Towards the end of last year I was lucky enough to work on a documentary about the state of press freedom in Turkey. It was a fascinating shoot that took me around Turkey and gave me a real glimpse of the problems faced by Journalists in that country. I wanted to post the film for you to have a look at. Before you watch it you may wish to get more context from this online piece by the reporter, Selin Girit.
The august sun began to rise, slowly burning off the early morning mist and drizzle that had had plagued the British troops. The 4th Battalion Royal Fusileers had spent most of the night trying to dig in, scraping shallow trenches along the banks of the Conde Canal, outside the small Belgium village of Nimy. It was the 23rd August 1914 and the British Expeditionary Force was about to fight it’s first major engagement of the First World War.
The 4th RF (9th Brigade, 3rd Division) were commanded by Lt. Colonel McMahon and consisted of twenty-six officers and nine hundred and eighty three other ranks, of these seven hundred and thirty four were reservists, recalled from civilian life in the last few weeks. These were the “Old contemptibles”who despite their small numbers had a level of training and cohesion that other armies envied. There motto was, “We’ll do it, what is it?”
They had been given a tough assignment. The battalion was to defend the “loop” position which is where the canal curved northwards and then back again, creating a salient that would make life difficult for the defenders. There were two bridges in their sector, a road bridge (which was a swing bridge) and a metal railway bridge to it’s left, that dominated the battlefield. The canal was sixty foot wide, covered in black slime and reeking of chemicals. Smoking black slag heaps dotted the landscape, too hot and dangerous to use as observation posts.
At nine am the first German shells began to land amongst the British defenders. They pounded the canal for an hour with no reply from the british artillery which had handicapped itself with a poor choice of firing position. As the bombardment ceased the grey clad ranks of six German infantry battalions emerged from cover (lead by the 84th Regt.), advancing slowly. The British used their Short Magazine Lee Enfield Rifle’s and their excellent marksmanship and rapid firing ability to decimate the German ranks, forcing them to fall back. At the time the German’s believed that the British defenders had many Machine-gun’s, in fact they had just two water-cooled Vickers, which were dug in around the Railway bridge under the command of Lieutenant Maurice James Dease.
As the morning wore on the incoming artillery and machine-gun fire from the German’s began to take a terrible toll amongst the defenders. The civilian villagers who had stayed behind in Nimy now began to run for their lives, escaping with the few possessions they could carry. It was clearly only a matter of time before the thin British line was broken.
By 13.00 the 4th RF were in a desperate situation. C (also known as Y) Company had suffered almost eighty casualties and both machine-guns had ceased firing. Lt. Dease, who had already been wounded twice (including a round in the neck) crawled forward to discover nobody alive to operate the right hand Vickers. In spite of his severe injuries he began to fire the weapon himself keeping the German’s at bay. He quickly attracted a murderous amount of gunfire until eventually he was hit again. Lieutenant Steele ran forward and carried him back to the rear but he died from his wounds around 15.30 (he was subsequently awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the first of the war). Dease lies in St Symphorien cemetery outside Mons, along with many men of his comrades.
The sun was now high and blisteringly hot. At 13.40 Lt.Colonel McMahon received the order to withdraw his battalion. Utilising years of training and parade ground discipline the troops began to retire as best they could.
On the Railways bridge Private Sidney Frank Godley took over the Machine-gun that Dease had been firing. He was also wounded but managed to single-handedly keep the German’s at bay for two hours while the rest of the battalion got away. Eventually, after running out of ammunition he dismantled the Vickers and tossed the pieces into the canal. Struggling to walk, he crawled back to the main road and was helped to hospital by two Belgian civilians. Soon after he arrived it was taken over by the German’s and he was taken prisoner. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross and received the good news from the senior German Officer at his POW camp at Doberitz.
The battle of Nimy was over but it marked the start of a gruelling retreat that saw the Old contemptibles battered and virtually wiped out over the following weeks. The British had suffered a defeat, but had inflicted a bloody nose on the Germans and done themselves proud against a vast, determined and well trained foe.
For a concise overview of the battle of Mons then you may wish to follow this link – http://www.1914-1918.net/bat1.htm
If you have enjoyed this article then you may also enjoy a short story I wrote about the battle featuring Harry Blake and the fictional Royal North Leicestershire Regiment – click here to read.
