The Somme Remembered on its 90th Anniversary
The First World War has all but passed out of living memory - Yet its hold on the imagination is as powerful as ever - On its 90th anniversary, John Lichfield reports from the tiny strip of northern France where a quarter of a million men lost their lives.
In the neat, quiet village of Fricourt in northern France stands a stubby street of modern bungalows. You might be in a patch of rural mock-suburbia anywhere in Europe. The street runs away into a rough farm track between fields of wheat and broad beans. Off to the left is a path of closely mown grass, like a strip of English lawn unrolled in the middle of a French cornfield.
The lawn leads to a walled cemetery, which has seven cherry trees and two yews. In June and July, when surrounded by ripening crops and a scattering of poppies, this cemetery is one of the prettiest and most peaceful places on earth.
There are 208 graves surrounded by a jumble of typical British garden flowers – roses, phlox, peonies, lupins – and more lawns, green and crisp enough to satisfy the Buckingham Palace head gardener.
This place, the Fricourt New Military Cemetery, is a little corner of a foreign field that is forever Yorkshire. Almost all of the young men buried here died on one day – 1 July 1916. Almost all of them died within a few yards of their burial place, which was then in the no man’s land between the British and German front-line trenches.
Many of them came from the 10th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, volunteers from Leeds and Harrogate and surrounding towns and villages. Before the war, they were clerks and mill workers, farm boys and solicitors. Wearing flat caps and boaters, they answered Lord Kitchener’s call and joined the Army together in 1914. They died together within a few minutes of the start of the Battle of the Somme, at 7.30am 90 years ago tomorrow.
Others are from the 7th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment – many of them friends and neighbours from Hull – mowed down in a second, futile assault in the afternoon. These wheat and bean fields were the bloodiest single section of the most calamitous day’s battle in the history of the British Army. The battle went on for another four and a half months with some local successes, but ended in overall strategic failure. By mid-November, the British and French had advanced the equivalent of 100 yards (the length of a football field) for each day’s fighting.
Like Verdun for the French, the Somme has become the abiding symbol for Britain – and the British Commonwealth – of the 1914-18 war. The two conflicts were almost one, 150 miles apart but overlapping in time. There were murderous battles in 1914 and 1915, but in 1916, at the Somme and at Verdun, the power of modern industry was applied in inexhaustible force to human flesh for the first time. There were more than 1,000,000 casualties at the Somme–roughly 400,000 British and Commonwealth, 400,000 German and 200,000 French. Of these,maybeoneinfourdied.The precise casualty figures are still in dispute but the Somme was the most destructive single battle of that war – or of any war. Up to 10,000 people are expected to attend the official commemoration of the 90th anniversary this weekend, centring on the Thiepval “Memorial to the Missing”, three miles from Fricourt.
There will be military bands and flags. There will be veterans of other wars and veterans of no wars at all in smart blue blazers and grey trousers. There will be readings of war poems. The Prince of Wales will make a speech. Henry Allingham, 110, Britain’s oldest man, one of the last six British survivors of the war – but not a Somme veteran – is expected to attend.
As far as one can establish, there are no living veterans of the Somme. There are no survivors from the 3,000,000 British, French and German – not to speak of Australian, New Zealand, Irish, South African, Canadian, Indian, North African and African – soldiers who fought there between 1 July and 18 November 1916. The battle has passed over the horizon of living memory. Is it therefore time to bury the Somme?
Martin Middlebrook, one of our most humane and influential historians of the 1914 war, says: “After the 80th anniversary in 1996, I would have told you that two things were inevitable: we would see declining numbers of people at future commemorations, and interest in the war would gradually reduce. The opposite has been true.”
There are more British visitors to the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in France and Belgium than ever before.
The nightly ceremony of the playing of The Last Post at the Menin gate in Ypres – the equivalent of the Thiepval memorial for the Flanders battles of 1914-18 – was attended by a handful of people 30 years ago. Now, there is a sizeable crowd each night. The excellent new information centre at Thiepval recorded more than 300,000 visitors in its first year, which was well beyond expectations.
Fricourt New is far from the largest or best known of the 148 Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries on the Somme. All the same, judging by the official book, it has a steady stream of British visitors. Hardly a day goes by without two or three entries. Some are distinctly 21st century in sentiment and spelling. Others are more traditional.
“It’s quite strange to find some1 (sic) the same name as me!” “Found my gran’s first husband lying here. If he had lived, life would have been different.” “Not lost but gone before.” “To Uncle John, you ended your life 1.7.16. You will never be forgotten.” “You fighted well.” One of the forces at work here is a rootless, modern obsession with genealogy, with roots. Many of the people you speak to at Thiepval, or elsewhere, say that they have been surprised to discover recently that a great uncle fought or died at the Somme.
As each generation goes by, it doubles the number of people with relatives who fought in the battle. Almost all of us have a relative who fought at the Somme. But there are other explanations – complex and sometimes contradictory – for the increasing interest in a war now almost a century old. Martin Middle-brook says that, for one reason or another, the 1914 war has “come out from behind the shadow” of the 1939 war.
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