Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and built between 1928 and 1932, the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme has been described as “the greatest executed British work of monumental architecture of the twentieth century”. This is a memorial to the men who died on the Somme during the First World War and for whom there is no marked grave. For four months in 2019 William Reid worked as an intern for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In this guest post William shares his experiences working at the Thiepval memorial, and his tips for what to see and what not to miss.
The Cross of Sacrifice in the foreground and the Thiepval Memorial with its 72,000 names in the background; French graves are to the right and Commonwealth to the left.
When you first arrive in the Somme you can’t help but notice how you are surrounded by beautiful countryside that stretches as far as the eye can see. Now and then, you will pass in-between a long row of trees growing either side of the road leading in to a small and peaceful village, where you’ll see farmers climbing into their tractors ready for a day’s work in the fields. It’s striking really, especially when you consider 103 years ago that this land would have been a desolate scene of destruction and devastation. Trees would have resembled toothpicks jutting out the ground, trenches would have zig zagged as far as the eye could see and the land would have been a moonscape of holes and piles of rubble where villages once were. Perhaps the only visible traces of what happened here, are the numerous cemeteries and memorials that appear in the landscape around you. One memorial in particular, however, towers above the trees that surround it and is unlike anything you would have seen before and is a stark reminder of what happened on this very soil.
The Battle of the Somme at Thiepval
During the First World War on the 1st July 1916, the small village of Thiepval would have just become witness to arguably one of the bloodiest battles in modern history. At its conclusion, it would have witnessed 3.5 million British and Commonwealth soldiers’ fight on an area roughly the size of the Isle of Wight. This battle is better known to us today as the Battle of the Somme.
Originally the battle was planned as a joint Anglo-French offensive to break through the German lines. However, just before July, the German forces launched a new offensive further south at Verdun. The Battle of Verdun was not only chance to force the French army into submission, but also to break the nation’s morale which given the extreme cost of war was already close to collapsing. Diverting the bulk of its forces further south, the British armies were forced to play a greater role in what was to be known as the Somme offensive. In spite of this alteration the objective for this battle remained the same. The aim was not to advance and push back the German forces, but to fight a battle of attrition to weaken them. This was not going to be an easy task, particularly when you consider that they had by now occupied the Somme for just under 2 years, giving them ample time to occupy and establish themselves in key positions across the landscape.
In view of this the British forces began with a week-long artillery bombardment, which was to destroy these key defensive positions making it easier to attack. However, the British army had lost a lot of its experienced soldiers to the battles that preceded this offensive. Consequently, its force was now formed of new inexperienced soldiers who filled what was known as ‘PALS’ battalions, within which men from local communities, factories and families signed up for the ‘Great Push’. Those tasked with firing the artillery in preparation for the battle were PALS Battalions, it was therefore hardly surprising that most of their bombardment had failed to destroy the key German positions being targeted. Unbeknown to them and satisfied that the job had been done, all was to go ahead as planned.
Come the 1st July 1916 the battle began with not just one, but two almighty detonations of mines that had been dug under major German defensive positions at La Boiselle and Hawthorn Ridge. Then at 7.30am the shrieks of trench whistles would have been heard, sounding the advance of many nervous young soldiers across no man’s land towards the German frontlines. At Thiepval, the men of 97th Brigade would begin their ascent from Thiepval Wood uphill towards the German frontline filled with a rattled, but very prepared German force.
For the 97th Brigade, an early optimism began to rapidly diminish. Whilst they attempted to ascend the hill they were not just coming under fire from the trenches, but also the Leipzig Redoubt. This was a heavily fortified crater like position, in which multiple machine guns fired on the advancing soldiers. The artillery bombardment had not done its job by destroying a key defensive position such as this and, the men stood no chance. If that wasn’t enough in and around the Thiepval area, there was not just one, but another four redoubts all within sight of each other. So even if the men had taken the German frontline and advanced up to the crest of the Thiepval hill, an even stronger defence would have been lying in wait.
