Category Archives: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel

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.)

Unusual World War I Allied Camouflage

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.

Heads and caps to be put on camouflage dummies. Notice the variety of faces.

Heads and caps to be put on camouflage dummies. Notice the variety of faces.

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.

Cutout camouflage soldiers ready to attack.

Cutout camouflage soldiers ready to attack.


Sobs and Tears

I have been on the verge of sobbing and tears four times four days in a row. Moved emotionally, not upset or hurt. We were in Mons, Belgium.

The relics of St. Waudru

The relics of St. Waudru

The Doudou--the Battle between St. George and the Dragon

The Doudou–the Battle between St. George and the Dragon

This was my third visit, the first in 2008 for research, then 2014 for commemorative events for the Battle of Mons, then 2015, and this time to give a presentation at the museum on my novel.

Our dear friend and guide, Christian Massy, took us to the new Doudou museum which celebrates two ceremonies held each year, one, sacred, in the morning, the other, more festive, but filled with symbolism, in the afternoon. There is a video of the relics of St. Waudru, patroness of the city and its founding, being lowered in their gold reliquary, to the place of repose. This came at the end of the church celebration of a mass attended by about one thousand. As I watched, I sobbed with emotion and tears streamed from my eyes. I was touched to the heart.

The next day we went to visit the grave of Captain Malcolm Leckie, RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) brother in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a major character in my novel. This was the second time I visited it. This time a historian, expert in that part of the battle, which took place on August 24 at Frameries, Belgium, a village near Mons, accompanied us, a group of six, to explain what happened there that night. We also passed the site of the hospital where Leckie died four days later, a prisoner of war, wounded in the neck by shrapnel. Once again, I had to stifle sobs, but tears came, needing to be wiped away.

The next day Sarah and I took a quick trip by train from Lille, France to Arras, France to visit the Wellington Quarry. Here New Zealander and Australian miners worked for six months to connect very old underground limestone quarries—twelve miles worth, to house 24,000 British and Australian troops for eight days. On the ninth day they emerged from tunnels that had been dug to the surface thirty feet above to surprise the Germans in an attack. Like so many battles, this one was successful for a few hours then turned into a defeat. When we saw documentary footage of the battle, once again my body responded with sobs and tears. Fortunately, I was able to suppress this. In the midst of two dozen other museum visitors, it would have been unseemly to break down in crying.

Part of the 20 miles of quarry the British Commonwealth forces occupied for eight days before the Battle of Arras.

Part of the 20 miles of quarry the British Commonwealth forces occupied for eight days before the Battle of Arras.

Entrance to the Wellington Quarry

Entrance to the Wellington Quarry

Finally, on July 13 Sarah and I were in London. We had planned to go to the Tate Art Museum, not the modern art, but the one with old art. The boat we took was the wrong one. We planned to walk the rest of the way there along the embankment. Along the way was Westminster Cathedral. Instead of going to the museum, we decided to visit the Cathedral. In addition to the splendor of the building itself inside and out, there are utterly remarkable remains and memorials to the multitude of heroes, leaders, nobles, kings, queens, princes, princesses, military leaders, and so on. In the vastness of the building we came upon the section devoted to the poets and writers. I could barely contain my feelings, being in the presence of William Blake, the remains of Chaucer, Caedmon, the first poet to write in English, Shelly, Keats—memorials, not graves for them, Wordsworth, Coleridge, a memorial to the many poets of World War I—even as I write this, tears want to come. The bones of Aphra Behn, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, and many more.

Four days, sobs and tears. How grateful I am. I learn something about myself. Maybe it has to do with gratitude and sadness, wonder and joy. Happily, Sarah is with me and shares these feelings. It is good to squeeze hands and share a tissue. These feelings remain with me and arise anew when I think about them.

Now that I am at work on another novel about World War I, I hope to draw on these feeling and put them to good use in the book about the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel. The main cast of characters are from South Carolina. While most ceremonies attend to sacrifice and honor, I find myself touched by the loss. Young men who do not live to see harvest the fruits of life. Parents, brothers and sisters, wives, children, friends who are bereft of loved ones. Promise unfulfilled.


More on the role of quarries and caves in WWI

I have mentioned in the past that a good part of my novel, The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel, (not the complete title) will take place underground.

Part of a quarry complex the Germans used as a hospital in France.

Part of a quarry complex the Germans used as a hospital in France.

The extent to which caves, underground quarries, tunnels, and dugouts deep in the earth were used by the several armies that fought in World War I. They were fine places to hide soldiers from the enemy’s view, store ammunition, guns, and supplies. Several battles depended on them for the success (on the one side) and failure (on the other.) Two more images from an underground hospital add to an appreciation for the way the terrain and the earth itself served in the war.

Another picture of the same quarry used for a hospital. picture of the same quarry used for a hospital.

Many of the buildings throughout the region, churches, palaces, and businesses, used the stone quarried underground from the Middle Ages on. Their presence was well known to local inhabitants.

The 1916 Documentary: The Battle of the Somme

British soldier carrying a wounded comrade, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916.

British soldier carrying a wounded comrade, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916.

