The memory of war

Though the First World War ended 80 years ago, its horror and pity still move us. But why is there no British museum in the killing fields where 700,000 died?
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The Somme: the graveyards are scattered like local falls of snow in a ragged line across Flanders and Picardy. In the space of 80 miles, there are more than a thousand British cemeteries alone, containing a total of 700,000 graves, arranged in painfully precise lines, their white headstones startlingly crisp and fresh. They are carved with names such as Smith and Bickerstaffe and Stewart and Batterbury and McDonald and Nuthall and Sugden and Thatcher and Blair, and many others only "Known Unto God".

There are also memorials, some sombre, others grandiloquent and jingoistic, at places with names that are still synonymous with acts of inconceivable bravery and futility: Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Arras, Thiepval.

What you will not find anywhere in the section of battlefield that was held by British and Commonwealth troops until the First World War ended, 80 years ago next Wednesday, is a fully developed museum or information centre. There is nowhere to explain to young British visitors why their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, why all those 20-year-olds from Scottish farms and Lancashire slums, fought and died here. And at the Thiepval memorial to the missing of the Somme, one of the most striking and most visited British battlefield monuments, there is not even a visitors' lavatory.

There are museums - municipal museums and private museums. But, extraordinary as it may seem, there is no place to explain or chronicle the British and Commonwealth involvement in the conflict that shaped this century: the conflict which "saved democracy" but spawned Stalinism and Nazism; the event which began the era of the common man but killed common men in their millions; the war in the first year of which more soldiers died than in all previous conflicts in known human history.

The French have a small, but moving and powerful museum at Verdun; a new French museum is being built at the Chemin des Dames, near Rheims; the Belgians have an effective one near Nieuwport, in the small part of Belgium that was never captured. There is a newish, part-EU-funded museum at Peronne in the Somme, somewhat abstract but worth visiting, which puts the war into the context of social and political attitudes in France, Britain and Germany. There are municipal museums at Albert and at Ypres (controversially redesigned this year as a pacifist statement). There are small information centres at some of the Commonwealth memorials, including quite an elaborate new Canadian one at Vimy Ridge. There are private, tourist museums, in cafes and restaurants, which range from the creditable if fly-blown, to the ghoulish and frankly bizarre. But there is no one place - museum, visitor centre, call it what you will - to give an overarching view to future generations of the British and Commonwealth involvement in this most monstrous and mysterious of wars. There is nowhere that brings together, using the modern panoply of televisual and computer techniques, the vast amount of British photographic and cinematic evidence and sound-recorded survivors' accounts of the conflict.

It is time that this gap was filled.

The war is on the point of passing from living memory. The 80th anniversary celebrations next week, which will take the Queen to Paris and Ypres, will be attended by only a handful of surviving veterans - late nonogenarians and centenarians. By the time the next major anniversaries come round, in 2008 and 2018, no survivors will be left. The First World War will have passed, in one sense, into the mists of history, like the Napoleonic war and the Crimean War.

And yet, in another sense, the First World War refuses to pass out of popular consciousness. Interest in the war in Britain is increasing. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission reports a steeply rising curve of visitors to the cemeteries and memorials; more visits by school parties than ever before; more first visits to graves by surviving relatives - grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-nephews and nieces. The war graves commission now receives 40,000 inquiries a year - double the figure of 10 years ago.

The boom can be traced, in part, to the GCSE national curriculum, in part to the vogue for tracing family history, in part to the impact of novels such as Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong and Pat Barker's First World War trilogy. But these are not complete explanations. The fact that two of the most admired young British novelists of the Nineties find inspiration in the First World War, passing over the Second, tells its own story.

Where are the cemeteries for the dead of the Napoleonic wars, and the Crimean war? They do not exist. The First World War was the first great industrial conflict, in which young men could be processed to death - by railway, machine-gun and barbed wire - by the million. It also stood at the beginning of the age of universal education, democracy and individual consciousness. Millions died, but each death was received and recorded and remembered as an individual tragedy.

During the war the authorities, political and military, fed their nation's children into the grinding machine, because, once they had started, they did not know any other way to carry on. Afterwards they accepted the need to honour the victims as individuals, giving each a grave - or inscribing the name of the 73,000 "Missing of the Somme", whose bodies were never found or identified, on the horrific, 20-ft-high scrolls at Thiepval.

