Tuesday, 26 March 2013

1000 page views - thanks!

We have now reached 1,000 page views on this site since it opened on February 9th - so many thanks to everyone who has taken the time to check it out, I hope you've found something useful or interesting.

We celebrate with pictures of the boxer Georges Carpentier in his air force uniform (Boxer. Hits. It's a sort of pun, you see. Please don't get in touch to say a boxer doesn't 'hit', but 'punches' - I'm not letting the facts get in the way of a good, or even a bad, pun).

Carpentier became first French welterweight champion in 1911 at the age of only 17, following this up later in the same year by securing the European title. He then moved up weights twice, becoming European middleweight champion in 1912, then European light-heavyweight champion in 1913. On June 1 1913, he beat Bombardier Billy Wells to become European heavyweight champion. Just over a year later he was crowned as 'white heavyweight champion of the world' after beating the American Ed Gunboat Smith on July 16.

On the outbreak of war, Carpentier volunteered in advance of call-up on 7 August 1914. After serving as a driver, he was selected for service in the Aéronautique Militaire, and was sent to the flying school at Avord for pilot training. Qualifying from there on Farmans on 16 June 1915, he was posted to Belfort. On 11 September 1915, he was posted to MF55, at La Cheppe-Cuperly, during the Champagne Offensive. He was there awarded the Croix de Guerre. His citation read 'September 25. He did not hesitate to fly during misty weather and rain less than 200 metres above in enemy lines. he has given proof in many circumstances of sang froid, never returning until his mssion was accomplished, often with his machine, riddled with bullets and shell-splinters.'

On April 9 1916, he was transferred to F8, based at Tilloy in the Verdun sector. Here, he was awarded the Médaille Militaire. His citation read, 'Sergeant Pilot Carpentier as a skilled aviator impresses everyone with his bravery, executing perilous missions on a daily basis. He distinguished himself during the attack of October 26th, flying over the enemy lines at a low altitude for four hours, despite unfavourable weather, contemptuous of the danger.' A brief interview, in French, of his time at Verdun, is here (starting at around 02:50).

In December 1916, he became ill, and was eventually declared unfit to serve as a pilot. Subsequently, he took part in boxing exhibitions for the troops, based at the Army's physical education depot at Joinville, near Paris. He was demobilized at the end of the war.

In the 1918-19 season, he played rugby as wing three-quarter for Sporting Club Universitaire de France (I bet he had a good hand-off!), but at the end of the season, he resumed his professional boxing career. He resumed his light-heavyweight crown by beating Battling Levinsky in 1920, but lost to Jack Dempsey in the following year. He secured the European title in 1922 by knocking out Kid Lewis in the first round, but lost all his titles when he was defeated by Battling Siki on 24 September 1922. His last important fight was against Gene Tunney on 24 July 1924 (on Youtube here, but with a Japanese commentary!).

He retired from the ring in 1927, trying his hand at novels, then at films, before opening a series of bars in Paris. He died on 28 October 1975, aged 81.

Photos: Gallica (top), Wikipedia (bottom)

Butte des Zouaves 1914 and 2013

 2013 sees the 182nd anniversary of the creation of the regiments of zouaves in the French Army.

An annual ceremony takes place around Nampcel and Quennevières (Oise), on the nearest weekend to the anniversary; in 2013, it took place on Sunday 24th March. Wreaths are laid at the monuments to the 2nd Zouaves at Quennevières, and to the 9th Zouaves at nearby Carlepont, as well as a ceremony of commemoration at the Butte de Zouaves.

In September this year, a monument and memorial garden will be inaugurated at the Butte de Zouaves to commemorate all zouaves killed in action in all of France's wars. The Butte itself formed part of the German front line in late 1914. On December 21st, a French offensive towards Puisaleine Farm, although heavily supported by artillery, managed to achieve only a toe-hold in the German positions. Enemy reinforcements soon cut off the attacking troops, and most were killed or captured. An explosion on the Butte buried a large number of the French attackers, belonging to the 2nd Zouaves; the exact cause of the explosion, whether a mine or an accident, remains unknown. Of the whole attack, the regimental history (on Gallica) commented that these attacks were the bloody proof that attrition and suffering had been unable to tame the mystique of the offensive. The regimental war diaries do not appear to have survived.

