The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp

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The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A surprisingly readable book which covers not only the architecture of this stunning monument but also the background to the First World War, Sir Edwin Lutyens and war graves and memorials in general. It's highly recommended by Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861978967

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For Britain the defining moment of the First World War was on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. There were sixty thousand British casualties that day with twenty thousand dead. The memorial at Thiepval is dedicated to the 'Missing of the Somme' with the names of over seventy-three thousand men whose bodies were never identified out of the four hundred and twenty thousand casualties from this largely futile campaign. I tried to think of those men as individuals with families, friends and a lifetime ahead of them and the scale of the butchery came home to me.

When I started reading this book I did wonder if I was taking my pleasure a bit too sadly. A book about a war memorial and butchery on this scale seemed unlikely to be easy reading. I expected the book to be interesting and informative: what I didn't anticipate is that it would be a compelling read which would leave me wanting to know more and to see the memorial. This is entirely due to the passion with which Gavin Stamp writes. Despite dealing with some horrendous facts and figures and quite a bit of architectural detail it's not at all dry and is a surprisingly good read.

The memorial means little unless you have some background to the First World War and the Somme campaign in particular. What Stamp provides is a background outline on the basis that the war has been well-covered elsewhere, but even with no prior knowledge at all, you'll know enough to make the most of the rest of the book. He pulls no punches with regard to 'the repellent figure of Douglas Haig' and his responsibility for the slaughter. He also establishes exactly what this memorial is: it's distinguished from the graves which mark those bodies which could be identified and also from monuments which commemorate a victory. The memorial at Thiepval is quite simply a memorial to the men who fought in these fields and whose bodies were never found, to the appalling loss of almost an entire generation of young men.

The architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, is perhaps better known for some of his other work - his co-operation with Gertrude Jekyll to produce some memorable houses or the extensive building in New Delhi, but to my mind Thiepval is his best work along with the cenotaph in Whitehall. Lutyens was known as a sad comedian in his lifetime with people tending to avoid him because of the need to sympathetically laugh along with him, which could be so wearing.

The design for the memorial came about because of the need for wall space in a reasonably cost-effective manner. It takes a lot of wall-space to record over 73,000 names but the eventual cost was £1:11s:0d per name. Many men who had survived thought that the money might have been better spent in kick-starting industry after the war, so that the heroes who had fought to make a world fit for heroes were not left destitute and with no way of making a living. It would seem a pity that both could not have been done as the memorial has now stood for more than seventy years and has brought comfort to those who lost family and friends. It's not without irony either that it wasn't long after the memorial was completed that the same land was to be fought over again, suggesting that we never really learn from our mistakes.

There's an excellent map which allows you to visualise the sites of the battles and, most usefully, directions as to how you can get to see the memorial. It can be visited in a day trip from London on EuroStar.

There are just a couple of niggles about the book. I would have liked a glossary for some of the architectural terms. In the event I had to do quite a bit of Googling - which isn't always convenient when you're reading in bed in the early hours of the morning! I've a minor quibble too about the photographs. These are placed alongside the relevant text and I appreciated their immediacy, but they lacked the clarity of photographs and drawings printed on a semi-gloss paper. It's a minor niggle though and on balance I probably preferred to have them available as I was reading.

I didn't expect to get so much enjoyment from this book. It left me enthused and wanting to know more. It's part of Profile Books' excellent series on Wonders of the World which focuses on some of the world's most famous sites or monuments. You might like to read our reviews of Simon Bradley's St Pancras Station or The Rosetta Stone by John Ray from the series.

My thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

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Magda said:

I still keep forgetting how fundamental the WW1 is to British psyche and history, and how many more casualties it caused.