As the depths of winter approach the Western Front turns one hundred; it was created a century ago following the First Battle of Ypres and the fighting in France when the German forces had been stopped. Germany now faced a war on two fronts; facing Allies in the west and the Russians in the East. In response German troops dug in, and those opposite soon did likewise; these were not the first trenches, however. Those had been dug on the Aisne in September 1914 when the Germans haven been defeated on the Marne, pulled back to the Aisne heights. Here small systems of trenches were dug and the first signs of static warfare appeared in images of the period. By December 1914 the system of trenches were no longer posts laid out in isolation. Both sides were joining them up creating whole networks of trenches which by early 1915 would result in 450 miles of continuous trenches running from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Border: and thus the Western Front was born.
The images seen here come from a contemporary photographic history of the German 26th (Reserve) Division and show some of the first trenches they had dug on the Somme front around Thiepval. The trenches were basic, often straight, and gave only rudimentary protection from artillery fire, which at this stage of the conflict was nothing like it would later become of course. The top photograph shows men in the wooded area below Thiepval chateau and the image above shows a strongpoint on the ridge. It is hard to think of the Somme outside the context of 1916 but these images clearly show that the development of the system of defences that would play a role in the battle here eighteen months later would require time to build up, time the Germans would subsequently have in this sector. For now they would doomed to spend the first winter on the Somme in muddy ditches (below) which would soon be filled with snow, while they faced the French troops beyond.
Following the landings on D-Day and the subsequent breakout from Normandy, the British and Commonwealth troops from 21st Army Group found themselves crossing the Somme in early September 1944 and on the battlefields of their fathers’ war. One remarked that they crossed ground in hours that had consumed the previous generation for four years.
This photograph of the Thiepval Memorial was taken by a Royal Engineers officer in September 1944 who arrived in Thiepval and went to look at the memorial in the company of a couple of local French girls who appear in the image. The memorials looks sad and desolate, but undamaged. No flag poles, no flags or wreaths, but it was still there as the Somme beacon it had become following its construction in 1932.
The same officer also went up the nearby Ulster Tower and photographed the Thiepval battlefield from the viewing platform on the top. It gives a rare insight into what the Somme battlefields looked like at this time. Thiepval Wood and Connaught Cemetery are visible to the right, with the memorial on the skyline.
The village of Thiepval was one of the largest on the Somme prior to 1914. Dominated by a chateau, the family who owned it employed a large number of estate workers and owned local farms in the days when agriculture involved large numbers of people. In September 1914 it was captured by the Germans and turned into a bastion in their line of defence on the Somme, sitting on high ground that became known as the Thiepval Ridge. On 1st July 1916 the village was directly attacked by Pals Battalions of the 32nd Division, who were mown down in No Man’s Land by well entrenched German machine-gunners unaffected by the preliminary bombardment. The battle for Thiepval would continue for another two and a half months until it was finally taken by the 18th (Eastern) Division in a brilliant operation using tanks and clearly demonstrating the ‘learning curve’ on the Somme in 1916. Today it is the site of the main memorial to the missing on the Somme.
This aerial photograph is from an original taken before the 1st July and shows the German trench system from Thiepval Wood (on the left of the image) across to the village. The intricate nature of the German defences and their obvious strength and depth are quite apparent from this photo; at least from the benefit of more than ninety years. In 1916 as good as this aerial intelligence was, it was believed that artillery alone could destroy positions like this on the Somme front; something that 1st July 1916 would prove otherwise.
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.