Although a historic monument, the area near the Butte des Zouaves site has been threatened recently by a proposal to create a landfill site close by. Originally proposed in 2009, three years of protesting have had no effect on the department prefect, and he gave his go-ahead at the end of 2012. A local news programme deals with it here.

The 2nd Zouaves was originally raised in 1835. In 1914, it created a régiment de marche from its 1st, 5th and 11th Battalions. The regiment formed part of 73rd Brigade, 37th Division. The 9th Zouaves was formed in 1914 from three battalions serving in Morocco, 1/4th and 2/ and 3/1st Zouaves, and was originally known as the régiment de marche de la 3e brigade du Maroc. It was later renamed as 9th Régiment de marche de Zouaves. The regiment was attached to 37th Division until April 1915, when it was transferred to 153rd Division, with which it served for the remainder of the war.

Information about the Nampcel / Quennevières ceremonies can be found on the site of the Union Nationale des Zouaves, here. The proposed Butte de Zouaves monument is covered here. A walk (2-3 hours, 6.2km) covering sites connected with the Great War around the nearby village of Tracy-le-Mont is here. A proposal to create a Great War museum in Tracy is here. The excellent Marsouins, Chacals et Turcos website covers all three arms of service - colonial troops, zouaves and Algerian tirailleurs - in great detail.

Pictures: the ceremony at Quennevières in 2012 from collectifrance40.free.fr; newspaper cutting from pages14-18.mesdiscussions.net; 'zouaves attacking at Quennevières' from an old postcard.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Mathurin Méheut: an artist at war

The opening of a new exhibition is as good a reason as any to mention a favourite artist, Mathurin Méheut.

Méheut was born in Lamballe (Côtes d'Armor) in 1882. His early career was spent as an illustrator, first for the magazine Art et Décoration, and then for the marine research establishment at Roscoff, illustrating marine flora and fauna. In 1913, he won a travelling scholarship from the Albert Kahn Foundation, to paint in Japan. The trip was interrupted by the outbreak of war.

He was recalled into the 136th Infantry, and served with them as a sergeant and sous-lieutenant in Artois and the Argonne. Between 1916 and 1917, promoted to lieutenant, he served with the Army's Topographical Section, responsible for the Army's mapping, firstly at Sainte-Ménéhould with 10th Corps, and then with 1st Army at Bergues, in Flanders. He continued to draw and paint whilst in the trenches. But his work would not consist of heroic battle scenes, like those made famous by the likes of Edouard Detaille or Alphonse de Neuville, rather it concentrated on intimate scenes of soldiers and daily life in the trenches. He wrote as many as five letters a day to his wife throughout the war, all full of marginal sketches and illustrations, in addition to more formal studies. 'I have to justify myself as an artist as much as a soldier', he wrote. For him, art was 'the best way I can show friendship and admiration for my brave men', and he would be so happy 'if these poor scraps, which I've drawn as and when I could, could survive.'

 Mark Levitch, in his Panthéon de la Guerre: reconfiguring a panorama of the Great War (Columbia, University of Missouri, 2006) has suggested that an absence of individual portraiture amongst the work of Méheut (and other soldier-artists like Jean-Louis Lefort) served to stress the dehumanization of the war, by depriving soldiers of their individual identity. Yet Méheut himself did not appear to feel dehumanized by any means. 'While the battle was raging off to our left,' he wrote to his wife in May 1915, 'I found a beautiful beetle in the trench, and picked it up. But in sheltering from the shells, I crushed it in my pocket. I was heart-broken.'

A news item from French regional television on his wartime paintings is here.

After demobilisation, he devoted much of his time to illustration, taking much of his inspiration from his native Brittany. He was made an Official Painter to the French Navy in 1921, and also assisted with the internal decoration of nine ocean liners, including the Normandie

His output was prolific throughout his life, working largely in watercolour, but also including pottery and book illustration, houses and public buildings (the Villa Miramar in Cap-Martin for Albert Kahn, and the hall of Heinz Building in Pittsburgh). He died in 1958.

