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Remembered Today:


ianjonesncl

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An interesting post by  BIFFO   shows an extract from the 13th Battalion Welsh Regiment war diary which recounts the toppling of the Leaning Virgin of Albert by British Artillery.

 

ALL artillery fans go stand in the corner

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The Leaning Virgin was a familiar sight to soldiers on the Somme when passing through Albert. The statue remained in its precarious position from January 1915 until it was toppled by British Artillery in April 1918.

 

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British Toops pass through Albert and the Leaning Virgin

 

One wondered if the event was recorded in an Artillery war diary. With the help of Pals {BIFFO, AOK4, Sepoy, John(txic), Ron Clifton, Alan24, Wexflyer, kenf48, mebu, Lanchashire Fusiler,BullerTurner} the events unfolded.

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The Basilica of Our Lady of Brebieres in Albert was built between 1885 to 1897. The main feature was a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child mounted on a dome, covered with gold leaf designed by sculpture Albert Roze. The tower at 76 metres ( x feet) tall could be viewed for many miles from around the surrounding countryside. 

 

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In 1914 Albert remained under French control as the Race for the Sea developed and the front line formed 5km east of the town. A shell hit the Basilica on 22n October 1914. [1]

 

The Germans worried that the church would provide an excellent observation post for the French shelled the Basilica. On January 15th 1915 they succeeded in hitting the building, the main damage being to dislodge the statue to the near horizontal. [2]

 

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Albert - Leaning Virgin 

 

The  British took over the Somme sector from the French in August 1915. A legend grew up around the Leaning Virgin, that should it fall the war would end. The Germans believed that who ever made the virgin fall would win the war (they were right !). The Allies believed the opposite, and maybe as a result of this superstition made efforts to secure the statue to prevent it from falling. 

 

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Albert Leaning Virgin - British Artillery

 

On 21st March 1918 the Germans launched their Spring Offensive,  Operation Michael , in the Somme Sector. The Official History records "About 4.30 P.M. the Germans began pouring troops into Albert. Albert is the enticing objective of the 3rd Marine and 54th Reserve Divisions. In the second and third hours of the afternoon the pursuers appear at the foot of the last heights before Albert, and the tower of the cathedral, with the twisted iron of its summit hanging downwards, stands out against the western sky". [3]

 

Albert was abandoned by the British who withdrew to Henencourt. By 07.30 pm Albert was in possession of the Germans. [4] The Germans were now able to dominate the ground from the tower of Albert as can be seen from this view provided by mebu taken from Millencourt, superimposed on a contemporary map. The tower with the Virgin can be seen to the left of the water tower. [5]

 

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It would seem that the Germans mounted a machine gun in the Albert Basilica tower and action was taken to remove it by shelling the Basilica.

 

Lieutenant FG Peach MC a staff officer with V Corps recounts; [6]

 

In 1918 I was on the staff of the 5th Corps, Heavy Artillery, and an Army Order had been issued that no more buildings were to be demolished by gunfire. One early morning we had a telephone message from the Infantry Colonel of the Battalion holding the line quite near to the Cathedral to the effect that he was suffering heavy loss from machine gun-fire from the Cathedral Tower, and he asked that we should blow the place to blazes. My General was out on reconnaissance work, and my Brigade Major was absent at the time so I (quite a young Captain) was in charge. Realizing the Army Order and knowing that I should get no satisfaction from Army H.Q., I chose one of the 8-in. Batteries in the Corps, worked out some imaginary trenches well beyond the Cathedral, and then ordered the Major of this Battery to fire a couple of hundred rounds at these imaginary trenches, knowing full well that the line of fire would go clean through the Cathedral!

 

The Major was thrilled with this order and it was duly carried out and the Cathedral Tower and most of the surrounding Cathedral was blown to hell, thus probably saving the lives of many of our Infantry.

 

The 8 inch Battery allocated was 57th Siege Battery which was part of the 89th Brigade Royal Garrison Artillery. The 8 inch (203mm) howitzer with which the battery was equipped [7], fired a 200lb (91kg) shell. The war diary of the 89th Brigade RGA records; [8]

 

15/4/16 - During day ……. (57 S.B.) 10.26 to 12.18 pm 72 rounds ALBERT CHURCH - 5 ok's on tower, but not brought down. Shoot stopped owing to poor visibility. (Enemy machine gun used to fire from the tower)

 

16/4/16 - During day 57 S.B. continued to shoot on ALBERT Cathedral & at 3.36 pm the tower fell. 179 rds were fired in all at the Cathedral, 17 ok s being obtained.

 

It would seem that V Corps Heavy Artillery War Diary did not record the event, the diary having one entry covering the period 15th to 20th April [9] "Again during the last five days little firing has taken place". This may not be surprising given the Basilica was a Restricted Target.

