold a railway bridge over the Mons-Conde Canal at Nimy, outside the town of Mons.
Dease manned a machine gun with a clear line of fire across the canal.
Another gun covered the entrance to the bridge but the British forces were hopelessly outnumbered.
One of the two machine guns jammed. Dease ran through enemy fire to try to fix the gun and was hit in the knee.
He succeeded in fixing the gun and managed to make it back to his post but was hit again in the calf and neck. He continued to man the machine gun until he died.
The citation for his Victoria Cross reads: “Though two or three times badly wounded, he continued to control the fire of his machine guns at Mons on 23rd August until all his men were shot. He died of his wounds.”
Private Sidney Godley, who was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans, was also awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery at Mons.
His citation read: “For coolness and gallantry in fighting his machine gun under a hot fire for two hours after he had been wounded at Mons.”
The ceremony on Tuesday has been organised by the Midlands Branch Royal British Legion and the Dease family.
I had the pleasure of “bringing coals to Newcastle” when I presented my “sound and light show” about the Angel of Mons at the Mons Memorial Museum in July. I was going through all the tourist material I picked up on our month in Europe and discovered this wonderful piece. When I first saw one, I didn’t realize that it was the front of the promotional material about my presentation. Enjoy, comment, and buy copies of the novel, The Angel of Mons: A World War One Legend. You can figure out who the angel is the soldier is referring to.