On the first day alone the British Army suffered 60,000 casualties, 19,000 of whom were killed. To put that in perspective there are currently just over 80,000 soldiers serving in the British Army. With that in mind that’s almost the entire British Army wiped out on just the first day of the battle alone. It was intended that Thiepval Hill would be taken on the 1st of July. In reality, the area wasn’t occupied successfully until 28th September 1916, an entire two and a half months after the initial attack. The Battle of the Somme wasn’t to finish until 18th November 1916. By the end of the battle there was over 1 million casualties, 300,000 of whom had been killed. Today at Thiepval, the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world stands sentinel over this now peaceful landscape in memory of the 3.5 million men that fought in this battle. Standing at a height of 45 meters, it is visible across the entire battlefield as a stark reminder of what happened just over 103 years ago.
Thiepval Memorial to the Missing
The Stone of Remembrance in the centre of the monument, seen in silhouette with two people standing beside it.
The existence of this memorial is thanks to the work of Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) which was founded by Major-General Sir Fabian Ware in 1917 as a result of his work with the British Red Cross. Seeing first-hand the immeasurable loss of life, Sir Fabian Ware felt driven to see that every single soldier had some form of resting place to ensure that their memory and their sacrifice would never be forgotten. On this premise the CWGC – formerly known as the Imperial War Graves Commission – was founded and it set about the immense task of recovering, recording and burying every soldier who died in service of the British Empire. It was also committed to commemorating every soldier equally. At the time this was a revolutionary concept, which had never been attempted before and even if so, certainly not on this scale. In the words of Rudyard Kipling who had lost his own son during the war, this was ‘the biggest single bit of work since any of the Pharaohs and they only worked in their own country’.
By the end of the First World War there were estimations of over 1 million dead. Cemeteries began to appear in abundance across these now barren landscapes not just in France, but throughout the world. Today the Commission looks after over 23,000 sites in 150 different countries and territories worldwide. Of this 1 million dead however, only half had a known grave, the rest were still missing. In the case of a missing soldier it could have been that either their body lay undiscovered, it was destroyed on the battlefield, or they may have been buried, but we have no record of the grave location.
It was on this premise that the CWGC made plans for monuments that bear the names of all those soldiers that have no known grave. In the case of the Battle of the Somme, the concept was passed to Sir Edwin Lutyens the Commission’s principal architect at the time. He is perhaps best known as the designer of the Cenotaph that stands in the centre of London. For Lutyens this presented a new challenge, to ensure that this memorial remained in-keeping with the CWGC’s commemoration principles of equality and uniformity, whilst also creating something that would do justice to the men who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Construction began at Thiepval in 1928 following the removal of trench lines, unexploded ordnance and even German Tunnels, which had still remained largely untouched since the war. Four years and 10 million bricks later it was completed at the cost of £117,000, which is the equivalent today of around £10 million. The result is not just a memorial to all those that fought and died on the Somme, but one that acknowledges the British and French alliance during the battle, and perhaps most importantly, it commemorates over 72,000 British and South African soldiers that have no known grave.
Following the completion of the memorial and in honour of the British and French alliance, both nations also came together to build the Thiepval Anglo French Cemetery behind the memorial. Containing the remains of 300 French and Commonwealth soldiers. Those buried here are a visible reminder of the common sacrifice made by both nations during the Battle of the Somme and indeed the war.
Upon its completion, the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing was to be opened in May 1932 by the French President Paul Doumer. He however, was assassinated at a book fair in Paris and as a result, the ceremony was put on hold until 1st August 1932 until his successor President Albert Lebrun could take his place. President Lebrun, alongside Edward, Prince of Wales, opened the memorial to a guard of honour provided by British, French and Commonwealth forces, many of whom had served on the Somme. For some veterans in attendance they no longer wore a military uniform, but instead wore the crest of the CWGC on their chest, as they were now employed as gardeners taking solace in tending the graves of their fallen comrades.
Having been opened it was only 7 years later that the world faced yet another great war and France would once again endure German occupation. Interestingly, the memorial site was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War, but it was never disrespected or defaced by the occupying forces. Instead, it was utilised as an observation and a sniper post, evidence of which can be still be seen on a wall beside the door leading out to the tower whereon the occupying soldiers signed their names and the dates 1941-1943.
