Written by Jon-Michael Lindsey
It was George Santayana that first said the oft-misquoted “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To me, nowhere is that more obvious than at the Thiepval Memorial in the Picardy region of France.
I’ve just returned from a personal pilgrimage, paying my respects to a relative who, on December 10, 1915 at the age of 16, enlisted to fight for King and Country. The next day he was transferred to the Reserves. A month later, he was mobilised as a Private in the Manchester Regiment. He got married in April, 1917, then was sent to the Front Line in France a few weeks later. Within a year, he was declared missing; presumed dead.
As I’d arrived too early to visit the British Cemetery at Pozieres, I decided to first walk to Thiepval, another WW I memorial nearby. It’s a pleasant three km walk - perhaps even walking in my Great Uncle’s footsteps - through the countryside of the Somme, making it hard to believe that the entire area was decimated 100 years before. I’ve since read that The French Département du Déminage (Department of Mine Clearance) recovers about 900 tons of unexploded munitions every year, which has earned itself a rather ominous name: The Iron Harvest.
When you approach the memorial at Thiepval (after paying a visit to the on-site museum, which I highly recommend) the first thing that strikes you is the scale of the beautiful, towering structure. It dominates the skyline and, as you draw closer, you realise that every single one of the 48 Portland stone panels that cleave to the archway host hundreds of names. The entire arch contains more than 72,000 commemorations. The central space bears the Stone of Remembrance, with the inscription “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”. Beyond the monument itself, there’s also an Anglo-French Cemetery, containing six hundred graves (300 French, 300 British Commonwealth).
The other thing that will strike you is the silence that surrounds this sacred place. The only thing you can hear is nature – any voices seem to shatter the tranquillity.
The irony of the whole thing, however, is the timing. The monument was officially unveiled on August 1, 1932, by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), in the presence of Albert Lebrun, the French President. Now move forward 8 years and the German army of the Third Reich are back in this territory, occupying France. At this point, they surely must’ve seen the memorial, which stands at 140ft high. Did no one look upon it and question what they were doing? Why they were repeating the same mistakes that cost the lives of more than two million of their countrymen?
Admittedly, one dissenting voice would most likely be silenced but if enough people would take in the enormity of the names, the silence of those who had had made the ultimate sacrifice, perhaps they could’ve turned the tide and changed history. To give some further perspective: there were approximately 18 million killed during WW1, including civilians. That’s like completely removing the entire population of both London and Paris. Not a single person remaining. This could have been avoided.
Since “The War to End All Wars”, there have in fact been another 326 wars across the globe, including World War II. The casualties stack up to almost 66 million people dead, which equates to everyone in the UK being wiped out.
On my last day of the trip, I paid a visit to the Somme 1916 Museum in Albert. This was educational, fascinating, and disturbing in equal measure. It explains in great detail the entire Battle of the Somme – 141 days of the bloodiest fighting in the entire war. This lasted from July 1 – 18 November 1916, with over one million casualties. The first day is still known as the worst day in the British Army’s history, who suffered 57,470 casualties.
It seems humanity has never learned. We just seem to find it too easy to argue, fight, and descend into downward spirals of violence. My one wish is that all our world leaders could one day visit this incredible place, and incredible places like it all over the world, and realise just how precious human life really is, and how fragile the peace is in their hands.
Not since James Callaghan have we had a Prime Minister that has seen active military service. Perhaps if we had, they would’ve had a greater understanding of the cost of war in terms of human life. Look at the threats being made by Donald Trump to North Korea from the safe distance of his highly protected seat in the White House; someone who hasn’t spent a day in the military.
People without that level of experience (myself included) don’t have the knowledge required to understand the toll that warfare takes. Until then, I want to thank all those who take it upon themselves to keep us safe, and I hope those who gave their lives for us may rest in peace.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
~ Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) ~
If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend you visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who maintain these memorial sites immaculately.