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Thiepval

  
 3Stars10px  - darkometer rating: 4 -
  
Thiepval 01   huge monumentThis is the largest of all British memorial monuments, dedicated to the “missing” of the Battle of the Somme, northern France. In addition to the huge monument there is also an Anglo-French war cemetery, a visitor centre and a modern branch of the Great War Museum in Péronne.

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

     
More background info: For background of the military aspects of the war in this region see under the Somme, and cf. also Historial de la Grande Guerre, and WW1 and Ypres for the war in general.
  
The Imperial, later Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was already founded in 1917 when the war was still raging. Its mission is the commemoration of all the fallen soldiers on the British side and its Commonwealth allies and to give those who sacrificed their lives a decent final resting place in one of the many hundreds of war cemeteries the CWGC constructed after the war.
  
However an appallingly large number of the dead were simply “missing”, i.e. those soldiers who died in action but either could not be identified or have no known grave or even any trace of their whereabouts left … meaning their remains must still be somewhere in the battlegrounds that were so constantly ploughed over by artillery fire. This may even include ones that used to have a makeshift grave, but these were torn to pieces by artillery too. Sometimes the dead were in fact buried several times over. But for many there is simply nothing.
  
In order to give relatives as well as general war pilgrims a place to mourn and honour those “missing” soldiers, specially dedicated memorials were constructed. There are several of them, the best-known other ones being the Menin Gate in Ypres and the memorial for the British and New Zealand missing at Tyne Cot cemetery. But the monument at Thiepval was to become the grandest.
  
It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also designed various other memorials and CWGC cemeteries. The design of the Thiepval monument consists of interlocking arches with the central tower-like structure reaching a height of 140 feet (43 m). The foundations reach 30 feet (10 m) into the ground. During the digging for the foundations, German trenches and tunnels were found, with unexploded shells and corpses of dead German soldiers in them.
  
Construction began comparatively late in 1928 and the monument was inaugurated in a grand ceremony presided over by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and the President of France.
  
The monument is built from bricks and Portland stone. The names of some 73,000 missing British and South African soldiers are inscribed on the inside stone panels. In the Anglo-French war cemetery behind the monument there are 300 each of British and French graves, most of them marked “known unto God” and “Inconnu” respectively, i.e. they are nameless, for bodies found in the battlefields at the time the monument was constructed.
  
During WWII, Thiepval was occupied by Germany again, but the monument survived this period unscathed.
  
There were some modifications made to the monument in later years, such as the addition of steps leading down from the rear of the monument to the war cemeteries behind it. The brick cladding had to be replaced twice due to erosion. In 1973 new harder red bricks were used instead of the earlier pink ones, because they are more durable. The latest renovation took place in time for the centenary of WW1.
  
A visitor centre was added to the site in 2002, and the new museum, a branch of the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne opened in June 2016, just in time for the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The new museum is housed mostly in underground halls covered by earth and grass. This was a deliberate choice, so that the museum does not distract from the monument and the surrounding landscape.
  
  
What there is to see: It makes sense to see the visitor centre and museum first before going to the monument, so that you get the context for it first.
  
Even before you step inside the visitor centre and museum you can read the large open-air panels with photos, maps and explanatory texts (in English and French) about the location, the battle and the construction of the monument. Behind, on a grassy slope, symbolic poppies with little inscriptions have been left stuck into the soil by visitors.
  
Inside the airy, glass-and-steel visitor centre stands a scale model of the monument and various panels provide some context. There’s also a large panel with portrait photos of couple of hundred of the missing, thus giving at least some of them a “face”. There is a CWGC desk and at computer stations visitors can conduct searches. You can also pick up some leaflets here.
  
The museum exhibition is subdivided into seven sections. The first section provides an overview, with a large animated map showing the shifting front line augmented by photos and film footage from the time.
  
Language provision varies, at the minimum it’s bilingual in English and French and larger text panels also come with a German translation, occasionally there is also Dutch.
  
The second and largest section is quite unusual. It is dominated by a big back-lit illustration of the scenes behind the front and on the battlefields on 1 July 1916, the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. This large-scale drawing was made by illustrator Joe Sacco and stretches along the outer walls for 2x30 metres. Between the two sides of the illustration runs a pit set into the floor with some text panels, screens and, in particular, displays of shells, shrapnel and other rusty battlefield relics under glass. At the one end this is contrasted with the display of a German machine gun that looks as good as new.
  
The third section consists of an audiovisual installation that looks at the German side, including arrival at the Somme, occupation, soldiers’ daily life, defence, withdrawal and remembrance.
  
The fourth section focuses on the French side, including civilians’ daily life under occupation east of the Somme, the destruction of villages and the lasting legacy of the battle.
  
The fifth section concentrates on the missing. Interactive multimedia installations allow visitors to uncover some of the stories of the missing. Artefacts on display include personal effects, often cherished by families as keepsakes, such as watches, cigarette lighters, razors, documents and journals. Also on display here is one of the ceramic poppies that was part of the large installation in the moats of the Tower of London that was called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” in 2014. In consisted of 888,246 such ceramic poppies, one for each Commonwealth soldier killed in WW1. These ceramic poppies were subsequently sold for charity. The one on display was purchased by a British man in commemoration of two ancestors killed in the Somme and whose names appear on the Thiepval monument.
  
