“One only has to glance at the hill on which they stand to see that it has been more burnt and shell-smitten than most parts of the line. It is as though the fight here had been more than to the death, to beyond death, to the bones and skeleton of the corpse which was as yet unkillable.”
This description of the Schwaben Redoubt, written by John Masefield a year after it was won by the British and included in ‘Empires of the Dead’ by David Crane, goes some way to explaining why, despite there being nobody left who remembers the Battle of the Somme, its name can still quieten a room. Thanks to the mechanisation of war, the devastation was on a scale that had never been experienced before; the first day of the Somme was and is the bloodiest in the history of the British Army. On the first day alone, 1st July 1916, 58,000 men – just under half of the 120,000 who launched the attack – became casualties, with 19,240 perishing in the mud far from their homes. Over the next four months that number rose to 420,000, and 60,000 more British soldiers died at the Somme by the war’s end. The ferocity of the fighting made it all but impossible to recover the bodies of the fallen. Some were eventually identified by rings, identity discs, badges, tattoos, insignia and other distinguishing marks. Others could not be identified, or sank deep beneath the churned and sodden ground.
It is these poor men, whose families never even experienced the bittersweet relief of knowing that their suffering was over, who are honoured by the Thiepval Memorial, set above the River Ancre. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also designed the Cenotaph in London, and unveiled by the Prince of Wales on 1st August 1932 after four years of construction, it is 150 feet high, 185 feet wide and 135 feet deep. Since it occupies the brow of a hill, it can be seen from almost every one of the battlefields. It has 16 piers, to echo the number of British divisions that took part in the first Battle of the Somme, and is built on a solid block of concrete embedded 19 feet below the ground. As Gareth Hughes explains in his ‘Visiting the Somme & Ypres: Battlefields Made Easy’, the interlocked arches are arranged so that, from whatever angle you view the monument, an arch should be visible.
Various authors seem to have gone cross-eyed ever since it was built, trying to describe the spirit of a memorial that refuses to be captured. The general consensus is that it is profoundly moving, but affects each person in a different way. It is bold and unshakable, capturing the harshness and raw emotion of war, yet also flowing and lovely to behold. Once seen it is unforgettable, if only because of its great size – and the sobering fact that every inch of its space is needed to display the 73,000 or so names of the missing British and South African (858) soldiers that it recalls.
Just who are the men memorialised, and what part did they play in the war? Many were British volunteers, the ‘Pals’ Battalions’, taking part in their first big fight. According to Martin and Mary Middlebrook’s ‘The Somme Battlefields’, the Fourth and Third Armies took part, with the London Regiment (Territorials), Northumberland Fusiliers, Royal Fusiliers (City of London), and the King’s Liverpool, Royal Warwick and Manchester Regiments being most heavily represented. The French
Army also took part, though only five divisions of French soldiers fought, despite the fact that it was Joffre who had pushed for an assault to be launched at the Somme, to take the pressure off the French forces at Verdun; Haig had favoured action at Ypres instead. Initially Joffre pledged 16 divisions on a Front Line of 25 miles, but in the end, as Verdun dragged on and tied up more men, the French attacked on a front of just eight miles. The Anglo-French cemetery set behind the monument, in which 300 of the dead of both nations are buried, symbolises their joint sacrifice in this battle.
The first day of the Somme, at Albert, was a fiasco. Philip Warner explains in his ‘World War One: a Chronological Narrative’ that Haig’s advisors assured him that the weeklong barrage, using 1 ¾ million shells and over 1,500 guns, would have flattened the German defences, and that sending a reconnaissance party to cut any remaining wire would be pointless. They were wrong. The hapless attackers, emerging from the trenches in full daylight (since Joffre had delayed ‘zero hour’ from before dawn to 7.30am), were confronted with line upon line of razor-sharp wire. Worse, the German defenders had not been eliminated – far from it. Their trenches were deep and solidly built, so when the barrage started the Germans simply dragged their machine guns to shelter. When it ceased, they hauled them back out. As the British advanced at a slow walk, laden with heavy equipment, they were slaughtered in their droves.
It was not until 14th July, when XIII and XV Corps launched a surprise attack and took Bazentin-le-Petit Wood, Delville Wood and High Wood, that the Allies had any real success, and their failure to capitalise on their gains meant that a stalemate was reached, and the territory continued to be contested to the next two months. The next success came on 15th September, when the first tanks went into Battle of Flers Courcelette. Of 50 shipped, only 18 made it onto the field, but the Germans were terrified and quite a few initial gains were made, including the villages of Flers, Courcelette and Martin-Puich, as well as High Wood. The 4th Army was also able to advance and capture the fortress of Thiepval on 26th September. The final attack of the First Battle of the Somme took place on 13th November. Again, certain objectives were taken, but the advantage was not capitalised on because of the unsuitability of the ground for a cavalry charge, although 7,000 prisoners were taken. The level of destruction and lack of progress dictated that the fighting drew to a close in the region on 16th September. In all, the Allies had advanced just five miles. Of the lost men commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, 90% died in those first bloody months.
The impressive structure, the biggest of all the Commonwealth War Grave Commission memorials, aims to do two things. First, it acts as a focal point for families whose loved ones were never found, providing them with some comfort and a feeling of closeness. Second, it is a poignant symbol of the carnage, and acts to reprimand and deter to any government considering sending men to war. The carved names bear solemn testament to that fact that those lost in battle are lost forever.
Thiepval Memorial restoration.
In December 2020 a major restoration of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme has taken an important step forward. The project, which had been planned to start in 2020 but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions, will see the completion of an ambitious conservation programme started in 2014. Work was paused in 2016 to allow the World War I Battle of the Somme centenary to be marked there.
Phase one of the work consisted of repairs to the roofs, rainwater pipes and brick work above the main arch. The second phase, starting in March, will continue this work, as well as including additional drainage works, water proofing, restoration of the name panels, relaying of paving and securing the outer layer of stone with thousands of ties. The project is due for completion in May 2022.
Barry Murphy, CWGC's Director General, says: “For nearly a century the Thiepval Memorial has stood as a monument to the sacrifice of those killed on the Somme in the First World War. Today, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission takes an important step closer to preserving this iconic memorial for the next century and beyond.”
Researching YOUR Somme military ancestor.
From among these vast numbers, it is possible – and extremely moving – to find out more about your ancestor’s role in this tragic and historic battle. But where do you start when researching your ancestor’s service at the Somme? READ MORE HERE
Thiepval Contact Information:
Thiepval Visitor Centre
Rue de l’Ancre
+33 (0)3 22 74 65 44