Men of the Common Army

My Austro-Hungarian troops of the First World War have come on apace. Althoug a little ‘rough and ready’, Strelets are always fun to paint with the result usually containing unusual poses and characterful faces.

The Austro-Hungarian army consisted of three distinct parts:

  • the Common army (Gemeinsame Armee),
  • the Imperial Austrian Landwehr (a territorial reserve)
  • the Royal Hungarian Honved  (the Hungarian equivalent of the Landwehr)

These troops of mine represent a regiment from the Common Army. Specifically I’ve nominated them as being from the Infanterieregiment Pucherna (numbered the 31st) and given them the yellow facings that characterised the regiment. It was a Romanian regiment garrisoned in Nagyszeben, capital of Transylvania which was then under the dominion of Austria-Hungary.

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“Infanterist” painted by Hans Printz in 1914

Anyway, with some remaining ‘bits’ still to do and of course the basing still to sort, here’s how some of them are looking so far. First off; a handful of troops from the Strelets WWI Austrian Infantry set:

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (1)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (20)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (19)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (18)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (15)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (14)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (13)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (12)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (7)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (6)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (5)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (4)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (2)

And a preview of the other Strelets figures from the WWI Austro-Hungarian infantry in Gasmasks set. I only have one sprue of this set, bought in a private sale with another hobbyist, hence only a handful of figures. The reflection in their eye pieces give them a suitably nightmarish aspect.

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (17)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (11)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (9)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (8)

Strelets Austro hungarian ww1 (3)

Being an early Strelets set, there are lots of poses, some of which I haven’t displayed as yet but will do so when I’ve got them all based and ready to present; hopefully some time later this week.

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Le Pantalon Rouge

“Eliminate the red trousers? Never! Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!” (Former French Minister for war, M. Etienne)

As a small boy, one of the key aspects of military history that first attracted me to the subject were the illustrations of brightly-coloured 18th and 19th century uniforms. Of course, the reality of the brutality and horror of war was obscured by those radiant fabrics. Nevertheless, in this era, warfare had evolved in a manner that allowed fashion to blossom alongside function. As the 20th century loomed, these ‘lace wars’ were passing by, irrevocably changed by industrial progress and its deadly armaments. Concealment and camouflage was the only logical response to the modern battlefield and its increasingly deadly weaponry.

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A 1910 postcard showing red-trousered French line infantry marching past a monument to Napoleon. His past glories cast a long shadow over the French army even a whole century after his final campaign.

But there were some refuseniks to the harsh reality of modern industrial warfare. Romantic attachment to these old-style, colourful armies burned as brightly in the French imagination then as it did within me as a schoolboy. When the world went to its Great War in 1914, the French marched off looking much as they would have done fifty years or more before, with red trousers, red kepis, and blue coats.

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The attractive red trousers and kepi would make it even less likely their menfolk would ever ‘come back’

Why had they done this? Great Britain had long since learned of the necessity of concealment from modern weaponry.  In 1902, the French army had actually experimented with a grey-green uniform and helmet, parading with it through Paris, but it had not been adopted. At the inception of the war, some in the French military felt that a rushed change away from their traditional uniform in the name of concealment could be construed by the enemy as ‘cowardice’. Furthermore, the interests of French business which had a stake in the production of the old uniforms also played a part (red clothing dyers, chiefly!), but romance was surely key in ensuring that the French soldiers still retained their bright colour.

“[To banish] all that is colourful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect is to go contrary both to French taste and military function.” Echo de Paris.

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In truth, it was probably far more about taste than function. But I can well imagine that I might be one of those seeking ways to justify my instinctive reluctance to abandon the iconic glory of their colourful uniform.

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Early WWI German propaganda postcard making use of colour to more vividly show French prisoners being transported still in their red kepi’s and glowing ‘pantalon rouge’.

By 1915, with losses mounting, the French army bowed to the inevitable. The urgent need for less visible uniforms was being heeded and their initial emergency measures included coyly hiding those sacred red trousers under drab blue overalls. Soon, a new pale uniform colour was adopted (horizon blue) and, after first unsuccessfully trialling a metal skull cap worn underneath the red kepi, the all-metal Adrian helmet was adopted too.

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French infantry uniform sans pantalon rouge…

A cherished romantic tradition died on the day that the red trouser was abandoned, but far too many soldiers had died to bring about that demise. It was a sacrifice which had demonstrated that it was not ‘le pantalon rouge’ that was France, rather it was the men that had worn it.

