Yesterday was August 3, 2014 – the day that marks 100 years exactly since Germany declared war on France. It felt fitting that I spent the day cycling around old battlefield and memorial sites scattered throughout the Somme. What struck me about this ride was the sheer variety of the places represented in those memorials, and that those memorials I saw represented only a small sample of the nations actually involved. Of all the things I have learned about the First World War this summer, what has impressed me the most is the degree to which it was an international conflict.
Of course, I can hear you say it now – we call it the First World War for a reason. But it’s so easy to forget when we talk about the so-called ‘great powers’ – France, Germany, Russia and Britain – that they all had empires abroad. That when they went to war, people around the world came in with them. On my ride of August 3, 2014, I only saw memorials from places within the Commonwealth and that was mind boggling enough.
This first one is Thiepval. It’s the largest Commonwealth memorial in the world, and it commemorates fallen British and French soldiers of the First World War who fell in the region of the Somme.
There are three hundred British and three hundred French buried behind the memorial, in a largely symbolic gesture. Over the course of the entire war, Britain would lose roughly 700,000 men – if you only count deaths and not overall casualties. France would lose roughly 1.3 million, again only counting deaths.
The next one I visited was Ulster Tower, commemorating the efforts of the 36th Division from Ireland in the Somme. What’s incredible about their memorial is that the 36th was actually successful in their objectives on that day, whereas overall the British army would suffer the greatest number of losses in a single day of battle – over 57,000. Because of the tragedies playing out all around them, it was decided the Ulster Division was too vulnerable and they were forced to withdraw lest they be cut off from the rest of the British forces.
Next down the line was an Australian monument – an obelisk commemorating the 1st Australian Division at the Battle of Pozières, which was part of the larger Battle of the Somme. It was their first action in the Somme, and apparently is ‘mostly’ remembered as a victory, in the words of my guidebook.
Not far away there is another memorial, this time for the 2nd Australian Division. It is the remains of the foundations of a windmill where the Germans once had a reinforced position. It took the Australians weeks to take it from them, at a cost of almost 7000 men.
Continuing on my tour of the Commonwealth, a lonely farmer’s road in what felt like the middle of nowhere brought me to the memorial for the 38th Welsh Division. Their dragon looks out from a raised platform to Mametz Wood, which the Welsh forces spent the first weeks of July 1916 trying to take from the Germans, at a cost of roughly 4000 men.
But every story has two sides, and my next stop took me to the quietest site of my entire ride. Every single other stop along the way, people were coming by to pay their respects. Not so with this German cemetery, final resting place of nearly 12,000 soldiers.
Despite the fact there was nobody around at the time, I was glad to find evidence of those who had come by before to let the soldiers there know that they too have been missed.
My final stop before returning to Albert was at Lochnagar Crater, also known as La Boiselle after the village it is in. 27 tons of explosives tore out a section of earth about 100 meters wide and 30 meters deep – part of the British offensive on the first day of the Somme. It is a useful reminder of how much the land suffered as well as the people in the war.
Back in Albert a strange scene greeted me. The village was marking the centenary of the war with a sort of public re-enactment of the French mobilization in response to Germany’s declaration of war. The mayor in period costume spoke of how he did not doubt the young men of the town would gladly answer their country’s call, a handful of children ran around handing out newspapers announcing the start of the war, and a festive mood prevailed. Waiting nearby to go past on parade, men dressed in the French uniform used at the start of the war.
I finished my day in the Albert museum, entirely in underground tunnels, where the displays told me about many of the other countries involved in the war. I won’t go into them all, but anyone who has heard the expression ‘the sun never sets on the British empire’ can easily understand just how widely scattered they were, and how incredible it is men from all those places came to fight in France.
One hundred years ago today, Britain officially declared war on Germany and brought along all its colonies and dominions, Canada included.
Today a visitor taking my tour cried while we stood at No Man’s Land between the trenches we had preserved on site. It reminded me of something a visitor told me near the start of my session: it’s a beautiful site and I’m glad to have come. But I wish it wasn’t necessary.