During my trip to the WW1 battlefields in September there were a number of places I wanted to visit for the first time and just as many as I wanted to revisit after a gap of several years. Thiepval though is one of the must-sees for the area, if there can be such a thing in this subject.
It is a memorial with nearly 73,000 British and some South African names on it for those who died at the Battle of The Somme. Sadly this isn’t the total casualty list for the battle for this memorial is just for those whose bodies were never recovered.
Originally built between 1928 and 1932, it was immediately opened and dedicated on 1st August 1932 in a ceremony which included the future King Edward VIII. It is 160 feet or 49 metres in height and composed of a number of giant connected arches with 48 large sides of Portland stone on which the names of the missing are inscribed.
In the centre is the inscription
Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme battlefields between July 1915 and March 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.
Over the past century, if any bodies are discovered by engineers, farmers or archaeologists then they are given a funeral at the nearest war cemetery with full military honours and their names are then removed from the Thiepval memorial. I must say given the immense size of the memorial and despite spending over an hour there, I don’t remember seeing a single name crossed out.
Since I visited the last time, there is now a visitor centre at Thiepval which confirmed my feeling that more people are visiting the area than ever and for a wide range of age groups. I get the feeling that this place and many others will be just as sacred and visited in 100 years time as they are today.
Thiepval can be seen from miles around, it’s an extremely imposing structure compared to the undulating French landscape and tiny scenic villages. Thiepval itself used to have a large château which had only just been rebuilt from the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870’s when it was totally destroyed in WW1 and unlike some other places, it was not rebuilt to suffer a similar fait in WW2.
Visiting the war graves and memorials is always an intensely moving experience and it is hard to imagine how Thiepval must have been 100 years ago. It is now a serene, peaceful place surrounded by trees. As we went in September, the sun was still warm and yet the breeze frequently rustled through the branches.
The names aren’t just listed in alphabetical order by in regimental order too. You can clearly see how the different regions of the country used to have their very traditional surnames. I found many Liddells from regiments in northern England and lots of other familial names too.
Just a few metres away is a relatively small cemetery of a few hundred soldiers. France gave the land on which the cemeteries sit to Britain and the Commonwealth nations in perpetuity though from time to time you do see French, American or even German graves.
There aren’t many German cemeteries around, many of their bodies were repatriated and after WW2 the locals understandably didn’t care to maintain them.
French graves are usually marked by a very simple cross with a simple phrase such as ‘He died for France’. When you see thousands of them together they look rather stark and to my eyes at least a little impersonal.
Obviously I am a little biased but if a war grave or cemetery can be both beautiful, graceful and romantically mournful then I think the Commonwealth ones simply fit my taste better. Rather than a simple cross you get a headstone made from limestone with details of the fallen soldier including their name, rank, regiment, date of death but also an engraved regimental badge and a mournful inscription, often penned by the writer Kipling. You can also tell the religion of the soldier as it will have a symbol carefully engraved such as a cross or star of David.
Just a mile or so from Thiepval as the crow or artillery shell flies is the small Connaught Cemetery. It is bounded by a minor country road on one side and on far side a dense wood in which many an action was fought and which great care must be taken even now for the threat of live ammunition laying underfoot.
Just a few hundred yards away is the Ulster Tower which commemorates the men of Northern Ireland whilst if you stand in one corner of the Connaught Cemetery you can see the massive Thiepval Memorial towering over the woodland.
I had been here before and remember seeing the graves with inscriptions of “Here lies 10 soldiers of The Great War known only unto God”.
When I was here last time, just beneath the base of the Cross of Sacrifice I am sure I had seen the grave of a Liddell. I can’t remember but I almost certain I had and I remember wondering if I were related to me. I had forgotten all about this in the intervening years and in September visited here to find the grave of George Hardy Liddell. He was my Great Great Uncle if I am correct. I didn’t get the chance to meet any of my Great Grandparents or Great Uncles and WW1 was largely to blame. Of course they might not have lived until the 1970’s but there is every reason to assume they would have done.
I had a look around the cemetery and found the plot on the official records book, there he was right next to the Cross of Sacrifice at the far end of the cemetery from the road. I was sure that I had been here before. The Commonwealth War Graves look after and maintain all the British and Commonwealth cemeteries around the world to an impeccable standard and in all of them we visited we didn’t see a single weed in the lawns or damaged flower, bush or tree.
Nevertheless I had brought a little flowering bush in a pot from England in which I left a small message to George and planted a cross and poppy which I had just bought from Thiepval.
Most deaths around Thiepval occurred in the summer of 1916 but a small number died in the August of 1918 which is when George died. Such a shame that he had survived 4 years of war only to perish less than 3 months before the end of the fighting.
I am pretty certain that I will come and visit my brave ancestor again one day.
Many readers will know that in the summer I had a WW1 history book published by Endeavour Press in Paperback and Kindle formats, Lest We Forget. Last week I decided to compile some of the 700 photos I took in September into a Kindle and paperback book entitled In The Footsteps of Heroes. I don’t claim it to be a photographic masterpiece but it gives an idea of what the Western Front is like now for those who are interested but unable to visit themselves. From January 2015 I will also be taking visitors on private guided tours to the battlefields with my company Ye Olde England Tours