Czech Cemetery near Arras

Czech Cemetery near Arras

Dr Nigel Hunt explores a cemetery dedicated to the often-forgotten Czechs on the Western Front

Between Arras and Bethune, near the village of La Targette there are two monuments, one on either side of the rCzech cemetery - signpostoad. On the left is a Czech cemetery, containing the remains of the Czech people who fought for France. The cemetery was constructed where the 2nd Battle of Artois took place, where the French and allied forces were trying to retake Vimy Ridge, which had been captured by the Germans in 1914 and provided clear views of the French positions. The area had been heavily fortified with a complex of tunnels, dugouts and machine gun posts – and was known as the Labyrinth.

The battle started on 9 May 1915, with British troops attacking in the north and the 10th French army attacking in the south. While the allies successfully recaptured a number of villages, they failed to retake Vimy Ridge.

The Czech cemetery is at the site of the original hamlet of La Targette (the modern town is to the south). It was originally built to commemorate the contribution of the Czechs to the 2nd battle of Artois, but was later extended to include Czechs who had died elsewhere on the Western Front.

Czech cemetery- memorialThe Czechs were in an unusual position at the outset of the war. Officially there were to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the side of the Germans, but many were trying to obtain independence for Czechoslovakia, so would rather fight against the Austro-Hungarians. In the east many were captured by the Russians (sometimes voluntarily) and they formed the Czech Legion to fight against the Austro-Hungarians. In the West, the Czechs who lived in France and elsewhere joined the Czech section of the French Foreign Legion in order to fight for independence. The first unit to fight for the French was the Nazdar Company, made up of 250 men. The name Nazdar comes from the unit’s battle cry, and means ‘Hi’. Eventually the number of Czech and Slovak soldiers came to 150,000 men who had volunteered from around the world. The initial men of the Nazdar company were the ones who fought on 9th May, assaulting and capturing a hill. Around 50 were killed, with another 20 dying of wounds.

The men stayed in the French Foreign Legion until the end of the war, and then joined their own army of the newly formed Czechoslovakia. In 1925 the Association of the Czechoslovakian Volunteers of France decided to erect a memorial to those who died. [memorial picture here] It was created by the artist Jaroslav Hruska. A commemorative service is still held here each May.

It wasn’t until 1938 that it was proposed to put a cemetery at La Targette. Twenty four lime trees were brought from Czechoslovakia and planted but the Second World War interrupted the development of the site and the cemetery wasn’t built until 1958. In the end 206 graves (including 136 from the Second World War) were brought here from cemeteries around France. The cemetery was officially open in 1963 and the last burials took place in 1970.

Czech cemetery - Cross of John of BohemiaThere is a Bohemian cross in the centre of the cemetery [cross image here] reminding the visitor of John of Luxembourg, the king of Bohemia, who died at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. He was blind at the time of the battle, and when he realised the battle was lost, he order two of his soldiers to lead him at the English, who killed him. There is also a monument at Crecy commemorating this suicidal act.

Opposite the Czech cemetery is a memorial to the Polish troops who fought in the French Foreign Legion at the same time as the Czechs. They too were fighting to obtain independence for their homeland.

Dulmial Gun presentation video

Dr Irfan Malik’s Dulmial Gun project gave us one of our most popular blog posts when we covered it back in September. Dr Malik recently gave a talk about his work at a study day organised by Voices of War & Peace and held at the Library of Birmingham.

In this video, filmed by Abhinay Khoparzi, Dr Malik can be seen outlining the origins of his interest, the historical background of the gun itself, and its meaning for Dulmial.

 

Dulmial Village contribution in World War 1 by Dr Irfan Malik from Gohar Sultan on Vimeo.

From Bombay to the Western Front

On Tuesday evening, I attended a commemorative event at the Imperial War Museum North. It had been organised to reflect on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, which was the first major offensive to involve the British Indian Army.

Among the speakers at the event was Dr Santanu Das, of the English department at Kings College London. Dr Das, who is an expert in the culture and literature of the First World War, made the argument that while the First World War is often defined as the ‘clash of empires’, it could equally be defined as a watershed event in the history of cultural encounters in Europe.

Dr Das has been leading an international and interdisciplinary team of researchers and a number of cultural institutions across Europe to illuminate and examine this question during the centennial years of the war’s commemoration.

In this film we see how Dr Das has partnered with Imperial War Museum, London, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres, and the Museum of European Culture, Berlin to scour their (and many other) vast archives for letters, photographs, literary texts, sketches, artefacts, newspapers, and audio recordings. We see how all these sources are being brought together to be examined side-by-side, in order to piece together a fuller picture of the experience of the Indian troops and labourers, and the Europeans who they came into contact with.

