The Thiepval memorial stands high above the rolling countryside of Picardy in France. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and finished in 1932, it stands as a lasting memorial to both the many, many soldiers and airmen who gave their lives in the Battle of the Somme and also to the soldiers who perished in the Somme area from 1915 to 1918 and have no known grave. 19,240 died on the first day and over 72,000 have never been given an identifiable grave.
The 1st July 2016 marked the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme and the Museum was asked by The Department of Culture, Media and Sport to attend the ceremony with our AVRO 504, representing the fledging air arms of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, both the forerunners of the modern Royal Air Force.
To be asked to provide such a fitting memorial to early aviation on the day of this momentous event was something that our team undertook with great pride. The task of dismantling the aircraft, shipping and reassembling her on location was a significant logistical exercise which we will write about very soon, but to be present on the 100th anniversary of the day that 19,240 young men lost their lives in this area was truly memorable. The ceremony was broadcast live across the world and we were present to talk to the ten thousand guests who attended the ceremony. A combination of people who were fortunate enough to be awarded places, plus military personnel and even the current Prime Minister, who all stopped beside the AVRO to chat.
The commemoration ceremony was an emotional experience for everyone present. TV crews, military personnel and organisers all displayed varying signs of watering eyes. Those not directly in front of a broadcast camera occasionally took a moment to step to one side for a moment as some wonderful readings, including one by a modern day German Army soldier, were read out. It will be a long time before such a ceremony is repeated. Hopefully the world was watching and might learn.
The Picardy countryside surrounding Thiepval is made of of gently rolling fields and slopes. To anyone driving across the landscape, the number of small cemeteries by the roadside or visible across the fields in the distance is truly staggering. In the battle, many men were simply buried where they fell, the task of making some sense of this huge mortality was subsequently handed over to the War Grave Commission in the 1920’s, a task they continue with great professionalism to this day.
Today, you may find it surprising how little cover the two sides had apart from the trenches. The terms ‘ridge’ and ‘high ground’ of German positions to be captured are often used in TV documentaries and yet, in reality, there is little elevation across the landscape. With the Germans possessing the Maxim heavy machine gun, a hill of just a few hundred feet of height advantage was enough to decimate any advancing opposition and likewise, the slightest dip in the landscape would be the difference between life and death for those seeking cover from the withering fire.
At 7:30 on the morning of the 1st of July, tens of thousands of troops, many of them inexperienced, emerged from trenches along a fifteen mile front to attack well constructed German dugouts situated on that higher ground. As they advanced to scale the barbed wire, they were decimated in a way that has aptly been described as ‘the industrialisation of warfare’.
In comparison to the catastrophic loss of life on the ground, the statistics of the flying services during the Somme were minuscule in actual numbers but in percentage terms, the mortality rate was similarly alarming. Air combat and the use of aircraft on the battlefield was totally new at that time. Of the 410 aircraft available to the RFC on the 1st of July, 219 were artillery spotting aircraft. A small team of just 426 pilots were trained to fly, with a similar number of observers.
Pilot numbers were rising rapidly, with 585 available by mid July. However, at this stage, aircrew losses were so great that despite new pilots arriving daily, the actual number of pilots fit to fly did not change significantly during the Battle of the Somme. Throughout the period from July to November, 308 pilots were killed, wounded or missing, with 191 observers suffering the same fate. The most telling statistic that highlights the lack of experience of pilots was that an additional 268 were non – battle casualties, almost as many as were killed or injured in combat.
Why We Should Remember The Somme
The Great War, or World War One, whatever phrase you prefer, goes down in history as a monumental waste of young human life in a way that today could probably never happen. It is worth remembering that at that time, most young men would rarely venture far from their birthplace. For a Yorkshireman, a trip to Lancashire would be a significant event. The prospect of joining the armed forces and travelling to France must have seemed exciting and exotic to these young faces and an attractive alternative to life in a factory or a coal mine.
Today, 100 years later, The Great War lacks the appeal to many with a more casual, passing interest in military history. There are no spectacular Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, thunderous Halifax and Lancaster bombers or victorious Dambuster raids. The end of hostilities, when it finally came, offered little celebration. No liberated population, no moral victory. Quite simply, one side ran out of energy and the morale to continue. It is not mankind’s greatest hour.
But to forget those men who travelled to The Somme in July 100 years ago would be a travesty. The area must be experienced first hand to understand the enormity of what happened and we would urge everyone to take the time to visit. The fact that 100 years later, munitions and other artefacts are still visible on the arable fields of the area is testament to the sheer firepower that the men of each side endured.
In aviation terms, this period marked a turning point in the use of aircraft in a battlefield environment. From 1916 onwards, techniques for delivering bombs from the air, dogfighting and aerial photography had advanced to become vital elements of warfare. In land warfare terms, it marked the end of the traditional patriotic, glorious charge towards the enemy as old techniques struggled to come to terms with modern technology.
To have been present at such a significant occasion was something we will treasure for a long time. Our AVRO 504 has now returned and will form the centrepiece of a new display in our hangar commemorating the contribution of both the Royal Flying Corps and the RNAS in the First Wold War. When opened, we hope this new exhibition will provide a fresh insight to the early days of military aviation and a fitting reminder of those who served both on the ground and in the air 100 years ago.