Thiepval was one of the fortress villages that was held by the Germans on the Somme front in 1916. The village was destroyed by the bombardment, except for one part of the chateau (the ruins of which contained machine gun nests).The houses in the village, although flattened, had deep cellars where the Germans held out, and their machine gun posts were not destroyed by the bombardment. X Corps was the attacking formation here on the 1st of July, 1916. In front of, and to the south of the village, the 32nd Division attacked (see Leipzig Redoubt below). The 36th Division attacked just to the north of the village (see the seperate page on the Ulster Tower).
Map of Thiepval and surrounding area
After the War ended, Thiepval was chosen as the location for the Memorial to the Missing to commemorate those who died in the Somme sector before the 20th of March 1918 and have no known grave. This is the largest and most imposing of the Memorials to the Missing, and visiting here is a moving and sobering experience. Those who died in the Somme after 20th March 1918 are commemorated at Pozieres.
Wiltshire Regiment attack near Thiepval. Q1142: Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London.
The Thiepval Visitors Centre
A new Visitors Centre at Thiepval was opened in September 2004. As you arrive at the site, you now enter a car park next to the Visitors Centre. It is worth noting that there have, unfortunately, been a number of cases of thefts from vehicles in the car park here. A high bank hides much of the car park from the Visitors Centre, and it is worth considering exactly where you park when you visit.
The Visitors Centre is a modern, glass fronted structure, and a foundation stone in the wall to the right of the entrance was laid on Monday the 27th of October, 2003. Inside the entrance is an information desk, with displays and a model of the memorial to the left.
The left hand portion of the Centre contains the displays which cover the war, Thiepval and the missing who are commemorated on memorial. There are also computers where information from a number of databases may be accessed. These include the CWGC database, and Soldiers Died in the Great War (SDGW). Also in the Centre is a good bookshop, toilets, and hot and cold drinks machines. The bookshop has a good selection of GH Smith reproduction trench maps and also modern local maps.
There is also an audiovisual presentation, and by the toilets are two photographic panoramas which were taken by the Fourth Army. These long photographs show the whole landscape with features marked, including the British and German front lines. Of great interest is that the modern equivalent panoramas are shown beneath the wartime ones, with the Thiepval Memorial and other sites clearly visible. Hot drinks vending machines are also situated near these.
Doors on the opposite side of the Visitors Centre from the car park lead to the Memorial itself. Alternatively, one can still bypass the Visitors Centre entirely to reach the Memorial.
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing
The Thiepval Memorial is the largest of the Memorials to the Missing, and the last on the Western Front to be unveiled (one day after that at Arras). Negotiations to purchase the site were started in the late 1920s, and the memorial was unveiled by the Prince of Wales (then President of the Imperial War Graves Commission) on Monday the 1st of August, 1932. The Prince's speech, part in French, the rest in English, was carried on radio broadcasts, and he called the memorial "the crowning stone" of the work of the IWGC. He added that "our first thoughts today should be with the relatives of those whose death has purchased our current freedom". Just seven years before the clouds of World War were to descend once more, he hoped that this was the opening chapter in a "Book of Life" from which the horrors of war would be banished, and that it would be a call to a better civilization. At the end of the Ceremony, the Last Post was played.
The Memorial is on the right after entering the site, and on the left is a semicircular hedge with a stone bench set within it, from which memorial can be viewed.
The Memorial is a massive arched structure, with large laurel wreaths carved on top of the pillars and towards the top of the memorial. At the time of the unveiling in 1932 there were 73,357 names were commemorated here; the slight decrease to todays number (72,116) represents the identification of bodies since then resulting in soldiers no longer being 'missing'. Some additional names have however also been added (omissions in the original list of commemorations).
On the panels of the arches are the names of those who have no known grave, and are thius 'the Missing'. However, many of these may be buried in the Somme, but in an unknown grave marked as 'Known Unto God'. The Memorial covers the missing of Britain and South Africa. The Missing of other nations have their own memorials; for example Canadians at Vimy Ridge and the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont Hamel.
The panels on the memorial are arranged by Regiment, then within each Regiment by Rank and within that alphabetically. There are Cemetery Registers, but if there is a particular name you are looking for you would be better locating this by using the CWGC website in advance of any visit. Now, this can also be accessed at the Visitors Centre nearby.
With so many names, one can look for VC winners, poets, writers, politicians or of course your own family members who may have been lost in World War One. One could spend a long time looking into some of the many names here; of particular interest to me is the name of H. H. Munro, better known as 'Saki'. This is because, as a teenager I read with great enjoyment the short stories of Saki, without really being aware of when he had lived or how and where he had died. He was killed on the 14th of November 1916, aged 45, and is recorded with other Royal Fusiliers on Panel 16A.
