Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Ceremonies mark Somme carnage

AP , ALBERT, FRANCE

Clement Autissier, left, and Louis Hecquet, pose for photographers in replica World War I uniforms, at the Thiepval military cemetery in northern France yesterday ahead of ceremonies marking the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. More than 20,000 British soldiers died and up to 40,000 were wounded at the Somme on July 1, 1916, making it the bloodiest day in the history of the British army.

PHOTO: AP

Church bells ushered in the morning at villages across a patch of northern France on Saturday, marking the moment 90 years ago that launched one of history's bloodiest episodes, the Battle of the Somme.

The poignant tolling began a day of commemorations honoring the soldiers of 20 nationalities who fought at the Somme. But it is Britain that feels the battle's scars most deeply, and Prince Charles and his wife Camilla were to attend ceremonies midday at Thiepval honoring troops who fought in the deadliest day the British army ever saw.

The battle has nearly receded from living memory, but its legacy remains. Monuments -- from simple markers to major museums -- in the fields and towns of the Somme region serve as a reminder of how the Great War changed Europe forever, and how young European unity is.

Britain led allied forces into battle on July 1, 1916, hoping to end 18 months of deadlock with a decisive Allied victory over German forces. Yet when it ended, after four months of vicious trench warfare ravaging the countryside, British troops had only advanced about 10km.

And more than 1 million troops lay dead.

Until then, Britain thought it could beat the Germans easily.

``The Somme marks a turning point, not just in the war, but in the whole of British history,'' said Nigel Steel, a historian at London's Imperial War Museum, comparing it to the shock the US felt after Sept. 11.

On the first day of the battle alone, more than 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 40,000 wounded.

Ninety years on, the battle still haunts the British memory, particularly in parts of northern England where many of the battalions of Britain's raw new volunteer army were recruited.

One of the world's few remaining World War I veterans joined in the 90th anniversary tribute: 110-year-old Henry Allingham, who was not at the Somme but served in the British navy at the Battle of Jutland.

``He's one of few voices of his generation, and he wanted to come to represent all those who couldn't, and those who have passed on,'' said Dennis Goodwin, founder of the First World War Veterans' Association.

Along with British troops were Irish, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders -- and French, including many soldiers from Algeria and other French colonies, soldiers whose feats were long ignored.

Troops went into the Somme with high expectations, believing most German positions in the area had been wiped out.

But when they climbed out of their trenches that morning, volley after volley of machine gun fire greeted them, mowing them down. Torrential rains turned the battleground into a muddy quagmire.

Yesterday's ceremonies began with bells ringing around the region and a ceremony at La Boisselle at the moment of the battle's first charge.

Camps were set up across the Somme countryside resembling those that housed troops.

The biggest event was to be held at Thiepval Memorial, one of the largest monuments to Britain's war dead, the site of 600 British and French graves. The names of 72,000 British soldiers are etched into the stone of the memorial.

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