War history: The mighty Thiepval monument never fails to move visitors to the battlefields of the Somme

Mighty Thiepval. It is these arches and the galleries that... frame the emptiness of the skies over

Mighty Thiepval. It is these arches and the galleries that... frame the emptiness of the skies over the Somme. The huge spaces suggest the void left in the homes and families of the missing. - Credit: Archant

The Battle of the Somme began on Sunday, July 1, 1916. That day is immortalised as the blackest in the history of the British Army. Galloway military historian and battlefield guide Mike Peters focuses on one of the most emotive and iconic places on the Somme

The huge structure was built on high ground, on top of what was one of the most heavily defended Ger

The huge structure was built on high ground, on top of what was one of the most heavily defended German positions. Sir Edwin Lutyens, like the Germans, wanted to dominate the valley. - Credit: Archant

This weekend I was walking the battlefields of the Somme with a group of trainee battlefield guides. I thought that after what was an amazing week for First World War history in the media, I would write about something other than the home front in Suffolk.

The memorial under construction. Wherever you drive or walk within the bounds of the battles fought

The memorial under construction. Wherever you drive or walk within the bounds of the battles fought by British and Commonwealth troops you cannot fail to see the huge arches of what regular visitors often refer to as Mighty Thiepval. - Credit: Archant

It is a really difficult choice to make; there are so many different places on the Somme and an equally diverse choice of stories I could tell. So, I have selected one place that almost everybody who visits the Somme will know something about: Thiepval village and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

The small French village of Thiepval has close links to East Anglia. Its name looms large in the history of our local regiments. The Norfolks, the Essex, the Northamptons and of course the Suffolks all have the name of this tiny commune emblazoned on the sacred cloth of their regimental colours.

I will be talking about the role of the East Anglian fighting man in the capture of Thiepval later in the year. With this in mind, I thought you might like to know a little about the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, the largest Commonwealth War Memorial to the missing in the world.

Today Thiepval safeguards the names, and therefore the commemoration, of more than 73,000 soldiers lost in battle during the Somme campaigns, and who, to date, have no known grave.

I say “to date” as the chalky fields of the Somme occasionally give up bodies of the missing. If the soldier can be identified, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Ministry of Defence give him a proper burial with full military honours. Finally, his name is removed from the memorial.

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However, if the soldier’s identity is lost, he is buried as an unknown, and sadly the panels on the memorial remain un-amended.

The scale of the numbers listed on the memorial is even more staggering if you consider that the missing of Australia, Canada and New Zealand are all listed elsewhere on separate national memorials.

The memorial designed for the CWGC by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and completed in 1932, was identical in concept to the Menin Gate in Ypres.

Like the gate, its location is part of its symbolism; the huge structure was built on high ground on top of what was one of the most heavily defended German defensive positions on the Somme. Lutyens, like the Germans, wanted to dominate the valley around Thiepval and beyond.

His intent was that the huge structure, and therefore the sacrifice of the missing men whose names it bears, could not be ignored. Wherever you drive or walk within the bounds of the battles fought by British and Commonwealth troops you cannot fail to see the huge arches of what regular visitors often refer to as “Mighty Thiepval”. It is these arches and the galleries that they create that add even greater impact; they are cleverly designed to frame the emptiness of the skies over the Somme.

The huge spaces that are created within the structure suggest the huge void left in the homes and families of the missing. Even the materials used to construct Lutyens’s masterpiece have symbolism; the humble red bricks mixed in with Portland Limestone are a respectful nod to the origins of the majority of the men who fought here.

The majority of Kitchener’s Citizen Army had working class origins; many enlisted in the now-famous Pals Battalions, and they came from the brick-built terraced housing of Britain’s industrial areas. The thousands of red bricks are tribute to them.

I visit the memorial frequently, but no matter how many times I walk toward it, and then stand under it, I am without fail moved to reflect on the huge sacrifices made in the surrounding fields.

This weekend will be no different, and I hope that many EADT readers will join me on a Galloway tour, and make the same journey with me over the coming months.