A guided tour in Battery Aachen – part 1

Walking around at the Atlantikwall site of Raversyde, our virtual reconstructions link the past to the present. Let’s have a quick tour around this German coastal defense unit in 1915 and 1917.

At the entrance, two British sea mines, used as planters, were welcoming the visitor.

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Former entrance of Battery Aachen at_Raversyde

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Former entrance of Battery Aachen in the winter of 1916 or 1917

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Virtual reconstruction of the entrance in summer 1917

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Virtual reconstruction of the entrance in summer 1915

There was a path, connecting the two observation bunkers, that passed in front of the cannon platforms, but also gave access to the stairs of the former royal villa that gave way to the first line defence positions on the beach.

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Current situation at battery Aachen with mainly WW II remains

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The connecting pathway on the seaside in 1918

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Virtual reconstruction of the connecting pathway in 1917

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Virtual reconstruction of the connecting pathway in 1915

The soldiers were living in barracks that were integrated in the dunes, the planted layer of soil on the roof was acting as camouflage and protection against bombardments.  The barracks were reinforced after the British bombardment in October 1915.

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Construction of the barracks in early 1915

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Reinforced barracks in 1917

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Virtual reconstruction of the barracks in 1915

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Virtual reconstruction of the reinforced barracks in 1917

Battery Aachen contained four cannon platforms, that were also reinforced after the 1915 bombardments.  The cannons were put out of order by an inside explosion when the German troops withdrew at the end of the war.

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Cannon platform today

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Cannons platforms in 1918, the roof of the cannons is blown away by the explosion

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Virtual reconstruction of the cannon platforms in 1917

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Virtual reconstruction of the cannon platforms in 1915

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Virtual reconstruction of Battery Aachen

Typically, virtual 3D reconstruction is used for archaeological sites or ruined monuments, where little is left to imagine what has been at a certain site in the past.  In the open air museum Raversyde Atlantikwall however, the situation is different.  A battery unit of the German coastal defense, called Aachen, was not only preserved after the first World War but was also reused by the German army in the second World War, and preserved after that war too, making it impossible to restore the WW I remains without touching the WW II remains.  So virtual reconstruction has a triple goal here: visualising the extant remains in their WW I state, showing the many WW I elements that are not preserved today and showing the evolution that the battery went through during the war.

Our virtual 3D reconstruction is based upon five types of sources: aerial photography, photography on the terrain, photographs of similar batteries, written sources and the extant remains.  Let’s start with aerial photography.  Airplanes were brand new in 1914, the first successful flight only happened in 1904.  By 1912, planes were build for military use, in fact, most of the early production of airplanes was destined at military goals.  One of them was aerial photography, so by 1915 we have reconnaissance flights that depict Battery Aachen regularly.  During the war, the battery was photographed regularly from the air, so we can observe the changes that happened over the period 1915-1918, only limited by the quality and detail of the different aerial photographs.

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Aerial photographs of Battery Aachen during 1915

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Aerial photographs of Battery Aachen in 1918

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Current state of Battery Aachen

A second source are the terrestrial photographs taken on the terrain by soldiers and the military PR units.  These photographs show a wide range of subjects and areas and provide a lot of essential detail for the virtual reconstruction, as long as the photographed area can be identified.  Also photographs taken by Belgian soldiers in 1918, when the abandoned battery was taken, were very useful.

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One cannon platform at its installation in 1915 – the railing was recuperated from the royal villa

When interpreting the aerial and terrestrial photographs, it is very useful to have additional photographs of the housing and and equipment of similar batteries.  For example, as we did not have plans of the cannons, we used additional photographs of the same cannons in other batteries.

A major element of the virtual reconstruction is functional analysis: we try to understand how the battery functioned and which role each of the identified elements had.  In this analysis, additional written sources are very useful.  We used for example spy reports that described the battery and its operations but also plans of the bomb elevator that brought projectiles from the storage bunker onto the cannon platform.

All bunker and cannon platform remains were measured outside and inside and analysed to distinguish between the different phases during the first WW and the later additions of the second WW.