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It will come as no surprise, then, that I will be painting some French WWI infantry in their 1914 guise. Caesar Miniatures is a manufacturer that I haven’t used before. At first glance their figures look excellent, in my opinion. The only downside being the curious omission of any crossbelt straps and the softness of the plastic. I’ll be reaching for the red paint to make a start very soon…

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My young assistant steps up once more to present my latest box of figures…

 

Heroic Female Soldiers of Serbia

In the course of my research about the Serbian army in WWI as I continue to paint my Strelets figures, I was surprised to have come across a number of examples of remarkable female soldiers who fought in combat roles for the Serbian army. It’s all the more surprising, perhaps, that at a time when in Great Britain the electoral franchise had not even been extended towards women, there were to be found numerous examples of brave and adventurous women soldiers serving in combat roles with the Serbians on the Balkans Front. Here are some of the more notable ones that I’ve discovered:

Captain Flora Sands:

The first Serbian female soldier that came to my attention was in fact a British woman fighting for the Serbian army, Captain Flora Sands. Even as a very young woman (she was something of a ‘tomboy’) she enjoyed riding, shooting and driving racing cars. Yet, for all that, this adventurous spirit eventually ‘took a job as a secretary’, which perhaps says something about the job opportunities for women at the time. Not to be denied a life of adventure, Flora joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the only quasi-military organisation for women in Britain at that time. This enabled her to travel to Serbia and Bulgaria during the 1912 First Balkan War.

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Captain Flora Sands in Serbian army uniform

At the time of the First World War in 1914, a ‘middle aged, chain-smoking’ Sands served with the Serbian Red Cross only to become separated from them during the desperate retreat through Albania the following year. She eventually joined up with the Serbian Army and enrolled as a private. Action soon saw her promoted through the ranks to Sergeant Major and, ultimately, Captain, until being badly wounded by a grenade whilst in the thick of hand-to-hand fighting during the Battle of Bitola. This effectively ended her front line military service.

 

Sands survived the war, married a fellow officer and settled in Serbia where, in true pioneering style, she was said to have driven Belgrade’s first taxi cab! She was awarded the Order of Karađorđe’s Star, Serbia’s highest civilian and military decoration. Only a few years ago, this English woman was still remembered in Serbia via the release of a postage stamp with her face upon it.


Sergeant Milunka Savić

The second woman I discovered was Sergeant Milunka Savić who was brought to my attention by my Serbian friend from Benno’s Figures Forum. She was an astonishingly brave and tough personality, possibly even the most decorated female soldier in recorded history!

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Milunka Savić

Her enrolment is shrouded in some doubt but the most popular story states that it was a consequence of her responding to the enlistment call intended for her brother:

In 1913, her brother received call-up papers for mobilization for the Second Balkan War. She chose to go in his place—cutting her hair and donning men’s clothes and joining the Serbian army. She quickly saw combat and received her first medal and was promoted to corporal in the Battle of Bregalnica. Engaged in battle, she sustained wounds and it was only then, when recovering from her injuries in hospital, that her true gender was revealed, much to the surprise of the attending physicians…

It’s interesting to note that the means of her discovery (injuries sustained in combat) bears similarity to the experience of British female soldier Hannah Snell in the mid-17th century, who narrowly avoided a similar discovery by employing the services of a local doctor rather than the regimental surgeon.

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Milunka Savic posing in full uniform festooned with bandoliers
Milunka Savic in doughboy uniform low res
Savic in a post-1915 Allied forces uniform with French style Adrian helmet.

At the time of her discovery by surgeons, she was already a decorated soldier who had been promoted and had experienced up to 10 engagements. Despite being a woman, therefore, Marshal Putnik agreed that she was to be retained as a valued combat soldier and Milunka Savic went on to commit further acts of valour.

…Typically for her, she ran through no-man’s land between the fronts throwing hand grenades, sprang into the Austrian trenches with a bayonet and – still alone – captured twenty (!!) soldiers.

This act won her the order of Karađorđe’s Star for the second time, (the first being gained after the Serbian victory at Kolubara). She would go on to be lavishly decorated by other Allied nations also, such as Britain, France and Russia. In the thick of the action, she was wounded nine times in total. There are numerous tales of her abilities and bravery. In one such tale, French officers had challenged her to demonstrate her skill with hand grenades only to witness Milunka confidently hit a bottle of cognac at 40 metres. The French must have been very confident she’d miss to have risked a bottle of cognac!