The ruins of Thiepval village Photo: Vise Paris
Behind the Memorial is a joint British - French Cemetery, intended to symbolise the losses both suffered. The idea of a joint memorial of some kind had been suggested as early as 1923, and La Ferte-sous-Jouarre was suggested as a possible site, as was Amiens. A Memorial to British and Empire Missing was in fact constructed at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre.
Plans for a joint memorial originally included side chapels where the names of the dead would be inscribed, and the possibility that a subscription of £5 would enable a name to be engraved in bronze on the memorial wall. If this had gone ahead, the names inscribed would most probably not have represented a fair cross-section of those who fought; and perhaps this idea was doomed from the start.
In the event the Cemetery here at Thiepval was made, after the Memorial itself had been constructed. Within the cemetery are 300 Commonwealth burials and 300 French burials. Many of the Commonwealth graves are those of bodies recovered from the 1916 battlefields on the Somme, but also bodies were reburied here which had been recovered from as far away as Loos and Le Quesnel. The fact that these bodies were recovered in late 1931 and early 1932, 13 or so years after the end of the war demonstrates how many men still lay then in the fields of the Western Front. Of course the Memorial itself demonstrates how many more still lie there today, or else in one of the many 'Known Unto God' burials in the war cemeteries.
Only 61 of the 300 British and Commonwealth soldiers buried here are identified, and even fewer (47) of the French soldiers. The online CWGC database lists the total number of identified casualties as 106, although only the British and Commonwealth names are actually displayed. At the base of the Cross of Sacifice are the words "That the world may remember the common sacrifice of two and a half million dead, here have been laid side by side soldiers of France and of the British Empire in eternal comradeship".
On the 1st of July 2006, the 90th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme was remembered here, with the Prince of Wales laying a wreath at a ceremony attended by several thousand people, including one of the few remaining Great War veterans, Henry Allingham.
18th Division Memorial
If you return to the main entrance to the Thiepval Memorial, and look down the road to the left (as you exit the Memorial grounds) an obelisk memorial can be seen. This is a memorial to the 18th Division.
The 18th Division fought here on the 26th of September 1916, in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, when most of the village was taken (the 12th Middlesex advanced through the village itself) with further advances made later. The attackers left their trenches and crept forward into No Mans Land before the British barrage lifted, meaning that they had less distance to go to reach the German front line, and that the German counter-barrage fell on the British front line, while the troops were ahead of it in No Man's Land.
On the front of the 18th Division Memorial is inscribed "To the Glory of God and in imperishable memory of the officers, NCOs and men of the 18th Division who fell in the Great War 1914-1918". On the left side are listed the Division's battle honours 1916-18, whilst on the right are listed the units which made up the Division. On the rear it is stated that the Roll of Honour is held at Colchester. There is another memorial to the 18th Division not far away at Trones Wood, which is different in appearance, and a third which is identical to this one near Gheluvelt in the Ypres Salient.
Site of Leipzig Redoubt
If you stand in line with the entrance to the Thiepval Memorial site, with the Memorial itself to your right, there is a grass path straight ahead which leads across fields in a south-easterly direction. If you take this path, it crosses the site of German support trenches, and leads to the site of the Leipzig Redoubt. From the path on the ridge there are commanding; looking left one can see the radio mast at Pozieres on its ridge. To the right are the positions from which the 16/Northumberland Fusilers advanced on the 1st of July, 1916 - preceded by a football kicked ahead. This was not the more famous Captain Nevill and his footballs; that incident was further south near Montauban.
A clump of trees and bushes just as the track starts to drop downhill marks the location of a quarry which lay at the centre of the Leipzig Redoubt. This was at the tip of the Leipzig Salient, just about due east of Authuille, and the Redoubt was a huge strongpoint with numerous machine guns, which completely commanded No Man's Land to its south and west.
The 32nd Division attacked here on July the 1st 1916. No Man's Land here was narrower here than to the north and the south, and men of the 17/Highland Light Infantry crept forward at 7.23 a.m., even before the British barrage had ended. They advanced to within about 40 yards of the German front line, and when the barrage did lift, at 7.30 a.m. the Highlanders rushed forwards and took the Leipzig Redoubt, catching the Germans in their dugouts in the quarry at the centre of the Redoubt. They then pressed on to the next objective, but were forced back to the Leipzig Redoubt, where they consolidated with help from troops of the 2/Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Later they were joined there by men from the 11/Border Regiment and from the 1/Dorsets, but further advance from the Leipzig Redoubt proved impossible. The small advances made here, in taking the Redoubt, were the only success for the 32nd Division that day. The position was strengthened and held against several German counter-attacks.