Since then the memorial has undergone sympathetic restoration. The most recent addition to the site has been the Thiepval Visitor Centre which was built in 2004, and in time for the centenary the Historial Museum, which was built inside the visitor centre.
Visiting the Memorial
Thiepval Memorial is situated in a slightly more rural part of the Hauts-de-France region, in-between the two larger towns of Arras and Amiens. I would highly recommend travelling to the memorial by car, as it not only gives you the freedom of taking everything at your own pace, but as far as I’m aware no buses stop nearby, the closest train station to Thiepval is Albert and given the size of the town taxis are a bit harder to come by. You can find directions for the memorial on our website www.cwgc.org, please follow these and our signs and don’t rely on your sat nav, as that will bring you down a rural farmyard track through the middle Leipzig redoubt which makes for a rather bumpy and uncomfortable ride.
When you arrive on site and you have entered the visitor centre, you will find yourself placed roughly in the centre of the building. To your immediate left you will find the CWGC desk manned by us the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation (CWGF) Interns and behind it you will see the information panels of the visitor centre exhibition.
For the past four months I have been one of 6 CWGF Intern’s based at Thiepval and we can be found not just at the desk, but all around site. We are funded by the charitable arm of the CWGC known as the Foundation, which has given us the opportunity and the training to not only conduct research and be present on site, but to also conduct guided tours as well. If you have any questions relating to the memorial, the CWGC or want further information regarding a relative that fought during the war, you are most welcome to chat to the CWGF Intern manning the desk or anyone you see on site. We are more than happy to help in any way we can.
Carrying on past the desk, the exhibition ahead is free to visit and gives a comprehensive breakdown of how the First World War began, more specific information on the Battle of the Somme and the CWGC.
Returning back to the entrance, the right hand side of the visitor centre houses the gift shop, toilets and some vending machines. If you walk through the shop and out the other side you will find the toilets and the vending machines at the far end of the visitor centre containing snacks, drinks and a few sandwiches.
If during this time you decide you’d like to visit the Historial Museum, just speak to the staff at the desk just in front of the entrance and they will sell you a ticket. The museum is an extension of the visitor centre exhibition and comprises of a series of rooms, each of which examines the battle through a variety of perspectives. Moving through each different room it uses technology simply and effectively to convey the scale of impact to not just the soldiers, but the local communities that once occupied the Somme area. You also get the chance to better understand the use of aerial warfare as you walk past a replica biplane, whilst glancing at the results of the aerial photography it was used so effectively for. It is well worth a visit if you have the time, but if not there is nothing stopping you continuing on up to see the memorial.
You can exit the visitor centre via the double doors roughly opposite the entrance which will lead you up a concrete ramp and towards the road that’ll take you to the memorial. On the way you will pass the Le Cottage café on you right, which serves hot food and a variety of drinks, and on your left a little further ahead you will see our CWGC van which contains leaflets giving more information on Thiepval and the work of the CWGC. Continuing on you will arrive at the main entrance to the memorial, next to which a flag and an intern will be ready to greet you upon entry and offer you a guided tour if you’d like one. If they aren’t present at the flag you may find them up on the memorial so please do look out for them.
As you walk down the gravel path with the memorial on your right hand side if you look straight ahead you will see the road continue into an isolated group of trees. Those trees now grow out of the original site of the Leipzig Redoubt. German machine gunners would have looked out at that position at the oncoming waves of the 97th Brigade on 1st July 1916. Now turn your glance back to the memorial and picture the German second line of trench running underneath the memorial and off into the woods at the side. This whole area is still very much a battlefield, it just takes a few pointers to spot it.
The wreaths that mark the names of the major battles on the Somme during World War I.
The Cross of Sacrifice beyond the cemetery below the monument.
As you begin to walk towards the memorial the 72,000 names will begin to appear out of the Portland stone and at the centre of the memorial you will see the Stone of Remembrance. The stone is only placed at cemeteries or memorials with more than 1,000 commemorations or graves and on it are the words chosen by Rudyard Kipling ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore’. If you then cast your gaze up to the wreaths, you’ll notice in them the names of all the locations of major battles. The wreaths themselves are formed of oak and laurel leaves, the former of which symbolises remembrance and the latter for victory.
