Camping on the Somme, remembering one of the bloodiest battles in human history

It wasn’t difficult to pick a destination for part three of my WW1 centenary visit series. I could have gone to Verdun. I have been there before and although it is very interesting, Verdun was a strictly French/German battle. I wanted to go somewhere that had a British connection so the Somme was the obvious choice.

Hotels within a 100 km radius of the battlefields were of course sold out so, at the end of June, Neil, Mark, Julian, MT and I found ourselves putting up tents on  a small campsite on the outskirts of Amiens. Actually it was quite a nice campsite and we comforted ourselves with the thought that 100 years ago, British visitors to this part of France had been forced to settle for rather less.

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Many of our fellow campers were people who had come for the centenary. Not all of them were British (although many of them were). We met a very gregarious history teacher from Alaska who entertained us in the campsite bar with stories about when he worked as a commercial fisherman. He was very outdoorsy and impressed us with tales of close encounters with wolves,  bears and the like. He had just been to Verdun and was headed for Flanders after his Somme weekend.

With all of the official events being by invitation only, on the morning of the 1st of July (the day the battle started), we headed to the town of Albert which would have been just behind the allied lines at the start of the battle. On the way there, we stopped at one of the countless small military cemeteries and wandered for a while, reading the inscriptions on the  stones. Before we left, we posed for a picture of us all looking solemn.  Some of us were trying a bit too hard.

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The whole town of Albert was in festive mood. Lots of “re-enactment types” were there with their uniforms, vehicles and props. This young lady really is a nurse back in England but (no doubt to the delight of her boyfriend) likes to dress up in antique nurses uniforms in her spare time. Actually her boyfriend was also present, and also dressed in a WW1 costume. They were very friendly and not at all taken in by the  attention seeker on the left of the photograph.

11-Somme-39As well as nurses and soldiers, there were representatives of London Transport, whose double decker buses had been used to carry troops to the front in 1916. There were also a couple of guys who had come with an ancient lorry and an equally ancient Ford car.

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I was a bit puzzled by the England/Berlin markings on the lorry. Surely the directions would have only been correct if they were  reversing towards Berlin?

04-Somme-1805-Somme-1907-Somme-26Check out the improvised HT leads!

10-Somme-31We spent a big part of our time in Albert looking through the exhibits in the excellent “Musée des Abris – Somme 1916”. It is located underneath the church of Notre Dame de Brèbieres. The exit to the museum is in the nearby public arboretum which had been taken over for the day and turned into a public viewing area for the TV broadcasts from the Thiepval Monument. Here politicians, lots of schoolchildren, and quite a few members of the British Royal family were remembering  what can happen when neighbors quarrel. Prince Charles was there of course. Our paths had almost crossed the previous year in Gallipoli and I was beginning to wonder whether he was following me. If he shows up next year in Passchendaele I am going to be really suspicious!

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Tired and starving (it had been at least two hours since breakfast), we were lucky to get a table at a very agreeable restaurant where we spent most of the afternoon eating and sampling the “Poppy” beer. It wasn’t bad but I suspect it was just regular beer with a topical label applied.

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Albert wasn’t the only place that was celebrating that weekend! The following day in Amiens we were startled to learn that the Scots do not have a monopoly on bagpipes. The town center had been invaded by hundreds of “Pipers for Peace” (why did that remind me of Paul McCartney?). They had come from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, England and (believe it or not), as far afield as Scotland! They congregated in groups in the park behind the cathedral practicing making droning noises, and, and intervals marched through the town blasting out their local equivalents of Scotland the Brave. It was actually rather magnificent.

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On the Sunday, the last day of our trip, we packed up our tents and headed out to the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial where there was a very informative visitor center and a small army of enthusiastic French-Canadian teenage guides.

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Newfoundland island didn’t become a Canadian province until 1949 and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment were proud to be an independent fighting group in WW1. On the 1st of July 1916, 68 men survived from the 753 that went “over the top”.  Newfoundland lost a quarter of it’s young men in the war to end all wars.

31-Somme-11432-Somme-11734-Somme-121Stopping for one last thoughtful looking group photo, we left Beaumont-Hamel and drove past the iconic Thiepval memorial. It looked empty now that the celebrities had left, but it was still closed to the general public. I am not sure that I like the design of the memorial. Perhaps it is better close up? I much prefer the Menin Gate in Ypres.

