Visitor centre on the Somme will honour million who fell in battle

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The Independent Online

A Franco-British visitor centre is to be built on the Somme where more than a million men lost their lives in one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.

A Franco-British visitor centre is to be built on the Somme where more than a million men lost their lives in one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.

The £1m centre, the first of its kind on a British battlefield from the 1914-18 war, will be announced by the Duke of Kent next week. It will be built with French, European Union and private British funds close to the memorial for the Missing of the Somme, designed by Lutyens, at Thiepval.

The British sustained 60,000 casualties, a third of them fatal, on 1 July 1916, the first day of the offensive. By 13 November the death toll was 450,000 German, 420,000 British and 200,000 French soldiers, for a net Allied gain of five miles.

Proposals for a visitor centre at Thiepval have been opposed in the past by senior officials in the Ministry of Defence, who feared that it might disturb the sanctity of the battlefield. The plans call for a "sober and elegant" design, containing classrooms for school visits, inter-active displays, a data-base of casualties and their burial sites and a small infirmary for elderly visitors.

The visitor centre idea has been pushed by a retired British businessman, Sir Frank Sanderson, who won the support of the council for the Somme departement, the British embassy in Paris, the Royal British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Imperial War Museum. After a wrangle over possible sites, plans have been agreed by the Somme council. Work is expected to be completed by 1 July 2002, the battle's 86th anniversary.

The appeal can be contacted by writing to: The Thiepval Project, care of the War Graves Department, Royal British Legion, Aylesford, Kent ME20 7NX. The project's website is www.thiepval.org.uk.

* A monument to honour servicemen and women killed since the Second World War will be built in London, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, said yesterday. It will commemorate people killed in the Falklands, Kosovo and Northern Ireland. The memorial's form and site have not yet been decided.

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