……WE WILL REMEMBER THEM
Roger Scoones has been a member of our clergy team since the spring, after retiring here from Stockport. This month he provides our Remembrance reflection: It was a bright autumn morning, not a cloud in the sky. As I stood at the foot of the Thiepval Memorial in the Somme, in northern France, I listened intently as the names were read out; as numbers of the casualties on that exact day one hundred years ago were recalled; as I watched wreaths being carried up the steep flight of steps to be laid at the stone altar, already crowded with poppies; as I stood in the sunshine and heard the familiar bugle playing of the Last Post and Reveille sounding from loudspeakers across the now-peaceful countryside; and as I thought deep thoughts of what this very place meant in terms of human suffering and death in those terrible days of war. In the two long minutes of silence heavy tears ran down my cheeks. It was undoubtedly the most moving service of Remembrance that I have ever attended.
The Battle of the Somme raged for 141 days and was one of the defining events of the Great War. There were terrible losses on both sides. On that one day, 3 October 1916, over four hundred men lost their lives. Much worse, by the end of the very first day of the battle, 57,000 British & Commonwealth and 2,000 French soldiers had become casualties, and more than 19,000 had been killed – and of course many more German soldiers also died. Many of those killed would never be found or their remains identified – almost 77,000 of those killed in 1916 have no known grave. In the cemeteries of the Somme, immaculately laid out and assiduously cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, many of the headstones simply carry the words “A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God” – words inspired by Rudyard Kipling who lost his own son in the War.
From a distance the Thiepval Memorial appears to be simply a vast monumental brick and stone building. It is indeed very large, standing on a ridge and, at 45 meters high, visible for miles across the flat countryside, with the Union Jack and the Tricolour fluttering in the breeze from their flagpoles high above. However, the closer one comes to its base, gleaming white in the bright morning sun, the more one begins to realise that the enormous stone walls are in fact not plain stone, but are inscribed with names – 72,000 names; names of men who died in the Somme sector between 1915 and 1918, more than nine-tenths of them in the 1916 battle. As the War Graves Commission says of the Memorial, “It is both a memorial to the missing and a monument commemorating the alliance between the British Empire and France. Beside the memorial is a cemetery with equal numbers of Commonwealth and French graves, brought together from all over the battlefield”. It is a truly beautiful, awesome and unforgettable sight. And a profound experience.
My visit to the Thiepval Memorial, on the last day of my recent holiday in France was prompted by John Partington having asked me to write a few words for this edition of the CHEQS magazine. I am grateful to him, because that visit to the scene of the Battle of the Somme has changed my outlook on life, and my understanding, or at the least my awareness of the cost of war; and it has changed what Remembrance Sunday will mean to me in future, as I’m sure it already does to many others.
I hope that someone who reads this may find their own way to the Thiepval Memorial. It has links with countless towns and country villages across our own land, as well as with many War Memorials, in our churchyards, town centres, and country roads. Indeed a son of Fairford, Private William Bennett, who lived in Coronation Street, was killed during the Battle of the Somme. He has no known grave but is one of that great multitude whose names are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He was thirty years old.
Another year passes. And we say again on Remembrance Sunday in our towns and villages, in our churches and at our war memorials:
“They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning …
… We will remember them.”
Taken from CHEQS magazine