Visiting World War 1 Graves on the Somme

A little village in the Somme. You may have heard of it, Villers – Bretonneux.

As an Australian expat living in Germany,  I could not pass up the opportunity to take the six hour drive from our home in western Germany to France, to visit the Somme and other sites of the infamous Western Front.

What surprised me is that the Somme is just farmland. There is nothing significant about it except that it is on the way to Paris if you are coming from the north or Belgium. There are no major buildings, financial districts, armament factories or major railways. Nothing. Yet the Somme was the scene of 52 months of incredibly brutal battles that caused a massive number of deaths.

As we drove around the fields of wheat and canola I noticed there were numerous British, Canadian, American, New Zealand and Australian war cemeteries but fewer French or German sites. Yet the number of military dead from France and Germany was higher than other countries. Here are the numbers:

Total number of military dead and missing from the Western Front in WW1 by country.

  1. Britain               744,000

    Graves at the Australian War Memorial in the Somme.
  2. Australia             61,531
  3. New Zealand     18,166
  4. Canada               56,638
  5. South Africa         7,121
  6. India                   64,449
  7. America            53, 402
  8. France           1,150,000
  9. Germany      1,800,000

Sources: Australian War Memorial and Wikipedia

Two rows of mass graves with some individual graves in front of them, at a German World War One military cemetery in the Somme.

 

So what happened to all of the French and German casualties? Faced with such large numbers of dead, the French and German authorities made the heartbreaking decision to bury many bodies in mass graves. Those graves are marked by plaques listing all of the men lying underneath.

Britain and her Allies on the other hand, made the decision in 1919 when they went back to clear the battlefields, that every man should have their own grave. They dug up some of the rudimentary graves next to battle sites and reinterred the bodies in specially built memorials. All were given stone headstones. All of these graves are meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

We visited a German military cemetery. We parked on the little used road verge since there was no pristine car park such as those next to the Allied cemeteries. We wandered the slightly overgrown paths and thought, ‘What choice did these young men have, but to fight as told?’

Inscribed in the Menin Gate are the names of thousands who were never found.

Many men were never found.  Bombing and artillery efficiency was improved during the course of World War 1 and for thousands, nothing remained of them that was identifiable after the battle. If they were British or Commonwealth soldiers, their names are inscribed on the huge Menin Gate in Belgium. With improvements in techniques such as DNA identification, some men are now being ‘found’ and the Commonwealth War graves Commission regularly holds rededication ceremonies.

We went to as many cemeteries as we could, to pay our respects. There were many for us to choose from and we did not see them all. It was a sombre visit to France, we toured around by day and drank to forget by night. Our visit was only made tolerable by the kindness of the French people of the Somme who to this day say they are grateful.

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