Thiepval Memorial is a large monument built in honor of the missing. I believe that it was originally built to give the families of the missing somewhere to go to mourn and to see their loved one’s name recognized. I have no way to know for sure if that goal was actually realized for the families of the missing.
Walking up to Thiepval I wasn’t expecting it to be any different than any of the other cemeteries or memorials we had yet to visit. Keep in mind that we visited Thiepval on our second day of the trip and hadn’t experienced much in comparison to the rest of the trip. To give some perspective, Thiepval was the second stop on our second day after Newfoundland Memorial Park and the day before we had visited the Historial de le grand guerre, a cemetery, and the Welsh Mametz Wood Memorial. Looking back it really was not much at all that we had experienced but it had seemed like so much already at the time.
Back to Thiepval, walking up to it I honestly was not expecting it to affect me more than surface level sadness, as the places we visited before that had not. I walked up to it with the prescribed bit of moroseness thinking that I realized the death that it represented while thinking that wouldn’t affect me as no one I am related to fought in World War One and all of the people that the monument was built in honor of have been dead for almost one hundred years now. My basically nonchalant attitude lasted me to about the top step of the monument. Where my thoughts went from, “Wow that’s cool, they put the names of the missing on the outside of the columns around the monument. That’s a lot of names” to “Holy moly, the names surround every single large column supporting this monument.I cannot comprehend the number of names that is.” Here is an example of one of the first columns in the monument:
As I started walking through the 16 columns I found my last name posted on the wall. This was the first time I had seen my last name on anything we had seen so far. That impacted me a lot, especially when the men on the wall shared the same first initial as my dad or Grandfather: J. Burns, T. Burns. Between the first impact of the sheer number of names on the walls and the second when the names became more personal the true feeling of Thiepval fell upon me. I became very somber and reverential of the names while in complete wonder and amazement at the magnitude of them. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the number of names and the idea that these just represented the missing of the British and French troops. There are less missing than found men as far as I know, and that suddenly felt impossible.
This somber attitude was added upon as I happened upon what I think was a British tour group circled around a specific column sharing a moment of silence. I stood and watched for a second, and the leader of the group end the moment with what sounded like a word of prayer for the men on that wall. I don’t know who those tourists were, or where they were from, or if they had any connection to the people on that wall, but that was the most respectful and understanding thing I had seen from a tour bus group the entire trip. With that final impact to my realization of the importance of Thiepval swirling around in my mind, it all came together with the simple question asked by Dr. Hagerman, “How are you doing?” To which I instinctively replied with a thumbs up and then realized my error. I was not two thumbs up, I couldn’t be, not with the thousands of names of the missing dead surrounding me. I amended my answer, to something like this, “I am doing alright considering how sad of a place this is.”
Within our following conversation I realized the true personality of Thiepval. What was first thought to be this glorious monument to the missing stretching in the sky no longer felt like such. Thiepval became heavy and oppressive, with the mass of names surrounding me, the true number of them overwhelming. The columns looked like massive feet stomped into the ground. The entire building seemed to loom above me in its boxy unforgiving way. So much different to the memorial we had seen that morning, Newfoundland, or the memorials we visited later in the trip such as Vimy Ridge. Thiepval was heavier, darker, and more obtrusive to what surrounded it than the others.
That was only enforced as I began noticing Thiepval in the distance almost everywhere else we visited in the Somme. The monument towering over the surrounding trees and being on top of one of the higher hills in the area. Thiepval seemed to loom over the Somme like it watches over it. Like it is watching over the lost bodies that are named on its walls. In a way, I guess that could be comforting, that Thiepval is watching over those that are lost, but it gives me the creeps. While writing this I can’t get the image of Thiepval walking around on it’s many columns through the fields finding the lost dead. I don’t know if that is due to Thiepval itself or my overactive imagination, but either way, it is creepy.
Can you spot Thiepval? The first is from Mill Road Cemetery, the second from Hawthorne Ridge.
Over the next couple of days I started to doubt the comfort Thiepval was supposed to provide for the families of the missing. Yes, they may have a spot to see their son’s, husband’s, brother’s name on the wall, a spot to go to mourn them. In reality, though, their loved one’s name is just one of thousands, all of which do not have a known grave. Their loved one is just one of the thousands piled onto that monument. It may be a place for the missing’s family to grieve but it cannot be special to them and to their family, they share that same space in front of the panel their loved one’s name appears on with at least 30 other grieving families. For me, sympathizing for those families, I don’t know if that would be any comfort at all.
Whether or not any of these conjectures are true, or were intended by the architect, Thiepval was an incredibly impacting place for me. It was the first place that really put magnitude of the lives lost in perspective. It was the first place that I found that personal connection to the war despite knowing that I probably am not even distantly related to any of the Burns on those walls. In that way, Thiepval did its job. Thiepval made me realize the true tragedy of the war, and in the end that is what matters. To make visitors see those that are remembered there and realize just how many gave up their lives in World War One and to appreciate that in a whole new way.