Twelve Silent Witnesses by Canon Jim Foley

Twelve Silent Witnesses by Canon Jim Foley

Part of the patrimony of St Augustine’s is a collection of twelve cartridge cases from World War I.   If they could only speak they would tell their own grim story, but they now lie hidden from sight in the recesses of St Augustine’s sacristy, silent witnesses to the enormity of war.   The story of how they came to be in our possession has never been told in any detail and probably never will be.   There is evidence enough that soldiers returning from the trenches had to make their way between miles of discarded cartridges piled high on either side of what remained of the roads that would bring them home.    It is equally evident that many of them would lift one and carry it home as a memento, like pilgrims returning from the holy Land. 

Already the soldiers themselves began to mould them into shapes with floral images and to engrave them with the names of the battlefields they had recently abandoned.  Some are rough and ready, many reveal exceptional artistic and creative talent.   The practice appears to have been so widespread that, for a number of years after the Armistice, factories did a considerable trade in polishing the shells and beating them into ornaments for domestic use.   For a time ours stood in places of honour at the high altar on Holy Days and Feast Days, festooned with flowers, in the forlorn hope that the war to end all wars was over.  Isaiah would be pleased to learn that his prophecy had found a new voice in our discarded shells.   Instruments of war and death had at last found a better use.

In more recent years, however, the climate has changed and they have slipped from sight again.  I had thought to entrust them to our local Heritage Museum where many others could admire them and perhaps confront their challenge but our attachment runs too deep for us to part with them just yet.  Any one of the thousand heroes who fought in the trenches could have carried these trophies home.   This is where they belong, seen or unseen. 

Like the twelve Apostles most of our twelve cartridges are slow to reveal their story.   Yet there is enough stamped into the base of each to place its origins accurately in a particular city, with the date of manufacture, the factory in which it was made and the quality inspection number. 

 

Key to the markings on German shells

St = batches of Strong casing shells:                  References 196 178 245 310 342  57.

Sp = Inspection numbers at various factories:   References 252 406 255 and 06.

FN = Fritz Neumeyer Munitions Factory

HL = Haniel Luege Dusseldorf (Brass)

RhM.F. = Rhineland Munitions Factory

67% CU = percentage of bras/copper per shell

The following markings feature on our twelve cartridges:

1:   1906 / Issy / (3) / 148 / 3 / 196

2:   1906 / Ardennes 3 / 196 / M

3:   1916 JAN / St / 3C 178 / Polte Magdeburg / Sp 252

4:   1916 FEBR / St MDn  8 / floral inscription LOOS

5:   1917 FEBR / St 245 / POLTE MAGDEBURG / Sp 406 / floral inscription YPRES

6:   1917 JULI / St 310 / 67%CU / POLTE MAGDEBURG / Sp 406 / decorated as vase

7:   1917 JULI / St 342/ Patronenfabrick / Karlsruhe / Sp 255 / decorated as vase

8:   1917 AUG / St 255 / Rh.M.F. / 67%CU / Dusseldorf / SP 61 / floral inscription ARRAS

9:   1917 NOV / RhM.F. / St 276 / Dusseldorf / Sp 61

10:  1918 JUNI / St 57 / FN / 67% CU / HL / floral in scription ALBERT

11:  1914-1918 / A.RS 12257 / 75 DE C / D / Fbs 7/18

12:  1907? 77 mm / 75 DE / C / DB /A.RS 34L. 07

Our four ornamental shells

LOOS, YPRES, ARRAS and ALBERT:

 

Note on shell No 4Inscribed to the memory of the Battle of Loos, Flanders: A tragic history lies hidden in this empty shell.  The British attack at Loos in the Arras region of France began on 25 September 1915 at 6.30 AM and was led by Sir Douglas Haig as part of an Allied offensive shared with French troops under General Joseph Joffre. The intention was to divert German forces from the Eastern Front and make life easier for the Russian troops.  This ambitious joint offensive depended on superior numbers of soldiers to overpower the enemy. The French commander in chief, Marshal Joseph Joffre, estimated that 54 French and 13 British divisions went into action along a total front line of 90 kilometres.   The British troops, however, consisted of recent, completely inexperienced recruits who had answered Kitchener’s call to arms a few weeks before.  Consequently, despite Allied numerical superiority, the Germans were able to defend their positions against both the British and the French. German casualties during the offensive amounted to 60,000 men, while Allied casualties reached a total estimated at 250,000 men. At Loos, the British employed chlorine gas for the first time in the war.  The gas failed to reach the German trenches and inflicted more casualties on the British forces than on the enemy, leaving the British exposed to devastating machinegun fire in open territory.