 

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57 Siege Bty Nov1917 Poziereres Q65393

 

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Albert Leaning Virgin under fire

 

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Albert Basilica ruins 1918

 

The toppling of the Virgin was of interest to those in the area, as is shown by BIFFO's entry in the 13th Battalion Welsh Regiment war diary. An entry in Lancashire Fusilier's grandfather's diary records [10] records the event and a conversation of with Gunner 2nd Lieutenant Watson.

 

The Church of Notre Dame de Brebières was famous for its Virgin Statue, and known to nearly all British troops. The brick belfry was 200 feet high, and was surmounted by a copper dome on which stood a gilt statue of the Virgin 26 feet high, holding the infant Jesus in her arms. Early in the War a shell struck the top of the dome and burst against the socle of the statue. The base gave way but did not entirely collapse, the statue overturning and remaining suspended in mid-air. For several years it remained there and there was a saying that “The War will end when the Virgin Statue of Albert falls”. The Spring Bombardment of 1918 completed the ruin of the Church. The belfry collapsed carrying with it the Virgin. Actually I was told by Watson – a 2nd Lieutenant of the 2nd Howitzer Battery – that their Battery actually knocked the Virgin down in a competition with another Battery, this shoot costing some thousands of rounds.

 

The 2nd 'Howitzer Battery' would be consistent with 2nd Siege Battery, which was part of 85th Brigade RGA who were in the area of Albert. It is believed they were situated in map square V21, north of Henencourt and therefore it is possible someone in that vicinity could view the shoot.

 

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The war diary of the 85th Brigade RGA records; [12]

 

Apr 16. - The Statue of the Virgin on ALBERT Cathedral was brought down about 3.30 p.m. this afternoon.

 

Albert was retaken by the 18th (Eastern) Division on 22nd August 1918 during the opening phase of the Second Battle of the Somme. [13]

 

The destruction of the Basilica of Albert and the bringing down of the tower by British Artillery is not the story that was told in some press accounts.  Perhaps the thought that "The Utter Ruin Wrought by War on a Structure Once Famous Throughout the World for Its Beauty" had to be the 'Hun'; "ON APRIL 15 1918, THE VIRGIN WAS SHOT DOWN BY GERMAN ARTILLERY."

 

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Albert Cathedral where statue of Virgin Mary hung amid the ruins 'til felled by Hun shells

 

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The war left Albert and the Basilica in ruins. The fallen statue of the Virgin was never found.

 

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Albert Basilica and Albert in ruins

 

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British Officer in ruins of the Basilica 8th October 1918

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The town of Albert and the Basilica were rebuilt after the First World War. A replacement golden statue of the Virgin and Child surmounted the rebuilt tower.

 

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Albert Basilica and statue of the Virgin - Albert April 2011 

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[1] https://paris1972-versailles2003.com/2020/02/27/the-basilica-of-albert/

[2] https://paris1972-versailles2003.com/2020/02/27/the-basilica-of-albert/

[3] History of the Great War Military France and Belgium Operations 1918 Volume 1 - page 519

[4] History of the Great War Military France and Belgium Operations 1918 Volume 1 -  page 520

[5] https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/284276-all-artillery-fans-go-stand-in-the-corner/?do=findComment&comment=2926043

[6] F.G. Petch's MC (Vice-President of the Air League) account from Air Pictorial, Vol. 30, No. 7 July 1968

[7] WO 5494 - Allocation of Units

[8] WO-95-480-2 89 Brigade RGA War Diary - 15/4/16 and 16/4/16

[9] WO-95-757-2 - V Corps Heavy Artillery War Diary

[10] https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/284276-all-artillery-fans-go-stand-in-the-corner/?do=findComment&comment=2925851

[11] WO-95-757-2 - V Corps Heavy Artillery War Diary

[12] WO-95-479-1 War Diary 85 Brigade RGA - 16-Apr-1918

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Albert_(1918)

Edited by ianjonesncl

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A Lancashire Fusilier by Proxy

Posted

Thank you for this interesting blog, drawing together, and adding to,, the thread entitled All Artillery Fans go Stand in the Corner. I was obviously interested in the original thread given my grandfather's comment in his diary, and was going to add a further post had the thread not been locked. In particular, I was going to say to you that I think that the "Lancashire connection" may be a red herring, as my grandfather met Watson when they were both recuperating at No 74 General Hospital, Trouville,. I assume that patients in the hospital would have come from all over Britain - though it is, of course, possible that my grandfather, as a Lancashire men, might have felt an affinity for other Lancashire men.