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Milunka in later life

After the war, she was married and had a daughter, but soon divorced and, being illiterate, was forced to take a job as a cleaner in a bank. She fell on hard times, which were made even more difficult by her compassionate decision to care for three adopted orphaned girls. Standing up to the Nazis in WWII landed her 10 months in a concentration camp. As tough as ever, she and her girls survived and endured in poverty until, belatedly, she was recognised by the Yugoslav state and rehoused in small accommodation just prior to her death at 81 in the 1970s. With great ceremony, in 2013 she was buried in the Alley of the Greats cemetery  in a service led by the Serbian president to be nationally recognised as a great Serbian war hero.

Serbian sergeant

More on the remarkable Milunka Savic at the splendid Serbia, Land of Heroes blog.


Sofija Jovanović

Yet another to come to my attention was Sofija Jovanović, apparently she is sometimes referred to as the ‘Serbian Joan of Arc’. She was a graduate from Belgrade and had applied to volunteer for the infantry immediately after the outbreak of war. Like Milunka Savic, Sofija served initially in the Serbian Army using a man’s name – Sofronije Jovanović  – and was soon in action in the early days of war in 1914. I am not entirely sure at which point her true gender was discovered, or in what manner, or even why she was retained. I am also unsure of her army rank but one photo shows her with an officer’s sword.

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Sofija Jovanovic apparently during the time of the 1912 1st Balkans War?

I do know that she served in the defence of Belgrade and, as with her sister soldiers Flora Sands and Milunka Savic, survived the horrifying, brutal retreat through Albania to achieve evacuation by the Allies. Rearmed and re-equipped, she fought with the Serbian army on the Salonika Front until Serbia’s final liberation in 1918.

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Sofija Jovanović in uniform.

I regret that my cursory research of mostly English Language sites has uncovered little more information than this. The images I have uncovered reveal both a smart and richly decorated officer (above) and a tough guerilla fighter (below).  The latter picture is a postcard dated 1912 and therefore appears to suggest that Sofija was an experienced soldier and a known female combatant even before WWI, having been a veteran of the Balkan Wars 1912-13. In the postcard, she wears the traditional Serbian šajkača hat and opanci shoes. The rest of the uniform seems (although artificially colourised) to be a dark blue or black uniform. It appears to be the 1896 double-breasted kaporan or tunic. This could indicate she belonged to the 2nd ‘Ban’ or line reserve which was less likely to be equipped with the new single-breasted, olive-grey 1908 pattern familiar in the 1st Ban.

Sofija_Jovanović
Sofija Jovanović stands with another guerilla fighter from the 1912 Balkan War.

Sergeant Antonija Javornik (aka Natalija Bjelajac)

It would be remiss not to mention Antonija Javornik, aka Natalija Bjelajac, another woman whose combat achievements were heroic. I’m not entirely sure how it was that she became a combat soldier or was allowed to do so as woman; there is no suggestion of disguise so it’s possible that she simply made a kind of natural transition from army nurse to soldier. Unfortunately, I’ve only located the one picture and I have found it equally difficult to find out much about her that doesn’t require some translation from the Serbian. Consequently, I respectfully reproduce the following in its entirely from the English language Serbian history site – “Meet the Serbs“:

Natalija Bjelajac was the Serbian army sergeant and a nurse. However, her real name is Antonija Javornik. She was born in 1893 in Maribor, Slovenia, the city where she finished elementary education and left on the eve of the Balkan wars. Impressed by the stories of Uncle Martin, an officer and a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army who changed sides and became a Serbian soldier, Natalia decided to follow his footsteps and go to Serbia to help the Serbian people in his mission of liberation and unification of the southern Slavs. Just when she started to attend a course for nurses, the First Balkan War broke out. In this war, Antonija was a nurse in her uncle’s regiment. They both participated in the liberation of Kosovo and Metohija and the siege of Shkodra. In the Second Balkan War she already fought as a volunteer, with a gun in her hand. On one occasion, she captured an entire battery of Bulgarian soldiers and earned herself her first medal.

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A deservedly highly decorated Natalija Bjelajac in Serbian army uniform.

