Between 1 July and 18 November 1916, more than three million men met on the battlefields around the River Somme in northern France for what would come to be one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
Over a million men, from all sides, were killed, wounded or missing by the end of the Somme Offensive. When conditions allowed, soldiers buried their fallen comrades with as much dignity as they could muster, but many of those who died at the Somme were lost without trace or could not be identified.
These men were not to be forgotten though; they would be honoured in their own special way. Every one of their names – and there are more than 72,000 of them – would be inscribed on the great Thiepval Memorial, the largest and probably the grandest of all of the Commonwealth war memorials in the world.
This site also has special significance to me because my grandfather fought in the First World War, and was actually stationed just across the river from Thiepval.
He was injured in a battle there less than a year before the Battle of the Somme began. If he hadn’t been sent home, then he could very well have become one of the names engraved on those walls.
The Thiepval Memorial was designed by one of the most brilliant architects of the early 20th century, Sir Edwin Lutyens, and was unveiled to the world in 1932.
Standing 140 ft tall, it towers over the French countryside – as the respected architect Gavin Stamp once described it – ‘not an arch but a tower of arches’.
The memorial was designed to be 180 feet tall, but the French did not want it to stand higher than the Arc De Triomphe in Paris
In this breathtaking piece of architecture, the warm tones of the red brick stand out boldly against the cool Portland Stone that carries the 72,000 names. Over the years weather took its toll, made worse by the height and elevation of the monument, and in 2015 the CWGC began an 18 month long restoration project. Its mission was to restore the memorial back to its original beauty and glory, and this was to be done in time for the centenary of the battle in July of 2016.
Since one of my aims in this design was to use as much authentic material from CWGC cemeteries and memorials around the world, I was so excited when I was told that some of the stock used in the Thiepval restoration was still left in storage, and that we could use it.
cost almost £2 million
Bricks from that stock will form the front wall and the platform skirting within the CWGC Centenary Garden, and will be topped with repurposed Portland Stone, creating a small echo of the great memorial on the Somme.
These bricks come from the local Flanders region and are each made by hand, adding to the incredible wealth of craftsmanship that has gone into this Artisan Garden. They also, like so many other parts of the garden, carry something of the history that it represents.