This month sees a solemn 70th anniversary, the beginning of the Second World War in Europe, as Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. For the second time in the century, the major nations of Europe and the world were called upon to confront and defeat mightily-armed expansionist forces from German lands. The scale of devastation and loss of life in World War I had led many to call it, in sorrow and in hope, “The War to End All Wars”; this was tragically not to be the case. One crucial battle in particular, the Battle of the Somme from July to November 1916, remains one of the most poignantly remembered and revisited military engagements from any era, and now there are more ways than ever for interested visitors, historians, and perhaps descendents of the original combatants to explore and recall the people, places, and events of this momentous conflict.
The Département of the Somme, in the region of Picardie, lies a couple of hours above Paris, and anyone who drives from Calais to Paris avoiding the motorway passes by Amiens, the capital of Picardie, an ancient Roman city which lies on the River Somme itself. Thirty kilometres or so northeast along the Roman road lies the town of Albert, and it is along the twenty-kilometre stretch further to Bapaume that the opposing armies found themselves ranged in early summer 1916. The Battle of Verdun, further to the east, and which proved to be the longest battle in the entire war and one of the bloodiest in history, had been raging since February, and one express intention of the Allied Command was to divert German forces away from Verdun, as well as halting the German advance towards their intended target, Amiens.
The British Professional Army had already suffered enormous casualties, and many of the troops under the command of Sir Douglas Haig were volunteers in “Kitchener’s Army”, formed in “Pals Battalions” of groups of friends from civilian life. Most were about to experience enemy fire for the very first, and last, time. Ranged alongside the British were divisions from every part of the Commonwealth: Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (the ANZACs), Northern Ireland. The southern stretch of the frontline astride the River Somme was held by the French. On the morning of 1 July 1916, after a week of preliminary bombardment of the German positions to little effect, the battle commenced with three enormous explosions: the British miners had tunnelled beneath the German lines. One of the resulting craters, at La Boisselle, is still visible. This first day of battle was tremendously costly for the Allied troops. The British Army took nearly 60,000 casualties with nearly 20,000 killed; the Newfoundland division lost 70 percent of its men in a half hour. The German lines remained intact. Throughout the summer and into late autumn the fighting remained ferocious, with little ground gained or lost on either side. In the end, despite history’s first use of armoured tanks in battle, after four and a half months of conflict the British had advanced about 12 kilometres, the French around 5 to 8 kilometres. Three million men met at the Battle of the Somme, with 1.2 million killed, wounded, or missing in action. The Allied forces had not captured the German lines, but arguably had drawn sufficient strength away from the German position at Verdun, a battle which ended the following month, also in more-or-less a stalemate.
The Circuit of Remembrance is a forty-mile route winding through the countryside between Albert and Péronne, and takes in all of the major monuments and most of the important battle sites. At each location there is abundant information about the events that took place there, but for an enhanced experience you can download (or pick up a pre-loaded MP3) of the Audio Guide prepared by Somme Battlefields. The Guide offers 56 minutes of recorded information as it takes in 12 different stages of the battlefield tour. Not to be missed is for example the French-British Memorial at Thiepval, the Memorial to the Missing. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, this 45-metre high tower is engraved with over 73 thousand names of soldiers fallen but with no known grave. The Ulster Tower, its Gothic “troubadour” style somewhat incongruous in this landscape, is a replica of St Helen’s Tower in Northern Ireland, near which the Ulster divisions trained before shipping out to France. The nearby Newfoundland Memorial offers a remarkably well-preserved trench system. At Péronne, the Somme 1916 Museum, the Historial de la Grande Guerre, offers a comprehensive history of the First World War, with over 50 thousand original objects on display.
These and the many other important sites can be explored alone, or in guided groups, and using a wide variety of transport, even in a 5-person cart pulled by Pensée, the draught horse! Taxis can be hired for a probably more comfortable guided tour; the Taxi Groupement Amiénois offers five different itineraries. There is even a narrow-gauge railway, Le P’tit Train de la Haute Somme, which runs on tracks used as a supply line during the battle. Cycling or walking tours of course are also possible, and there are excellent English-speaking guides who can offer bespoke guided tours of the sites, and there is a new Audio Guide offered by the drolly-named media company Vox Inzebox, which gives a complete guided tour of the region, not just concentrating on the war, but also presenting the flora and fauna of the Somme Valley, as well as the rural heritage and local colour of the area.
From our November 2009 newsletter
© CDT Somme