First World War Collaborative Projects

The Centenary of the First World War provides an opportunity to build on the renewed popular interest in the war to collaborate and share expertise. Here are some of the initiatives that are offering such chances.

Lives of the First World War

lives-of-the-first-world-war-300x300The Lives programme is the Imperial War Museum’s effort to build a permanent digital memorial to the Lives of the First World War. The site offers people the opportunity to work with the IWM to piece together more than 8 million life stories, share them, and enable IWM to save them for future generations.

Each individual whose contribution to the First World War is recorded in official documents will have a personal Life Story page. Information about each person and their wartime experiences can be connected to Life Stories by members of the public who access the site.

Members can:

  • Link together evidence relating to the same person, using records from museums, libraries and archives across the world.
  • Add references to sources they have discovered elsewhere.
  • Upload digital images of their own precious family mementoes.
  • Include family stories and personal knowledge.
  • Group together individuals they are interested in by creating your own Community

As more and more people connect facts to Life Stories, the project can begin to piece together each individual’s life story.

Operation War Diaryoperation-war-diary

Operation War Diary is an effort to tag, classify and understand original documents from the First World War.

It brings together original First World War documents from The National Archives, the historical expertise of IWM and the power of the Zooniverse community.Working together, they and their volunteers will make previously inaccessible information available to academics, researchers and family historians worldwide, leaving a lasting legacy for the centenary of the First World War.

Data gathered through Operation War Diary will be used for three main purposes:

  • to enrich The National Archives’ catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries,
  • to provide evidence about the experience of named individuals in IWM’s Lives of the First World War project
  • to present academics with large amounts of accurate data to help them gain a better understanding of how the war was fought

All of the data produced by Operation War Diary will eventually be available to everyone free of charge- a lasting legacy and a rich and valuable introduction to the world of the War Diaries.

UK Web Archive –First World War Special Collection

ukwa-logo-150The British Library archives the whole of the UK web domain under the terms of the Non-Print Legal Deposit Regulations 2013. This is done in an automated way, typically once a year.

In addition, their Special Collections are groups of websites, usually more than fifty and less than four hundred, brought together on a particular theme. These have been especially compiled by curators and other subject specialist to make useful and interesting Special Collections.

The First World War Centenary 2014-18 is a Special Collection that gathers suitable websites from the centenary period.

The Special Collection is open to sites that are issued from a .uk or other UK geographic top-level domain or where part of the publishing process takes place in the UK.

Sites concerning film and recorded sound where the audio-visual content predominates (but, for example, web pages containing video clips alongside text or images are within scope), private intranets and emails and personal data will not be included.

Site owners can nominate their site for inclusion here

 

Letter to an Unknown Solider

Michael takes a look at a creative approach to remembrance…

This week I had the great pleasure to listen to a presentation given by Kate Pullinger of Bath Spa University. Kate, along with her colleague Neil Bartlett, spent much of this year working on the Letter to an Unknown Soldier project, which is a digital memorial scheme that invited people of 2014 to engage with someone from a century ago.

The statue at Paddington station
The statue at Paddington station

The project, which is supported by 1418 NOW, is based on Charles Jagger’s memorial statue, which is situated on platform 1 of Paddington Station and was unveiled by Viscount Churchill on Armistice Day 1922. The statue, which portrays the soldier in full battle gear, was designed to show him reading a letter from home. Pullinger and Bartlett’s idea was to invite people to imagine what they would write if they had sent that letter. What would they say?

They put out a call for people to send them their letters so that they could publish them on a dedicated website. The submission period was open from 28th June, the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to 4th August, a hundred years on from Prime Minister Asquith’s announcement that Britain had joined the war.

They received an astonishing response. Over 21,000 letters were submitted by people from all walks of life and from all over the world. Every single letter was read and published.

Although the project is a digital one, many people chose to write them by hand and post them in the traditional way, even if they had initially composed it on a computer. There is, Kate suggests, something in the act of putting pen to paper and physically posting it that makes people feel a closer connection to the recipient. Handwritten letters were scanned and are available to view online with every pen mark intact. A selection of the letters were later gathered for publication in a book that was released in November in time for Remembrance Sunday.

The soldier reading his letter
The soldier reading his letter

It’s a fascinating project that succeeds by prompting people to think about the effects and experience of war in a personal way. It can be difficult to know what to write to someone you have never met, and never will, and to do so across such a gap of time. As the thousands of writers can no doubt attest, it is worth the effort.