pounds 1m visitor centre will salute toll of the Battle of the Somme

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The Independent Online
A HIGH-TECH visitor centre will be built on the Somme, the first official centre of its kind on any British battlefield of the First World War, and close to the celebrated Lutyens-designed memorial for the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval.

The funds will be raised privately in Britain, from France and the EU, and the centre will include classrooms for visiting school parties, interactive displays of the battlefield and a data-bank helping visitors of all nationalities to trace where relatives are buried or commemorated.

The pounds 1m building answers a long-standing demand of the rapidly increasing number of visitors to the Somme and other 1914-18 battlefields. Proposals for a visitor centre at Thiepval had been opposed by the Ministry of Defence, officials fearing it might turn the battlefields into a theme park.

The Somme centre - enthusiastically supported by the British Legion, other veterans' groups and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission - will probably adopt the same sombre style of brick and white stone as the Lutyens memorial. It will be on French-owned land, outside the memorial site, thus escaping the need for formal British approval or public British funds.

But a third of the cost, around pounds 300,000, will have to be raised from private contributions in the UK. A charitable appeal will be launched in the new year. Sir Frank Sanderson, who has campaigned for a centre, plans to appeal to businesses in the northern English cities - Manchester, Leeds, Hull - which provided many of the young men for the "Pals" battalions which fought on the first day of the first Battle of the Somme on 1 July, 1916.

One of the Manchester regiments went over the top that day dribbling footballs through No Man's Land. Sir Frank intends to ask one of the city's most successful businesses - Manchester United PLC - to associate itself with the appeal. If they were unable to donate money, they might be able to contribute well-known players to help with publicity.

The first Battle of the Somme was one of the few in the First World War in which British and French forces fought side by side.

The Thiepval visitor centre is the result of a joining of forces between Sir Frank, a 66-year-old retired British businessman and local French politicians. Sir Frank, a British Legion official from east Sussex, had discovered that Senateur Fernand Demilly, the president of the Somme departement (county) council, and the Mayor of Thiepval, Genevieve Potie, had been thinking along similar lines.

This week, Sir Frank was formally told the council had placed a preliminary pounds 500,000 entry for a Thiepval visitor centre in its plans for the year 2000.

He said yesterday: "This is a great step forward. It is unacceptable that the increasing number of visitors to Thiepval - more than 200,000 a year, including many school parties - have nowhere to help to explain the battle, or the war, and nowhere to go to the toilet.

"This centre will be unobtrusive and educational, not a rival to the memorial itself. It will be factual, not nationalistic or jingoistic but neither will it denigrate the sacrifices which were made.

"It will be European. It will be ashamed of what happened on the Somme, of the terrible European civil war which started this century, but it will also salute the courage of those who fought, on all sides."

Almost one million British, Commonwealth, French and German soldiers were killed or wounded in the five months of the first Battle of the Somme.

Senator Demilly said yesterday that the people of the Somme departement felt "an obligation of remembrance" to all those who fought there in 1916, and again in 1918, and "especially the many thousands of British soldiers who died here".

He said the intention was to create a "building of a style and substance appropriate to the monument at Thiepval, which is an extraordinarily moving site". Visitors to the centre will also be encouraged to go on to the "historial" (museum) on the broader history of the 1914-18 war, already established by the departement in the town of Peronne 20 miles away.

The appeal for British private contributions will be launched in the new year once a charitable trust has been created and full details of the centre have been drawn up. Trustees are expected to include the Duke of Kent and the British ambassador to Paris, Sir Michael Jay.

n Anyone interested in knowing more about the appeal should write to Sir Frank Sanderson, care of the War Graves Department, The British Legion, Aylesford, Kent ME20 7NX, marking the envelope "Thiepval Project".

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