Our journey back up through France, deftly avoiding a return through Belgium by crossing the Rhine at Saarbrucken, has led us along much of the 1914-18 western front. We moved on from Verdun, which was largely a French and American bloodbath, to Albert on the Somme, which was largely a French and British bloodbath. Today we hopped on our bicycles to puff and pant around some of the veloroute de la memoire.
The country roads between Albert and Bapaume are dotted with 400 mostly relatively modestly sized Commonwealth cemeteries, lying in fields or on the edges of woods. This, I believe, was largely because there were field hospitals scattered around the lines and the poor unfortunates who didn’t make it were taken outside to be buried behind the medical facility. We stopped first at Blighty Valley cemetery which may have been one such. Now between a wood and a maize field, it contains just over a thousand graves. Many of the headstones are for unidentified souls and simply bear the inscription:
A soldier of the great war; known unto God
Further up the road, and I do mean up, is the imposing Thiepval Memorial designed by Edwin Lutyens, a towering brick edifice supported on four massive square – maybe more like cubic – columns inscribed with some 73,000 names of the British missing of the Battle of the Somme. It is fronted by a cemetery for both French and British fallen with crosses for the French and headstones for the British. A few names on the monument are now crossed out, a result of bodies having been later found and identified.
On our route back we passed a tower, a replica of Helen’s tower near Belfast, commemorating the Ulstermen who took part in the carnage.
Nearby, though we didn’t visit it this time around (we’ve been there before), is a memorial to a band of Newfoundlanders. Of the 1000 of them sent “over the top”, just 16 returned unscathed. Such was the lunacy of ordering infantry to walk hundreds of metres across open ground towards an enemy line heavily barricaded by barbed wire and defended by raking machine gun fire.
Emotions can take only so much of this stuff and we chose our route back to our Albert campsite, passing another modestly sized cemetery beside the road.
The Battle of the Somme was launched on 1st July 1916. The first day cost the British 57,000 casualties, 20,000 of whom were killed. It remains the worst day in British military history. [Ed: Bloody good job, too.] The battle was brought to a halt in November 1916 when the weather became so bad that no further action was deemed possible. The total casualties for this senseless insanity amounted to 415,000 British, 195,000 French and 600,000 German – 1.2 million in all.
According to our guide book, the land around Albert had no particular intrinsic value nor was there any long term strategic objective to the action. The Battle of the Somme was designed to relieve pressure on the French army fighting its 10-month action at Verdun 300kms away.