VCs of the First World War: 1914
by Gerald Gliddon (Budding Books)
1914 : The Days of Hope
by Lyn Macdonald (Penguin)
by Jack Horsfall and Nigel Cave (Leo Cooper)
The Guns of August
by Barbara Tuchman (Dell)
Villy la Ferte is a small fort on the Maginot Line where heavy fighting took place between German and French troops in May 1940. It is the westernmost position in its sector and was comparatively weakly armed and in an exposed position that left it vulnerable to isolation and attack.
The fighting at La Ferté was the heaviest of any position in the Maginot Line. It was attacked from the air and by the German 71st infantry division backed up with heavy artillery. The position, although heavily damaged, defended itself well for a number of days refusing to surrender.
Eventually after the Fort fell silent a German patrol made a full survey of the ouvrage, finding “the most difficult conditions imaginable,” and discovering the corpses of the garrison, apparently suffocated, most wearing gas masks. It seems that the garrison died of carbon monoxide poisoning after the fume extractor fans had been damaged.
The entire garrison was posthumously awarded the Ordre de l’Armée. On the German side, Oberleutnant Germer, who led the assault, was awarded the Knight’s Cross.
The battle is still studied today by NATO Officers as they learn about the German blitzkrieg. That is how my friend, army photographer Mike O’Neill, came to visit the spot recently. I saw his excellent photos on Facebook and asked permission to repost.
As some of you may be aware I have recently been working as a Video Journalist for BBC World news, producing, shooting and editing my own films. I’ve also been appearing in front of the camera from time to time for a web series called “live the story”. It’s been a bizarre but enjoyable experience and one that I’d be keen to do more of in the future. The films are trying to look beyond the news agenda and explore what it takes to deliver the news, as well as small quirky stories that I find along the way. I’ve posted a few below, feel free to comment.
This is a fascinating documentary from the guys over at Vice/Motherboard about the rifle that aims itself. It looks at the technology behind new precision guided firearms from US Company Trackingpoint.
The promo video below details the scopes integration with your smart phone or tablet.
But as Trackingpoint say on their blog, this use of tech is just the beginning:
“Smart rifle technology is more than just making shooters more accurate – it can form the core platform for a networked battlefield with its internal sensors, computing power, and communication architecture. Dynamic, interactive common operating pictures using something as simple a commercial off the shelf tablet, inter and intra-squad target handoff, a constant stream of near real time critical data running between squad members, units, and command structures – these are no longer concepts drawn from science fiction or the latest video game – these are real capabilities that are months not years away. Just as GPS changed warfare at the turn of the century, the next changes will occur via smart weapons at the small unit level where massive increases in baseline lethality and situational awareness with the least amount of training will be possible.”
In their vision of war in the near future:
“Smart rifles will have embedded wifi and USB ports to enable hardline connections with other smart devices including communications gear. Smart rifles currently do not have native GPS but can have GPS plug in via USB that enables geolocation of the rifles themselves and of tagged targets via onboard sensor arrays (compass direction and range input from laser rangefinder). This will enable the tracking of targets after they are taken down, targets that are tagged and then leave the scopes field of view, rifles lost in combat, positions of soldiers and more.”
The entire system is impressive but there is something disturbing about the “democratisation of accuracy”. I prefer the idea of Snipers having to be highly trained and experienced, not a guy with a smart scope and a fancy rifle.
On paper the Syrian army is a huge, well trained and disciplined force that should easily be winning the civil war. In 2011, the Syrian Army comprised 220,000 personnel, most of whom were conscripts. But the regime now feels unable to deploy many of its units because of questionable loyalty to the Assad family.
The 4th Armoured division is considered by many to be most powerful and feared unit in the Syrian army. I’ve read differing accounts of it’s structure and exactly which units are attached to it. But according to Joseph Holliday in his excellent Syrian Army Doctrinal Order of Battle It is organized in similar fashion to the conventional armoured divisions, with three armored brigades and one mechanized brigade. Each armored brigade is made up of three armoured battalions and one mechanized battalion. In theory that should mean the unit could field up to 300 Main battle tanks and at least 10,000 men with over 100 Infantry fighting vehicles (such as the BMP 2) and attached Artillery and engineering assets.