Inconnu – the headstones of unknown French soldiers.
If you continue walking forward you will then see down into the Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery. On the left you have the graves of 300 French soldiers and on the right 300 Commonwealth soldiers. If you stand here for just a moment, look a little beyond the cemetery at the rough ground directly behind the Cross of Sacrifice. The rough ground is contained by a series of posts marking the boundary of the memorial site. What you are now looking at is the German front line.
Known Unto God – the headstones of an unknown Welsh soldier.
On the 1st July around 200m further down the hill from the German frontline, the men of the 97th Brigade would have been climbing out of the British front line advancing up this very hill. In fact one Captain Arthur Cecil Young who was serving with the 16th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers blew his whistle at 07h30 and commanded his men towards the site where the memorial now stands.
Accounts from the battalion war diaries stated that you would have had to have been a bullet proof soldier to have made it anywhere near that German frontline. When you consider this in relation to the nearby Leipzig Redoubt and the four other redoubts he would have met upon advancing up the hill, you can see why. Captain Arthur Cecil Young was killed that morning on 1st July, he was just 24 years old. The thing about his story is that we know he was advancing up the hill behind the cemetery, but he is in fact commemorated on Panel 12B of the memorial. So he’s still somewhere down in the fields nearby. Although in reality his body is still missing, we like to say he isn’t really missing, as his name is engraved among the men he fell alongside and the CWGC will care for him in perpetuity to ensure that his sacrifice is never forgotten.
The Work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The responsibility of caring for over 1.7 million war dead in over 23,000 locations across 150 different countries and territories is something we the Commission do with enormous pride. Not least because we owe that much and more to those that made the ultimate sacrifice during times of conflict, but it is crucial to the understanding of present and future generations of what these men and women gave their lives for.
Today just over 1,300 workers are employed by the Commission, 850 of whom operate as gardeners forming the bulk of our workforce. Their role is to ensure that the cemeteries, memorials and the headstones of every single serviceman are kept to the highest possible standard regardless of where they are or what needs to be done. At Thiepval in particular, a team of just 16 gardeners maintain the cemetery and the land around the memorial. Every single day they are constantly ensuring that the site is maintained and that impact of the weather conditions is kept to a minimum. This having been said, the same team of 16 gardeners are also responsible for a further 58 sites situated across the Somme battlefield. All of which are maintained with exactly the same care and attention to detail as Thiepval. The horticultural skill and expertise required to maintain such a unique variety of sites, makes those that do this job second to none. That’s why it takes 6 years to fully train just one of our gardeners.
Keeping the gardens looking immaculate all year round takes a lot of work.
Our work however, does not stop there. Thiepval as aforementioned is situated on one of the most visible points in the Somme, added to which it also stands at a considerable height. The memorial is therefore exposed to full force of the varied and in some instance extreme Somme weather. Consequently the panels and the structure often undergoes assessment in view of the need to clean and in some cases replace elements of it. More recently a full condition report of every single panel on the memorial was undertaken, in view of a major renovation project which is due to commence next year in March 2020. The project will seek to restore much of the lower areas of the memorial including the brick masonry, some of the name panels and concrete segments of the structure. This will require not only the expertise of our conservation and architectural experts, but also the skill of those that operate in our workshops at our France Office situated in Beaurains. Within just this one site the ability to care for all the cemeteries in France is facilitated.
Six different workshops, each concerned with a particular part of our commemoration process, ensures we are able to operate as we do. Everything from the maintenance of our gardening equipment to the production of our signs is completed at this site. The thing that makes this headquarters especially unique, however, is that it houses the only CWGC headstone production unit in the entire world.
The best part is today, and for the first time ever, you can actually see these workshops and our skilled craftsman in action, by visiting the CWGC Experience at our France office in Beaurains. Here you will get the opportunity to see for yourself everything I have just mentioned and even say hi to some of our incredible workforce. On arrival you will also be provided with an audio guide which will take you around the workshops at whatever pace suits you. There is no charge for this or entry to the Experience so it is well worth a visit. Go to the Official Website to find out more about the experience or the CWGC.
