You sense you are near the western front before you actually see the war memorials. There’s a quietness in the air. A silent reverence. Eyes follow you from windows and gardens of small scattered hamlets. The countryside holds its breath as you pass. Protective guardians watch over its sacred history as self-appointed custodians of fallen soldiers – still resting on foreign soil.
The pallor of the headstones. The uniformity of the rows. The immaculate, manicured lawns. The preciseness of the stonework. Each cemetery stands out like a solitary warrior in a sea of green meadows. Nothing but a simple wooden sign stands between the miles of open land and the name of the battle that was fought. Right there, in that exact spot. 100 years ago.
Proud red poppies line the routes between battlefields, paving the way for respectful observers and 3rd generation family members hoping to catch a glimpse of homemade heroes etched in stone. The poppies stand tall. Their presence profound and reassuring; as if they have grown in place of life.
Peace and tranquillity surround the Somme. It is unnerving and uplifting in equal measure. The land is sedate and passive. A stark contrast to the noise and mayhem of the quagmire of death just a century before. Local people are gentle and quiet, knowing all too well, they live on the world’s most sacred burial ground. They tip-toe about their day accordingly.
Names. Thousands of names. On every wall. On every stone. On every plaque. So many you have to look to the sky for relief. For every name, there are two unidentified dead, remembered simply as ‘A Soldier of the Great War’. 300,000 young men with no known graves. Your eyes scan, but cannot comprehend. The sheer scale of loss is unfathomable. How, in hell, did this happen?
Your body aches. Clouds gather in your heart. The world weighs heavy on your shoulders. Your eyes cannot focus. A lump lodges in your throat. Your feet skim grass still wet from a sprinkler system. You become aware of the flowers, butterflies, the trees, and acres of the landscape all around. All noise is sifted out, but for birdsong. Silently you wonder if blood was spilt where you stand. Dark pervading thoughts tell you, you must be, for the carnage was so significant, it would be a miracle not to stand on blood-soaked soil. All at once, you are overwhelmed and overcome with a sorrow so thick you could choke. It seems so senseless. 1.2 million men killed or wounded in four and a half months of slaughter – for an advance of less than 10 miles.
10 miles fought and won for your life.
1.2 million men sacrificed so you can live it.
For every name, a family was buckled and broke by the arrival of a telegram. Lost in Action. Presumed dead. Words that simply elude the horrors of the Somme. Muddied faces, gas-stained eyes, lice-filled hair, hungry bellies, sodden feet, ringing ears, aching hearts and broken spirits. Boys, barely out of childhood, dying cold and scared in oversized uniforms. Rats scuttling about their bodies waiting to gorge, dead or not. Young fighters with eyes as old as men twice their age. Husbands, Fathers, sons, brothers, uncles – willing volunteers, who tore themselves away from tearful, pleading loved-ones, eager to fight for King and Country, without an ounce of military experience; only to return in the formal words of a telegram.
No body. No explanation. Just an entire ocean of grief.
The men who sacrificed their lives remain here, at the Somme, resting alongside their comrades, friends, and foes. They are dutifully cared for by the French people, who honour them as they would their own. These soldiers of different uniforms did not just fight for their own empire – they liberated Europe. And in doing so, they brought peace and freedom to nations beyond that of their own dinner tables. Our generation has a social duty to protect that. For them.
We say ‘Lest we forget’. But let us not forget…It took just one man to start World War I and almost two and a half million men at the Somme to stop it.
Forget this sacrifice at our peril. For we need only look back 100 years to be reminded. It takes only one man to take advantage of a weakness, for an entire generation to be lost.
Let us also remember…This war of attrition was not fought on our own. Thousands of French, Canadian, Indian, Newfoundland, Australian, New Zealand, Senegalese, Moroccan and other Commonwealth Soldiers heard the calling of their brothers in arms. They fought hard. They fought to their deaths. Their blood pooled together as one. Intrinsically linked. United as one.
To each and every one of you.
…I thank you. Unreservedly.