The Somme has been deeply marked by the battles of the First World War: The August invasion by Germany and the ‘Race to the Sea’ of September 1914, the Battle of the Somme from July to November 1916, the German Spring Offensive in March 1918 and the subsequent Allied armies’ counter-offensives of Picardie from August to September 1918. This area became a meeting point for over twenty nationalities where three million soldiers would fight on a front of forty-five kilometres. The Remembrance Trail took us to most of the key sites which act as a remembrance to those who fought and tells their story.
Our first stop was at the South African National Memorial at Delville Wood near Longueval. Here on the 15 July 1916 the 1st South African Infantry Brigade comprising of 121 officers and 3,032 men received orders to take the wood “at all costs”. They fought for six days outnumbered by the Germans but captured the woods. When they were relieved on the 20 July 1916 only 142 men came out of the woods unscathed and a further 640 injured. A massive toll. The woods were replanted in the 1920s and it was decided that the woods would forever stay the burial grounds for those soldiers who died there. It was a very sombre and eerie place.
We then found the New Zealand memorial which had views across the surrounding countryside.
At Pozieres there was several monuments to the Australian soldiers who captured the area on the 23 July 1916. The village was totally annihilated and the Australian divisions had lost more than a third of their men. There was also a monument to the British tank regiment where 49 Mark I tanks were deployed.
We then went to Thiepval which was of strategic importance during the Battle of the Somme. The village sits on a hill and during the early part of the war the Germans dominated the ridge and developed a sophisticated line of defence around the village with a maze of communication lines. The Battle of the Somme started with six days of continual artillery bombardment with the aim of destroying the German lines. On the 1 July 1916 the battle began with 100,000 inexperienced soldiers (Pals Battalions) carrying 30kg of supplies went over the top but were quickly hit by machine gun fire. The artillery bombardment had not worked. It had in fact given early warning to the Germans who knew the attack was going to take place. At the end of the day 60,000 British soldiers had been made casualties, 40,000 had been injured or taken prisoner. This day was known as “the worst day in British military history”. Thiepval was eventually captured on the 27 September 1916. It was retaken again by the Germans in March 1918 but eventually recaptured by British troops in August 1918. The Thiepval Memorial was built between 1919 and 1932. The memorial commemorates more than 72,205 British and South African soldiers who were declared missing in the Somme between July 1915 and March 1918. Their bodies were never found or the body could not be identified. Almost 90% were killed during the Battle of the Somme with 12,000 killed on the first day alone.
Close by to the Thiepval monument was the Ulster Tower which is a replica of the Helen’s Tower on the Clandeboye Estate in Ireland, the place where the 36th Ulster Division trained. The memorial was in memory of over 5,000 casualties who were either one in four who died, injured, went missing or were taken prisoner on the 1 July 1916.
The final memorial we visited was at Beaumont-Hamel – the Newfoundland Memorial with its bronze Caribou statue. From the mound of the monument there was a view across the remarkably well preserved network of original trenches now grass covered and the battlefield site. Walking the site, we learnt about the devastation that occurred. It was here on the 1 July 1916 that men from the Newfoundland Regiment (Newfoundland was still a British Dominion) left their trenches at 9am but were immediately trapped under German machine gun fire. Half an hour later, only 68 remained unscathed and all of the officers had been killed or wounded. They suffered the highest casualty rate on the 1 July.
Our final stop for the day was at the Lochnagar Crater. The mine crater is 91metres in diameter and 21 metres in depth and it was caused by a team of civilian miners digging under the German trenches and setting up explosives to destroy the German frontline. We were able to walk around the crater.
It had been a very thought provoking day and clearly outlined the futility of WWI. So many young men died due to incompetence decisions based on outdated approaches to war, lack of training, and outdated artillery.