Category Archives: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel

The Soldier Who Won the Great War

Lieutenant Ernest Rollings
Lieutenant Ernest Rollings

In The Crowning Battle of the Great War: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel, I credit Sherlock Holmes with being led to the plans by Joan of Arc. They both appear in the companion novel, The Angel of Mons: A World War I Legend.

The soldier who actually found the plans was Ernest Rollings. Having “killed Germans by the score” as he led his men on a daring raid nine miles behind enemy lines in northern France, that August 1918 morning Rollings and his men attacked the German Corps headquarters in a farmhouse in Framerville.

He found a sheaf of documents, hastily torn but not burnt containing details of “every machine gun post, trench mortar battery and fortified position” of Germany’s impregnable Hindenburg defensive line.

Headlines called him “the man who ended the war” and now an exhibition honouring his valiant efforts is taking centre stage as part of the Firing Line display at Cardiff Castle Museum.

The Soldier Who Won the Great War
The Soldier Who Won the Great War

I want to give proper honor to the soldier and his men whose deed earned him the praise and recognition.

Lieutenant Ernest Rollings was awarded a second Military Cross after the Battle of Amiens. I don’t know what the first one was for or when it was awarded.

An interesting sidelight: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon

Steve burnett photo

I discovered this article recently and reproduce it completely.

As it turns out, Owen and Sassoon will play a role in my new novel, The Crowning Battle of the Great War: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel. They are two of the most important poets of the War. I have read deeply in the poetry of both of them.

More of them in future blogs.

When Sarah and I were on a tour with seven British folk and the Bird brothers we visited the spot, a canal, in France where Owen was killed. We also visited the grave of Sassoon’s companion.

The Wilfred Owen violin played by Thoren Ferguson seated in the Craiglockhart sycamore, and the newly completed Siegfried Sassoon violin played by Lewis Kelly, standing

Luthier Steve Burnett has created a violin in the name of poet Siegfried Sassoon from the branch of a sycamore tree still standing in the grounds of the Craiglockhart building, a former first world war shell shock hospital in Edinburgh. It forms a pair with a violin created in 2014 from the same branch in honour of Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet and patient at the hospital.

On 15 August the instruments will be played together in public for the first time, to mark the occasion of the poets’ first meeting at the hospital 100 years ago. Owen had been sent to Craiglockhart in June 1917 to recover from shell shock after serving on the front line in France, and contemporary sources suggest that he met the then already decorated war hero and published poet Sassoon between 15 and 19 August. The centenary is being marked by a week of celebrations and commemorations, entitled ‘Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017’

Burnett, whose violin workshop is in Edinburgh, adopted a method of using green wood to make the first instrument, taking the branch in winter before the sap started to rise.

‘The Sassoon violin was made in a more traditional way, using seasoned wood,’ he said, ‘but like the Owen violin it was created as a symbol of peace and reconciliation through the power of music and it will be played as a tribute to two great poets and a lost generation.

‘The Wilfred Owen has travelled widely over the last three years, being played in schools and at many First World War commemoration events,’ he said. Maxim Vengerov and Nigel Kennedy are among those to have played it.

The instruments will be played at Craiglockhart at a Royal Society of Edinburgh lecture by Neil McLennan, author of a forthcoming book about Owen’s time in Edinburgh. They will also be heard on BBC Radio 4’s ‘World War One: The Cultural Front’ at 10.30am on 19 August.

Catherine Walker, curator of the Craiglockhart-based War Poets Collection, said: ‘Both Owen and Sassoon loved and appreciated music, so the two violins are a wonderful and fitting tribute.


The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel

Thirtieth Division in the World War

It has been quite some time since I’ve written a blog. The main reason is that I have been concentrating on the next novel, which I mentioned a while ago: The Crowning Battle of the Great War: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel: A Novel.

As soon as The Angel of Mons: A World War I Legend was published, I began looking for a battle that would 1) take place in the last days of the war (so I would have the time to write a book and get it published.) The climactic day of the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel was September 29, 1918, less than two months before the Armistice. 2) The book had to involve soldiers from South Carolina, where I have lived for twenty years. Sure enough, I discovered that soldiers from the Second Army, American Expeditionary Force, 30th Division, made up of soldiers from South and North Carolina and Tennessee fought at the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel. My friend Mitch Yockelson, of the National Archives, wrote about these soldiers in his book Borrowed Soldiers.

