We recently visited the Somme area for the first time. My husband’s maternal grandfather was killed there during the First World War and as the centenary of his death approaches, it felt appropriate to see where he is buried and pay our respects. In a sense he was fortunate in that he has a named resting place. We also visited the vast Thiepval monument to the missing of the Somme, over 72000 soldiers who have no known grave. Designed by Lutyens and opened in 1932, it is an enormous, dignified memorial built in brick and stone on which the names of the missing are inscribed on the supporting piers. The sheer scale of the edifice helps one to appreciate the magnitude of the losses, and that is only one of many battlefields.
Numerous smaller military cemeteries along the roadsides record other assaults and engagements, often involving soldiers belonging to regiments from particular parts of the country or across the then empire.The War Graves Commission ensures that these memorials are all carefully maintained , and books kept on the sites enable the visitor to locate an individual resting place. Thus we found Evelyn Worsley’s grave in the military cemetery at Corbie, near Albert. He was a schoolmaster, aged 31, married with two young daughters. He joined up in 1916, and was in France for just a few weeks before he was wounded in action and taken to a military hospital where he died. His younger daughter[ my husband’s mother] was only 2 , and so never knew her father. When visiting the cemeteries you keep reminding yourself that each grave represents a similar family story .
We also went to see the recently created museum devoted to Wilfred Owen, at Ors. Called The Forester’s House, it is built over the cellar of the small rural house where Owen spent his last days with his platoon, and from where he wrote his final letter to his mother. The building is white and sculptural in form, almost in the shape of a child’s toy house with an ‘open book’ shaped roof. There are semi-circular ramps up to the main part of the structure which contains an auditorium where you can sit and see Owen’s poems projected on the darkened walls within, and hear them read on a recording by Kenneth Branagh. You may also go down to see the small cellar below. The full poignancy of the visit is appreciated when you realise that Owen [aged 25] was killed only seven days before the armistice.
Over the next few years there will be many anniversaries marking the centenaries of the ‘milestone’ battles of the Great War. If you are involved in writing family history, it is unlikely that your own family was not touched in some way by those tumultuous years. A visit to the battlefield sites and memorials helps to put the personal experiences into a wider context.