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Somme Centenary – British & French leaders attend National Commemorative Event at Thiepval Memorial in France

Posted on on 03 July 2016
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Around 10,000 guests took part in the British National Event at the Thiepval War Memorial on Friday July 1st 2016 to mark the Battle of the Somme – 100 years after the start of the battle.

The event was attended by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, the French President, Francois Hollande, and members of the British Royal Family, including Prince Charles, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry.

A series of statements were issued on the morning of the event.

In his, Prince Charles wrote: “It is truly terrifying to imagine the destruction wrought across this landscape one hundred years ago today… For many people in Britain, the Battle holds a special place in the public consciousness”.

David Cameron said: “For many the Somme offensive came to define the First World War. The scale of the sacrifice – almost 20,000 British dead on the first day; a million casualties on all sides overall – is reflected by the sheer size of the towering Thiepval Memorial”.

The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said to remember the Somme is to take a step to repair what he described as the “injustice” of the Somme being “eclipsed in France by the memory of the Battle of Verdun”.

The memorial event was built around a one hour programme of film, music and poetry – with actors Charles Dance and Joely Richardson narrating, and politicians and others reading excerpts of letters from soldiers who took part in the battle.

There were performances by the Scottish singer Julie Fowlis, the Morriston Orpheus Choir, and The Band of the Royal Irish Regiment.

And the BBC Symphony Orchestra played George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, composed while he served with the Durham Light Infantry. Butterworth was killed in the battle and is commemorated on the Memorial.

To reflect the Anglo-French nature of the battle, the Choeur de l’Armée Française also took part.

The event started with a screening of part of the Imperial War Museum’s film The Battle of the Somme. The film features footage from the battle and was originally released in 1916 and seen by around 22 million people in Britain during the war.

Six hundred British, Irish and French school children also took part in the event, lining up in rows next to the war graves that form part of the Memorial.

The commemoration was attended by the Executive Editor of Centenary News. Here are his personal views on the July 1st event:

As a nation, the UK is very much getting in to its stride in staging confident and well organised commemorative events for the key battles of the First World War.

We’re now midway through the Centenary, and the scale, tone and content of this memorial event more than befitted the tragic battle that it was commemorating.

Of course, today’s event comes at the end of what has been an extraordinary week in British politics, following the Bexit referendum. So it was really good that despite all the domestic distractions, the UK still managed to put on an event that was both poignant and dignified,

The event was attended by big names from both sides of the Channel.

Prince Charles. William and Kate. Prince Harry. David Cameron. Francois Hollande. Not to mention, international actors like Charles Dance and Joel Richardson.

But sitting in the audience of the memorial event, it was striking that the biggest star there was not a politician or a celebrity.

The main focus of the morning, the main star there, was without doubt the Thiepval Memorial itself.

Set against a dark, gloomy sky, it projected a massive, brooding presence over the event, with its brick arches and tower dominating the surrounding French countryside.

It may have looked different on TV, but from the perspective of the audience sitting at the event, the participants on stage looked tiny in comparison to the Memorial behind them. Even the large screens either side of the stage were dwarfed by the Memorial.

And, of course, that felt entirely appropriate. The Memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and unveiled in 1932, bears the names of 72,000 men who died in the Somme sector and who have no known grave.

72,000 is an incredible number, and it felt right that the focus of today’s event was on their Memorial.

Background on the Thiepval Event

The Thiepval Somme centenary event was hosted by the UK and French governments, working in partnership with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and The Royal British Legion (RBL). Further details can be found here

There will be an act of commemoration held daily at the monument for the duration of the battle, hosted by The Royal British Legion. More details of visiting the region can be found on the Somme Department website here