In December 2015 a message from the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge arrived in which I, as a relative of a German soldier that fought on the Somme, was invited for the official German commemoration of the 1916 Battle of the Somme on July 1, 2016. Thanks to the Volksbund I did not only get tickets for the German commemoration in Fricourt, but also for the official British/Franco commemoration at Thiepval. I am very grateful to Arne Schrader and Martina Hirdes from the Volksbund for their efforts and patient, friendly communication. Here is my report on our visit to the Somme, July 1 – 3, 2016.
At 07:30 in the morning, on a hectic meeting point in Bapaume, we met the Germans with whom we’d spend the first of July 2016: Mr Keilhofer, his daughter and a journalist from the German Volksbund, Maurice Bonkat. We were expecting more German guests but apparently we were the only ones that made it to the rendezvous. According to Bonkat the prospect of an early departure and a long day waiting made several guests decide not to attend both commemorations. However, the five of us soon formed a dedicated little group.
After a firm security check and some searching up and down the departure ground we found our driver. We all smiled when we took our seats in the huge bus, leaving 90% of its seats unoccupied. Under police escort our bus left for Thiepval in column. Armed policemen hermetically sealed the area surrounding the (six) commemorations that were being held during the day.
The trip took us past places with infamous names like Le Sars and Pozières, past the sector where a relative of our fellow guests died in 1916. When we arrive at our destination Lutyens’ enormous monument for the more than 70.000 British missing on the Somme loomed up. Slightly tensed we got of the bus and headed for the row waiting to get to the ceremonial ground on the east side of the monument.
We are just in time to take place in the first box in front of the monument. Together with our German friends we sit amongst Brits young and old, in uniform and in civilian clothes. Medals and insignia are all around. We wear a blue poppy, the German equivalent of the famous red one.
When the sound of military brass swells from behind we know that the official commemoration is about to commence. In sequence Welsh guards and territorial French troops appear, preceded by their regimental bands. After the impressive parade ritual – which we can see from quite close – high officials appear and finally the heads of state and members of the British Royal house. An artillery salvo heralds the start of the ceremony.
Film: Arrival Welsh Guards
The ceremony proceeds with breath-taking military precision. Poems and letters from the front recited by Charles Prince of Wales, François Hollande (president of the French Republic), David Cameron (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) and soldiers from the Commonwealth, France and Germany, music from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and projected images from the 1916 battle form an intense and moving whole. When halfway through the service light rain sets in, it adds to the overall mood.
The crowd singing along with Abide with me, an Irish piper blowing the lament The Battle of the Somme are just a few of many emotional and touching moments. Arguably the most intense moment occurs when thousands of red poppies and blue cornflowers come down from the top of the monument, in our minds symbolising the souls of the ones that went missing and perished during the ghastly battle 100 years ago.
Film: Abide with me & Lament
After the official commemoration our little group – completed with the British military attaché and a deputy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – is taken to Fricourt at high speed, and again under police escort. In Fricourt the setting is very different than at Thiepval. No plethora of uniforms and medals, no large sound system or camera crews and naturally, no ‘Royals’. There are however a few hundred dedicated visitors, amongst whom relatives of fallen soldiers and local French people.
Here we got to meet another German couple, Mr and Mrs Feger, who were here because of a relative who died on the Somme in July 1916. Although his name – Theodor Feger – was amongst ‘the unknown’ for many years, his remains have recently been identified. Hearing their story was very interesting and emotional.
The ceremony starts when the officials, amongst whom the former President of Germany Horst Köhler and the Major of Fricourt Myriam Demailly, have arrived. Although less impressive in terms of scale than the British/Franco commemoration the German ceremony is nothing less moving. The reciting of Feldpostbriefen (letters from the front) by young soccer players from Liverpool FC and Hertha BSC, the haunting and wonderful music from the Canadian Patricia Hamel, the singing of the choirs and the speech by the President of the Volksbund Markus Meckel in which he emphasised friendship between the European nations leaves a memorable impression.
I’m surprised when during the wreath laying the name of my granduncle Bernhard Kronauer rings out. He fought on the Somme in July 1916 and fell on the Eastern Front September 17, 1916. The same day Adam Keilhofer, our German comrades’ relative, died here on the Somme. His name also rang out over Fricourt Military Cemetery.
19:30, while the band of the Bundeswehr – playing the Regimentsgrüß – leads the procession to the reception in Fricourt Town Hall, heavily armed sharpshooters emerge from the woods. Remembrance and reconciliation over the graves comes at a price in the year 2016.
See here a report on the commemorations by Maurice Bonkat from the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge:
During our days on the Somme we met a lot of interesting, nice and warm people. Although I had been there before a few times it seemed like the commemoration created a special atmosphere. One felt quite connected to one other during the commemorations and whilst visiting former battle sites people seemed more willing than ever to start conversation.
In Deville Wood for instance we met a former British soldier from Northern Ireland that spoke about his sons that were making carrier in the Army and how proud that made him feel. He also explained his stance on the ‘Brexit’: he voted ‘out’ because in his opinion France and mainly Germany dictated EU policy too much. He and his wife were there because his wife’s relative went missing on the Somme and the regiment he was in was involved in the savage fighting in the wood. On our way back home we met an English lady who told us how cross she was with Prince Charles because he was late at the Thiepval commemoration. So cross in fact that she was going to send him a letter about it. We also met the wonderful Andy Hill from Dorset who was walking a pilgrimage from Swiss to the English Channel as homage to Douglas Gillespie, a British soldier KIA in September 1915 (www.viasacrawalk2016.org.uk). Andy bought a copy of Krieg outright. His words “This is part of the journey” demonstrated the relevance of projects like Krieg 1916 and encouraged me in my personal ‘journey’. And of course we met our German friends. I was most impressed by their stories and willingness to share them with us. It somehow made me feel like ‘one of them’.
We met many wonderful people from Germany, Ireland, Newfoundland, England and, of course France. Most remarkable was the story of our French host, Aliénor Golanska. We stayed in a farmhouse at La Sars that was her family’s property from before the war. She showed us the tiny shed that was build right after the war on the place where the original farmhouse had stood, and in which her grandmother was born. The rubble from the devastated old building was buried under the courtyard lawn. Aliénor uses war relics coming from the former battlefield for working the garden. For instance, she uses British bayonets found on the old battlefield for garden construction. To use my friend Franz Keilhofer’s appropriate words on our more or less accidental encounter: “So hat der Krieg nach 100 Jahren noch ein gutes Werk gestiftet” (In this way, after 100 years the war accomplished something good after all).