While I am not writing about the 1916 Battle of the Somme, one of the fiercest battles of the war, I can’t help bumping up against material about it, and, truly, about a good deal that does not have to do with The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel which is the subject of the book. As you have seen already, the blogs travel into elements of the war and warfare that are not part of battles. HOWEVER, this is the one hundredth anniversary of the filming of the 1916 documentary, The Battle of the Somme. It is an amazing feat of filmmaking. This is considered the most important documentary of the war. At the Imperial War Museum in London the 75 minute film is shown almost constantly. It has its own screen and seating area. I watched it when I was there last year. This year I will buy a copy. There is another contemporary documentary about the documentary’s making. I will buy that one, too. Soon after we get home in August we will have a showing of the two at our house. They won’t be on the same evening. Look forward. I see that Amazon has a 47 minute version that can be downloaded. Those of you with Prime can see it for free.

Who Dug the Trenches for the British?

One of the great pleasures of writing historical novels about World War I is

Chinese laborers in training to work in France and Belgium

Chinese laborers in training to work in France and Belgium

meeting people who have an answer at the tip of the tongue to innocent questions that occur to me. A second great pleasure is in the answers to the questions. While thinking about the extent of the trenches all sides in the war in Europe, I wondered who did the work of building them. Digging, excavating, building inside the hundreds of miles of trenches took more than the work of the soldiers at war. I asked military archaeologist Jim Legg who did the work for the British. His answer surprised me, and then made sense.

In 1916 the British began recruiting Chinese because so many British had died in the war that there was a shortage of men to do the work. Ninety-five thousand Chinese farm laborers volunteered. They left remote villages to work for Britain in the First World War! Ninety-five thousand! Who would have thought? They made up the Chinese Labor Corps.

Two graves of Chinese workers were pointed out to me in the American cemetery in Bony, France, where rest the remains of Americans who fought in the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel.

Truly, their work in the war is unacknowledged and forgotten. They are not recognized in any of the British war memorials. They were not permitted to settle in Britain after the war.

They did dirty, dangerous, vital work behind the lines on the western front. How they reached France and Belgium is itself fascinating. They went by ship across the Pacific to Canada. They crossed the country in sealed trains—six days travel. Then they went by ship from Liverpool, train to Folkestone, and ship to France and Belgium. Not surprisingly, many died in making the journey.

In addition to digging trenches, they unloaded ships and trains, lay railroad tracks and built roads, and repaired vehicles and tanks.

They worked 10-hour days, seven days a week, and had three holidays a year including Chinese New Year. They stayed until 1920, clearing live ordnance and exhuming bodies from battlefield burials and moving them to the new war cemeteries.



The Gravediggers’ Work

Naturally, everything connected with World War I had to be done on a massive

Graves being prepared to receive the bodies of soldiers

Graves being prepared to receive the bodies of soldiers

scale. Everything we could think of used in the war came in huge quantities and numbers.

Today, not many Americans visit many of the cemeteries that populate the landscape where battles were fought in the war. Thus, it is likely that the work that went into creating those final resting places for the soldiers of many nations is barely known. While burial had its gruesome parts, it also expressed the nobility of those who keep the cemeteries to honor the sacrifices the man who lay in them made.

Naturally, having visited many World War I military cemeteries, and, since I am writing about the war again, I will have my Gravedigger out of Hamlet guide us through the tragedy of the burial fields.

The military museum in Peronne, France, where much fighting took place, it being part of the Somme battlefield, shows a motion picture, maybe eight minutes long, of a burial squad working just outside of the battlefield. I was touched by both the “everydayness” of the work, and the solemn way it was carried out.

For more, see World War I Cemeteries.

The Carrier Pigeon as Communications Link

In my latest blog of three weeks ago I wrote about the varied and specialized uses

A pigeon with camera. The Germans used the photographs to see French and British deployments and dispositions.

A pigeon with camera. The Germans used the photographs to see French and British deployments and dispositions.

of lorries and buses in World War I. The picture I included was of a lorry equipped as a pigeon cote. Homing pigeons played an important role in communications for all sides in the war.

As a novelist (and just my own preoccupations) I am interested in the little thought of aspect of whatever I write about. Thus, small matters, ephemera, details make up what become major subjects in my writing. So, this note is to pay homage to the lowly pigeon. I am intrigued by the pigeon photographer that the Germans put to use.

Pigeons have a unique ability to navigate their way from wherever they are released to their home cote. The fly high and swiftly. They are difficult targets to hit.

A canister containing a message would be attached to a carrier pigeon's leg.

A canister containing a message would be attached to a carrier pigeon’s leg.

Follow this link to learn more. Befriend a pigeon and thank it for its species’ service.

Women at Work Manufacturing Ammunition

Last week I posted a blog about a memorial built to commemorate the work of people producing rubber boots for soldiers who spent much time in the trenches of France and Belgium. This week I am giving a glimpse into the work life of women who manufactured ammunition.

Factory workers -- all women in this illustration--manufacturing artillery shells for the British Army--The Great War

Factory workers — all women in this illustration–manufacturing artillery shells for the British Army–The Great War

The picture gives an idea of the extent of the factory in which the women labored. Once the Great War got under way, the scale of everything dedicated to the conduct of the war grew by many magnitudes. The pressure of all these efforts had a monumental effect on the way of life of the countries engaged. These changes were permanent.