In World War I, Antonija fought alongside Serbian soldiers [at the battles of] Cer, Drina and Kolubara. She used a false name Natalija Bjelajac to protect her family in Maribor from the Austrian retaliation, in case of being captured by the enemy. In one of these battles she received another medal. Her uncle Martin died heroically In the Battle of Cer, but Antonija continued to fight with even greater zeal. In the battles on Kaimakchalan (12-30. September 1916), Antonija managed to capture 30 Bulgarian soldiers by herself, and was awarded once again. In breach of the Thessaloniki Front, on 15 September 1918, she had shown great courage, but was severely wounded in the leg and the chest. The wounds healed, but a shrapnel remained in her leg for the rest of her life as a memory of passing through the “Gate of Freedom”. She met the end of the war as a sergeant in the Serbian army. Twelve wounds and twelve medals were there to remind her of the turbulent past. In addition to several medals for bravery and the Order of the White Eagle with Swords, Antonija also became the Knight of the Karađorđe’s Star with Swords and a knight of the French Legion of Honour. She died in Belgrade in 1974 at the age of 81.


Ljubica Cakarević

Ljubica Cakarević, was born in Uzice and became a school teacher there. In 1914. her father and brothers were among the first to go to the front to defend their homeland. Once Serbia was occupied by the enemy during the First World War, she refused the invitation of the occupier to work as a teacher and performed tough rural jobs instead.

After three and a half years of this labour, Ljubica was forced to leave occupied Serbia in order to escape the Austro-Hungarians, who had issued a warrant for her in the summer of 1918. With a few more people, under the leadership of the Duke of Lunet, Ljubica started out to find the Thessaloniki front to join the rest of the Serbian army. After 27 days of avoiding the pursuit and ambush, the group of starving, exhausted, almost barefooted people came close to the battle lines.

Ljubica Cakarevic, iz fotoarhive Milorada Iskrina

Along the way, they saw burned villages with hanging corpses of people killed by the Austrians, Hungarians, Germans and Bulgarians. The group somehow broke through the Bulgarian positions and finally appeared in front of the Serbian army in a state of complete exhaustion.

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Ljubica Cakarević with Serbian soldiers on the Thessalonika front.

After 27 days of this traumatic journey, she testified to the Supreme Command of the Serbian Army, giving an account of the occupier’s crimes. Ljubica Čakarević was part of the Serbian army which liberated its homeland, breaking through the Thessaloniki front on September 15, 1918. For her service she was decorated with the Golden Medal for Courage, the “Miloš Obilić” medal. Ljubica notably became the first freelance journalist of a newspaper for the enslaved Serbia which was produced on the Thessaloniki front. So it seems this brave woman fought with both the pen and the sword.

 


Lenka Rabasovic

Once more, I know little about this lady, but I do know that Lenka Rabasovic narrowly escaped capture by the Austro-Hungarians and escaped to the mountainsto join her brother’s Chetnik squad. As a Chetnik, she was akin to a nationalist guerilla fighter rather than a regular soldier. The Chetniks had been active in the two Balkan Wars (1912–13), and as they had proven valuable during that war, the Serbian Army used them again in World War I (1914–18).

Lenka quickly learned to handle a rifle, a knife and a bomb, and bravely fought in all the battles with the enemy. Occasionally, she acted as a courier or messenger in disguise, maintaining communication between the Chetniks of the mountains and settlements then still under the Austro-Hungarian / Bulgarian occupation.

Lenka_rabasovic
The only image I can find of Lenka Rabasovic, seemingly in her later years.

Her brother was killed in 1917. I note that this date coincides with the failed Toplica Uprising, a Serb rebellion in 1917 carried out by Chetniks against the Bulgarian occupation force which was eventually suppressed. Lenka survived one wound and remained in arms until liberation in 1918.


Of course, many Serbian women demonstrated their valour and fortitude or suffered enormously in many other ways during WWI; be it as nurses, workers, farmers, civilians or carers. Over the past century, some of the stories of these soldier women’s achievements may have merged myth with fact. Yet there is no doubt about their incredible bravery and valour which was proved time and again in brutal combat. Some of them would have been considered a truly astonishing soldier in any era and for either gender.

I found even more references to other women serving the Serbian army, such as the courageous and adventurous Australian woman Olive Kelso King who served as an ambulance driver. But that’s probably more than enough for now!

In the meantime, I am continuing with finishing the last batch of Strelets Serbian WWI figures which are wearing a very different colour uniform to the early war figures. I feel I should look very closely at them, perhaps a Milunka Savic or a Sofija Jovanović stands disguised within their ranks…

 

For further information on this topic, see also Heroes of Serbia blog!

Early WWI Serbian Infantry (1914-15)

The first part of my Strelets Serbian infantry in Winter Dress are finished!