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Our final visit was to the Lochnagar crater close to the village of La Boisselle. This crater was caused by the detonation of one of several massive mines dug beneath the German front lines. The tunnels leading to the mine took eight months to dig and, at about 7:30 am on the 1st of July, some brave soul lit the blue touchpaper and presumably retired to a safe distance as 27,000 kg of Ammonal high explosive tore an enormous hole in the landscape of Picardie.  The bang must have been heard back in England!

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Appropriately, the fields around the crater were full of wild poppies. Visitors to the site had also left small wooden crosses with artificial poppies and short inscriptions.

47-DSC_0324_5_6_fused48-DSC_0333_4_5_EnhancedAs we were leaving the site, I couldn’t help noticing this WW1 enthusiast’s legs! Now I enjoy a discreet tattoo as much as the next man but this is really something…

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Anyway, this concludes part 3 of 5 in my WW1 centenary series. Join me and Prince Charles next year as we remember the Third battle of Ypres or “Passchendaele” as it is commonly referred to…

If you missed any of my earlier posts:

Start here with my 2014 visit to Sarajevo

In 2015 I was in Gallipoli

 

 

 

 

Gallipoli – ANZAC day 2015

Welcome to the second instalment of my WW1 centenary travel blog – slightly less than a year after my first post in Sarajevo. This time I am visiting the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey with Neil, Bahar, Mark, Bahar & Clare. It is the 25th of April 1915, exactly 100 years after the first landings here by soldiers from Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand.

As a reminder, by early 1915 most of Europe is at war. The British and French  are entrenched on the Western Front and are finding it impossible to make significant advances against the Germans. Thousands of kilometers away in the eastern Mediterranean, the British and French navies attempt to force their way through the Dardanelles to take Constantinople and secure the Bosporus and access to the Black Sea.  Their ships got no further than the  heavily fortified straights at Canakkale where only a kilometre or so of water separates Europe from Asia. The decision was taken to land troops on the peninsula to neutralise the Turkish forts and to ensure safe passage for the navy.

The landings started just before dawn but, we are not early risers. We managed to catch the ferry to Kilitbahir at about 10:00am, dodging Valletta registered freighters heading for the  Sea of Marmara. An enormous sign on the hillside warns “Traveller halt! The soil you tread once witnessed the end of an era”. 

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Turkish flags on the shoreline reminded us that, although Turkey was on the losing side in the war, the events at Gallipoli played an important part in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s rise to power, the end of the Ottoman Empire, and the birth of the modern Turkish nation.

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Our first stop, was  the castle at Kilitbahir where we met a large group of Turkish sightseers from Ankara. This castle has been guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles since 1463 and on the day of our visit was packed with Turkish visitors in holiday mood.  Although we were remembering the start of the Gallipoli campaign, that weekend, the rest of the country was celebrating National Sovereignty and Childrens Day.

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We were very aware that most of the historic sites were closed to casual visitors like us. Tickets for the remembrance services at ANZAC Cove, Suvla Bay and the other historic sites had been allocated by lottery the previous year.  Many thousands of (mostly Australian) pilgrims had been bused in the previous evening, patted down by security guards, and had spent an uncomfortable night on the landing beaches in readiness for the dawn services. Prince Charles & Prince Harry were also in attendance. I suspect that they had not slept on the beach.

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We decided that we would leave it until after the official services had finished before driving over to the west of the peninsula. Instead we headed to the magnificent Çanakkale Martyrs’ Memorial at Sehitler Abidesi. It was of course heaving with visitors.

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Part of the site is a cemetery and one of the most interesting monuments bears the words of Mustafa Kemal Ataturks famous speech from 1934. The following translation (from the internet) differs very slightly from the one in the picture.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.

You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far-away countries,
wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.

19-Turkey 25.04.2015 08-26-44 25.04.2015 11-08-41.2015 11-08-41We lined up to take pictures in front of Turkish flags and in front of the beautifully kept graves. We were all Turkish that day, just as much as we were Australian.

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After Sehitler Abidesi we headed for the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, and for the Helles memorial. This obelisk was erected to remember the Commonwealth servicemen who died there and have no known grave. Cape Helles was the site of the British and French landings at the very start of the campaign and is generally acknowledged to have been completely mismanaged by the British commander.