It is this collision of oppressive slaughter and respect for the individual, so emblematic of the century that followed, which makes the ghosts of the Great War so hard to exorcise. The cemeteries, beautifully kept by the War Graves Commission, will always be the best memorial. The gravestones, scrubbed white annually, and replaced when necessary, have a surreal, electric feeling of immediacy, as if the soldiers were buried only yesterday. The personal messages inscribed at the foot of the gravestones - "We will never forget your smile"; "Until we meet again. Mother" - convey the vastness, and the intimacy, of the human tragedy better than any CD-rom or video. The German cemeteries, though less personal, are also wrenchingly moving, especially the large number of graves of German-Jewish soldiers, whose death spared them from another holocaust.

But, as the generations pass, cemeteries and memorials will not be enough: something else is needed to explain and describe the enormity of what happened here, neither in a spirit of flag-waving, nor in a spirit of simplistic pacifism, but in the spirit of remembrance, in the best sense.

ON THE main road from Albert to Bapaume, in the centre of the Somme battlefield, where the British Army suffered its greatest ever disaster (57,000 soldiers killed on the first day of the battle), stands the Tommy Cafe. The owner, Dominique Zinardi, has created a private museum of war artefacts. At the rear he has re-created a section of trench, one of the few places where you can get any sense of what a trench really looked like.

The effectiveness of Mr Zinardi's trench is somewhat spoilt by the geese that he keeps within the same wire compound, and the tailors' dummies dressed in British uniforms who populate the duckboards and dug-outs.

Inside the cafe, kept unceremoniously on a shelf behind the bar, is Mr Zinardi's most treasured and recent acquisition: a football. It is a British football, with the word Gamages still faintly visible on the casing. It was discovered

in a knapsack that once belonged to a soldier in the 18th Manchester Regiment, and was found among the possessions of a deceased farmer.

It was a couple of miles from here that British soldiers went over the top on 1 July, 1916, kicking footballs towards the German machine-guns. Is this one of the balls? It is most unlikely. But it is a football once owned by a British soldier who probably died on the Somme (why else would he have abandoned his precious ball?). I don't begrudge Mr Zinardi his football, but it deserves to be in a setting where it would help to tell the story of the First World War to to generations of soccer-mad British youths, not behind the bar in a cafe.

The idea of a visitor centre or museum has been raised before, but has got nowhere. It divides the leaders of veterans' organisations, some of whom feel that the battlefields should be left alone. Any suggestion to have one museum for the whole British sector of the trenches gets tangled in conflicting claims

On this 80th anniversary of the end of the war, however, there may be signs of progress. Sir Frank Sanderson, a retired businessman, wrote recently to the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, asking the Blair Government to support - even pay for - a visitor centre at Thiepval on the Somme.

He received a friendly reply in which Mr Robertson said the idea would be seriously considered, but pointed out that there was opposition among senior civil servants to anything that smacked of the "over-heritisation" of the 1914-18 battlefields.

Government sources say, however, that Mr Robertson personally insisted on redrafting the original reply, which was far more dismissive. The Defence Secretary is said to have been deeply moved when he himself visited Thiepval in July - and astonished to find that there was no information centre, or even minimal facilities for visitors.

"Personally, I would be opposed to too ambitious a project, which would put up hackles," Sir Frank told me. "I think it's better to start quietly with a modest educational centre, just for the Somme, at Thiepval. Nothing grand, triumphal or nationalistic. How could you be triumphal about the Somme?"

Others believe that something more ambitious, but equally sombre, is justified. Brigadier Andrew Gadsby, the military attache at the British Embassy in Paris, said: "It's the question I'm most often asked when I visit the battlefields. Why is there no proper British museum or information centre? I think that there is a strong case for such a place, and that it should be at Thiepval. The Somme is our Verdun. The French have their very fine museum on their emblematic battleground. I believe we should have a museum on ours."

Mike Johnson, head of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in France, agrees. "I'm speaking personally, because it is nothing to do with the commission, but I think the case for such a place is overwhelming. I'm constantly asked why there is not more to inform British visitors, especially the younger visitors. In my opinion, there should be one centre for the whole of the Western Front battlefields, and it should be at Thiepval."

EU cash would probably be available, as it as been for similar French projects. Lottery grants? Private funding? There is no reason why a fine and ground-breaking museum could not be built without a penny of government cash. But it needs the Government to take the lead and say that it approves the idea. What about it, Mr Robertson?