The Battle of the Somme
On 24 June 1916, British and French forces began a seven-day artillery bombardment marking the start of what would become known as the Battle of the Somme. On 1 July, Allied infantry began to assault German lines. Although there were advances to the south, in the north the attacking troops struggled to overcome formidable defences, many of which had survived the artillery barrage. By the end of the first day, some 57,000 Commonwealth and 2,000 French soldiers had become casualties, of whom more than 19,000 had been killed. The offensive continued over the following months, and men from every part of Britain and across the Empire took part. Both sides committed huge quantities of manpower and materiel to the struggle, and the Allies made use of new technology such as aircraft and tanks. Every village, copse, farmhouse and rise was fiercely contested by the Germans, who fought to reclaim every yard of territory lost and suffered heavy casualties. When the offensive was halted in November, more than 1,000,000 Commonwealth, French and German soldiers had been wounded, captured, or killed.
The sites selected below represent just some of the hundreds of CWGC cemeteries and memorials in the region:
The Thiepval Memorial
Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, this monument to the French and British armies also bears the names of more than 72,000 'missing' who died on the Somme. Their bodies could not be recovered; their graves were unrecorded, lost or destroyed in the fighting; or their remains could not be identified and are buried beneath a headstone bearing the inscription 'Known Unto God'.
On 1 July, the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment suffered heavy casualties during an attack from Mansel Copse. Three days later soldiers buried 161 of their comrades in a section of the old front line which today forms this cemetery. The notice they placed over the graves is now inscribed in stone: 'The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.'
The 2nd Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders attacked alongside the Devonshires on 1 July, and later buried 99 of their dead here, in what had been a support trench. Most of the headstones are arranged in semi-circles around the central Cross of Sacrifice.
Marking the ground where the Newfoundland Regiment attacked on 1 July, this extensive site contains preserved trenches which vividly illustrate the lay of the land during the battle. A bronze caribou stands high on a mound, below which is a memorial to the Newfoundland missing. Within the park are three Commonwealth cemeteries: Hawthorn Ridge No. 2, Hunter's and Y Ravine.
The north of the battlefield saw little movement of the line after July until the later stages of the offensive. Many cemeteries in the area were created in the spring of 1917 by V Corps, which recovered remains from where they had often lain for months and were unable to be identified. This is the most northerly cemetery of the 1916 battlefield, named after a small plantation behind the frontline.
Frankfurt Trench British
A small area to the north-east of Beaumont-Hamel saw some of the last actions of the offensive, when men of the 16th Battalion Highland Light Infantry became isolated in Frankfurt trench, where they held out for a week before surrendering on 25 November. Four closely-grouped cemeteries mark these actions. The entrance gate to this cemetery still bears its original name of V Corps Cemetery No. 11.
Begun just after the battle commenced, around a kilometre behind the front-line between the villages of Authuile and Aveluy, this was originally the final resting place of some 212 Commonwealth servicemen. After the war, almost 800 graves were brought here from the battlefields to the east, many of them members of the 8th Division who died on 1 July.
Cemetery No. 2
This is the largest cemetery on the Somme, and the fourth largest CWGC cemetery in France. In the northern part of the battlefield, it was begun by V Corps in the spring of 1917 but did not receive its final burial until 1934. It is the final resting place of more than 7,100 Commonwealth servicemen, brought here from all over the area, of whom almost 5,000 remain unidentified.
At High Wood, Longueval, this cemetery was begun in September 1916 when 47 members of the 47th (London) Division were buried in a large shell hole. By the Armistice it contained around 100 graves. An Extension was created later, and newly discovered bodies were brought here. It is now the final resting place of some 3,800 Commonwealth servicemen, of whom more than 3,100 remain unidentified.
Mill Road Cemetery
Near the village of Thiepval, this is now the final resting place of more than 1,300 Commonwealth servicemen. It was originally created in 1917 to hold some 260 graves, the headstones for which were laid flat, because a German trench system underneath the soil made the ground unstable.
On 1 July, the 36th (Ulster) Division attacked from close to where the cemetery now stands. They managed to break through and advance, by some reports, up to the German second line. This cemetery was begun in the autumn of 1916, and is now the final resting place of nearly 1,300 Commonwealth servicemen, including many Ulstermen.
Cemetery and Memorial
This area saw some of the heaviest fighting of the battle in July and August 1916. Australian forces suffered some 8,000 dead during this time, of whom more than 700 now lie in this cemetery. Around the cemetery stands the Pozieres Memorial, which commemorates by name those who fell during the German advance through this region in the spring of 1918 and have no known grave.
The area around Courcelette saw fierce fighting in September 1916, with the village itself eventually taken on the 15th by the 2nd Canadian Division. This cemetery was begun in November. The 74 original graves were joined by almost 2,000 graves brought here later from Courcelette and Pozieres, most belonging to men of the Australian and Canadian forces.
During October 1916, Canadian forces made repeated attacks against a well-defended German earthwork from which this cemetery takes its name. It was finally cleared on 11 November 1916, and over the winter graves were made here which now mark the position of the trench.
The South African Brigade fought a hard battle to capture and hold Delville Wood in July 1916. Over six days, it suffered some 2,300 casualties. The wood was later chosen as the site for the South African National Memorial. This cemetery was created after the Armistice, and is the third largest on the Somme. Of more than 5,500 servicemen buried here, more than 150 are South African.
Nearby Mametz Wood was attacked by the 38th (Welsh) Division on 7 July 1916. After some of the fiercest fighting of the offensive, German forces retreated on the night of 11 July, by which time around 4,000 men of the 38th Division had been killed or wounded. Some of the casualties were buried here after the wood was cleared.
Valley Cemetery and Memorial
This is the second largest cemetery on the Somme, and contains the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing for the Somme sector. The fighting in September and October alone cost the New Zealand Division more than 1,500 men, of whom some 1,200 have no known grave. Their names are inscribed on the memorial here.
Field ambulances stationed at Forceville, around 10km north-west of Albert, used an extension to the communal cemetery to bury those who died of their wounds. This was one of the first Commonwealth cemeteries to be permanently constructed after the war, and its design formed the architectural blueprint for much of the Commission's work.
Several Casualty Clearing Stations were based near the railway halt at Heilly, some 10km south-west of Albert. This cemetery was used to bury those who died of their wounds while being treated nearby. At the height of the battle, burials were made so close together in long trenches that many of the headstones bear up to three names.