His home town of Lamballe includes a museum devoted to Méheut. A major retrospective of his work opened on 27th February 2013 at the Musée de la Marine in Paris, and will run until 30th June. Denis-Michel Boëll, the curator of the exhibition, gives a video presentation here. The last major retrospective on the artist was in 1982; a video presentation is here. There is also another presentation of some of his works, concentrating on his Breton material, here.


Pictures (top to bottom): A sentry, Bois de la Gruerie, September 1915; Letter in the trenches, November 1914; Grande Place, Arras; An execution; the artist as a young man; the exhibition poster from current exhibition at the Musée de la Marine; one of his Breton pictures - Le pardon de Penhors.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A laughing cow and other animals

Partly from esprit de corps and partly for the more prosaic reason of traffic management, many French transport units of the Great War adopted their own badge, which was displayed prominently on the vehicles. I wrote about them in my first Osprey title here.

Some badges are shown in the contemporary magazine illustration on the left - top row left to right TM431, SS141, SS625; second row TM55, TM516; third row SS64, SS8, TM716; fourth row SS92, SR709, TM48; fifth row TM557 and TM273. SS units were ambulances (sections sanitaires), SR units carried metalling for road maintenance (section routière), and TM units transported equipment (transport de matériel). Some units used a background colour for the badge that varied according to the sub-unit - white, blue, red or yellow. For more on transport units during the war, look at Les camions de la victoire by Paul Heuzé here, or the more modern book with the same title, by Jean-Michel Boniface and Jean-Gabriel Jeudy. Sadly, there is no work, contemporary or modern, that depicts all the badges.

Another unit with a badge was RVF B70, which specialised in the transportation of fresh meat for an infantry division, using 7-8 converted Paris buses (RVF = ravitaillement en viande fraiche). Perhaps because their vehicles swooped down, picked up meat and carried it off to distant parts, the men of the unit had toyed with adopted the nickname La Walkyrie, after the maidens of Norse mythology. But quickly this was transformed into La Wachkyrie - ie 'la vache qui rit' = 'the laughing cow'.

One of the unit's personnel was the comics illustrator and artist Benjamin Rabier, who drew a suitable badge.

Another men in the same unit was one Léon Bel. After the war, he set up a company at Lons-le-Saulnier in the Jura, to manufacture cheese. But what to use for a company logo? He then remembered his old unit's badge, which he thought would be ideal. He sought permission from the artist and from his former comrades in the unit, who all agreed, and so, with a few tweaks, a famous logo was born.

In January 1919, reproductions of many unit badges were shown in a Parisian art gallery, in aid of a benefit fund for former military drivers. A notice appeared in Le Figaro of 16 January p.3, col.6 (Gallica), while some (black and white) photographs of some of the exhibits also appear on Gallica, although the units are not identified.

As for the pelican of TM557 (on the bottom row of the picture at the top), a composer of popular music by the name of Clapson saw it at the exhibition, and was inspired to write a dance tune, The Pelican Fox-Trot (listen to it, played by Kaplan's Melodists, here). So popular was the tune, that a Lille brewery put a pelican on the label of its bottles to try and cash in on the craze. Then, taking the first letters of 'pelican', and adding the word for 'strong' - fort - plus a gratuitous final H to give the word an English look (it was a dark beer rather than a lager), they renamed the beer Pelforth. And another famous logo was born!

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Centenary? What Centenary?

In a post on the Theatrum Belli blog, at http://theatrum-belli.org/il-existe-une-mission-du-centenaire-de-la-premiere-guerre-mondiale-mais-pour-quelles-missions/ , the noted French military historian of the Great War, Rémy Porte, looks at what is planned officially in France to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, and doesn't like what he sees.

While many communities, departments and regions have announced plans and projects for local commemorations, Porte has failed to find anything concrete coming from central government, apart from one website. Lots of meetings, but no product.

What is worse, he says, is that the people who attend these meetings represent every little clique, every school of thought, niche and theme about the War - the cultural, social, economic, political, diplomatic, scientific and technical, financial and budgetary factors of the conflict; medical services, coal mining, the press, the Christmas truce - all have their enthusiastic supporters. Every aspect, that is, but one - the military campaign. No-one seems to be taking an interest in the actual fighting. There is nothing, he complains, about the organization of the armies of the belligerents, their training, equipment, leadership, doctrine and planning; nor anything about the conduct of operations, the strategic interaction between the fronts, comparisons between countries, the roles of soldiers at every level within their army, nor the immediate and distant causes of the war.

