The Battle of the Somme

Trip Start May 31, 2006
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Saturday, June 16, 2007

It's hard to imagine an entire town completely destroyed.  I don't think any of us really fathom the concept of absolute destruction. Nevertheless, the town of Thiepval was totally vanquished by the Germans during World War I.  The houses, although flattened by the bombs, had deep cellars in which the Germans held out for a while until they were finally defeated by the Allies. This was part of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle in the Great War which took place along the River Somme in Northern France, where the British armies attempted to break through the German lines and draw attention away from the Battle of Verdun being fought simultaneously by the French. Ironically enough, the word 'somme' is an old Celtic word for 'tranquility'.

Nothing remotely close to tranquil came to be here in July 1st 1916, the first and bloodiest day of the battle.  Close to 20,000 soldiers from the British Army and Commonwealth troops perished that day, the largest single loss ever.  Now instead of the old town ruins stands the mighty Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

It was still raining when we reached Thiepval Memorial and here the wind was blowing colder and harder.  A group of English high school students were just leaving the site and getting back unto their bus, so the place was left all to ourselves. From far away, the huge red brick arches of the monument were standing firm on the rural landscape that surrounded us.  Past a large field of half-grown corn, the memorial came unto full sight.  I can't say I was as impressed as I was by Vimy Ridge memorial: the red brick and white stone reminded me of a military academy or building, more than a peace memorial. I read later that at the time of its inauguration in 1932, there was much controversy surrounding the memorial because of its scale and cost.  Many said that such money could have gone to help out the veterans themselves.

Nonetheless the piers of stone were plastered with the names of the South African and British soldiers that went missing or unidentified and that have no known grave.  In some places there were gaps, as if a name had been scratched out.  Apparently when a soldier is found and identified, he receives a full military funeral and is buried in a cemetery, and consequently his name is removed from the Missing of the Somme Memorial.  Skeletons are still being found in the Somme area to this day.

Behind the memorial was a grave site, divided into two sections: one with rectangular grave stones and the other with crosses.  The bodies of both French and English soldiers lie here, in commemoration of the Anglo-French effort in the Battle of the Somme. Lavish bushels and bouquets of different flowers sprouted from the ground and now served to collect droplets of rainwater into their leaves and petals.  The whole scene, no matter how little you knew of the war, was languishing, and the now heavier rain wasn't helping the feeling. 

We walked back through a nearby grove of tall trees where the ground was springing with tiny orange mushrooms.   The trees did a good job at sheltering us from the rain but the muddy, squishy earth beneath out feet was a bit of a nightmare to walk on.  It was now time for lunch, and David had heard of a little cafe/war museum in some town that wasn't even on the map, but an empty stomach will take you anywhere.
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