I like to think that my grandfather's record is accurate, and also that 2nd Lieutenant Watson was telling the truth, though it is very possible that gunners may have been overkeen to claim credit, as commented by you in the thread ("It was probably a Battery target, so six detachments each claiming they fired the rounds should a pat on the back be order of the day. And should it be required to come out of their pay, six detachments each vehemently denying it was them.").

I got distracted in my endeavours to corroborate (or otherwise) 2nd Lieutenant Watson's account by thinking that I had found a War Diary for the correct period for the 2nd Siege Battery, and, worse, misleading myself into thinking we were looking at March 1918 rather than April 1918. Also, I was rather despondent that you said that the Vth Army was further south, and this probably led me not to pay proper attention to Ron Clifton's comment "In March 1918 it (2nd Siege Battery) was under Fifth Army as part of 85 (Mobile) Brigade RGA, whose War Diary can be downloaded free from the National Archives website. Here is the reference:

WO 95/479 85 Brigade Royal Garrison Artillery 1917 Apr. - 1919 Feb."

Anyway, having drawn a blank with the purported 2nd Siege Battery War Diary, I thought I had better go back and see what other clues there were, so finally looked properly at the War Diary suggested by Ron Clifton, and, sure enough, discovered that the 2nd Siege Battery are listed as being with 85th Brigade. Moreover, they were in the area of Albert in April 1918. Moreover, the entry for 16 April 1918 reads:

"The Statue of the Virgin on ALBERT Cathedral was brought down about 3.30 p.m.  this afternoon."

The entry doesn't say that the 2nd Siege Battery was involved, but it was obviously a subject of some interest to the person writing up the diary, as there is no other entry for that day.

2nd Lieutenant Watson is not mentioned by name in the 85th Brigade War Diary so far as I can see, but I don't think that would be unusual for a junior officer.

What do you think? Is there any clue in the 85th Bridade War Diary as to whether the Battery positions would have given a sighting of the Virgin (I am afraid that that is a bit too technical for me)? 

Having got this far, unless anyone proves otherwise, I shall remain convinced that both my granddad and 2nd Lieutenant Watson were right (or was there just a tiny bit of exaggeration with the "thousands of rounds" if 57th Brigade fired only 179??!!).

You may wish to amend your blog just slightly in the light of the above.

ALFBP

 

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ALFBP

 

Many thanks for the feedback on my blog  entry and the additional information

 

I downloaded the 85 Brigade RGA War Diary, with 2 Siege Battery as one of their units, and reviewed the events leading up to the toppling of the Virgin.

 

The section on the Narrative of Events since 21-Mar-18 outlines moves and positions which refer to the ALBERT map. The entry for 28th March, when it looks like the effect of the German Offensive has stabilised, details Brigade HQ at BAIZIEUX , which is 3km SW HENENCOURT. The entry outlines the batteries are all in action at V21, which looks like to be NW of MILENCOURT. The view and map looking towards Albert in the blog entry shows Milencourt to the left which is located in square V.

 

I re-checked WO -95-5494 Allocation and 85th Brigade was allocated to Fifth Army from 14th March 1918 to 1st May 1918. The 85 Brigade RGA War Diary outline that they joined the Australian Corps  7th April. I believe the Australians and Fifth Army were to the south of Albert on the 16th April, however it was unfortunately my mistaken assumption that the 85th Brigade RGA would be located to the south.

 

If I have the command and control relationships correct,  85 Brigade RGA, and within it 2nd Siege Battery , was in support of the Australian Corps who were part of Fifth Army. The account from Lieutenant Page within Heavy Artillery V Corps (as part of Fourth Army) led to the 57th Siege Battery record of the shoot.

 

For 2nd Siege Battery to be involved I believe it would have necessitated co-ordinating across Army and across Corps, which does seem complex.

 

The account in your grandfathers diary led to the identification of 2nd Siege Battery, which in turn led to 85th Brigade RGA and confirmation that 2nd Siege Battery were in the vicinity of Albert. The fact that the 85th Brigade War diary recorded the Statue of the Virgin being brought down, the event was obviously of interest to those located in the area. This is shown by the original post from Biffo in the recording of the downing of the statue in the 13th Welsh Regiment war diary.

 

Given the view from Milencourt that  mebu posted and the fact that 2nd Siege Battery would not be far from that village I think Lt Watson may have witnessed the event, and I think your grandfathers diary is accurate in the recording of the occasion. The fact Lt Watson's battery that brought it down, I am more inclined to believe it "may have been over keen to claim credit"

 

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Blog updated to;

  • remove a reference to 2/1 Lancashire Heavy Battery
  • add location of 85 HAG including 2 Siege Battery in Albert and possible witnessing of event
  • acknowledge accuracy of Lancashire Fusiliers grandfather's diary in recording of event

 

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