Perhaps through gritted teeth, he compares the situation in France unfavourably with the situation in the UK, where David Cameron's speech last October at least gave an impression that, on this side of the Channel, there is a coherent programme of commemoration.

There have been a number of dissenting voices in the UK as well, seeking to fine tune the Prime Ministerial proposals, but there is some comfort in knowing that someone thinks we are doing well. But I don't want to be the one who has to tell M. Porte that the school of military history that ignores all those howwid guns and all that sordid killing is alive and well in some of our universities.

We shall see.

The new East Riding flag: voting continues

The voting has already started to choose a new flag for the East Riding of Yorkshire. Hurry along to http://andystrangeway.wordpress.com/east-riding-flag/ to cast your vote. The finalists are:

A

B
C

D
E
Edit: the voting has now closed. The winner will be announced on 15 April

Further edit: the winner is D, designed by Trevor and Thomas Appleton. The flag is now registered with the Flag Institute.
F

The new North Riding flag: voting begins

The voting has opened for a new flag for the North Riding of Yorkshire. Get along to http://andystrangeway.wordpress.com/north-riding-flag/ to cast your vote. The flags on the shortlist are
A
B

C

D

E

F

Edit: voting has now closed, and the winning design of the new flag will be announced on May 1st, and will be unfurled for the first time at the Strathmore Arms, Holwick on May 4th.

Edit the second: And the winner is .... [roll of drums] ... D! Congratulations to the designer, Jason Saber, from Kent. See Andy Stangeway's site

Friday, 1 March 2013

Blue for remembrance

The picture at the top of this blog is a badge representing a cornflower. The cornflower, le bleuet, is the symbol of remembrance in France, just as the poppy is in British Commonwealth countries. Just like the poppy, the cornflower continued to grow and flower on shell-torn battlefields. Bleuet was also a nickname given to the young men of the Class of 1915, called up in December 1914. In French, un bleu is a generic nickname given to young recruits, originating in the previous century (apparently because so many turned up at the barrack gates wearing a blue workingman's smock); and when they were issued with the new horizon blue uniform, the name seemed doubly appropriate.
 

In 1916, two women, Suzanne Lenhardt and Charlotte Malterre, thought up a scheme for badly-wounded men, who had been discharged from the Army, to manufacture and sell small paper cornflowers as a way of earning a small income, and help get them back into work. Lenhardt was the chief nurse at the Invalides; her husband had been killed in Champagne in 1915. Charlotte Malterre was the daughter of General Niox, the Director of the Invalides, and the wife of Brigadier General Pierre Malterre, who had lost a leg in September 1914.

On 15 September 1920, Louis Fontenaille, the president of the Mutilés de France, the principal disabled soldiers' organisation, proposed to the Fédération Interalliée des Anciens Combattants that the cornflower should become the symbol of French service personnel killed during the war.
 
Originally, the production of the flowers was the responsibility of the individual pensioners of the Invalides, but a proper workshop was set up there in 1925. The cornflowers were sold on the streets of Paris from 11 November 1934 - 128,000 were sold. The following year, the State decreed that cornflowers should be worn on every 11 November, and permitted the sale of the flowers everywhere in France. In 1957, a second day of wear, 8 May, was added. From 11 November 2012, serving members of the French armed forces were permitted to wear a cornflower whilst in uniform.

The responsibility for producing the cornflowers is now that of the Oeuvre National du Bleuet de France, still based at the Invalides in Paris, which remains a home for old soldiers as well as a museum. Since 1991, its operations have been supervised by the Office National des Anciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre (National Office for Former Soldiers and Victims of War), a government department with special responsibility for ex-servicemen.

Photos: the current bleuet, the logo of the Oeuvre National du Bleuet de France, and a cinderella stamp, from Wikipedia; the portraits of Lenhardt (top) and Malterre from Alsace1418.fr