Rendez-vous at the Franco-British Memorial
Because of its geographical position, Thiepval was to become a significant location during the Battle of the Somme. In the early months of war, the Germans, in the village on the heights, dominated the French army, who were below, in the valley on the banks of the River Ancre.
Very quickly mobile warfare became static warfare, the front stabilised and the armies started to dig in, creating networks of trenches.The German forces built an impressive and sophisticated line of defence around the village with a maze of communication lines. At the end of 1915, during the Chantilly Conference, the French and British command decided to organise a large scale offensive in the Somme.
The Somme offensive was urgently called for after the surprise German attack on French troops in Verdun on 21st February. More French troops were sent from the Somme to Verdun for reinforcement, leaving the British troops to occupy most of the Somme front of some 30kms. As the French losses mounted at Verdun, Haig was more and more pressed to launch the Somme offensive, the date of which had been fixed for 29th June. Because of bad weather, this date was then changed to 1st July. The battle started with a six day, continual artillery bombardment, the aim of which was to destroy the German lines and cut the enemy wire.
On 1st July 1916 at 7:20am the battle began: 100,000 inexperienced soldiers (Pals Battalions), carrying 30kg of supplies went over the top but were quickly hit by machinegun fire.
At the end of the day, 60,000 British soldiers had been made casualties, 40,000 of whom had been injured or taken prisoner. The German losses represent about 1/10 of this number. The first day of the Battle of the Somme had been a failure, a disaster for the British army, and is known as 'the bloodiest day of the British army'.
Thiepval was finally captured on 27th September 1916 by British troops and the Battle of the Somme came to an end in November of the same year. The breakthrough had not been possible but the battle had enabled the French to keep a hold on Verdun. The German army, who had had to fight two battles – Verdun and the Somme – at the same time, were completely exhausted.
The British army suffered more than 420,000 casualties (killed, injured, missing, or taken prisoner) during the Battle of the Somme. In March 1918, as part of the German SpringOffensive, Thiepval was retaken by the Germans. It was finally recaptured in August 1918 by British troops.
The Franco-British Memorial was built between 1929 and 1932 and was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the greatest and most prolific architect of his time in Great Britain.
In 1919, the Imperial War Graves Commission entrusted him with the construction of the Cenotaph in London. He would also design many of the British War Cemeteries, the "Stone of Remembrance" which can be found in many of these cemeteries, and the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
The memorial commemorates more than 72205 men from the British and South African armies who were declared missing in the Somme between July 1915 and March 1918. Either the bodies of these men were never found or the body was found but couldn't be identified. Nearly 90% of these men were killed during the Battle of the Somme with about 12,000 on the first day of the offensive. The memorial, at 45 metres high, is the largest British war memorial in the world. Its walls are clad in brick and its sixteen piers are faced with Portland stone on which the names of the "Missing" are engraved. The men commemorated here come from all social backgrounds and their ages range from 15 to 60 years old with an average age of 25. The memorial and cemetery are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The Thiepval Visitor CentreThrough the combined efforts of the Somme County Council, the "Thiepval Project" (a charity that raised funds from Great Britain), and support from Europe, a visitor centre opened at Thiepval on 1st July 2004. It is managed by the Historial, Museum of the Great War, and supported by a Franco-British committee.
The Visitor Centre presents an educational exhibition about the First World War and in particular the Battle of the Somme and Thiepval itself.
A screening room shows three films: Somme in the Great War, Memory and Thiepval. Three computer databases are available to visitors wishing to research soldiers who died in the war or locate a cemetery or memorial. The modern architecture of this long, symbolically sunk building, fits perfectly into the landscape.
On 1st July and 11th November of each year, commemorative ceremonies are held at the Thiepval Memorial. A ceremony is also held at the Ulster Tower on 1st July and 11th November of each year.