The Battle of the Somme
Because of its geographical position, Thiepval was to become a significant position during the Battle of the Somme. In the early months of war, the Germans dominated over the French Army, whose trenches were farther down in the Ancre Valley. Mobile warfare quickly led to static warfare, the front stabilised and the armies started to dig in, creating vast networks of trenches. The Germans reinforced their positions on Thiepval ridge, including underground fortifications and a maze of communication lines.
At Chantilly, towards the end of 1915, French and British High Command began preparing for a large scale offensive on the Somme. This was to become crucial when the Germans launched a surprise attack on French positions in Verdun in February 1916. French troops were thus quickly deployed from the Somme to Verdun, leaving the British to play a greater than initially expected role in the forthcoming battle. After a six-day artillery bombardment the infantry attacked on 1 July. 100,000 inexperienced soldiers, carrying 30kg of supplies, went into battle in successive waves. But the Germans met them with deadly machine gun and artillery fire. By the end of the day, 60,000 British soldiers had been made casualty, including 20,000 killed in action. The German losses represent about 1/10 of this number.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme had been a failure, a disaster for the British Army and the worst day in British military history.
The British eventually captured Thiepval on the 27 September 1916 and the Battle of the Somme was called off in November of the same year. The breakthrough had not been possible but the battle had enabled the French to keep a hold on Verdun. The British Army suffered more than 420,000 casualties (killed, injured, missing, or taken prisoner) and the French lost some 200,000 men during the Battle of the Somme.
In March 1918, as part of the German Spring Offensive, Thiepval was recaptured by the Germans, but returned to Allied hands in August of the same year.
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing
Measuring 45 metres in height, the memorial is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world. Its walls are clad in brick and its sixteen piers are faced with Portland stone on which the names of the Missing are engraved. The men commemorated on this memorial come from all social backgrounds and their ages range from 15 to 60 years old with an average age of 25. The memorial and cemetery are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
In remembrance of the men who fought and died during the Battle of the Somme, a ceremony is held at the Thiepval Memorial each year on 1 July. A second ceremony is held on 11 November in commemoration of Armistice Day. Please click here for information about the ceremony of the 1st July 2017.
The Thiepval Visitor Centre
Through the combined efforts of the Somme Departmental Council and the Thiepval Project (a British charity), and with additional funding from Europe, the Thiepval Visitor Centre opened on 1 July 2004. It is run by the Historial, Museum of the Great War, with the support of a Franco-British committee. The Visitor Centre presents an educational exhibition about the First World War and in particular the Battle of the Somme and Thiepval itself. A screening room shows three films: Somme in the Great War, Memory and Thiepval. Three computer databases are available to visitors wishing to research soldiers who died in the war or locate a cemetery or memorial. The modern architecture of this building has been designed to fit in perfectly with the landscape.
The Missing of the Somme Database
The Missing of the Somme database contains personal information and photographs about the men commemorated on the memorial and their families. Created in 2003 by Ken and Pam Linge, it enables visitors to learn more about these men and their lives. Today, visitors can view the stories of over 12,000 soldiers in the visitor centre. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has also created a new app, which details a selection of these stories and Pam and Ken released a book in 2015 entitled Missing but Not Forgotten, the Men of the Thiepval Memorial.
The New Thiepval Museum
In June 2016, a new museum was opened in the Thiepval Visitor and Interpretation Centre. With new galleries themed on the battles of the Somme and the memory of lost soldiers, the permanent 400m2 exhibition presents a large collection of artefacts, archaeological finds, multimedia displays and life-sized installations (replica of Charles Guynemer's plane). And, like a window opening up onto the battle, Joe Sacco's vast 60 metre-long mural provides a visual account of the 1st July 1916.
The museum is divided into several major themes:
- At the entrance: a large animated map, with additional archive film and photographs, presents the impact of the Great War in the Somme.
- The gallery dedicated to the Battle of the Somme opens onto a mural by illustrator Joe Sacco, it recounts hour by hour the horror of the tragic day of 1 July 1916. In the centre of the hall, a vast exhibition pit displays artefacts and archaeological finds of the First World War.
- An audiovisual installation, with a selection of German images and films tells the story of the experience of the soldiers of the 'other side'.
- The French perspective, both of its soldiers and the civilians, is presented on a large map of the region. It illustrates the disaster and the lasting impact the war had on the Somme.
- Like a 'chapel to the Missing', one hall is devoted to the huge number of men who died in the 'meat-grinder' of the war. An innovative multimedia display enables the individual stories of these missing men to be learned about in an interactive manner.
- A large hall presents a life-sized replica of Georges Guynemer's plane and the portraits of aviators of the Great War.
- As an epilogue, aerial footage of the battlefields reveals the scars on the landscapes and the diversity and importance of the sites of remembrance that were built on the former battleground.
Please click here for more information about the museum.
Bid for UNESCO World Heritage Status
This site is among 11 sites in the Somme that have applied for UNESCO World Heritage status.
It is the largest British war memorial in the world and attests to the brutality of war and large-scale death. Its arch shape places the Missing at the heart of its design, with the empty space highlighting this loss. At 45 metres in height, this monumental memorial dominates the landscape and former battlefield.
- The Visitor Centre and Museum are open every day from 9.30am to 6pm from 1/03 to 31/10 (9.30am to 5pm for rest of year)
- Annual closing from mid-December to mid-January
- Admission is free to the visitor centre, a ticket must be purchased for the museum: Adults 6€ and children 3€
- Combined ticket for the 'Museums of Péronne & Thiepval': Adults 10€ and children 6€
- Free access to the memorial all year round
- Car park, picnic area, book and gift shop
- 80300 Thiepval
- Tel +33 (0) 3 22 74 60 47
- email@example.com | www.historial.org
Longitude 2.685525 | Latitude 50.050500