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 road. 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.
The 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.
There 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.
In this post, Professor John Beckett outlines the hidden history preserved in a small corner of Northern France
A few miles south of Arras, along a road tucked in behind the village of Ayette, one of those familiar dark green Commonwealth War Graves Commission signposts appears to direct you
to turn left into a hedge. In fact, on closer inspection it turns out to be an unmade lane or track. Being wise after the event, I recommend walking down the track – either that or being prepared for a long reverse since there is nowhere to turn a car around! Two hundred yards or so along the track you reach the Ayette ‘Indian and Chinese Cemetery, 1917-1918’. What on earth, I wondered, was this small cemetery doing in this remote location, and why was it dedicated to Indian and Chinese casualties? Indian we can guess since we know that many troops came to Europe to be part of the Imperial war machine. We may not know as much about them as about the white British lads who we expect to find memorialised on the gravestones of the cemeteries maintained by the CWGC, but we know about their military role, notably in 1915.
But China? Why should any Chinese people have been tied up in this war? World War it may have been, but I do not recall China being lined up on either side of the Imperial divide? Unlike India, it was not part of the British Empire.
So what is the story? As is well known, between 1914 and 1916 the British army grew rapidly in line with the recruitment policy instigated in August 1914 by Lord Kitchener as soon as he was appointed Secretary of State for War. By the eve of the Battle of the Somme the relatively tiny band of regulars and territorials who had been mobilised in 1914 had been transformed into a fighting force of more than one million men occupying almost 200 km of trenches along the Western Front. As it had grown in size and activities, front-line units had been supported with food, ammunition and war materials, largely as a result of the work of the British labour corps and pioneer battalions or combat troops resting from the trenches. These men also built camps, salvaged weapons and munitions from the battlefields, and carried out repairs to roads, railways and airfields. As such, the vastly inflated army was underpinned in order to maintain its pursuit of trench warfare.
All this changed when the Battle of the Somme commenced on 1 July 1916. The casualty rates were such that with a few months there was a severe labour shortage on the Western Front. Every able-bodied serviceman was needed at the front, and the British were increasingly desperate to find fresh sources of manpower. At home this was largely achieved by the introduction of conscription, but in addition to extra soldiers they also needed labourers. Where we these to be found?
In October 1916 the War Office approached the Chinese government, which was then officially neutral. It came up with a plan which led to the formation of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). Public proclamations, often promoted by local missionaries, encouraged Chinese men to join the Corps, which was non-combatant but under British military control and discipline. For poor Chinese peasants, particularly those in the cold northern provinces of Shantung and Chihli, pledging themselves to three years of service in return for pay which was far better than they could hope for at home, seemed like a winner. The first transport of Chinese labourers made its way to Europe via Canada at the beginning of 1917. By the end of 1917 there were 54,000 Chinese labourers attached to the Commonwealth forces in France and Belgium. This figure doubled by November 1918.
Meantime, and partly because the British were uncertain about the likely response in China, preparations had been made to expand the existing Indian Labour Corps. Labour battalions of men serving with the Indian Corps had been used on the Western Front since September 1915 but it was only in 1916 that steps were taken towards forming a separate Indian Labour Corps. The civil authorities in the various Indian provinces were asked to start recruitment campaigns and the first Indian labourers arrived in Marseilles in June 1917. By the end of August 1917 over 20,000 workers had arrived in France. At the Armistice the Chinese Labour Corps numbered nearly 96,000 and even in May 1919, 80,000 were at work in Europe.
In the course of 1917 and 1918 men from the Indian and Chinese labour corps undertook transport, maintenance; salvage and construction work on the Western Front and as such made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. They were mostly deployed beyond the range of enemy guns, and managed by officers of European extraction, many of whom were former civil servants or missionaries who were able to communicate with the workers but had little or no military background. Even so, many of the Chinese and Indian Labour Corps died as the result of long-range shelling, air raids, and enemy action during the German Spring Offensive in 1918. Others fell victim to illness, particularly Spanish flu through the winter of 1918-19. In total around 2,000 Chinese and 1,500 Indian labourers died while serving on the Western Front.