The wall surrounding the monument was engraved with the names of the 20,885 missing but we were looking for just one of them.

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W. Hindle was the great uncle of Marie, a school friend of ours and Neil & Mark’s next door neighbor from Addlestone. It didn’t take long for us to find his inscription and affix a rather wilted looking poppy (picked near the beach at Sehitler Abidesi) to the memorial. It was nice to have a name to look for, even though out connection was tenuous.

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Looking at the other names on the memorial, we found some Drinkwaters. There were no Cashas.

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After Helles we headed north to Eceabat with the idea of crossing the peninsula to take a look at ANZAC cove. The traffic was diabolical with literally hundreds of busses inching their way back from the dawn services to the Çanakkale ferries.

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When we eventually got to ANZAC cove it was evening and  we had the place to ourselves, that is if you don’t count the hundreds of workers dismantling the seating, tents, video equipment,  catering stands etc. As we explored the beach and looked up at the steep hills (cliffs almost), it was not hard to imagine why the  ANZACS did not progress much beyond the beach.

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From Anzac Cove, we moved on to Suvla Bay where a glorious sunset was building. For me, Suvla is one of those exotic sounding place names like Stornoway or Samarkand or Ulan Bator. It was the site of a landing much later in the Gallipoli campaign and an attempt to break the stalemate in other parts of the peninsula. Although the terrain looks much more promising that some of the other landing sites, Suvla was classically  mismanaged by the British commander who, instead of pushing on inland after landing,  hung around  congratulating himself and his colleagues for long enough to allow the Turks to consolidate their defences.

I am not sure that this pill box dates from WW1. I would have liked to explore it a bit but, it was beginning to get dark so, stomachs rumbling,  we pointed Bahar’s mum’s car back in the direction of the Çanakkale ferry and the end of our Gallipoli adventure.

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And, as a bonus for the Turkish speakers among you, here is a short video (not short enough I hear you say) of Neil and Bahar singing a Turkish song commemorating the Çanakkale victory. It is best enjoyed with the volume turned down!

Next stop July 2016 and the centenary of the start of the battle of the Somme….

If you missed my other posts:

Start here with my 2014 visit to Sarajevo

2016 was the centenary of the Battle of the Somme

Making Tracks – One last visit to the Kodak factory in Harrow

Sometime in 1988, not long after joining Kodak Ltd, I was given a tour of the Harrow factory. It was probably during the summer because the tour included Track 5 where colour negative paper was manufactured. In those days the coating tracks operated 24/7 and the summer maintenance period was one of the few occasions when visitors like me could have to have a look around. I cannot remember all of the details of that tour but I left the factory that day enormously impressed and very proud to be working for Kodak.

Today, despite an explosion in the number of images being taken, now with telephones rather than cameras, the demand for photographic paper has declined dramatically. The Harrow factory is now owned by Kodak Alaris, who are reducing capacity to match this shrinking demand. Manufacturing will stop in October 2016. It is the end of an era for a factory that has been in operation since 1891, and was once the largest manufacturing facility in the British Empire!

I was keen to take a last look at the factory and take some photographs and Dick Hamer agreed to take me on a tour of the factory where he has worked for the last forty odd years. I spent a few hours with Dick and Richard Scotto, looking around Track 5 and some of the other buildings on the site.

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Modern photo paper is made using a polythene coated base. In years gone by, Kodak used to coat the paper base and add the iconic back-print at the Harrow site. Nowadays the paper base is brought in from Germany with the back-print and polythene coating already in place. All the factory has to do is to add the appropriate light sensitive emulsions!

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Back in 1988 when I first toured the factory I could not imagine how this was done. I half expected to see my colleagues pouring jugs of liquid emulsion onto sheets of paper and spreading it out with squeegees. The reality of course was very different. Paper base passes through the coating track at a speed rather faster than my morning commute, and is turned into photographic paper by the addition of seven or eight different liquid layers. All of this happens in a coating track that is 900 meters long, and that winds its way through an eight storey building in the dark!

