WWI Memorials in the Somme

At the beginning of our Northern France adventure last month, we started in Verdun, hiking through the haunting and decrepit forts of WWI. Now, a week into the trip, we had covered so much ground from Paris to Amiens, that it was impossible to not take a side trip to see the area known as the Somme. Note: If you’re driving from Amiens, it’s a 45 minute trek north east to the Thiepval Memorial, which acted as our starting point. [See the bottom of the blog for how to arrive by train and use a tour guide.]

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Approaching the Thiepval Memorial in the Somme.

While this gorgeous memorial is absolutely massive (140 feet high), it is hidden from major highways and byways, making you drive through empty and picturesque countryside. I couldn’t have imagined a more stunning place to build the largest Commonwealth Memorial to the Missing in the world.

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The massive memorial in all its scaffolding glory.

True to form; however, the memorial was mostly covered in scaffolding to prepare for the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme this July. We were disappointed in the metal bars and waving sheets, but this continues to be a theme in our holidays. It just proves that it’s a legitimate and historical structure though, and in that, it’s reassuring.

The Thiepval Memorial Museum and Visitor Center.

Before seeing the memorial up close, we went through the Thiepval Memorial Museum and Visitor Center. This modern and sleek looking building is built ground level so it would not upstage or take away from the memorial. As soon as you walk in, you first see a model of the full memorial and then you snake through an elaborate display of the Battle of the Somme with posters, videos, and an interactive station. Visually, it was lovely to be able to see how the battle unfolded in a summed up graphic video. One monitor shows the entire duration of the war including where and when each conflict happened, giving an overview for the whole war. If you have the time, the 30 minute video in the back room surrounded by faux sandbags is worth a watch.

When we finished with the center, we walked around the back and up a long driveway to see the cemetery devoted to those without a name. Each headstone either said, “A Soldier of the Great War” for the British or South African soldiers or “Inconnu” meaning unknown for the French fallen. 

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The spectacular memorial was built between 1928 and 1932 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and the walls have over 70,000 names inscribed of soldiers who died and are still missing from the Battle of the Somme.

“Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme battlefields July 1915 February 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”

Since the memorial was built, bodies of soldiers have continued to be found and identified. When this happens, the name is removed from the memorial, and the soldier is given a funeral with full military honors and buried in a cemetery close to where they were found. I found that notion quite touching and respectful to the man and his family.

The memorial was moving and extraordinary despite the scaffolding and the blaring hip-hop music from the construction workers’ boombox, and we were glad to have the place essentially to ourselves in this open field. I expect that during the summer, the area will be more crowded with tourists and travelers going to see the centenarian events.

* * * * *

The Battle of the Somme or Somme Offensive began on July 1, 1916 and was mainly fought between the British/French and the Germans. It was one of the largest and longest offenses and also one of the bloodiest in all history. More than 1 million men perished before the battle ended on November 18, 1916.

The cemetery facing the French countryside from the Thiepval Memorial.

When the Battle of Verdun began on February 21, several French soldiers were sent back to the Meuse, which made the French very dependent on the British for the defense of the Somme. While day one was a major defeat for the German Second Army, it was the worst day in history for the British army who suffered 57,470 casualties (19,240 were killed). The Battle of the Somme also saw the introduction of the tank giving the British and French forces 6 miles of land into the German-occupied territory. By the end of the battle, the British had 419,654 causalities, the French had 202,567, and the Germans suffered 465,181.

* * * * *

The area of the Somme has several memorials and cemeteries dotted around the landscape. Unless you plan on staying in the area or dedicating a few days, it is impossible to see all of them in just a few hours. We didn’t have much daylight left in our afternoon on the Somme, but we wanted to see the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial just 6 kilometers away.

In between the two WWI memorials is a castle-looking structure with a beautiful British flag hoisted out front. This was the Ulster Memorial Tower. This tower is dedicated to the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and the heavy losses they sustained on July 1, 1916.

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The Ulster Memorial Tower.

History states that the soldiers of the 36th Division left the British Front Line and crossed No Man’s Land to break through the German Front Line trench. They were able to capture the German stronghold at the Schwaben Redoubt. The soldiers did manage to successfully advance a mile into the German line, but because ammunition and equipment was hard to find, they had to fall back. The Germans took advantage of the retreat and counterattacked. At the end of the day, the Division suffered over 4,900 casualties.

Because the Irish were so heavily affected by this battle, Helen’s Tower in Clandboye near Belfast in Northern Ireland, was used as the model for the memorial in the Somme.

* * * * *

We continued along the snaking and two-laned road to the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial and were greeted by friendly Canadian tour guides. The park was close to empty either because of the time of year or time of day, but nonetheless, we loved being able to look out onto the trenches and battlefield at the foot of the massive caribou statue in the center of the park.

The caribou monument in the center of the memorial park.

Like the other memorials, the park is going through extensive repairs to get ready for the onslaught of anticipated tourists coming this summer. They are also reconstructing the trenches so you can walk where the soldiers did 100 years ago, but because of this, we could not walk through a lot of the park. We were limited to climbing the Caribou Monument and just looking across the massive fields to what would be the Front Lines.

This memorial site is dedicated to the Newfoundland soldiers who were killed during their unsuccessful offensive on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On July 1, 1916, all of the soldiers were effectively wiped out after 30 minutes of fighting with 670 casualties.

Re-created and restored trenches.

Situated in the middle of the battlefield, is a sad-looking, slender tree. This tree is known as Danger Tree. During the Battle of the Somme, when the Division began their offensive, many of the soldiers never made it past this point. It marks the halfway point into No Man’s Land. It was used as a landmark for the soldiers, but quickly, because it was one of the only things left standing among all the destruction, the Germans realized its significance and used it as their own target for shells and artillery. As a result, the majority of the deaths happened at this tree.

The center tree, lighter in color than the others, is the Danger Tree.

What stands today, of course, is not the original tree. That would be a miracle and sign of insane endurance on Mother Nature, but there is a replica of the twisted and mangled tree that stands in the same spot.

We left the memorial with a better understanding of how the Battle of the Somme was laid out and how it all occurred. I would definitely suggest spending more time in the area to really explore the front battle lines and other memorials. If the grounds hadn’t been covered in construction and barriers, we would have loved to have seen the recreated trenches.

The Y Ravine Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery.

Note: If you’re looking to visit the Somme without a car, check out this link for some of the local tours. I have not vetted these companies, but some of them will pick you up from Amiens, so you are just responsible for getting to Amiens, which is doable by train from Paris in about an hour and a half.

Stay tuned next week for a village on the sea famous for dinosaur fossils and a switch in history exploring the beaches of WWII.IMG_4234

For more on the Northern France adventure, click here.


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