Tips for your visit to Thiepval Memorial
Before you book your trip France and your hire car to visit the memorial I have a couple of tips that are worth bearing in mind.
Just some of the 72,337 names currently inscribed on the monument.
First, conduct some family research before you visit. I have spoken to so many people that discover their surname on the memorial and regret having not looked into them before arriving to see if it as relative or not. There are two completely free ways of doing this. The first is to go online to our website and type in your surname into our online war dead database and see what results you get. You can type in as little or as much as you like so have a play around and see what you can find. In the event your surname doesn’t turn up any promising results scroll down a little further on the search page to additional information and try typing in the road you live on, your town or even a place where you think someone may have lived, you never know what you might find. The second method which is more specific to the memorial is to download our ‘Thiepval’ app. Unfortunately for the moment it is only available on iPhone, but that doesn’t stop you from using it on our iPad in the visitor centre, or using our website on your browser when you visit. The app is fantastic not only for its very user friendly interface (trust me I have used it so often when helping people), but it also gives you a little more information you wouldn’t normally find. Examples include the stories of the seven soldiers that were awarded the VC, the sportsmen commemorated on the memorial and an ‘on this day’ story of a soldier that died in combat on the very day you are using the app.
Make the most of us CWGF Interns! At the moment we are currently working at the Thiepval Memorial and Tyne Cot Cemetery. Not only does it give us enormous pleasure speaking to you, but unless you do some serious research beforehand a lot of info, interesting facts and personal stories can be easily missed on your visit. This wealth of info can be provide through our guided tours which run at set times during the day, or we can just do it when it’s convenient for you, it can be as short or as long as you’d like just let us know and we’d be happy to help. Also make the most our ability to complete some detailed research, as we can find where a soldier was fighting, and even show you the original battalion war diaries written at the time to give some insight into what they were going through.
My final words of advice for your visit is if you enjoy a walk and have the time, do visit the nearby Lonsdale Cemetery. To get to it is a very simple route that will not only give you a different perspective on Thiepval, but you will also walk through the Leipzig Redoubt as well. All you need to do is walk to the gravel path opposite the memorial and turn so the memorial is on your right hand side, and you are looking straight up the gravel path towards the Leipzig Redoubt. Now begin walking towards it and as you do consider that on your left hand side the German frontline would have run from the end of the memorial, up through the field to your right directly into the redoubt. Once you reach the redoubt it is best appreciate it from the path as it is not advisable to start walking in the trees given the likelihood of unexploded ordnance. Once you get out the other side you will be looking as the German soldiers did down the hill to what would have been the British front lines, but in reality you will see a cross road ahead. Take the left and begin walking along the concrete road down the hill until you see a memorial to the Bedfordshire Regiment, the path and a sign taking you to the Cemetery. It often doesn’t get visited, which surprises me as it has soldiers with fascinating stories in it, such as James Turnbull of the Highland Light Infantry who died on 1st July 1916 and was awarded the Victoria Cross. In my book it is a cemetery not to be missed.
Thiepval Memorial to the Missing is arguably one of most incredible structures in the world maintained by one of the most incredible organisations in the world. It has been an honour to work there as CWGF Intern for the past four months, as it has been truly fascinating to learn about the men commemorated on the memorial and to appreciate where they fought and died in the landscape surrounding this site. It is one of those places that everyone should visit not only to pay their respects, but to ensure that its existence and the stories of those commemorated on it are passed on to the next generations for many years to come.
The text for this guest post was provided by William Reid (third from the right, above), who has for the last four months been working as a Commonwealth War Graves Foundation Intern at Thiepval Memorial in France. Previous to this he studied for an Undergraduate Degree in Archaeology and a Masters Degree in Cultural Heritage and Resource Management at the University of Winchester in the UK. Throughout his academic career, he has always been fascinated by modern conflict archaeology and the personal stories attached to the incredible variety of sites he has worked at, visited and excavated.