On Tuesday, I took my Brussels office staff with me on a pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Somme, and to the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, near the French town of Albert. The whole of the Somme area is dotted with cemeteries and memorials for British, French, Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fell in those terrible battles.
On July 1st 1916, just 95 years ago, after a fearful week-long bombardment, tens of thousands of British soldiers marched forward eastwards to the German lines.
The bombardment had been designed to breach the German wire and to knock out German defences and fortifications. The plan was that British forces would simply walk forward with little resistance. Yet despite the ferocity of the artillery, far more of the German defences remained than had been anticipated. Far from advancing unmolested, the British troops found much of the wire still in place, and faced a withering fire from German machine gun emplacements.
This was the British Army’s worst day in history. There were 57,000 casualties, and nearly 20,000 men died. In the campaign that started that day and extended over the next four months, there were 1.5 million casualties.
Many of those who fell are buried in named graves in local cemeteries (there was a policy of not bringing the bodies home). But many were simply never found again. They became “The Missing”. They are, as the inscription on the Memorial reads, “those to whom the fortune of war denied a known and honoured resting place”. After the War, Sir Edwin Lutyens, the distinguished British architect, was commissioned to design a suitable memorial on the Somme at Thiepval. Lutyens also designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and the War Stone that features on many a municipal war memorial.
I have for years been a great fan of Lutyens, and have visited, amongst others, the Viceroy’s Palace in New Delhi, the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington, and many of his buildings in the UK. Lutyens died in January 1944 — the month when I was born.
At the time of the Thiepval commission he was working on the design for the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, started before the second war but sadly never completed (an undistinguished sixties-modern building now stands on the site). The monumental Memorial at Thiepval is, in a sense, a slice of the Cathedral design. If you think of the Cathedral as a dinosaur’s rib-cage, then you can think of Thiepval as just a couple of ribs.
The squarish floor-plan is pierced through with three arches each way, giving a 4×4 array of columns. Each column has four faces, so there are 64 large panels carved with the names of 60,000+ missing officers and men. In addition, several hundred unidentified soldiers are buried around the monument, each cross bearing the French “Inconnu”.
Thiepval represents history, courage and sacrifice, as well as a remarkable architectural achievement by one of the greatest British architects of all time. But above all, it represents tragedy and wasted lives on an epic scale. As we stood before the monument on this longest day of summer, the rain fell steadily as if the heavens themselves were grieving for the folly of mankind.