The unit has been at the heart of many battles and has been implicated in numerous massacres. Khattar Abou Diaba, a political scientist at Paris University says, “The 4th Armoured division is known for its brutality and is a symbol of the Syrian regimes striking force.” It traces its lineage back to the paramilitary “Defence Companies” that were instrumental in defeating the Muslim brotherhood uprising of 1982. These companies were trained by the Soviet Spetznaz and were tasked with defending the regime against threats from within Syria.
The 4th Armoured is commanded by Maj. Gen. Mohamed Ali Durgham but in reality the de facto commander is Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher, a tough hardliner nicknamed “the butcher of Deraa” for his part in crushing the protests there in 2011. The division mainly contains career soldiers of whom approximately eighty percent are from the Alawite sect.
It is based at Mazzeh barracks in the southern suburbs of Damascus, close to the Presidential palace. Ideally located to be the last line of defence against any threat to the regime, including an Israeli invasion.
Because many other units in the Syrian Army are considered unreliable the 4th Armoured division has often been broken up into small elements that are assigned to “nanny” less motivated units. They have been at the forefront of much of the fighting around Homs and in Damascus, because of this they have suffered heavy casualties and been granted little R and R.
The unit is equipped with the best weapons available to Assad. They include the T-72AV which has explosive reactive armour fitted to hull front and turret.
The video below shows a regime T-72 tank coming under attack in Eastern Ghouta and the crew trying to escape under fire, I’m not sure if they are from the 4th Armoured division but it is very possible ( as a grizzly side bar you may notice that the soldier who is eventually killed is already missing a foot as he crawls out of the tank)
And in this fascinating video a Syrian Tank Commander explains the weaknesses of the T-72AV
Even an elite unit like the 4th has defectors. In the video below one of them recounts what he witnessed as a member of the unit in late 2011 and early 2012. I haven’t been able to verify this video but it is an interesting watch.
If you want to discover more about life in a regime army unit then then this first hand account that appeared in the Daily Beast is excellent:
After six months’ basic training in Khan Ash Shaykh, I was made a sergeant in charge of a BMP [a Russian-made armored personnel carrier] section. I was in charge of 14 privates in my unit, almost all young Sunni Arab guys. Kurds like me usually don’t get made sergeant. There were 16 sections like mine in my company with a captain in charge. There were no lieutenants in our unit, just musa’ada, or warrant officers, to help the captain.
Our captain had a very strong voice and a strong personality; he was an Alawi like most officers. He never sounded unsure of himself or conflicted about what we had to do in Dara’a. While he got his orders from the ameed, the colonel, mostly he had freedom to do anything he wanted in our assigned area: arrests, raids, shootings, destroying buildings.
Our unit was sent to Dara’a after the protests started in March of 2011 and our area was at the center of the problems because it contained the Umari mosque. There was no base for us in Dara’a so we took over an elementary school and turned it into our base. At the beginning we never worried about being attacked, we just had to deal with protests. We thought we would be there for a few weeks and then things would settle down.
When we arrived in Dara’a we were given strict orders to never speak with civilians there. Not during arrests, not breaking up protests, not on patrols. You would be beaten and sent to jail if you were seen speaking at length with civilians. We were told repeatedly that the protests were instigated by infiltrating foreigners, mostly supported by the U.S. and Western powers to undermine Syria, and that most of the protesters weren’t even Syrian. We were told they were Iranians, Afghanis, Americans, and Pakistanis forming these groups. As time went by it was obvious this wasn’t true and much of it didn’t make sense, but you couldn’t speak openly about it. At first, most of us just accepted that foreigners were behind it all.
In the beginning we were strictly prohibited from shooting at the protesters and the officers were very careful to avoid confrontation. At first we would just show up and surround the protests and hope that the show of force would convince them to disperse. Almost all of the protests started after Friday prayer at the mosques, because that is when all the men in the area gather together. We came to expect that every Friday we would have to break up a protest, but they grew larger and larger. When they became too large for us to arrest and disperse we began firing over the crowd or at unoccupied buildings nearby. When this didn’t work, my captain ordered me to fire a tank shell into a building near the protesters, but we didn’t kill anyone until later in April. . .You can read the full article here
This article is only an introduction to the syrian 4th armoured division and is still a work in progress so if you have any further information about the structure, equipment and combat operations of the unit, and any others of the Syrian army, then please do drop me a line.