As is always the case, there were many surprises. I though there might be a way to bring some of the characters from the Angel of Mons into this one. The character who is the narrator of the last chapter of the story, Tommy Atkins, was still alive and fighting until the last days. He is a major character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appears in a major role, and in smaller roles are Winston Churchill, Sherlock Holmes, (now a spy for the British), and even smaller roles for two of the major “war poets”, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

While I am far from finished, I am far enough along to know that the book should be published in December, 2017 or January, 2018.

From now until then I will regularly write about the book, the battle, the location, characters, and whatever else I think might interest you.

Feel welcome to share my blog with friends. When the book is ready, you will be ready for it.

World War I Soldier Slang

imagesMuch of what I read is directly related to the historical novels I write. I read The Long Trail: What Soldiers and Sailors Sang and Said in the Great War, learned a lot that was useful to my writing. It is filled with definitions of the vast number of phrases the soldiers developed to talk with each other. It gave me words and phrases to use–and to avoid–since the descriptions often had a date or event when the phrase came into use. Since The Angel of Mons: A World War I Legend appeared on the very first day of the war, all the phrases and words I took had to be in use by then. Nothing later. The lexicon even has a bizarre reference to The Angel of Mons. By Eric Partridge and John Brophy.

Eric Partridge, later in life.
Eric Partridge, later in life.

I just read it again, since The Crowning Battle of The Great War: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel takes place on September 29, 1918, I will find many more terms and phrases to consider giving my characters to say.

My friend and expert in the 30th Division and the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel, Jim Legg, a military archaeologist, told me about Lingo of No Man’s Land: A World War I Slang Dictionary (Originally subtitled The War Time Lexicon) by Lorenzo Napoleon Smith, a soldier in the Canadian Army. The book has many terms that are not in The Long Trail and additional defining terms for the ones the two books share. It has many phrases, for example, that the soldiers used for lice beyond cootie.

Author: Lorenzo Napoleon
Author: Lorenzo Napoleon

It is wonderful to see the attitude or view the phrase expressed. Many ridicule officers and the enemy. Many, too difficult for me to use, are Cockney slang, a complicated set of word changes. An example, though not precisely accurate, is why Columbia, South Carolina is known locally as Soda City. Columbia is often shortened to Cola, which is a soda. Hence, Soda City.


The Monument to the American Soldiers who Fought at the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel

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.

Map of the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel inscribed on the back of the American monument
Map of the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel inscribed on the back of the American 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.

Back of the monument commemorating the American 27th and 30th Divisions that fought at Bellicourt Tunnel
Back of the monument commemorating the American 27th and 30th Divisions that fought at Bellicourt Tunnel





Front of the monument commemorating the 27th and 30th Divisions that fought at the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel
Front of the monument commemorating the 27th and 30th Divisions that fought at the Battle of Bellicourt 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.

A Famous World War I Painting

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant
Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant

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.

Meet Lewis, the machine gun

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.

Australian soldiers training with the Lewis Machine Gun
Australian soldiers training with the Lewis Machine Gun

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.

Lewis machine gun in action. Notice the disk in the hands of the soldier to the left. It is filled with either 47 or 97 bullets. The pan sits on top of the gun and rotates as each bullet is fired.
Lewis machine gun in action. Notice the disk in the hands of the soldier to the left. It is filled with either 47 or 97 bullets. The pan sits on top of the gun and rotates as each bullet is fired.

Take a look at it. You will learn more about it in later blogs.

The “Dip Tank” Kills the Parasite that Creates Mange

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.

Horses in World War I
Horses in World War I

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.

St Symphorien Military Cemetery

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.

American Somme Military Cemetery at Bony, France
American Somme Military Cemetery at Bony, France

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.

St. Sympherion Military Cemetery
St. Sympherion Military Cemetery

A.A. Milne before Winnie the Pooh

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.A. Milne, Author of the Winnie the Pooh stories
A.A. Milne, Author of the 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.

This program was recently discovered in England. Inside, the poem by A.A. Milne
This program was recently discovered in England. Inside, the poem by A.A. Milne

The Tanks

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.)