As you travel along the main road from Albert to Pozières (the axis of the 1916 battlefield) it is impossible to miss the massive brick structure on the ridge to your left.
The Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval sits on the Leipzig Redoubt, the scene of much fierce fighting throughout the period of the battle from July to November 1916.
I remember thinking on my first visit as I drove up the hill past Mouquet Farm to the village: “We lost all those men for three farms, two houses, a church and not even a café !”
Pictures from the time show, however, that Thiepval was one of the larger villages in the area and provided the German defenders with almost a hundred buildings, including the local château that
they could fortify.
The first casualty of Thiepval was a Frenchman (Boromée Vaquette) who was shot by accident by the French as the German army arrived in the area on 27 September 1914.
The battlefields were so churned by artillery shells that bodies that had been marked were destroyed or grave sites were lost in subsequent shelling. Many bodies that were recovered years later had often decomposed beyond recognition and so families were denied a place that they could focus their thoughts upon.
These same hills were to see further fighting as the German army launched their Kaiserschlacht — the Kaiser’s Battle — on 21st March 1918. In days they retook all that they had lost in five months of hard fighting by the Allies.
Five months later in August 1918, they themselves were hurled back in the final Hundred Days of the war.
The Visitors’ Centre at Thiepval was opened in September 2004 and offers plenty of information, a book shop and most importantly for the weary traveller – toilets.
There are two memorials to the missing of the Somme. One at Pozières which details those casualties from the battles of 1918, and this memorial which includes those from the battles of 1916 up until the German offensive in March 1918. The vast majority of those commemorated are from the 1916 battle.
Following the end of the war the decision was made to raise a fitting tribute to all those British and South African soldiers who had died in the battle of the Somme but have no known grave.
The architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was already involved in creating the cemeteries for the Imperial War Graves Commission and submitted his design for a memorial in brick.
Construction began in 1927 and the memorial was unveiled by the Prince of Wales on 31 July 1932.
The memorial sits on the Leipzig Redoubt, but contrary to myth, not on the site of the old château. The only ground that is higher along this section of the front is that of the Schwaben Redoubt, scene of fighting by the 36th (Ulster) Division.
Over 72 000 names are inscribed on the Portland stone panels that surround the base. It is reckoned that 90% of these are from the First Battle of the Somme. I should also point out that these are men from British and South African Units. There are memorials to the missing of other Empire troops in other places.