In this centenary year of the Battle of the Somme I really wanted to visit a First World War site. For me World War One has a special poignancy. I’m interested in the history but also the impact on society. When I got a ticket for the centenary service in France I was thrilled.
I arrived amidst very tight security at Albert Station on the 1st July. At Thiepval there was a sea of poppies at the entrance to the new museum dedicated to the Somme. This had a very striking mural telling the story of the first day of the Somme by Joe Sacco. It was an imaginary window opening onto the battlefield and really poignant. Walking through to the great memorial dedicated to the Missing of the Somme I found a seat under a cloudy sky.
The service was a mixture of readings, poetry and music. Even before that started the Kings Hussars rode by with guns that had all seen action in World War One. A shot was fired out across the countryside at Thiepval and after that the readings began. Charles Dance began by introducing the Somme. This was followed by real life accounts from a series of readers. The footballer Sol Campbell recounted the story of one of Leyton Orient’s players, killed on the Somme. Jacob Isaacs talked about Isaac Rosenberg, a poor Jewish lad from the East End who joined the army so he could send his father some money. He wrote poetry at the front and one in particular was about a rat. He too did not survive. And then there was the story of Billy Greaves who fell on a grenade to save his comrades. The Welsh Male Voice Morriston Choir sang Keep the Home Fires Burning. It was a haunting melody that rose over the audience and resonated with the mood. Every now and again the wind rustled the leaves in the trees and birdsong could be heard.
The 87 year old son of a soldier read out an account from his diary about leading men into battle. My favourite reading came from David Cameron who described how a British officer left the trench to rescue a wounded soldier trapped on the wire. Not one German fired a shot whilst he did that and when he carried the wounded man back the German troops cheered. Although royalty and politicians were here the focus was on the men who fought and died.
Children placed a wreath on each one of the graves at Thiepval, many marked as being unknown. Even the music playing had been composed by a man killed on the Somme. The Banks of Green Willow was written by George Butterworth. I wandered through the graves afterwards where so many who gave their lives are buried. All across the Somme and Northern France so much was lost in 1916. I felt so privileged to have been there on the centenary of the first day of battle and at such a moving ceremony.