Thu, 08 Nov 2018
The Edward Lutyens Memorial at Thiepval
WHY did I want to visit the Somme? It might seem obvious to many, it is of great historical significance, a period in our history we should never forget.
But truth be told, I didn’t have any clear agenda. I know more about the Second World War than the first and yet I felt it was important that I see for myself an area of France that was so devastated by the fighting and which is the final resting place for so many, from so many countries, who fought during the conflict.
It sounds corny to say it, but I was genuinely moved by the displays and stories I read about during my three-day visit, and I remember looking at my youngest son, standing sombrely reading the endless list of names and I grew tearful at the thought that a hundred years on, my three sons, aged 18, 20 and 22 [in July, 2014], have a bright future ahead of them, while the mothers of these young men never saw them return.
The Remembrance Trail
The Battle of the Somme started on July 1, 1916, and raged for two years. Every year on July 1, memorial services are held at various sites around the Remembrance Trail, a ‘line’ of key sites identified for visitors to discover more about the battles and pay their respects.
Basilica Notre Dame de Berbières, Albert
We stayed at one end of the trail, in the town of Albert, which is dominated by the shining gold statue of Mary with the baby Jesus sitting atop the Basilica Notre Dame de Brebières. The church was hit on January 15, 1915, and the statue tipped over at an angle of 45 degrees, but unbelievably did not topple over completely. The townsfolk predicted that the war would end when the virgin fell.
In spring 1918, the Germans occupied the town and the British bombarded the basilica to prevent them using the steeple as an observation post, and the statue fell. It was rebuilt after the war, complete with resplendent statue, which shines brightly as a symbol of victory.
Underneath the city of Albert runs a 250m-long tunnel, built in the 13th century and later converted into air raid shelters during the Second World War. It now houses the Somme 1916 museum.
The curators have created a series of dioramas, using lifesize waxworks of soldiers in position in their trenches, relaxing on their bunks or preparing to attack. The atmosphere is dark and dank and you almost feel as if you might see rats running across your path and hear the heavy sound of gunfire up above.
The last part of the tunnel does just this – bare and damp, light and sound are used to create the feeling that you are walking through a trench under artillery fire.
Once you come out of the tunnel there is a small Heroes Gallery, which commemorates nine personalities from the war, including John McCrae, who wrote the war poem In Flanders Fields.
It is an effective reminder of the sacrifice of so many.
At the other end of the Remembrance Trail is the town of Péronne, which was occupied by the Germans for almost all of the war. Between the years of 1914 and 1918, about 30 per cent of the town’s inhabitants became civilian casualties of the war and every day the bells of the town hall ring out Le Madelon, a popular French song during the war, in remembrance.
Péronne is also home to the Museum of the Great War. This is a huge collection of memorabilia and follows a very detailed timeline of the events leading up to the war and the struggles during it for the three main nations involved; France, Great Britain and Germany. It is almost overwhelming, with more than 1,600 objects on display, as well as various temporary exhibitions.
As an in-depth study of all aspects of the war, it can’t be beaten.
As we drove around the countryside, the thing I hadn’t realised and found most extraordinary was the prolific number of cemeteries which appear in the middle of farmers’ fields, quite randomly. There are more than 400 Commonwealth cemeteries, 22 French military cemeteries and 14 German cemeteries, as well as American, Chinese and South African cemeteries.
Whether it’s one grave, 20, or just a memorial stone, all are beautifully maintained and serve as a poignant reminder of the many nationalities and regiments involved in the bloody conflict.
Driving along the long, straight, tree-lined roads, I gazed across the fields into the dense thicket of trees and imagined the soldiers all billeted in the temporary cover as the German army continued their relentless march. There are signs everywhere showing the line of the Western Front and the landscape today still carries the scars of that bloodiest of battles, The Somme.
Thiepval (Tee-ep-val) is the site of the largest British war memorial in the world, designed by Edwin Lutyens (architect of the Cenotaph in London) and a stunning tribute to the thousands who died.
When you arrive at the site you are directed to the visitor centre where a detailed timeline of the Battle of the Somme is laid out with bite-size facts and figures, easy to understand but not easily digested, as the terrible impact of the battles becomes more obvious.
The centre also includes The Missing of the Somme database, which can only be viewed on the computers there. This allows visitors to access information on many of the men whose names are inscribed on the memorial. By the end of 2012 it contained information on almost 8,500 men.
There is also a small cinema where contemporary film footage runs on a loop.Watching the weary soldiers’ faces as they march forward to almost certain death is a sight not easily forgotten.
Turning out of the visitor centre, we walked along the gravel pathway towards the memorial, hidden by a row of trees but breathtaking as we rounded the corner and caught sight of it close-up for the first time.
As you climb the stairs of the 45m high construction you start to take in the 72,205 names engraved into the 16 huge pillars, with the simple message on the Stone of Remembrance in the centre, ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore’.
Particularly heartwarming were the number of messages left by schoolchildren, in among the poppies and roughly-hewn crosses, which the public leave in tribute.
There are numerous sites around the Somme, too many to mention here, but one of the most affecting is just outside the small village of La Boisselle. Here you will find the Lochnagar crater. At 100m in diameter and 30m deep, this is the only crater accessible to the public, thanks to Englishman Richard Dunning who bought it in 1978 and, along with a growing band of volunteers, has preserved the site.
The crater was formed when the British blew up nearby mines, where German troops were dug in. But the explosion was so great that scores of Allies were also injured.
The blast heralded the start of the march forward by the Allies, who were met with a barrage of machine gun fire.
As I walked round the perimeter, I sensed the loss of innocent lives for both sides of the conflict, and once again, the conflicting emotion of pride that these men are still being honoured today; I say conflicting because somehow showing we care by remembering doesn’t seem quite enough.
So I now know why I wanted to visit the Somme and why I would hope to go back again, and why every generation should visit. I came away with a feeling of overwhelming respect for the hundreds of thousands who died, a great deal of sadness for lives cut short but also a feeling of pride in man’s humanity as I took in the care and attention that is lavished on these memorials and the on-going projects to make sure people know as much as possible about the conflict that shaped the 20th century.
I wanted to go to say thank you.