Thiepval on the heights above the River Ancre was once a thriving village centred on a handsome chateau. As with countless other places in France and Belgium, it was destined to be utterly devastated by the war. During the course of the huge Battle of the Somme, Thiepval was reduced to nothing. Its commanding position sealed its fate for the Germans quickly saw that it was a strong defensive position capable of dominating the surrounding country. Inevitably, the British had to capture it before their forces could advance elsewhere. The attack on 1 July 1916 was a failure made more tragic by the fact that the men of the 36 Ulster Division achieved a stunning advance on its outlying boundary. Unable to maintain their toehold due to the failures on their flanks, these brave Irishmen had been forced to concede all their gains and return to their original positions. Thiepval then remained stubbornly beyond the hands of the British and it was gradually obliterated. Edmund Blunden witnessed Thiepval’s destruction and lamented its fate in his poem Premature Rejoicing, which was elegiac, wistful and ironic in turn:
What’s that over there?
Take a steady look at it; it’ll do you good.
Here, these glasses will help you. See any flowers?
There sleeps Titania (correct – the Wood is ours);
There sleeps Titania in a deep dug-out….
After much careful preparation, the British finally captured the village in a well-executed, but hardly bloodless, assault in September. However, this did not mark the end of the war for Thiepval, for it was fought over twice more in 1918 first during the great German advance in April and then for the last time when the British passed back through it in August.
As in other places, at the war’s end the people of the Somme region returned to their former homes and commenced the slow, grinding process of rebuilding and healing the scars of war on the landscape. But, for Thiepval there was to be no return to its pre-war condition. What had made the village an ideal defensive position now became its irredeemable weakness. Stranded on high ground a long way from the main Albert-Bapaume road, it lay inaccessible and isolated. In a region crying out for building materials and builders, Thiepval was a low priority as other, easier to reconstruct places swallowed attention and effort. Only slowly were roads rebuilt to the devastated village, but it had missed its moment. Thiepval shrunk massively from its pre-war size and although a non-descript red brick church, so typical of those that mark the Somme region, was rebuilt, it lacked a soul and a centre and became a hamlet containing a handful of houses and farm buildings.
Why then did the British choose this spot to erect their main memorial on the Somme? Everyone involved with the Imperial War Graves Commission knew that the Somme would have to be marked by some great memorial, and it would have to be in a prominent position. Sir Edwin Lutyens commenced work on designing a suitable memorial to commemorate the 70,000 missing on the Somme up to the spring of 1918 (a separate memorial was designed for those lost in the final stages of the war and was eventually incorporated into the cemetery at Pozières). With his plans complete, it was now necessary to allocate an appropriate location. Lutyens had wished it to be on the Albert-Bapaume road or on the outskirts of St. Quentin. In both cases the memorial would have taken on a similar function to the Menin Gate, as it would have been a daily reminder of British and Imperial sacrifice to all local people going about their lives. It was this very aspect which caused a problem. Concerned that too many large British memorials were being erected across France, which might give people the impression that the British effort had somehow outshone that of the French army, the French authorities were increasingly sensitive to requests for land. Unable to place the memorial in the heart of the Somme community, Lutyens and the Imperial War Graves Commission looked for an alternative site. As the highest point on the Somme battlefield, Thiepval was perfect for it meant that the towering memorial would be visible for miles around, particularly in a landscape still denuded of trees.
Work commenced on the memorial in 1929, and proved a complex task for it required the making of thousands of bricks and the movement of much heavy materials. After three years, the work was complete and it was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in July 1932. Unfortunately, unlike the Menin Gate, Lutyens’s architectural masterpiece has never gained the iconic status of Blomfield’s work in Ypres. The reasons are probably two-fold and involve the emotional and the severely practical. To start with the practical, it is harder to reach Thiepval in every way. In the 1930s a visitor would have to take a train to Amiens or Arras and then change to the branch line to Albert. Once in Albert, a visitor would have to take a bus or taxi to the site. Even then, most buses would have gone along the Bapaume road, leaving the visitor with a stiff walk from Pozières. Once at Thiepval the visitor would have found little to hold her or his attention. There was a café in the 1930s run by a British ex-serviceman, which would no doubt have been a welcome stop, but there was very little else to restore the flagging visitor. By contrast, Ypres was a short rail journey from the coast. Once at Ypres station it was a short walk into the heart of the city where there were bars and cafes aplenty, and, of course, there was the attraction of the Last Post ceremony. Then there is the issue of the emotions. Unlike the familiar neo-classicism and ornate decoration of the Menin Gate, Lutyens set the visitor an emotional and intellectual puzzle. As you first approach the Thiepval Memorial its strange ziggurat pyramid form, refashioned into an arch, hits the eye. It has a remarkably complex geometry and scale with each of the arches being two and a half with the largest central arch having a span of thirty-five feet. All of which means that on first glance the memorial appears to lack neat proportion and the brain and eye are slightly confused, and then there is the inscription which simply says, ‘The Missing of the Somme’. Rather than the affirming ‘Pro Rege’ and ‘Pro Patria’ of the Menin Gate, Lutyens makes the visitor think about the enormity of the losses. The visitor is forced to contemplate what caused such tragedy in sobering, sombre terms. Little wonder it often leaves people marvelling, but perhaps slightly confused and disturbed, too.
From the moment I first saw it in July 1986 I have been overwhelmed and awed by the Thiepval memorial and its strange, haunting, ethereally majestic brooding effect. The brooding nature affects the stillness and quietness of Thiepval, and it can feel very, very lonely particularly on grey winter days when wind and rain buffet. The Somme trees may have grown back, but Thiepval can still feel extremely exposed and somewhat forbidding. Having taken many visitors to the memorial over the years, I have been struck by how often they return back to the road looking slightly quizzical, slightly cowed, slightly scared even. And it is then that the loneliness of Thiepval, the agony that it has suffered, the dreadful fact that 70,000 men were not simply killed but obliterated, really hits me. Lutyens’ brilliant genius combined with location provided a fitting tribute. As an architect for an imperial agency, Lutyens asks us to consider carefully the cost of war to a mighty empire. Doing so in the loneliness of Thiepval is sobering indeed.