My Road to Thiepval – 16th July 2015

I spent most of today in the vicinity of Thiepval, a village in the heart of the beautiful Picardy countryside in the Somme region of France, where on 1st July 1916 the Salford Pals (along with many thousands of other young men) were met with unimaginable violence and death under fire, bayonet or through shards of shrapnel, with the commencement of what we now know as the Battle of the Somme.  I didn’t plan to do any location recording today, it was more of a reconnaissance trip.

Firstly, I travelled to the iconic Thiepval Memorial, designed by Sir Edwyn Lutyens built between 1929 and 1932 to commemorate the missing of the British Empire and Commonwealth armies that died or went missing on the Somme between July 1915 and March 1918.  It is the largest British war memorial in the world, with more than 72000 names of the missing, ‘graveless’ soldiers inscribed upon its walls.  The memorial is situated on high ground which had been one of the most heavily fortified German positions of the Somme – looking down towards … Thiepval Wood…

I have seen many pictures of the memorial in my researches for my piece ‘God’s Own Caught in No Man’s Land’ but nothing really prepared me for the reality of actually seeing it, and the thousands upon thousands of names of the missing young men etched on its walls.

I noticed, as I approached it from the road, that it was under considerable repair and renovation, “just my luck” I selfishly thought, “to travel all this way not to see the monument in its full glory”, but I immediately checked myself and thought how fantastic that the monument and the names of so many young men are being taken such thorough care of…


I approached the monument and walked about its beautiful sculpted spaces that invite hushed stillness…
























… until I located the walls etched with names of soldiers from the Lancashire Fusiliers – Salford Pals …


Walking through to the rear of the monument I came across the cemetery, which has an equal number of graves for British Empire and Commonwealth and French soldiers – brothers in arms lying side by side for eternity.


What I found most sobering about the cemetery was that many of the graves were marked without any name, regiment or region of origin …


…many of the French graves were simply marked INCONNU


I did find one or two graves which did have an indication of regiment…











There were very few named graves such as this one…



Before departing the cemetery and monument I took this last glance back…



… I then walked a while and took a look down towards Thiepval Wood from where the Salford Pals emerged to try to take the German position on the hill… IMG_4029

…with such height of position and open ground to the German’s advantage, it became brutally clear to me just how easy it would have been to cut down the Salford Pals and the thousands of other young British men on that fateful morning…

… I wondered (rather naively) if there was a way for me to enter and walk about Thiepval Wood, so I jumped in my car and drove down – I would have walked but I would have had to cross a farmer’s field…

… after a short drive (a couple of minutes) I came to the very beautiful Connaught Cemetry – which contains many multiple graves of Soldiers of the Great War – just behind it I could see a sign that read ‘Thiepval Wood’ … I walked towards it to read the sign rather more fully…


Keep Out…Warning: Live Munitions… it read.  At this point I felt rather stupid, how on earth could I have expected that a place of such fierce conflagration would be safe for a brief ‘wander about’. Anyway I phoned the number on the sign and spoke to a really friendly and helpful chap from Belfast called Teddy who worked just a 150 yards down the road at the Ulster Memorial Tower, built to commemorate the heavy losses suffered by the 36th Ulster Division also on 1st July 1916 – they were side by side with the Salford Pals (to their left as they emerged from the Wood).IMG_4031


A beautiful, if again sobering, place to visit. I quickly became assured that what Teddy didn’t know about the Battle of the Somme, wassn’t really worth knowing. I got the sense that he was intimately acquainted with every fold of the surrounding landscape.

He took me to the back of the monument and pointed towards these hills…


…which, if you look very carefully at the blond zig-zag blemishes (at the centre left of the above photo) you can see the chalk traces of German trench lines … still visible after nearly a century.

Teddy is going to take me for a tour of Thiepval Wood on Tuesday morning (18th July), and yes he assures me that there are many unexploded munitions still in the wood, unexploded gas munitions are the biggest danger apparently (!?!), here are some examples of what he and his team have dug up in recent years!! …










I am looking forward to my visit of Thiepval Wood, I feel safe under the expert guidance of Teddy. Oh and by the way – and please no offence to any of my many French friends, but Teddy and his wife serve up the best cup of tea that I have ever tasted in France.

This visit to the Somme region was supported by the Arts Council of England.





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