- On the high ground overlooking the Somme
River in France, where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World
War took place, stands the Thiepval Memorial. Towering over 45 metres in
height, it dominates the landscape for miles around. It is the largest
Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world.
- The Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the
Missing of the Somme, bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and
men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme
sector before 20 March 1918, and whose graves are not known. In the
winter of 1931-32, it was decided that a small mixed cemetery be made at
the memorial's foot to represent the loss of both the French and
Commonwealth nations. Of the 300 Commonwealth burials in the cemetery,
239 are unidentified. The bodies were found in December 1931 and
January-March 1932, some as far north as Loos and as far south as Le
Quesnel, but the majority came from the Somme battlefields of
July-November 1916. Of the 300 French dead, 253 are unidentified.
- On 1 July 1916, supported by a French attack
to the south, 13 divisions of Commonwealth forces launched an offensive
on a line from north of Gommecourt to Maricourt. Despite a preliminary
bombardment lasting seven days, the German defences were barely touched
and the attack met unexpectedly fierce resistance.
Losses were catastrophic and with only minimal advances on the southern
flank, the initial attack was a failure. In the following weeks, huge
resources of manpower and equipment were deployed in an attempt to
exploit the modest successes of the first day. However, the German Army
resisted tenaciously and repeated attacks and counter attacks meant a
major battle for every village, copse and farmhouse gained. At the end
of September, Thiepval was finally captured. The village had been an
original objective of 1 July.
Attacks north and east continued throughout October and into November in
increasingly difficult weather conditions. The Battle of the Somme
finally ended on 18 November with the onset of winter.
In the spring of 1917, the German forces fell back to their newly
prepared defences, the Hindenburg Line, and there were no further
significant engagements in the Somme sector until the Germans mounted
their major offensive in March 1918.
Following lengthy negotiations about the site, construction at Thiepval
began in 1928 and was finished in 1932. Foundations were dug to a depth
of 30 feet, uncovering wartime tunnels and unexploded ordnance.
The memorial also serves as an Anglo-French Battle Memorial in
recognition of the joint nature of the 1916 offensive and a small
cemetery containing equal numbers of Commonwealth and French graves lies
at the foot of the memorial.
Notable commemorations include cricketer Kenneth Hutchings, writer
Hector Hugh Munro, also known as Saki and Cedric Dickens, grandson of
novelist Charles Dickens. There are also seven holders of the Victoria
On 1 August 1932, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales unveiled the memorial.
Albert Lebrun, President of France and Sir Edwin Lutyens, the memorial’s
architect, attended the ceremony which was in English and French.
Each year on 1 July a ceremony is held at the memorial to mark the first
day of the Battle of the Somme. On 1 July 2016, to mark the centenary of
the Battle of the Somme, thousands of people attended a special ceremony
including members of the British Royal family, UK Prime Minister David
Cameron, and French President François Hollande.