Much of the War Diaries of the 16th Canadian Scottish describe their time around Bully Grenay as "quiet". Quiet, I suppose, would be in the eye of the beholder. For although they weren't involved in any major actions during that time, it was a very dangerous place. Many of my grandfather's stories of the Great War originate from this time and place.
The Battalion had arrived there less than two months after he had joined it in France, and they were initially there on this front for only about a month and a half, with three tours at the trenches during that time, nineteen days at all. There would be more than a life time of experiences crammed into those quiet nineteen days. Seven men from the regiment would lose their lives in that quiet, a further fifteen would be wounded.
My grandfather's stories from this place ran the gamut from being buried in a funk hole (a pocket in the wall of a trench where men rested and took shelter) by an exploding trench mortar shell, to missing a spy passing through their trench who was caught by the neighbouring battalion and eventually executed in a nearby town.
But perhaps my favourite story involves the visit of the Brigadier General of Grandpa's Brigade, Brig-Gen. Tuxford. In Grandpa's words:
Thanks to the wealth of information available online these days I can even figure out the exact day this story took place. Although the War Diaries of the 16th do not provide any detail of Tuxford's visit, the Battalion was only at the Front Line three times at Burning Bing. A search of the 3rd Brigade's War Diary reveals that Tuxford took a tour of the front line, visiting the 16th Battalion on the 19th of February 1917, along with the Acting General Officer Commanding of the I Corps of the British Army, Major General Sir John Capper (who would eventually be instrumental in the development of Tank tactics). Tuxford served with distinction throughout the Great War, including playing a major roll during the first gas attack by the Germans at 2nd Ypres, a battle that forever changed the face of war, introducing the terrible concept of Total War.
Much of my idea of what trench warfare looks like comes from the iconic photos of places like Passchendaele, churned fields of mud, water filled shell holes, and nothing much else. No buildings are left standing in that image in my mind. But the reality, like most things, was more complex than that. Certainly in the early years of the war, the landscape even around Ypres was much different. And the trench system did run through towns and cities. We may think of urban warfare in terms of some of the battles of the Second World War, but it existed in the Great War as well. Much of the final days of the war played out in Urban areas.
I recently received a book The Battlefields of the First World War by Peter Barton. The book mostly showcases a number of panorama photos of the Great War, taken by Royal Engineers over the course of the war. It is much more than a picture book however, with an excellent text, quotes from soldiers (mostly Engineers), photos and diagrams of the landscape and abutments of war. It quite simply changed the image of the war that predominated my mind.
At the time I received it I had been forming the idea for a post about Grandpa's time around Burning Bing. So as I flipped through the book, I turned to the section that had photos of the area around Lens, the area where Burning Bing could be found. Not only was there a photo, but it was taken from directly behind Burning Bing towards the German Lines.
Only I couldn't find the photo in the book, and I was mystified. The map of photos clearly showed it, and the area it covered. It was then I realized that not all the images are in the book, but some are only included on the accompanying DVD. And there it was, but it was not a shell torn field before me, but the damaged landscape of a city. Houses, once homes, formed the backdrop to the German front lines, their communication and other trenches snaked through them.
First of all, this is a detail of a trench map from near the time my Grandfather was there (courtesy the McMaster Trench Map Collection). The blue lines, are the Allied trenches, the red German. Also shown on here is a tunnel that extends far behind the German front lines. Burning Bing is pretty much dead centre in the map, with a little sap (or dead end trench that extends out from the line) leading out to it. The city behind the British lines is Cité Callone, facing them is the city of Lievin. The panorama photo was taken from directly behind Burning Bing, towards those rows of houses on the map. As you can see from this, the trench system was a veritable rabbit's warren. Small wonder that soldiers needed guides to get in and out of the front line, especially when you think that looking over the top of the trench to get your bearings often resulted in a sniper's bullet to the head.
Next is an overlap (courtesy of my friend Tighe McManus, a historian and fellow member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group) of a similar trench map, overlaid on the present day Google Earth image. The area of No Man's Land that extends beyond the camera's lens, to the opposite trenches in the Panorama is now a city park.
And finally the panorama (or rather part of it), looking out over Burning Bing. It isn't very high resolution, the viewer on the DVD leaves alot to be desired, only opening the images in a small window and not offering much resolution. But this gives you a general idea.
This is a rather poor composite image of parts of the panorama that I gleaned off the DVD to try and get a better resolved picture. I'm not sure if the dark area on the right is smoke from Burning Bing or just blemishes on the photo. Perhaps it is the larger pile of rubble to the centre right.
One thing you can see, is just how close these two lines are to each other, a distance of only a couple of hundred metres. In other parts of the line the distance could be much, much closer. The Canadian barbed wire can be seen running about midway in the photo. The German trench, though not really visible, would be between there and the houses, closer to the houses.
And although its not really visible, rest assured that the location of both trenches was well known to the combatants. But for me the really startling thing about this photo is the houses. Battered and mere shells to be sure, but standing. A far cry from the flattened landscape of my imagination. "What a fine view" indeed.