Wilfred Owen would have approved. The annual commemoration of the first day of the battle of the Somme – the most calamitous day in British military history – will be given a more poetic, and less completely military and religious, tone for the first time tomorrow.
Sebastian Faulks, author of the acclaimed novel Birdsong, set during the First World War, has been invited to read two war poems – including an anti-war sonnet – during the ceremony marking the 85th anniversary of the battle at the Thiepval memorial in northern France.
Traditional aspects of the ceremony – the military band, religious service and the singing of "Abide with Me" – will remain. At the suggestion of the British ambassador to Paris, Sir Michael Jay, the event will also be given a "broader, cultural" appeal to reflect the increasing interest in the Great War among younger generations of Britons.
Mr Faulks will read Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth, a grimly unromantic and unpatriotic view of the wastefulness of war, and the more neutral and wistful Behind the Line by Ivor Gurney.
The ceremony has taken place on 1 July every year since 1932 – except for the years of German occupation of France – beside the enormous, four-storey arch dedicated to the "Missing of the Somme", in the hamlet of Thiepval at the heart of the 1916 battlefields. The monument, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in subdued red brick and portland stone, carries the names of the 72,085 British soldiers who died on the Somme and whose bodies were never found.
From its opening line – "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" – Owen's poem is the antithesis of the traditional war remembrance ceremony, dominated by flags and medals and military music.
Sir Michael said that he had invited Mr Faulks to read the war poems to acknowledge the fact that interest in the Great War was no longer just military, or confined to veterans and their immediate descendants. "It seems to me that the First World War commemorations – and particularly Thiepval – are no longer seen solely as military commemorations but need to reflect the extent to which, through poetry and other forms of literature, the war now has a far wider cultural impact," he said.
A joint Franco-British project to build a £1m educational and visitor centre at Thiepval, the first of its kind on any British battlefield of the First World War, was officially launched in February. Grants of £600,000 will come from the local council for the Somme departément as well as EU regional funds.
Sir Frank Sanderson, the retired British businessman who initiated the project, is attempting to raise the other £400,000 from charitable donations in Britain. He has raised £242,000 in four months including a £72,000 donation that represents one pound for every name carved on the Thiepval arch. The anonymous donor is known to be the grandson of one of the soldiers listed on the monument.
The second biggest donation, £40,000, has come from the British Government via the embassy in Paris. The Government is unable to invest directly in a project on foreign soil but has made a charitable contribution from Foreign Office funds.
Sir Frank said: "We have done well but we will only get the big donations once. The second half of the appeal is going to be tougher." He said that donations were mainly from those who reported they had lost a relative during the First World War.
The plan to build a hi-tech visitor centre close to the Thiepval arch has stirred opposition from traditionalists – including some officials in the Ministry of Defence – who believed that the 1914-18 battlefields and cemeteries should be left undeveloped to speak for themselves.
Sir Frank argued that, with the passing generations, that was no longer enough. An educational and information centre is needed to help to explain to the countless British school groups and other visitors how and why hundreds of thousands of their grandfathers and great uncles died in Belgium and northern France between August 1914 and November 1918. The aim is to be factual, enlightening and moving, rather than jingoistic.
The visitor centre, which should open in July 2003, will be close to the Thiepval monument, yet discreetly placed and designed so as not to spoil the sombre lines of the Lutyens arch. The project is supported by, among others, the departément of the Somme, the Royal British Legion, the Western Front Association, the Wilfred Owen Association and the Lutyens Trust.
The battle of the Somme has always been the greatest single, symbol of the sacrifice – or futile slaughter – of British and Commonwealth soldiers during the Great War. It occupies the same place in the British popular memory as the battle of Verdun, earlier in 1916, for the French and Germans.
Almost as many British soldiers died in the battles around Ypres and Passchendaele, the following year. The Somme was, however, the first mass butchery of the volunteers raised, amid great optimism and flag-waving, by Lord Kitchener in 1914. Many of them were organised in "Pals' Battalions", in which brothers, cousins and friends from industrial towns fought – and died – side-by-side.
The British and Commonwealth regiments lost 19,000 on 1 July 1916, the inaugural day of the battle. The death toll was the worst number of casualties ever suffered in a single day by a British army. By the time the advance ended in the November mud, total British losses – those killed, wounded and captured – were 420,000, French 194,000 and German 465,000. More than one million men were lost on both sides within five months.
The small gains that were made on the Somme in 1916 were rendered pointless the following year when the German army retreated, voluntarily, to a more heavily fortified line further east.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.