Friday, 11 March 2011

Thinking of Thiepval

For leaning out last midnight on my sill,
I heard the sighs of men, that have no skill
To speak of their distress, no, nor the will!
A voice I know. And this time I must go
from The Calls by Wilfred Owen

It is a place so grand that one hardly feels the ability or the audacity to write about it; Thiepval.

Gavin Stamp's seminal piece on the design and history of Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme goes into far greater detail than I intend. Indeed, his is a most academic of pieces, grounded in architectural theory, albeit with some shaky operational and military history interspliced. All I wish to write is my response.

Thiepval, the monument, is a place that holds both great sadness and great joy for me. It is the symbol of terrible losses, a superbly strategised victory and, on a personal note, the location of my engagement. There is a special significance in the victory that took place around the shell-shattered landscape of the village and château of Thiepval in that three antecedent regiments of my own regiment fought and captured the high ground around the current position of the memorial. The 18th (Eastern) Division captured the German trenches around the château and beyond into the village before playing a major role in the capture of the adjacent Schwaben Redoubt. Within this division were the 8/Norfolk, 8/Suffolk and 10/Essex, the first of which being my county regiment. It is with immense pride that I stand on the monument, wearing my regimental tie, knowing that in some minute way I am part of this history.

It is partly this connection that makes Thiepval so special to me, but only a very small part. There are very few places in the world that overawe me, this is one of them. I am dumbstruck by the scale, by the setting, by the meaning, by the intention, by the continuity and by the elegance of the structure.

The Thiepval Memorial is a profoundly British response. It towers over the landscape, the rolling countryside falling away from it, the plantations of trees reaching up towards it. Yet, it does not dominate in an offensive way. It sits in the landscape, unobtrusive, paternalistic. The burden it carries weighs heavy and is so vast that one cannot imagine the landscape without this structure there to hold it together, to give it meaning.

Underneath the comforting sense of constancy, however, one is filled with the utter horror that nothing one ever does will be enough to repay the price so heavily paid; a price that hangs upon every name adorning the multitude of walls.

The excerpt from the poem talks of a voice, an omnipresent voice that one hears and is guided by. For me Thiepval is this voice. I hear its call and I must go.


  1. Tim,

    This is a beautiful piece. Yes, Thiepval can reduce me to tears: The Missing of the Somme. Those words are the most powerful I have ever read. They proclaim themselves brilliantly.

    So much of what you say on your blog resonates with me. Something about Dantzig Alley disturbs me. Unlike any other cemetery, I feel uncomfortable there. I am not sure why that is.

    I am currently transcribing the War Diaries of the 18th Division. My county regiment are the Buffs, so like you I have a special interest in them. It is a personal project. I need to know exactly what they did, where they did it and how. It really is that simple. I am drawn to it, that voice, perhaps, of which you speak.

    Owen was right. I wonder what shape his work would have taken in later years? Would his task still have been to tell of the 'pity of war'.

    So many stories are left to be told.

  2. Thank you, Steve.

    I am pleased that the piece appealed to you and that you found some connection.

    Best wishes,