It was a long old drive to the little town of Albert and there wasn’t a great deal to see in Albert itself but I was glad that I made the journey. Albert is located in the heart of the Somme where the worst scenes of the worst war that humanity has ever known took place.
The memorial at Thiepval, which I am ashamed to say I had never even heard of before, was absolutely breath taking. This colossus, designed by Edwin Lutyens to remember the missing from the Somme was probably the highlight, or lowlight, of my day. It was built in the 1920s to commemorate the 73,357 British troops whose bodies were never recovered after the Battle of the Somme. They had all gone missing in a place not much bigger than Bristol. Many had been found but such was the severity of their injuries that their bodies were completely unidentifiable.
Beyond this spectacularly imposing monument was a cemetery for the bodies of those unidentifiables; the unknown soldiers of the Great War. Laid out in a way as incredibly neat as all of the other cemeteries but the headstones bore no names. Nobody would ever go there and speak to them and tell them how much they were appreciated, respected and missed as I had been able to do at my great uncle’s grave. Nobody knew who they were. They probably weren’t even whole bodies but just a pile of bones and rags. I could think of nothing more desperately sad. I would guess that in this cemetery there were about 400 British and 400 French soldiers’ graves. All very young. The British gravestones bore the words ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ and for the French the word ‘Inconnu’ had simply been carved. Seeing a stone marked ‘A Soldier of the Great War – Wiltshire Regiment’ and thinking that I may daily set foot on roads and paths from his world made my eyes fill with tears. And considering that so many had gone missing from the Somme alone . . . enough people to fill the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff lost and wasted, blown to bits in the mud of that living hell. But once again, although a desperately sad place, it was incredibly beautiful. If it is possible for the souls of those poor wretched men to rest in peace then I could think of no better place for them to rest.
Just down the road from Thiepval I found the Ulster Tower, built in remembrance of the five thousand Irishmen who perished in the Somme. Despite its name it was there for the sake of paying homage to the all of the dead from all of Ireland but sadly, because of its name, its visitors’ book had been commandeered by Loyalist members of the Orange Order. Comments written in it like ‘No Surrender’ and ‘We are the people’ turned my stomach to think that some people just cannot see the wrong in statements of extreme nationalism and as long as there are such people then prejudice and its wars will continue forever. The fact that these comments had been written in a place where war had brought such misery, I found particularly sickening. I had looked forward to visiting the Irish memorial but felt sadder than ever as I left.
The best bit of that particular part of my day had been talking to the man who ran the café there. He was from Bushmills in North Antrim and knew Cushendall where my Dad had come from.
I bought a Leffe beer from the Irish café and sat outside in the sunshine which was still very warm so late in the afternoon and I reflected upon my day. What I had seen at the Somme and at the cemetery near Ligny-St Flochel had made me think of both sides of my family. I thought about my Grandfather, Harry Taylor, who had survived active service in France during World War I and how I wouldn’t have been there had he not done. I thought about how so much peace and beauty had evolved from such incredible horror and what a tragedy it was that this metamorphosis couldn’t take place the whole world over. I would have said that today had been the perfect day had it not been for the fact that more than ten million people had had to lose their lives to make it possible.
My final stop of the day was at Euston Road Cemetery near the village of Colincambs. A cemetery which took its name from the troops’ nickname for the adjacent road and which was used for frontline burials during the First Battle of the Somme, the capture of Beaumont Hemel in November 1916 and the repulse by the New Zealand Brigade of the German attack in 1918. It contained the graves of 959 British, 4 Canadian, 26 Australian, 302 New Zealand and 1 Indian soldier. There were several dates that each appeared as the same date of death on scores of graves; in each case the mass carnage of a futile attempt to advance, no doubt.
There were also gravestones bearing the names and regiments of soldiers along with the words ‘thought to be buried in this cemetery’. Today I learned just how many tens or even hundreds of thousands of men had died with their bodies never to be recovered, which was deeply saddening. But to think that people suspect that their loved ones might have been buried in a particular grave but couldn’t be certain made me wonder (though I probably already knew) what the circumstances of their burials really were like.
All war is futile. All war is terrible. But I struggle to think of a war that has been more horrific than World War I.
The sun began to set as I sat alone in Euston Road Cemetery looking at row upon row of gravestones in a silent state of disbelief.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
At the going down of the sun at Euston Road Cemetery, near Colincambs in the heart of the Somme, I sat on the steps at the foot of the memorial cross and I remembered them.