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Battle of Somme 100 years on

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The Somme is an easy 90 minutes by car from Calais. And while nature was quick to reclaim the Somme from war’s wasteland, the site today is a place to go not for the beauty but as pilgrims.

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We go to honour the men who died on the Somme, of whom 125,000 are British. You cannot miss, in any sense, the Memorial To The Missing at Thiepval. Its towering arch is like the entrance to the afterworld. Meticulously carved on its walls are the names of the 72,194 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who have no known graves.

From high ground around Thiepval you can look up and down the old front line. The view is heart-rending. There is a necklace of Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. In sunlight, the white Portland headstones glare like broken promises. In winter, they jut like bones from the ground. Tens and tens of cemeteries create a map of the battle: the men were buried where they fell.
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It is always worth a stop at the little cemetery of the Devonshires near Mansell Copse where the young poet WN Hodgson is interred. Across the wide, open, ground is Mametz village, the Devonshires’ objective on Day One. Then it strikes you. There is no cover. No wonder they were mowed down by machine guns. Each city, county and country of Empire has its sacred place.

For the Welsh it is Mametz Wood, now marked by a Red Dragon Memorial. South Africans head to Delville Wood, replanted in honour of their fallen. Yorkshire folk are drawn to Serre, where Sheffield Memorial Park remembers the Yorkshire Pals battalions. While nature sought to heal the Somme she did not quite succeed. The scars of battle can still be discerned in places.

At the Sheffield Memorial Park the ground writhes in waves and holes from the shelling and entrenching of battle a century ago. There are preserved trenches at BeaumontHamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment suffered 90 per cent casualties on July 1.

somme crater

Nowhere, perhaps, is the deadly power of the warfare unleashed on that day more evident than Lochnagar Crater, the site of a mine explosion. To look down from the lip of the crater is dizzying, akin to looking out of an aircraft window on to terra firma. We are urged to remember the sacrifice of those who died on the Somme.

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