The Indian and Chinese cemetery at Ayette was set up by British troops in September 1917 and used until April 1918. However, Ayette was the scene of heavy fighting in March 1918, and the village was captured by German troops during the offensive. If was retaken by the 32nd Division on 3 April 1918 and remained in Allied hands thereafter. Interments at Ayette resumed in autumn 1918, and although the cemetery claims on its perimeter wall to have burials from 1917-18 it contains a number of later burials from 1919. The cemetery has a lovely little pagoda. It holds 109 members of the Indian Army, 42 men of the Indian labour corps, 33 men of the Chinese labour corps, and one German interment (Heinrich Vodische). It has the full range of inscriptions the Imperial War Graves Commission agreed with the Chinese for their graves, including ‘A Noble Duty Bravely Done’, and ‘A Good Reputation Endures Forever’. The gravestones are a mixture of English and Chinese or Indian script.
Some labour corps units remained in France after the Armistice to help with the clearing of the battlefields, which largely meant the exhumation and re-interment of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers in nominated cemeteries. How many of the Chinese Labour Corps subsequently made their way home is unclear. Apart from those who died, it seems likely that many remained in Europe.
 Rose E.B. Coombs, Before Endeavours Fade (2010), 100
Like many universities, Nottingham was touched by the Great War. In this guest post, Emma Thorne looks at the story of one young man whose journey took him from Nottingham to the battlefields of Europe.
For almost 100 years, the name Captain Jacob Hardy Smith has been on permanent display on the marbled corridors of the University’s Trent Building. If you’re a member of staff or a student, chances are you’ve probably walked past it countless times without ever giving it a second glance.
Jacob is one of more than 200 officers and cadets from the University who gave their lives in service to their country during the First World War and whose sacrifice is commemorated in a special memorial plaque.
His name may have endured for almost a century but until recently it appeared that the details of Jacob’s life and heroic actions during the conflict, like those of his fellow servicemen, had been largely lost to history.University’s WW1 memorial plaque
That was until a chance enquiry to the University’s Centre for Hidden Histories led to Jacob being commemorated as part of an online initiative by the Imperial War Museum.
Prudie Robins, Jacob’s great niece got in touch with Michael Noble, Community Liaison Officer at the centre after discovering that Jacob had been a member of the Officer Training Corps (OTC) at University College Nottingham in April 1909 through an entry in the London Gazette.
Prudie, who lives in Lincolnshire, had been researching her family history in an effort to shed light on the story of her great uncle — her grandmother’s youngest brother — but the details were rather sketchy. However, she had discovered that Leicestershire-born Jacob, the son of a leather merchant, had joined the OTC at the University College Nottingham while studying the chemistry of tanning.
Researching the past
Michael Noble, Community Liaison Officer at the centre, was able to confirm that Jacob had been among the members of the college’s OTC and that his name is among those on the University’s First World War memorial. Colleague Professor John Beckett has been researching the OTC at University College as part of a wider history of The University of Nottingham which he is currently writing.
Even more excitingly, the academics were able to dig up some further information through the University’s Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections. Among the records related to the OTC were documents that made mention of Jacob Hardy Smith as a former OTC ‘old boy, done good’ — he got his commission into the Connaught Rangers, a regiment with affiliations to the Rifle Brigade, in 1914 and there is reference to the medals which he was awarded later in his career.Jacob Hardy Smith
Additionally, they uncovered a photograph of the OTC around the time when Jacob was a member, led by commanding officer Sam Trotman, although they were unable to identify his face among the crowd due to the quality of the image. Michael said:
“I sent a copy of the photograph to Prudie and she was delighted that we were able to confirm that there was a record of Jacob here. This started a dialogue between us and it was nice that we were able to support her in the research she had been doing into her own family history.”
