Europe

Somme centenary: Walking the fields scarred by battle

Thiepval Memorial in France Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Great War is seen as the conflict that shaped the 20th Century

Memory can become more powerful as the years go by.

The centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme is being marked with more ceremony and international attention than was given to the half-century in 1966, though there were many veterans there who could remember the sounds of the fighting. Now there are none.

Maybe it's because we live in warring times. Or, just as likely, because increasingly the Great War hasn't been seen as one awful sprawling event - the four years that bloodied and scarred a generation - but as the opening of a conflict that shaped the whole of the 20th Century, through World War Two to the division of Europe and the Cold War that followed.

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Image caption Visitors walk among the headstones putting together soldiers' stories

That's why, when you watch visitors pointing to headstones in the cemeteries on the Western Front, you see them putting together the story of one solider - a great-uncle, grandfather, maybe even a father - with a broader understanding of the cost of modern warfare.

Live coverage: Battle of the Somme centenary

Part of the loss of innocence after 1914 was the realisation that a new kind of battle had begun, on a scale unimaginable to a generation who thought that Waterloo was the grandest of struggles.

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Image caption The first day of fighting was the worst in the history of the British army.

The British line on the first day of the Somme was only 14 miles long.

Within a few hours more than 19,000 had died and more than double that number lay wounded.

It was the worst day in the history of the British army, before or since. They fought on for 141 days, through the mud and slime of the autumn, and when it was over the line had advanced seven miles.

Going over the top

Walking through those fields this week, with slender poppies colouring the barley with drops of red, I was struck again by the awful intimacy of the struggle.

The gentle rise outside the village of La Boiselle where the German and British lines were less than a mile apart when the first charge was made at half-past seven in the morning.

The tiny stone shrine that was the machine-gun post; the small cemetery in the trees where they buried the men of the Devonshires on the very ground where they had sheltered in their trenches before 1 July, waiting for the order to go over the top.

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Image caption Men recruited from the same streets in Britain often fell together in the Somme

Along the road, I found a small plot where the dead from the Gordon Highlanders were buried after that first day.

It was a regiment that recruited from the towns and villages that I knew as a boy in north-east Scotland, and the names on the white stones were like a call from home.

For anyone visiting these places, there are similar sharp shafts of memories.

When "pals' battalions" went forward on some parts of the line, men recruited from the same streets or workplaces fell together in their dozens at the same moment, so that whole communities took the blow.

Never mind that about nine out of 10 of those who went to war came home in the end; these wounds cut deep, and never healed.

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Image caption Schoolchildren visiting the Somme for the first time look for names of families from the East End of London

I spoke to schoolchildren coming here for the first time, thanks to a British Council project.

They had been trying for a few months to learn how the war had affected families in their community, in east London within the sound of Bow Bells.

They'd found relatives still living in the same streets, as if a century hadn't passed after all.

After the two-minute silence on Friday, and the act of remembrance at the huge stone memorial at the Thiepval cemetery later in the day, that generation might still want to keep the story of the Western Front alive.

They might understand that if the last century has been shaped by war above all, and our Europe forged in that furnace, this is where you can still feel the fire.

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