I’ve split the box into early war figures (1914-15) and later war figures (1916-18). The key difference is really just the French Adrian helmet instead of the Serbian traditional šajkača hat. The late war figures will be next but the majority of these Strelets figures wear the šajkača and it’s these (of the 1st Ban / army) that I present below.

Serbian Infantry Early (16)

Serbian Infantry Early (12)

I’ve based the figures in a landscape which has featured a dusting of snow, so possibly just prior to their epic retreat with Serbian citizens through the Albanian mountains with the winter snows on their way.

Though some wear puttees around their lower legs, for the others I’ve tried to pick out in paint the classic Serbian peasant footwear, the opanci shoes with their horn-like endings to the toes. Likewise, I’ve added some colour to emulate the floral embroidery design often found on their thick woollen socks, the bright red colour of which symbolised the blood lost at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 fighting the Ottoman Turks. Little of this is visible in the snow and grass – but at least I know it’s there, dammit!

An experimental twist of the arm (above right) made for a more realistic pose for the grenade thrower than came off the sprue (above left), I think. However, the pose is clearly far better than the Plastic Soldier Review’s sour description of it being “the most unconvincing, flat and generally poor grenade pose we have ever seen”.

Plastic Soldier Review also had a bit of rant about the folly of Strelets depicting Serbian soldiers armed with Lewis machine guns, something they said would never have happened. Britain was an ally, so I’m happy to believe some examples may have gotten through. For example, Britain sent Rear-Admiral Troubridge with a naval force to help defend Belgrade, perhaps some examples accompanied that mission? Actually, that story about Admiral Troubridge is a fascinating one and I recommend reading the excellent Succour for Serbia: The British Naval Mission to Serbia in 1915. Anyway, I’ve trimmed one figure (above left) without the Lewis gun (which should keep PSR happy), leaving the figure vaguely gesturing instead.

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Serbian Infantry officers

A little more trimming on the officers; those swords would have been a useless luxury on the battlefield, never mind the retreat through the Albanian mountains. One officer figure, therefore, I created sans sword and without a revolver either (above left) . They have ‘some colour’ to indicate the appropriate enameled tricolor cockade on their variation of the šajkača cap.

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I am really pleased that Strelets have now produced this under-represented but crucially important part of the Great War armies. The figures themselves are good and well proportioned. The only downside, I’d say, is that the faces lack a little of the crisp detail and character so familiar to early Strelets sets. But that’s a quibble; I think these early war Serbs make for a great first set of figures for my 2018 WWI Project.

And it’s more Serbs still to come with the late war figures. These are already under way and with only a dozen to do rather than 30-odd, shouldn’t take much longer. In the interim, I’ve been researching a little Serbian WWI history, but more on that in the next post…

A Sad Loss at Loos

I received some interesting information yesterday regarding the brother of my paternal grandmother. This man, John Neal, was part of a family tree recently researched by my mother and going as far back as his namesake, another John Neal(e) born in 1654. The John Neal that caught my attention had apparently died on 25th September 1915, as Lance Corporal J T Neal of the 2nd Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment.

I did a little on-line research and noticed that the date of his death coincided with the first day of the Battle of Loos. Further research confirmed that the 2nd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment was indeed part of the attacking force (see below) and I assumed that he was one of the casualties of this battle.

LCPL Neal

You will notice that he was part of the Indian Corps, Meerut Division, “The Garwal Brigade” serving alongside Gurkhas and the commander was a Brigadier General Blackader. Leicester has a long shared history with India, the city today being home to a large Indian population. The regiment’s nickname “The Tigers” is a reference to the considerable time it spent in India. It seems that this connection continued into the First World War. The Garwhal Rifles, the 8th and 9th Gurkhas all remain Indian army regiments to this day.

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British machine gunners in action at Loos, 1915.

The Battle of Loos (pronounced loss in French) was a terrible slaughter for the British army. The French pronunciation of “Loss” here seems somehow grotesquely appropriate to anglophones for this dreadfully wasteful encounter of human life. The battle was notable for being the first time that the British deployed poison gas. It was also a test of Kitchener’s new volunteer army (“Lord Kitchener Needs You”) and I suspect that my relative John Neal could have been one such volunteer.

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Ghostly figures of British infantry advance through a gas cloud at Loos, 1915. Photograph believed to have been taken by a soldier.