Just to give you an idea of scale, a typical parent roll is a bit more that 4 kilometers long and 1.5m wide. One roll could nearly cover the area of a standard soccer pitch. The Track 5 building is actually home to two independent, almost identical tracks: 5/1 and 5/2, which together can coat about nine of these rolls every hour. So, in a twenty four hour period the two tracks coat enough length of parent roll to reach from Harrow to Stuttgart. That is enough paper for 81 million holiday snaps which, in the unlikely event that they were laid end to end, would stretch 12199 kilometers or, all the way from Harrow to Rochester NY and back! In an age when people just want to share their pictures on facebook, Instagram and co, this is just too much capacity!

I am conscious that I am getting carried away and am using far too many exclamation marks in my story!!! Without further ado, let’s take a few deep breaths and take a look at some of the pictures I took.

Because of the route we took through the factory, my photos were not taken in the order in which they would actually occur in the manufacturing process. I am grateful to Andy Church, a colleague of many years and the most knowledgeable person I know on the subject of photo paper manufacturing, for patiently reviewing the pictures with me and helping me to put them in some sort of logical order. Nevertheless, if, you are looking to set up your own paper coating operation, do not use these pictures as guide. Some of them will almost certainly be in the wrong order.

The paper base arrives at the factory from Germany and is stockpiled in a holding area in the parent roll store (Building W173) close to the start of the coating tracks. The rolls each weigh about 1200kg and at this stage are standing upright. They will need to be carefully rotated onto their sides before the coating process starts. Each roll is labelled with the name and surface finish of the product that it will eventually be made into. I had imagined that the surface finish (gloss, lustre, matte or silk) was determined by some treatment during the coating process but it turns out that this happens as part of the resin coating operations in Germany.

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Connecting the parent roll store to the start (and finish) of the coating tracks is the so-called trucking tunnel, down which the rolls are transported on their way to and from the manufacturing line. As you approach the start of the line, the lighting level gets gradually dimmer to allow the operators eyes to become accustomed to the darkness that they will be working in during their shift.

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Paper rolls are loaded onto an unwinder that holds two rolls. Whilst one roll is unwinding down the track, a second one is made ready and, as the first roll runs out, the second one, all 1200kgs of it, is swung into position and joined to the end of the previous roll. The trailing end of the roll being coated needs to be stopped briefly without slowing down the paper passing the coating point. To achieve this, paper is accumulated between two sets of rollers which swing together like a giant pair of scissors. When the new roll has been spliced successfully, the scissors swing open again to buffer paper for the next change.

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As I photographed the winding equipment I remembered that I had my elderly Nikon film camera, loaded with Ektar 100 with me, and I got it out to take a couple of snaps. In this cathedral of all things analog I thought it was somehow fitting to take some “proper photographs”. It was the first time I had used the camera in about 15 years. After each click of the shutter I found myself glancing down at the back of the camera, looking for a screen to check how the picture had turned out! Actually, I had to wait rather more that a week (and spend 30€) to find out how the film images turned out. Here is one of them. I have to admit that I much prefer the digital images!

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As the paper approaches the coating station, it runs through a corona discharge unit which bombards the paper surface with streams of electrons. These cause breaks in the polymer chains that make up the polythene coating and provide a much better surface for the emulsion to adhere to.

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When Track 5 was built in the 1980s, the emulsion was applied to the paper using a technology known as bead coating. This obsolete method is no longer used but the “Bead Coater” itself, being part of the fabric of the building is still present. The paper web simply bypasses this picturesque piece of history on its way to the much more modern “Curtain Coater”.

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The business end of the curtain coater is the “Hopper”. Machined to incredibly tight tolerances out of a massive block of titanium, it’s function is to create a constant cascade of up to eight warm liquid layers, to drop down onto the paper base that is passing underneath. The emulsion layer when dry is only about 6 microns thick (one twentieth of the diameter of a human hair) so you can imagine how thin the individual layers need to be. They are designed with viscosities that prevent them mixing. All of this needs to happen in the absence of air bubbles, impurities, or anything that would jeopardize the homogeneity of the emulsion. It is difficult to imagine that the process actually works – but it does. I have heard that the cost of a hopper is something close to a million dollars. Three Hoppers are shared between tracks 5/1 and 5/2.

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During my tour I did not get a good picture of the hopper so I am grateful to Robert Gunsing for letting me use a picture he took during a visit on the same day.