There is little to see within the site today, although the remains of ordanance can be often be seen in the fields around, testament to the fierce fighting here. This can include Mills grenades as well as .303 rounds. If you do see items such as Mills bombs, remember that picking up live ordanance is not a sport for amateurs.
From the Leipzig Redoubt you can return to the Thiepval Memorial, or the track leads on down to the road between Authuille and Ovillers, and turning left takes you to Lonsdale Cemetery (see below).
Lonsdale Cemetery is just a short distance from the Leipzig Redoubt, and is set away from the road, reached by a path down in a valley. The name comes from the 11th Borderers who fought here on the 1st of July 1916, and were sometimes known as the Lonsdales (from Lord Lonsdale who was involved in the recruiting of this battalion). From here, you can look up to the Thiepval Memorial on the skyline. The wooded area that is the site of the Leipzig redoubt can also be clearly seen, just a short way up the track that leads back to the Thiepval Memorial from the road. Lonsdale Cemetery was one of two made near here with that name; Plot One here was originally 'Lonsdale Cemetery No. 1', and the graves from 'Lonsdale Cemetery No. 2' were moved here after the Armistice.
Steps at the front left of the cemetery lead up to the entrance. The original graves which comprise most of Plot 1 are at the front left; one row (row D, at right angles to the front of the cemetery) is of men who died on the 1st of July 1916, mainly from the Border Regiment. The setting and location are extremely tranquil, but in 1916 this spot was just within the British lines, near a locaation known as 'The Nab'. Several of the trenches that ran near or at the location of the cemetery had associations with Liverpool - for example Aintree Street, Liverpool Avenue and Mersey Street.
There are now just over one and a half thousand buried here, as the original 96 graves were added to by concentration of graves from smaller cemeteries and bodies recovered from the battlefields after the Armistice. There is one French grave, in Plot 3 row O. A 1st of July Victoria Cross winner is buried here: Serjeant James Yuill Turbull, of the 17th Highland Light Infantry. His VC was won at the nearby Leipzig Salient, where having captured their position, he and his men were attacked time and time again by the Germans, determined to drive them out. He lost several parties of men sent to reinforce him, but 'almost single-handed, he maintained his position and displayed the highest degree of valour and skill in the performance of his duties'.
There are special memorials at the back right and left of the cemetery, to either side of the Great Cross. When I visited last in October 2006, one of these (commemorating Private W Gladwell) had cracked and was leaning back against the wall of the cemetery. I informed CWGC; if you see anything similar when visiting a war cemetery abroad, please do inform CWGC who will look into correcting the situation.
On the road between Thiepval and the Ulster Tower are two cemeteries. Mill Road Cemetery, to the right, is located a little way off the road down a track. Connaught Cemetery is next to the road, on the left, immediately opposite this track. The latter is covered on the Ulster Tower page
Mill Road Cemetery was started in the Spring of 1917, when burials were made here of soldiers recovered from the 1916 battlefields. After the Armistice, more than a thousand other burials were made here, from the battlefields, and from other smaller cemeteries as part of the process of concentrating battlefield graves into fewer cemeteries. It now contains 1,304 burials, with 62% being of unidentified men. The identified burials are mainly of soldiers who died in 1916, but there are a number from 1918 and some from 1917. The name of the cemetery comes from the road which ran from the spot where the Ulster Tower now stands down towards the valley of the Ancre.
There are three special memorials behind the Cross of Sacrifice to men killed in action in 1916, and buried in Divion Road Cemetery, which was destroyed in later fighting. This information is given on a fourth 'headstone', rather than one of the larger Duhallow blocks.'
Because of the nature of the ground in the cemetery, which was positioned over a network of old German trenches and dugouts, the headstones in the original part of the Cemetery are laid flat rather than upright (see picture below left). The later concentration plots have upright headstones as normal.
One man buried here is Lieutentnat Herbert Hitchcock, who was an early casualty with the Tank Corps (11th Battalion) when he was killed in action on the 13th of November 1916. He was 22, and from the Isle of Wight, having been at Balliol College in Oxford before his war service.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealth Wargraves Commission website
Brig-General Sir James Edmonds: Military Operations France & Belgium 1916 (Volume 1)
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Chris McCarthy: The Somme - the day by day account
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
Paul Reed: Walking the Somme
The Times & The Scotsman Archives