However, I then discovered that the 2nd Battalion Leicestershire Regiment was actually involved not in the main battle that day on the 25th September, but took part in a diversionary attack at Pietre in support of Loos, instead. The British Commander in Chief, Sir John French said of this action:

“The Indian Corps attacked the Moulin du Pietre… These attacks started at daybreak and were at first successful all along the line. Later in the day the enemy brought up strong reserves, and after hard fighting and variable fortunes the troops engaged in this part of the line reoccupied their original trenches at nightfall. They succeeded admirably, however, in fulfilling the role allotted to them, and in holding large numbers of the enemy away from the main attack.”

So, I therefore assume that my ancestor was killed at some point during the day’s fighting at Pietre, drawing German troops away from the main action at Loos. Ironically, even the slaughter at Loos itself was only really another supporting action to the large French attack in the 3rd Battle of Artois. Such was the scale of the mass killing on the Western Front.

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The Guards Cemetery, France, where my ancestor is buried, very near to the Great Cross visible in the background.

Lance Corporal Neal’s is buried in the Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy in northern France. This cemetery is on a site once used at the front as a dressing station and HQ by the army (near to a crossroads known to the British as Windy Corner).

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Written in red pen on the interment sheet, 2 / Leicestershire Regt, No.8666 Neal, Pte J. He lies next to a Lt of the Royal Irish Rifles who was apparently belatedly identified.
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Plot IX, Row G. No. 5. – right in front of the Great Cross.

Like many soldiers, his body was exhumed from elsewhere and moved to be consolidated with others in the Windy Corner cemetery early in 1920. When he was taken from the original location, the means of identity was listed as being a ‘disc’. It sounds like his identification was fortunate as most others appearing on the same reburial form, and therefore alongside him in the cemetery, were listed simply as being “unknown soldiers”.

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It seems quite a pleasant spot, John Neal’s grave, surrounded by fields and trees. It would be nice and very appropriate to visit one day, I think.

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Photos of Strelets WWI British and French in Gas Masks

As promised below…!

My humble camera is never the best but hopefully these photos are adequate.

Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets British Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets French Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets French Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets French Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets French Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets French Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets French Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets French Infantry in Gas Masks
Strelets French Infantry in Gas Masks
Entente Cordiale! Strelets British and French Infantry
Entente Cordiale! Stelets British and French Infantry
Strelets French Infantry
Strelets French Infantry
Strelets British WWI Infantry
Strelets British WWI Infantry

WWI in Gasmasks Project

One of my little projects on the go is the painting of some WWI Strelets sets. In particular these are the sets featuring most of the primary combatants in gas masks.

In seemed timely to begin these sets for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s the centenary of the beginning of that terrible conflict. Another reason relates to my own Great Grandfather on my mother’s side Harry Bennett, who enlisted in the Leicestershire Regiment.

My great grandfather, Private Harry Bennett, Leicestershire Regt, 1914-18 war.
My great-grandfather, Private Harry Bennett, Leicestershire Regt, 1914-18 war.

He was a victim of gas attack in the war and, although he survived and was invalided home, it seems that both his physical and mental health were broken by his experiences and he tragically ended his days in an asylum. I’ve never forgotten that and maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve steered clear of 20th century conflicts in my work: they’re a little too close to home. Whichever type was used, to be gassed was a truly horrible experience.

Being the only set that I know of which depicts troops in gas masks, I think Strelets have done a good job, though I know their sculpting is not to everyone’s tastes. There’s something about the facelessness of the figures with their empty, glass goggles dehumanises them, turns them into nightmarish wraiths, staggering out of the poisoned air with blank faces. They become a perfect icon of the extreme form of mass-mobilised inhumanity which industrialised warfare had brought to the world.

The use of gas in WWI always makes me think of a Wilfred Owen poem;

“Dulce et Decorum est”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

NOTES: Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

So, yes, these are the first 20th century troops that I’ve ever painted! I’ve tackled the British and French infantry versions, hoping for German or other ones for Christmas and birthday (2 days later). I’ve never dealt with camouflage or drab clothing, never mind Lewis or Chauchat machine guns or gas masks. I’ve enjoyed painting them though and I like to think they look okay too. Hopefully, they may even feature on the mantlepiece this Christmas; my very own Christmas Truce vignette.

Strelets British Infantry in Gasmasks.
Strelets British Infantry in Gasmasks.
Strelets French Infantry in Gasmasks
Strelets French Infantry in Gasmasks

More photos of the Strelets figures to follow shortly.