The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing was unveiled on 1st August 1932; we saw a few weeks ago the Last Post being played as part of the ceremony; here is an image of the assembled crowd who had travelled to the Somme for the inauguration ceremony that day.
Such pilgrimages were not new – visitors had first been seen on the old battlefields in 1919 – and this was not even the first one to the Somme, yet it was the first large scale pilgrimage since the British Legion had organised their own in 1928. But this in many respects was a pilgrimage with a difference; here were not families who had come to see a grave. No wives or mothers or children could walk the rows of headstones to find one with ‘their’ name on. For these were the families of the legions of the missing; men who had ‘no known grave’. What to do with these missing? In previous wars such men had never been commemorated, but as this war had touched almost every family in the land, crossed every class and social barrier, and on some battlefields more than half the dead were missing, it was felt unfair for the loved ones of these men to have nothing to see, nothing to remember but a fading vision. The solution were the huge memorials to the missing, which in many places came to define the battlefields on which they stood.
Future generations would make much of these memorials like Thiepval, and wonder at the long lists of names. But on this day, and in this crowd, all minds were focussed on but a single thought; of that name, that face, that voice which had once been dear to them and was lost. There had always been that feint hope; alive somewhere, lost their memory, perhaps missing no more, but now nearly two decades after the Somme the final reckoning; a name in stone, a final acceptance, and all the grief and heartache that brought.
It is easy to believe that battlefield tourism is a modern phenomena but in terms of the Great War it began as early as 1919 with the publication of the first battlefield guide. Today the huge number of travellers who went to France and Flanders in the 1920s and 30s is forgotten; at one peak it was estimated than more than 300,000 people travelled to the battlefields in one year, for example.
This image comes from a small album owned by a veteran of the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment (Cambridgeshire). The Cambs battalion took heavy casualties at La Boisselle on 1st July 1916 – the First Day of the Battle of the Somme – and fought in many other engagements on the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Hindenburg Line. This veteran returned to the battlefields twice in the 30s and in 1936 went on a special pilgrimage with his old comrades of the 11th Suffolks to attend ceremonies on the Somme for 1st July 1936 – the 20th Anniversary.
Our image of Great War veterans is now of old men, but here they are middle-aged in their 40s. There are some decorated men among them; one has a Military Cross and another a Military Medal. The older man in the middle of the group has campaign medals going back to the Boer War. The white disk they are all wearing has a chequer-board in the middle; the insignia of the 34th Division whose memorial they are standing in front of and with whom the 11th Suffolks served.
It is a poignant reminder that when we visit the Somme, we travel in the footsteps of earlier pilgrims.
This image comes from a collection of postcards produced following the unveiling of the Thiepval Memorial in1932. This huge memorial to the missing – the largest British memorial from the Great War – was built to commemorate nearly 73,000 men who died on the Somme from July 1915 to March 1918 and have no known grave; most of the names are those who died in the 1916 battle.
When the memorial was unveiled on 1st August 1932 a large pilgrimage of veterans, and the families of those commemorated on the memorial were in attendance. Representatives from the British Army were in attendance and these three British Army buglers played the last post. They are facing the 18th (Eastern) Division memorial, and the young trees of the new Thiepval Wood are visible and just beyond them the Ulster Tower. Whether there were plans to make the buglers a permanent fixtures – as at the Menin Gate – is hard to say, but this is a very poignant photograph.