First World War centenary: Battlefields trip day two
23:03 09 February 2015
On July 1 1916, thousands of soldiers walked across to German lines on the Western Front and began their assaults, confident their enemy had been weakened by a week-long bombardment of 1.6 million shells.
But this proved to be a fatal error.
Many of the shells failed to explode and the Germans, who knew an Allied attack would follow the bombardment, patiently waited underground before unleashing a wave of machine gun fire.
This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, during which 60,000 British soldiers died or were wounded, with 20,000 killed.
This was the worst single day for fatalities in the history of the British Army and the battle, which also hit the Germans hard, has come to represent the sheer loss of life incurred by the fierce fighting of the First World War.
As our tour guide Allan Wood explained, the British and French had been planning a combined assault on the Germans but, with the French besieged at Verdun, they decided to stage an offensive on their own.
The battle, which ended in November with the Allies having only gained five miles, resulted in approximately 420,000 British casualties and thousands of men went missing.
It was to the memorials of these soldiers that we travelled yesterday.
We started off at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park, which is maintained by the Canadian government.
The battlefield, which contains three cemeteries, was preserved and features its original trench lines.
A caribou statue stands proudly on the Memorial to the Missing, chosen because it was the symbol of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
Newfoundland, which joined the Canadian Confederation in 1949, was a British dominion at the time of the First World War and the regiment suffered the worst fate of any unit on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Out of 801 men, 386 were wounded, 233 were killed or died of their wounds and 91 went missing.
After taking in the park’s sights, we listened to an American journalist’s emotive account of the battle, obtained through interviews with survivors.
It told how a soldier who had been shot in both his knees crawled in agony across No Man’s Land, forcing himself to stand so he could hurl himself over a trench, only to find his comrades were dead.
Other visits were to the London Cemetery and the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.
The latter, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the famed architect, was built between 1928 and 1932 and commemorates 72,193 British and South African soldiers.
The imposing structure, the largest British war memorial in the world, also features a cemetery and memorial for British and French soldiers.
Our day included a poignant detour to Connaught Cemetery, where my great-great uncle is buried.
But I will reveal more on this later on.