By the time the attacks were called off, death tolls at Loos exceeded those of any previous battle.  Of the nearly 10,000 British soldiers who attacked, over 8,000 enlisted men and officers were killed.  Haig blamed the commander in chief, Sir John French, for failing to commit reserve troops in time to aid the 1st Army at Loos. Invoking this failure, and using his influence with King George V, Haig managed to get the French recalled and had himself promoted to the position of commander in chief in December 1915.The same political and military bravura would repeat itself throughout hostilities.   Our shell from Loos is a reluctant witness to much more than the death of courageous men and women.

Note on shell No 5:   Inscribed to the memory of the Battle of Ypres

The town of Ypres enjoys a strategic place in Flanders and, consequently, has featured down the ages in endless battles.   None, however,would compare with the campaign during World War I which devastated the town for four years, from October 1914 till October 1918 when the last shell fell on the population. 

 

As with the campaign at Loos, the campaign to keep possession of Ypres ended in stalemate at the cost of many thousands of lives including those of non-combatants.   Once again our shell is the product of the Polte Magdeburg Munitions Factories.

Note on shell No 8:   Inscribed to the memory of the Battle of Arras 9 April – 17 May 1917.

In the face of continuing stalemate on the Western Front the Battle of Arras was intended to break through German lines with troops from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland under the leadership of General Haig.  

 

Perhaps, before all else, our shell is a monument to the Commonwealth of Nations.   Men and women from every corner of the globe united at Arras to face what they believed to be a threat to the survival of the civilized world.  The hope was that this would give access to French troops to the high ground occupied by the enemy and allow them to dominate the lower reaches of the battlefield.   Although there was a limited initial success the cost in human lives was excessive on both sides.   Nor was there any significant breakthrough of German lines.   Little, if anything, was gained territorially.

Note on Shell No 10:   Inscribed to the memory of the Battle of Albert 25 September 1914 –

The Battle of Albert was engaged when attempts to extend the allied lines as far as the English Channel failed.   The importance of this strategy was to prevent German access to the agricultural and industrial areas in the north of France with the resulting blockade of supplies to the Allies.   Had the Germans succeeded this would have left Belgium isolated and particularly vulnerable.   However, since this strategy failed, an alternative was to engage in a frontal attack on the German lines near the town of Albert in the hope of outflanking the enemy forces.  This also came to nothing.

Our purpose is not to attempt a reconstruction of the flow and ebb of the subsequent encounters but simply to reflect briefly on the association of our shell No 10 with the Battle of Albert which, in time, would develop into the more notorious engagements at Passionville and the Somme.   It is estimated that our shell is one of 1.5 million launched in the preliminary onslaught on the enemy front.   It seems incredible that this onslaught accomplished little.   The enemy forces had established more than adequate fortifications and underground shelters to forestall many casualties.   Their lines of communication between the trenches and the high command were well conceived and buried deep enough to escape damage.   Add to this that the German soldiers were well-trained and highly organised at every level.   They simply surfaced after the bombardment and returned fire with devastating effect.

 

EPILOGUE

 

After almost one hundred years we have been able to classify our patrimony of cartridges.   They solicit a mixed response both from those who have cherished memories of family members who sacrificed their lives during World War I, and from the majority who are now too young to have any strong sense of personal loss. We remember the former without fail on Remembrance Sunday with prayers and silent tears.   A generation of our parishioners will not forget the devotion and care with which these shells were polished and given a place of honour on our altars.   An even greater place of honour is in store for those who gave their lives for their friends.   

 

*To view/print this atricle in PDF format please click here.         

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