Leaders unite for 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme

David Cameron, François Hollande, Michael D Higgins and Prince Charles lead tributes

Members of the British Army’s  Kings Troop, Royal Horse Artillery at the Thiepval Memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on Friday. Photograph: Stephane De Sakutin/EPA

Members of the British Army’s Kings Troop, Royal Horse Artillery at the Thiepval Memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on Friday. Photograph: Stephane De Sakutin/EPA

 

The leaders of Britain, France and Ireland honoured the victims of the Battle of the Somme yesterday in a moving and dignified ceremony on the 100th anniversary of the worst day in British military history.

Some 10,000 people gathered in intermittent rain at the monument designed by Sir Edwin Luytens at Thiepval. Nearly twice that many soldiers were killed on July 1st, 1916, cut down by German shell and machine gunfire. 

The monument bears the names of 72,000 men whose remains could not be identified.  Crosses and tombstones in the field behind the memorial bear the words “A Soldier of the Great War” or, in French, “Unknown”.

As President Michael D Higgins noted later, the poignancy of the ceremony derived from eyewitness accounts of the war, read by Britain’s Prince Charles, British prime minister David Cameron, French president François Hollande and others.

Ladies in high-heeled shoes, fancy hats and dresses – including Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, carefully avoided what Prince Charles called “the infamous Somme mud”. Men wore their fathers’ and grandfathers’ medals, engraved with the words, “The Great War for Civilisation”.

The British paraded in redcoats and bearskins; the French in plumed hats and sabres. Bay horses drew British gun carriages. Yet it was a surprisingly un-militaristic ceremony, with only two volleys of artillery fire.

Sgt Gerard White of 1 Brigade Engineer Group, the Irish Defence Forces, read a text by the Irish politician, poet and journalist Tom Kettle, who died liberating the village of Ginchy.

“The bombardment, destruction and bloodshed are beyond all imagination, nor did I ever think the valour of simple men could be quite as beautiful as that of my Dublin Fusiliers,” Kettle wrote. “I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live.”

Cecily O’Toole was thrilled to attend the commemoration with her sister Barbara to honour their late father Denis O’Toole. From Ballyhooly, Co Cork, O’Toole’s life embodied an aspect of Irish history that was long considered politically incorrect. A private in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, O’Toole guarded James Connolly at Dublin Castle on April 24, 1916. “I shall be shot,” Connolly told him.

Glimmer of humanity

O’Toole earned a medal for bravery, for rescuing wounded soldiers from no man’s land in the Battle of the Somme.  He survived the war and left the British army in 1919.

In Mr Cameron’s reading, Corporal Jim Crow of the Royal Field Artillery described a glimmer of humanity in the midst of battle. A British infantryman writhed on German barbed wire, badly wounded.

“Major Anderton pulled his revolver out, climbed over the parapet, walked straight to this man, picked him up and carried him back,” Mr Cameron read. “The Germans never fired a shot at him. . .and they cheered him as he lifted the man on to his shoulders.”

The French army choir sang La Madelon, the soldiers’ song about poilus besotted by a local waitress that was the equivalent of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary

President François Hollande read a text by the first World War French army doctor and author Georges Duhamel. He described the Somme as “the balcony of hell” where “it seemed as though a troop of giants forged the horizon of the earth, pounding relentlessly amid a million sparks.”

Wreath-laying

Europe

Mr Cameron looked gloomy and pensive during the wreath-laying. The message he wrote to mark the centenary managed to avoid the word “Europe”. 

President Hollande had planned to send prime minister Manuel Valls, but he changed his mind at the last minute, “to show we are still friends”. He nonetheless wants Britain to leave the EU as quickly as possible. 

“I want to drive home the European ideal, which enabled us to surpass divisions and rivalry between states, and delivered peace for the past 70 years,” Mr Hollande wrote in his message.

Subdued presence

Angela MerkelHorst Kohler

President Higgins declined to comment on Brexit. “The founding of the European Union was a moment of immense significance in Franco-German relations after the second World War,” he noted. 

But it was time to “move on”, Mr Higgins continued.  “The very last thing we want is a kind of resile to despondency or despair. . .We have to create a new moment for Europe in which people will articulate an idealism. We have to recover a connection with all its citizens, particularly the young unemployed.”

As the ceremony drew to a close, thousands of poppies and cornflowers, the British and French flowers of remembrance, drifted like red and blue confetti from the top of the monument. Children from Britain, France and Ireland laid wreathes on the graves of the unknown soldiers while a piper from the Irish Guards played the lament, The Battle of the Somme, a green plume in his beret.