Based on the plan and terrain model of today, we identified all man made structures on the aerial orthophotomap and estimated sizes and integration in the landscape.  This is far from trivial as the quality of the aerial photography was substantially lower than today.

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Identification of build structures on the aerial orthophotomap (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

Based on all these sources, we created a virtual reconstruction for the newly build battery Aachen around May 1915 and for 1917, showing the changes and reinforcements made after the bombardments by the British Navy in October 1915.  Many dimensions and materials were derived (or sometimes guessed) from the photographic material and the length of shadows on the aerial photos.

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An overview of Battery Aachen in 1915 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

In this way, many elements in the current archaeological park can be linked to old photographs and visualised in 1915 and 1917 by the virtual reconstructions.

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Current state of a cannon platform at the Raversyde open air museum

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The same cannon platform in operation around 1917

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The virtual reconstruction of the same cannon platform in 1917 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

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The virtual reconstruction of the same cannon platform in 1915 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

Battery Aachen – 1915

Our story starts in the first months of the first World War, then called the Great War.  After conquering most of Belgium in October 1914, the German army consolidated its positions. Shortly after that, the construction started of a string of coastal defense units.

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Construction of the artillery positions of Battery Aachen in January 1915

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Construction of the artillery positions of Battery Aachen in January 1915

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Installation of one of the artillery pieces in early 1915

The construction of Battery Aachen started in January 1915, at Raversyde, a village on the outskirts of Ostend, Belgium. Battery Aachen was the first of a long chain of defensive units along the Belgian coast: west of Battery Aachen was the front line, on the east side was Battery Antwerp.  The unit contained two observation bunkers, four artillery positions, housing for the staff, ammunition depots. Battery Aachen was build on the Royal domain and the royal villa was even burned down and replaced by an artillery position.

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Overview of Battery Aachen as build in 1915 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

The artillery (15 cm SK L/40) was positioned in open concrete structures, on top of a double storage room that was partially underground.  A double rail track allowed to bring ammunition from the central ammunition bunker to each of the artillery positions.

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The artillery of Battery Aachen consisted of four 15 cm guns (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

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The new Battery Aachen in spring 1915

A small detail in the image below: the railings of the Royal villa were reused in each of the artillery positions. And the commander seems to be quite proud of the neat result… At least the concrete was of very good quality, as today it is 100 years old and still in a nearly perfect state.

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The only close-up photograph of an artillery position at Battery Aachen (1915)

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The artillery positions were probably using this Krupps 15 cm gun

Under the concrete platform was a basement in which the charges (right) and the projectiles (left) were stored. These were transported on rail from the storage to the artillery position and transferred to these storage spaces through small openings in the front.  Wooden doors gave access to stairs leading down in these storage spaces.  Ammunition was raised to the gun platform through a small hand-drawn elevator.

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Battery Aachen 1915 – artillery units (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

The artillery pieces were aimed at the sea, but were used only a few times to counter attacks by Allied ships.  Instead, from this position, the inland front line was bombarded regularly. The first inland bombardment on Nieuwpoort took place on May 5, 1915.

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Battery Aachen 1915 – view from the artillery unit towards the sea (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

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One of the 15 cm artillery guns at Battery Aachen (1915)

Today, these four artillery positions are the most authentic parts of Battery Aachen in the Raversyde open air museum, as they have not been reused in the second World War.  Two positions have been made accessible to the public, two positions are well preserved but covered by sand.

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The artillery positions of Battery Aachen in their current state (photograph: Daniel Pletinckx)

The concrete structure and the attachment of the artillery piece is very well preserved. Only the entrance part has been slightly modified after September 1915 in order to be able to remain operational during attacks and bombardments.

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The well preserved concrete structure of an artillery position  (photograph: Daniel Pletinckx)

The short animation below shows a bit the atmosphere of Battery Aachen and indicates briefly the sources that were used to make this virtual reconstruction.  Don’t forget that the first plane was flying in Belgium only 7 years before this scene in 1915.  The pilot, Henri Farman, was instrumental in the development of military planes in that period.  The Great War was not only cruel and insane, but also a major driver of technological development.