Section six is quite a contrast to the so far rather sombre tone of the exhibition. Here the focus is on the aviation “aces”, i.e. those fighter pilots who through their successes in downing enemy planes attained celebrity “hero” status, such as the famous “Red Baron”, Manfred von Richthofen on the German side. One of his counterparts on the French side was fighter ace Georges Guynemer. A life-size replica of his plane stands in the centre of this large hall.
  
The seventh and final section deals with European remembrance; aerial images show the scars still left on the lands as well as various monuments and the many war cemeteries.
  
Back at the visitor centre, a side exit leads to a path connecting to the road towards the Thiepval monument. The structure is indeed truly monumental. Size does matter here. At the top fly the British Union Jack and the French Tricolore, marking this as an Anglo-French site.
  
When you reach the monument and go up the stairs to the centre of it you can see the endless lists of names on the inner stone walls, ordered by rank and regiment (unlike the purely alphabetical listing on the Ring of Memory at Notre Dame de Lorette). In the centre stands the usual CWGC Stone of Remembrance with the words “Their Name Liveth for Evermore”. When I was there, several dozens of wreaths of red plastic poppies and small plywood crosses with single poppies were left by the Stone of Remembrance, some also by particular sections of the name panels.
  
Behind the monument steps lead down to the Anglo-French war cemetery. To the left are 300 French graves with stone crosses, to the right 300 British graves with flat Portland stone tombstones of the usual CWGC design, and a Cross of Sacrifice at the back (cf. Tyne Cot).
  
All in all, this is really a special site; the monument may elicit different reactions, I for one find it a little over the top, just a bit too monstrous; but by size alone it is surely impressive. The visitor centre provides some useful context, but it is the museum exhibition that, despite its relatively small size, really stands out, being as it is quite varied and innovative in some respects and certainly thought-provoking without being overbearing.
  
  
Location: Just south-west of the (very) small northern French village of Thiepval some 4 miles (6 km) north of Albert and a similar distance south-east of Auchonvillers. Official address: 8 rue de l’Ancre, 80300 Thiepval.
  
Google Maps locators:
  
Thiepval Memorial: [50.0506, 2.6857]
  
visitor centre and museum: [50.0523, 2.6879]
  
  
Access and costs: easy enough only by car; monument and visitor centre free, museum charges a reasonable admission fee.
  
Details: Unless you’re on a guided tour, you need your own vehicle (or bike) to get to this site; there is no public transport.
  
From the main trunk road leading north from Albert, the D50, turn right on to the D20 at Aveluy and then left on to the D151. You’ll already see the rear of the monument as you approach. Keep going, following the signs, and turn sharp right just before the brick church and the road will take you to the car park. There are about two dozen spaces, if they’re full you can also park a bit further on by the road opposite the parking for coaches. Coming from Auchonvillers or Beaumont-Hamel take the D73, branching off right from the D50. At Thiepval turn right on to the D151 and then immediately left by the church.
  
From the visitor centre, the monument can only be accessed on foot. The monument is in theory freely accessible at all times, though it wouldn’t make so much sense to come here after dark.
  
The museum and visitor centre (the latter is free) have the following opening times: between 1 March and 31 October 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m., rest of the year only to 5 p.m., annual closure between mid-December and late January.
  
Admission to the museum costs 6 EUR – if you’re also visiting the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne make sure to get a combination ticket for the reduced price of 12 EUR as opposed to the aggregate 16 EUR for the two separate single tickets.
  
  
Time required: depends a bit how deep you want to go into the interactive options at the museum and visitor centre and also on how long you want to linger and reflect by the monument. I spent about an hour in total at Thiepval.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under the Somme.
  
The nearest other WW1-related sites are the Ulster Tower just off the D73 en route to Auchonvillers, and the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial is just a few miles further on, also by the D73.
 
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The landscape around the Ancre valley and Thiepval is fairly lush, but most of it is agricultural and as far as I am aware there aren’t any significant mainstream tourism attractions about. Here it’s really all about the Somme battle sites.
  
See also under France in general.
   
 
   
  • Thiepval 01 - huge monumentThiepval 01 - huge monument
  • Thiepval 02 - new visitor centre and museumThiepval 02 - new visitor centre and museum
  • Thiepval 03 - commemorative symbolic poppies outsideThiepval 03 - commemorative symbolic poppies outside
  • Thiepval 04 - in the new exhibitionThiepval 04 - in the new exhibition
  • Thiepval 05 - empty shellsThiepval 05 - empty shells
  • Thiepval 06 - trench depictionThiepval 06 - trench depiction
  • Thiepval 07 - front line detailsThiepval 07 - front line details
  • Thiepval 08 - war-archaeological itemsThiepval 08 - war-archaeological items
  • Thiepval 09 - metal poppy from the Tower of London installationThiepval 09 - metal poppy from the Tower of London installation
  • Thiepval 10 - Red BaronThiepval 10 - Red Baron
  • Thiepval 11 - French counterpartThiepval 11 - French counterpart
  • Thiepval 12 - towards the memorialThiepval 12 - towards the memorial
  • Thiepval 13 - main monumentThiepval 13 - main monument
  • Thiepval 14 - Franco-BritishThiepval 14 - Franco-British
  • Thiepval 15 - French and British war cemeteryThiepval 15 - French and British war cemetery
  • Thiepval 16 - under the main monumentThiepval 16 - under the main monument
  • Thiepval 17 - back at the visitor centreThiepval 17 - back at the visitor centre
 
 
 
 
   

 

  
  
  

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