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Battle of the Somme: 100 years on

Thiepval-memorial-1A moving look at the upcoming commemorations by former Diplomatic 
Editor of The Times Michael Binyon

Instead, it was a murderous fiasco. Along most of the 14-mile line the British walked straight into withering machine-gun fire. The artillery barrage had not destroyed the deep concrete German bunkers. Many of the shells had not exploded. With ample warning of the attack, the Germans had prepared their positions. The British forces were largely volunteers, barely trained young men who had responded to Kitchener’s appeal and the inexperienced ‘pals’ regiments’ of men who had grown up and joined up together from the same street, town or factory.

By the end of the day, the British had suffered 57,000 casualties. More than 19,000 men had been killed within minutes of their first engagement. It was – and remains – the greatest military disaster the British army had ever suffered. For the next century, the Somme was to become a byword for brutal, senseless slaughter.

A century later, leaders of 19 nations engaged in that brutal conflict, including Germany, will gather at the battle sites to honour the war dead and to rededicate their nations to peace. Prince Charles will lead the British delegation, and President Hollande will represent the nation whose fields and people were ravaged by World War I. Those attending will include the President of Ireland, a country that has only recently started official commemorations of those killed serving in the British army.

David Cameron and President Hollande already met in Amiens in March to mark the battle; on 1 July they will be joined by leaders of other allied nations that lost men during the Somme offensive – which claimed the lives of more than a million men over the course of almost five months. And as often happens at solemn commemorative gatherings, Europe’s leaders will use the occasion for informal talk about the problems besetting the continent a century later – especially the influx of migrants, economic turbulence and the future of the European Union.

A century ago, the scale of the first day’s disaster was not immediately clear, and the attack resumed the next day. And the next, and the next. The battle of the Somme became a war of attrition, every bit as costly as the French stand to the south at Verdun, which the Somme offensive was intended to relieve. By mid-November, when the attacks petered out in a bloody stalemate, the battle had cost more than a million men, from Germany and the empires of Britain and France, killed, captured or wounded.

What was to be done with so many dead? Many lay for months in no-man’s land, their corpses rotting and their identities lost in the shelling. When, towards the end of the war, it was decided in London that the war dead should remain where they fell, the nation set about the colossal task of honouring the fallen in purpose-built cemeteries that would be tranquil, dignified, accessible and egalitarian: in death there was to be no seniority, class or privilege. All headstones would be the same, bearing only the regimental crests, the names, ages and ranks of the dead and a simple inscription – four lines each of no more than 66 characters – if the family so wished.

Over the next 20 years, the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission (CWGC) set about covering the flat sugar beet fields with some 250 cemeteries, some large, some small, to honour the dead. The French government donated the land. The best architects, including Sir Edwin Lutyens, were engaged. Rudyard Kipling – who had lost his only son John – suggested the famous inscription for the unidentified: “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.”

So many were killed – around 420,000 British Empire casualties in five months, of which at least 140,000 were dead – and so many were unidentified that it was decided to erect a special memorial to the 72,000 soldiers who had no known grave. A massive Anglo-French monument, designed by Lutyens, was built at Thiepval, a village whose capture became a strategic but costly priority. Its impressive and sombre arches reaching up to two flagpoles some 150 feet above ground dominate the landscape.

It is the biggest war memorial built by the British anywhere in Europe, and will be the scene of the centenary commemorations in July. Some 10,000 people – 8,000 of them relatives of the dead and other members of the public who drew lots for the tickets – will fill the vast parade ground in front of the monument. Almost 500,000 people are expected to visit the Somme during this centenary year. But even on an ordinary year, well over 300,000 visitors come to the battlefields – many of them young people using digitalised war records to research the fate of great-grandparents or great-uncles who fought there.

Visitors will find graveyards that are impeccably manicured. Roses and small plants edge the white headstones, with trimmed lawn paths and mature oaks around the perimeter. The upkeep is considerable. The Commission employs around 700 gardeners to tend the  cemeteries, many within walking distance of each other.

The headstones are immaculate. The Commission insists that each must be clearly legible, and so a vast programme of replacing those worn or cracked keeps a group of masons permanently employed at its French centre of operations in Arras. Last year, 22,000 new headstones were sent to CWGC cemeteries in more than 100 countries.

The statistics are impressive. The Commission tends 500,000 rose bushes and 700 km of headstones. It mows 500 football pitches of lawn every 10 days or so. It knows where every one of the identified Somme casualties is buried – some wealthy, such as Vere Harmsworth, the soldier son of the newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere; others young and humble such Horace Iles, a 16-year-old who joined up aged 14 and was killed on the first day of the battle, a week before his sister’s letter urging him to admit his age and come home was returned to her stamped simply ‘Killed in action.’

Some of the cemeteries are largely devoted to the contingents sent from across the Empire. Ayette holds the bodies of Indian and Chinese, mainly labourers, whose headstones have Hindi and Chinese symbols and poignant inscriptions – ‘Faithful unto death’ or ‘A good reputation endures for ever.’ The men from Newfoundland, then a separate dominion, suffered a devastating first day in action: more than 80 per cent of them were killed in the first 30 minutes while charging into a valley and the raking German crossfire. Their graveyard is among the network of trenches that still remain, though now grassed over. The Australians lie at Pozieres, a village completely destroyed in the battle, where they lost more than a third of their men. The South Africans are concentrated in a larger cemetery in front of a large wood, which they defended at terrible cost. Only 142 men, from a brigade of 121 officers and 3,032 men, escaped unscathed after six days of shelling and hand-to-hand combat.

There is one nation that also lost vast numbers, but whose dead are tucked away largely unseen. After the war’s end the Germans were ordered to concentrate their dead in three mass graveyards, each holding at least 20,000 men. Every small black metal cross marks the site of four bodies, and huge communal graves hold the rest, their names packed tightly together on small metal plaques. Very few German relatives now go to the Somme: only British and French pilgrims occasionally look round these sites where their ancestral enemies lie.

For today’s visitors, the Somme now seems like a vast and tragic place of death. Indeed, the battle’s aftermath has become a mainstay of the local economy, with cafés, hotels and visitor centres catering for the fleets of tour buses that make the circuit of remembrance. The Somme is seared into Britain’s 
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