Remembering the Battle of the Somme 100 years on.
The First World War was the first truly global conflict – the battle raged not just in the trenches of the Western Front but in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Huge armies deployed new weapons to devastating effect. Over nine million soldiers and an unknown number of civilians lost their lives. Empires crumbled, revolution engulfed Russia, and America rose to become a dominant world power.
To coincide with the release of the Battle of the Somme centenary coin set this week I travelled to France to learn more about the Battle of the Somme and to see for myself some of the 100th anniversary commemorations.
Driving from The channel tunnel at Calais I headed south into the Picardy region. Within an hour I was within touching distance of some of the most prolific battlefields of the entire First World War.
As I continued south nothing could have prepared me for the amount of cemeteries scattered across the French countryside. Every other kilometer by the road side sat a Military war grave with no fewer than 300 hundred white gravestones in each. Upon passing every memorial site the pure scale of the Great War soon resonated on a deeper level than I had ever felt. Each became no longer a headstone but a life, a brother, father and a son lost from families across the globe.
Pictured Above: Stopping to take a picture of the French countryside in the Picardy region.
The first memorial I stopped at was called Warlencourt memorial. Warlencourt is situated in Pas De Calais and was the scene of very fierce fighting in 1916. The cemetery contains 3505 soldiers of which 1823 are unidentified. Walking through the beautifully maintained rows you can’t help but get the overwhelmingly sobering feeling that 9 million was no longer just a number. Some grave stones included name and regiment of the soldier while others had only ‘known unto god’, this was the inscription given to solders that died and were not able to be identified. It’s then that you think of the family and friends of that soldier. To die in a field in France fighting an enemy for reasons that they maybe didn’t fully understand and for the family to have no knowledge of the grave, it’s humbling to think what sacrifice was made.
Pictured Above: A view from inside the cemetery at Warlencourt, home to 3505 commonwealth soldiers.
Just a matter of yards down the road from De Warlencourt cemetery is a pre historic burial mound called Butte De Warlencourt. The mound was a vital advantage and position of great strength for the Germans. It was finally taken by the British on 25th August 1918 on the final allied offensive without opposition. Atop the mound today sits a memorial stone and gives a chance to see the rolling countryside where the fighting would have taken place 100 years ago.
Pictured Above: The view from the top of the Butte De Warlencourt, the highest point in the immediate area.
On the 1st July the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge laid a poppy wreath at the Thiepval memorial in the 100th anniversary commemorations. Thiepval memorial is one of the most well known and most visited WW1 memorials in France. Walking up to the monument the great scale is overpowering, as you walk up the stairs wall after wall of names are carved into the stone. Thiepval has a list of 72,246 commonwealth soldiers that lost their lives in the battle.
Pictured Above: A panoramic shot of the Thiepval memorial and gravestones of the cemetery
The final site visit for the day was the Lochnagar crater. The crater is home to the incredible story of the Royal engineers who silently dug for 8 months before, on 1st July, twocharges of 24,000lb and 30,000lb were detonated a matter of meters from the German front line. Debris from the explosion rose some 4,000ft into the air.
Pictured Above: A photograph from 1st July 1916 of the detonation projecting the earth 4000ft into the air.
Stood on the edge of the crater you can sense the immense power that the explosion created. Days, weeks and months men spent digging tunnels under the enemy trench with the hope of gaining a matter of only hundreds of meters at a time.
Pictured above: The crater at Lochnagar in July 2016
Early the following day I travelled to Delville Wood. It is the only memorial dedicated to the participation of the South African Forces on the 1914-1918 Western Front. 229,000 officers and men served with the South African Forces in the Great War. Their casualties who died in action or who died of wounds numbered approximately 10,000.
Just days before my visit President of South Africa Jacob Zuma was also at Delville Wood to unveil the brand new museum dedicated to black and white South African soldiers that died during the Great War. After the humbling experience of walking through the corridor of names you reach the brand new museum. Inside were stories of Black soldiers who died in the battle and displays of their original enlistment papers. Some of the enlistment papers stated the soldiers were paid just £3 a month.
Pictured Above: The corridor of names leading to the new museum at Delville Wood memorial
The final stop on the list was the Cambrai memorial in Doignies which commemorates more than 7,000 servicemen of the United Kingdom and South Africa who died in the Battle of Cambrai in November and December 1917 and whose graves are not known.
Pictured Above: The Cambrai memorial in Doignies
For the final journey back to Calais to board the euro tunnel I decided to drive through the countryside. Winding through the French landscape it really gave me a feeling of what these soldiers would have seen 100 years ago. They too would have felt the rolling hills and the horizon in the distance knowing that out there a soldier fighting with the same belief for his country was waiting.
Pictured Above: An unknown grave at the Thiepval Memorial
Pictured Above: Flowers sit at the grave of an unnamed soldier. ‘Known unto God’
It is estimated that over 9 million soldiers died in World War One. 587,989 were buried in named graves, 526,816 were buried but not identifiable and the rest were not buried at all.
In the pursuit of my freedom their lives were laid down. I am forever grateful.
By George Wright
Source: London Mint Office