Between them, they have been able to piece together the story of Jacob’s military service, starting with his training on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent as part of the 6th Battalion. Information from the Royal Green Jackets Museum shows he later joined the 3rd Battalion and was among the first wave of soldiers to arrive on French soil, landing on 10th September 1914, just over a month after Britain declared war on Germany.
An extract from the Rifle Brigade Chronicles reveals that Jacob led an attack on German trenches on the 25th September with great courage and determination and in which the Brits suffered heavy losses. The war record from the 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade talks of how in October, 2nd Lieutenant JH Smith was mentioned in despatches and received the Military Cross for his part in the bold capture of an enemy officer in a separate skirmish.
Jacob died in No 2 Stationary Hospital on the Somme on 29th August 1916 from serious wounds sustained through fighting two enemy officers in hand to hand combat at Guillemont — both of whom he killed — and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order medal posthumously for his meritorious service.Jacob’s medals.
In recommending him for the DSO, Jacob’s commanding Colonel wrote:
“He was the best Company Commander by far that I have seen out here. Absolutely fearless on all occasions, he was a very fine example of what an officer should be. He had trained his Company to perfection and the way in which his Company behaved, after all the officers had been hit, was entirely due to him.”
Prudie has since made a special visit to his grave in the Abbeville Communal Cemetery on the Somme and she honoured his memory by planting a ceramic poppy at the recent WW1 memorial at The Tower of London. Through her research she was even able to uncover distant cousins who she hadn’t known existed. A big moment was the discovery that they too had some cherished possessions belonging to Jacob — most notably his original medals which Prudie had feared lost.
“The research really took over my life,” she said. “It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle and it has taken me the length and breadth of the country chasing leads. I would spend hours scanning the internet before finding another potential clue and then off I’d go again.”
The Centre for Hidden Histories is part of a partnership with the Imperial War Museum, which has uploaded many thousands of records of those who served to a searchable online resource through an initiative called Lives of the First World War. The initial data was taken from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but has now expanded to include records from other sources including the British Merchant Navy and the British Women’s Royal Air Force Service Records.
The idea behind the initiative is to preserve these old records for posterity and to champion the men and women who gave their lives during the First World War.
“It’s like Facebook for dead people,” Michael added irreverently. “You can also upload images and documents and it produces a personal timeline from birth to death. Importantly, it also encourages other people such as family members to get involved in remembering them and telling their story by uploading their own materials.”
Preserving the past for future generations
The centre has worked with the museum to promote the resource but also to test it and, with Prudie’s permission, Michael used Jacob Hardy Smith as a test case and means of exploring the effectiveness of the site.
Between them they have posted everything they could find about Jacob, including old family photographs, images of surviving artefacts belonging to Jacob including a pocket watch, an engraved silver wallet and moving letters that Jacob sent home to family from the trenches — in one he includes a touching hand drawn sketch of his dugout for his five-year-old niece Joan.Jacob’s drawing of his dugoutJacob’s pocket watch
Prudie has found the resource to be a fantastic way of ensuring that Jacob’s story is preserved for future generations of her family, while enjoying the ability to contribute to building a fuller picture of his life and gallant actions. She added:
“I would recommend this type of family research to anyone, it really has been quite an adventure. Before I began on this journey I really knew very little about my grandmother’s side of our family. Previously, Jacob had been little more than an anonymous face in a photograph and a small collection of his surviving possessions. Now I feel I know more of the man and can be proud to be a part of his family.”
If Jacob’s tale has inspired you to dig into your own family’s history, why not come along to the Centre for Hidden History’s free Family History Day on University Park campus on Tuesday July 21? The event will offer the opportunity to learn how to go about uncovering clues to your ancestry and researching your family tree. There will also be the chance for members of the public to use the University’s specialist technology to make high quality scans of their photographs and documents. Representatives of the Lives of the First World War project will be there encouraging people to use the site to remember their families.