Close to the coating station at the south end of Track 5 are the large emulsion manufacturing areas. This is where the light sensitive emulsions and the liquid dispersions are manufactured according to proprietary recipes that Kodak has developed and refined over the decades.

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I will not pretend to understand what I was looking at but (vastly oversimplifying) the process works something like this: Four 3500kg batches of gelatin based, light sensitive emulsion are prepared every 24-hour period. This material is allowed to solidify and is stored until it is needed. At which time it is melted and mixed with a whole variety of secret sauce dispersions – including the dye forming components and interlayers. These coatings are piped to the hopper for immediate use.

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After the emulsion is coated onto the paper, the next vitally important step is to ensure that it stays there. Remember that the paper is moving at about 5 meters per second through the track with seven or eight layers of warm liquid wobbling about on its surface. This web runs straight from the coater into a chiller room which takes the temperature right down to almost zero degrees Celsius. The paper runs horizontally over a series of ribbed rollers until the emulsion has solidified sufficiently. Until this happens, needless to say, nothing can touch the emulsion side of the paper otherwise it would leave an impression.

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After the chiller rooms, the paper passes underneath a series of pipes which blow air over the surface of the emulsion to start the drying process (unfortunately I did not get a good photo of this stage). By now the emulsion has solidified enough to be able to be routed concertina fashion through the dryer. Actually the drying equipment seemed to account for a big part of the 900 meter long coating track.34-Harrow_Factory-080

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Not long before the end of the track, the paper passes through a laser scanner which examines the surface of the paper for physical defects such as scratches or bubbles. Any defects are logged so that affected portions of the parent roll can be discarded at the finishing stage. One of the many interesting things that I learned during the tour is that the rollers that guide the paper through the coating track, have varying circumferences. This is a massive help in finding the source of cyclical defects because once you have measured the distance between the marks, you can easily work out which roller is the culprit!

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Now, at the end of the coating process we have reached the “Reeler”. Think of this as the unwinder in reverse. Here the finished sensitized material is wound back onto a core before being wrapped in lightproof black plastic and taken out through the trucking tunnel to the finished goods store in building W173.

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From here, the rolls are sent out to three continents for finishing into the smaller rolls that can be loaded into minilabs and photographic printers in colour laboratories.

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I have mentioned a couple of times that the coating track we toured was Track 5. Tracks 1 & 2 used to be on the west side of the site but production stopped there some years ago and they were demolished. I am not sure what happened to Track 3 (I don’t even know if there ever was a Track 3) but, Track 4 certainly did exist and was used for making photographic film until 2005.

Much of the track has been dismantled but some portions still remain. Dick had a set of keys and was kind enough to take us inside.

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When George Eastman chose Harrow to build his first factory outside the USA, he was looking for a site with excellent road and rail access, plenty of room for expansion and an abundant supply of good quality water. There are five wells on the site and Kodak has licenses to withdraw water for use in the manufacturing process. This is one of the five wells – now sealed.

We rounded off our tour of the factory with a visit to the power station and to the engineering workshops where many of the moveable items were labelled with lot numbers for forthcoming auctions. We could have spent days wandering around with our cameras and still not have covered everything. In some ways I wish I had had the presence of mind to start this project 15 years ago. There certainly would have been a lot more to photograph.

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Back outside again, this is the view from the roof of Track 5, looking eastwards.

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Looking in the opposite direction. The flattened area in the foreground is where Tracks 1 & 2 used to be. Across the road (Harrow View), houses are being built on the site of the old Kodak Recreation Grounds

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Although I have never been permanently based at the Harrow site, I have spent quite a lot of time there during various stages of my employment with Kodak. I used to be a regular visitor to the Color Photo Technology building when I worked as a product specialist on high speed printers. Much later I worked with colleagues in the European Graphic Technology Center, and was there when the building was inaugurated by Prince Andrew in June 1991 (I got my picture in Kodak News showing him the Kodak Premier Image Retouching System). The area where these buildings used to stand is now scrubby grassland because it is cheaper to knock buildings down than to pay rates when they are standing empty.

I will not have another occasion to visit the factory before it is decommissioned. If I find myself close to Harrow in years to come, I will probably be unable to avoid the temptation to drive past and see what has happened to the place. It will look very different when the factory buildings are replaced by houses, schools and shops.

James Casha

October 2016