This week, I was lucky enough to take three days away from work to take part in a battlefield recce of First World War sites around Amiens in France. Battlefield guiding has become a passion for me in recent years and has brought significant benefits. I want to use this week’s blog to both promote those benefits and the organisation with which I travelled, highlighting the benefits military organisations can gain through involvement with battlefield study and co-operation with civilian tour operators.
In 2010, the late Professor Richard Holmes described the benefits of battlefield study thus: ‘There is a merit to visiting historical battlefields that no amount of theoretical study can replace. Educationalists recognise that participation is the key to learning, and field study – with its unique and unutterably poignant mix of battlefield, cemetery, and memorial – talks to both intellect and emotion. This is not an optional extra; this, surely, is core business‘. It is easy to pay lip service to such virtuous language, but it was only this week that I truly understood what the great man meant. I have been reading and writing about the Battle of Le Hamel since 2014 and have visited the site of the battle on a handful of occasions since then. I never really understood the battle until Tuesday but now feel significantly more qualified to describe it and to interpret it for those I guide. Let me explain.
The village of Le Hamel sits on the edge of the floodplain of the River Somme, at the foot of a curve of low hills, not far from the French city of Amiens. The hills encompass the village like a question mark, with the village hard against the top curve and a spur of ground poking towards it from the high ground at the base. Famously, General Sir John Monash’s Australian infantry, supported by British and French artillery, British tanks and aeroplanes, and a detachment of American troops, captured the village and the all-important high ground in a little over 90 minutes on the 4th of July 1918. Although the battlefield is not large, being perhaps only a couple of miles long from the Australian start line to the final objective at the top of the low hill above the village, known as the Wolfsburg, it would have been no mean feat to have taken all objectives in so little time. Only by walking the ground and thinking about the writing on the subject in combination was it possible to understand it.
The key to the position, and the answer to the collapse of German resistance, were the two entrenched redoubts at the bottom of the ‘Question Mark’. The Australians stood on the high ground looking down into Le Hamel. Unfortunately for them the slope of the spur down which they had to proceed to attack the village was so gradual that the heavily defended ‘Pear Redoubt’ could not be seen. The only other route to the village passed between two small woods and into the gap between the German’s had inserted another redoubt, ‘Kidney Trench’. These positions were mutually supporting, with ‘Pear Trench’ clearly being positioned more for the support it could give ‘Kidney’ than for the perfection of its own position. This could only be gauged by walking the ground, when observed from the highest vantage point around, the Wolfsburg neither the distance nor the full effect of topography could be appreciated.
The German position was strong, but it was clearly little developed, the ground chosen took advantage of agricultural landscaping rather than military engineering to achieve an adequate defence. The 2,500 Germans who occupied the two redoubts would not have been the elite stormtroopers of the Spring Offensive, rather they would be the remains of those units supported by fresh drafts and older soldiers. The Australians would have been far more motivated and it was easy to see how they would quickly have overcome German resistance. In fact, as I considered the position I recalled how I had witnessed Bravo Company, the 1st Bn The King’s Own Scottish Borderers with their aggression, fitness, and determination clear enemy forces from a purpose built position in short order during an exercise on Salisbury Plain in 2002. Behind the two redoubts was a wide open area of ground in front of the village, once ejected from their positions, the German defenders must have streamed back to the smashed village in absolute disarray closely followed by their assailants.
The 2,500 Germans defending the obliterated remains of the village had clearly put up little resistance, the ruins presented a considerable obstacle, and would have taken the Australians days or weeks to clear in 1916 0r 1917. In addition to infantry, of course, the Australians were supported by a fleet of British Mark V tanks to which the defenders had little answer and terrifying aircraft providing close air support harrying their routed comrades. Until I walked the ground, I would have been sceptical of the claims made for Le Hamel, but having seen it, understood the human element, and the advantages of the Australians in terms of materiel and manpower the claims made for the battle looked eminently feasible. In short, by walking the battlefield I was able to understand it and whatismore I was empowered to teach in an authoritative manner.
But what of the organisation with which I travelled? I have worked with Simon Bendry’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme (FWWCBTP) since February 2015, and have acted both as a guide and in support as part of an embedded British Army contingent. These tours offer a unique opportunity for schools to take two children to the battlefields of the War and gain an in depth and relevant conception of the War itself, the nature of remembrance, and the effect of conflict on ordinary people. The Programme is government funded and received a grant of £5 million in 2014, it is run professionally and to an incredibly high academic standard and has taken thousands of children to the battlefields over the last 5 years. Those children have, in turn, completed community projects which have reached in excess of 15 million people across England. But perhaps the biggest winners in the programme have been the British Army; for very little cost, they have been party to this project and found engagement opportunities in communities into which the Army would have found it difficult to reach. The Army, I believe, should exploit the relationship more fully and invest in the Programme and I’d be interested to hear opinions from you all, particularly those involved in engagement.
Thank you for reading this little article, I would ask that next time you hear ‘Bottlefield Tours’ being criticised, you think back to this blog and challenge that view. Richard Holmes was right, we can understand warfare better by immersing ourselves in the shadows of its physical experience. We can also use it to our advantage in a military sense, by using it as an engagement media, using the values of those who served to educate the citizenry of the future.
Back next week with more concepts,
All the very best,