After 90 years, the guns of the Somme are still reverberating

Part funeral, part picnic, part parade - 5,000 people came to mark the anniversary in their own way. John Lichfield reports from Thiepval on a dignified and moving occasion
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The Independent Online

At least 5,000 people gathered yesterday in a small French village to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first day of the battle of the Somme.

A band marched. Flags were paraded. Poems were read. Hymns were sung. The Prince of Wales made a short, moving speech.

How do you commemorate something as terrible, and compelling, as a four-and-a-half month battle in which 250,000 people died? Yesterday's events beside the Monument to the Missing at Thiepval - engraved with 72,000 names of British soldiers whose bodies were never found or identified - were dignified, sombre and odd.

The day was part funeral, part garden party, part fancy-dress show. There were people in England replica football shirts and Union flag T-shirts and people in British and French replica First World War uniforms (including a Frenchman dressed in the full 1916 kilted rig of an Argyll and Sutherland Highlander).

There were two French seven-year-old boys dressed in French and English battledress, pointing mock guns at each other for the cameras. And a group of Londonderry apprentice boys in orange sashes marked "no surrender", who marched behind a band to the memorial site.

The Somme is, among many things, a place of Ulster loyalist pilgrimage. The Ulster Volunteer Force, raised to resist Irish self-rule, were among the 100,000 "British" troops who attacked on the first day. They, like many other battalions, suffered appalling casualties in the worst single battlefield disaster in the history of the British Army.

On the first day Britain suffered 57,000 casualties, including 20,000 dead. By the time the battle of the Somme petered out in mid-November, more than a million men had been killed, wounded or captured, including 400,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, 400,000 German and 200,000 French.

The Prince of Wales, who flew in by helicopter with the Duchess of Cornwall, said: "For the first time in our history we put mere boys into an assault against the bombs, bullets and the terrible wire entanglements, equipped with little more than raw courage and a deep trust in their young leaders." This was a rather approximate history lesson. The Somme was not the first British battle, or first British disaster of the war, although it was the worst. The British troops were, if anything, over-encumbered with equipment - from telegraph wire to pigeons.

Still ... At least 20 nationalities fought on the Somme: British, French, German, Irish, Australian, Indians, South Africans. Finally, however, it was a very British battle. It was Britain's supreme effort in the war to that date, intended to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun. It was the first - and in many cases last - battle of the "Pals" battalions, friends and relatives who volunteered en masse in 1914 and 1915.

It was a very British battle in other ways: the supreme confidence with which it was anticipated in Britain; the muddle of the tactics; the shoddiness of some of the weapons (one in three British shells in the opening barrage was a dud); the brute courage of many of the men; the snobbery of many senior staff officers - especially the commanding general, Sir Henry Rawlinson, who assumed that his "amateur" soldiers were incompetent and incapable of doing anything other than walking (not running) towards the German guns.

After 90 years, one might imagine that memories were fading. In fact, interest does not cease to grow. There were many more people at Thiepval yesterday than for the 80th anniversary in 1996. Among the British visitors (there were also many local French people), you could find a barbed-wire tangle of different motives and attitudes. Some were fiercely patriotic; others fiercely anti-war. Many were fascinated by the contradictions of a war which set the pattern for the most violent century in human history.

Pam Linge, 48, from Haydon Bridge, Northumberland, is building a database of the personal stories of the 72,000 "missing" soldiers. "I think what draws people is the lost innocence. There is a sense that the world was a different, simpler place before that war."

It is also clear that some family memories are still vivid and unhealed. Hazel Evans, 64, from Pontefract, West Yorkshire, said: "There is a great thirst to know, because the generation which fought the war was so unwilling to talk about it. My father's father, George Rodgers, was killed, and all his mum would tell him was that he was 'missing, presumed dead'. It was only much, much later that we discovered that my gran had a death plaque, and that my grandfather had a grave. That's why I am here. I am here for my Dad, because he never knew his own Dad."

Perhaps the most moving moment of a moving - and puzzling - day came when the band of the Royal Irish Regiment played the Irish folk song the "Wild Rover". It is a Catholic song, but an Orangeman in a sash at the front of the crowd whispered the words of the refrain: "No, no, never, no more."


He died as he lived, fearless

Alan Lloyd, a second lieutenant with 78th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, arrived at the Somme in June 1916 - shortly after the birth of his first child. Lloyd's battery was soon moved to support operations in Delville Wood, and on 4 August an artillery attack cut all communications lines in the area. Lloyd left his observation post in an effort to mend the telegraph wires, but was hit by a shell and died within 20 minutes. Gunner John Manning was with Lloyd when he was killed. After the funeral, he placed a simple sign on the grave: "He died as he lived, brave and fearless, a true British hero."

We fell as corn to a scythe

Cyril Jose was just 17 when he was badly wounded on the first day of the battle. He was serving with the 2nd Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment, and had to cross more than 650 metres of uphill no-man's land under machine gun fire to tackle heavily fortified German positions. Jose had almost reached the German lines when he was hit in the shoulder, but managed to hide behind the body of an officer until the next morning when he crawled back to the British line. "Men went down like corn before a scythe.," he later wrote. "We were a sorry remnant that reached the Jerry barbed wire."

I know I have done my duty

Percy George Boswell, a second lieutenant in the 8th Battalion, the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was killed in the first hour of the Battle of the Somme. The previous day he had written a letter to his father in Streatham, south London, which was only to be delivered if he was killed. It read: "The Hun is going to get consummate hell & we are going over the parapet tomorrow, when I hope to spend a few merry hours in chasing the Bosch all over the place. I am absolutely certain that I shall get through all right, but in case the unexpected does happen I shall rest content with the knowledge that I have done my duty, and one can't do more."

Killed near Montauban

Robert Stewart Smylie died on the Somme aged 42 with a photograph of his wife and three children in his shrapnel-damaged wallet. He had been headmaster of Sudbury Grammar School in Suffolk before obtaining a commission in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Early on 14 July Smylie led C Company into position near a quarry to the north of Montauban. They advanced at around 7am, and suffered heavy casualties. Five officers were killed, including Smylie.