Memories of Thiepval – One Year On

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Last summer marked the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme in Europe. On 1st July 1916, the Allies began an offensive that saw more than 19,000 men killed on the first day. As part of the commemorations, I travelled to northern France with The Yorkshire Air Museum. They were asked to provide an AVRO 504K to display at the Thiepval Memorial on the 1st of July to represent the Royal Flying Corps, which went on to become the RAF.

Working with them in a digital media capacity, we made the journey across the North Sea to northern France. It was to be a memorable trip.

Touring around the Picardy area of France, it becomes apparent how, 100 years ago, the killing took place on such a vast, unimaginable scale. I’ve seen this conflict described elsewhere as The Industrialisation of Warfare, a phrase which, when you visit the area, becomes all too apparent.

The Picardy countryside surrounding Thiepval is made of of gently rolling fields and slopes. As we drove across the landscape, the number of small cemeteries by the roadside or visible across the fields in the distance is truly staggering. In the battle, many men were simply buried where they fell, the task of making some sense of this huge mortality was subsequently handed over to the War Grave Commission in the 1920’s, a task they continue with great professionalism to this day.

Just 48 hours earlier, I had wished one of my sons a happy 18th Birthday before I set off to travel. Now, I was standing looking at row upon row of graves very often with the inscription “Aged 18 Years”.

It made me stop and consider just what could have motivated these young men to sign up for such a senseless conflict. Losses that, were they reported today, would be utterly unacceptable to the public back home.

Thinking about this in our modern, always connected, digital age, you have to consider how the public had access to information 100 years ago.

There was, or course, no such thing as social media, internet or even television. News was conveyed either via newspapers or cinema showreels, with a Government of the time able to excercise tight control and ‘sell’ the idea to the population in a way that would be impossible today.

For a young man of that era, quite possibly working in a Yorkshire pit or a steel mill, Scarborough or Blackpool was the furthest they would travel in a lifetime.

So the opportunity to travel to France and fight overseas must have been perceived as something very adventurous and exotic at that time. The Pals Battalions way of selling this to the general population added further to the sense of adventure. Who would want to be left behind when all of your friends were joining up to fight?

Travelling across the Piccardy countryside, I found it surprising how little cover the two sides had apart from the trenches. The terms ‘ridge’ and ‘high ground’ of German positions to be captured are often used in TV documentaries and yet, in reality, there is little very elevation across the landscape. With the Germans possessing the Maxim heavy machine gun, a hill of just a few hundred feet of height advantage was enough to decimate any advancing opposition and likewise, the slightest dip in the landscape would be the difference between life and death for those seeking cover from the withering fire.

The Underground Mine Detonation.

On the morning of 1st July 1916, the British detonated a huge underground mine directly below the German positions. Created by tunnelling underneath the lines, the explosive force was heard as far away as London and was strategically timed for maximum impact, as well as being carefully filmed for showreels back home.

We took the time to visit the site of the detonation of one of these huge underground mines, placed by tunnellers under the German dugouts. Hundreds of feet across and a good fifty feet deep, this scar on the landscape is gradually being reclaimed by nature. Museum volunteer Graham Sharpe, who travels regularly to the area, explained that the mine had been triggered by Allied soliders just a few hundred feet away.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable elements of this whole battle for me was just how close the two sides were. The terms ‘German Lines’, ’No Mans Land’ and ‘British Lines’ conjure up a vision of a vast wasteland between the two. In fact, just a few hundred feet separated these two armies throughout the entire campaign.

The following day, in a suitably overcast and bleak morning, world leaders, military personnel and invited guests gathered for an internationally televised service from the majestic Thiepval Memorial. The Museum’s AVRO 504 was on display to the thousands of visitors as they passed by. We witnessed the service itself from behind the tree line, out of sight of the broadcast cameras. Standing alongside us were members of various military personnel from France and Britain. French Special Forces dressed from head to foot in black appeared silently through the tree line as the French President appeared, before melting away just as quickly at the end.

Regardless of their outward appearance, as the service continued, culminating with the screening of exerpts of the original Somme film set to music, many of us took a moment to stroll to one side that wipe an eye.

The Museum had several Great War exhibitons running throughout 2016 and it became clear that unlike the second world war, with it’s galmourous Spitfire, majestic Halifax and Lancaster bombers and above all, a crear vicitory for one side, casual visitors had little appetite for content on the subject. But that seemed to change significantly as the date approached.

Today, more than 100 years later, The Great War lacks the appeal to many with a more casual, passing interest in military history. In my own role as digital media producer with the Museum, it had become apparent that World War One was a difficult subject to inspire visitors with. There are no spectacular Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, thunderous Halifax and Lancaster bombers or victorious Dambuster raids. The end of hostilities, when it finally came, offered little celebration. No liberated population, no moral victory. Quite simply, one side ran out of energy and the morale to continue. It is not mankind’s greatest hour.

The Last Post – Memories of Thiepval from Yorkshire Air Museum on Vimeo.

To forget those men who travelled to The Somme in July 100 years ago would be a travesty. The area must be experienced first hand to understand the enormity of what happened and I would urge everyone to take the time to visit. The fact that 100 years later, munitions and other artefacts are still visible on the arable fields of the area is testament to the sheer firepower that the men of each side endured.

Just a few weeks later, Britain voted for the infamous Brexit and then just a few short months after that, the amazing victory of Donald Trump in the American elections transpired. This week, with Thiepval once again fresh in my mind, those two remarkable occasions served to remind me that, even in today’s world of 24 hour news, it can be difficult for anyone with a very fleeting interest in world affairs to make an informed decision. And though we have more information to hand than ever before, the average person seems to be disconnected as never before.

The Thiepval Memorial should serve not just a memorial to those fallen 100 years ago with no known grave, but as a reminder that the future does not always have to be a re-run of the past and that today, we really have no excuse for the conflicts that continue to be inflamed around the world.

I was proud and deeply moved to have been present on the same ground that, 100 years earlier, so many people died in such a futile way. I hope to return to the Somme battlefields again soon to learn more about this momentous conflict 100 years ago.

Author: Neill Watson

Neill Watson is a professional writer, photographer and driver coach. He is the founder and editor of Historic Racer and the popular Car Photographer blog. Learn more about him and connect with him on the social media channel of your choice using the symbols below or sign up for Neill's regular email newsletter.

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  • Hi Neill
    I have visited Thiepval a number of times and was there in 1986 for the 70th anniversary. It was the most moving and humbling experience of my life as a small number of men who had actually fought in the battle were there.
    I thought your words and pictures captured the occasion perfectly.
    All the best
    Paul Walton (ARDS instructor)

    • Thank you, Paul.
      It’s a very humbling place and a great reminder that we need to keep making the same mistakes if we could just look at history in more detail.