Lest We Forget
Arnaud Lequeulx profiles two linked collections in France that tell the story of the Battle of the Somme – one of World War One’s bloodiest campaigns.
For many people, the fighting at the Somme in 1916 typifies the horrors and futility of the ‘war to end all wars’, as it was later somewhat optimistically known. The five-month battle started badly for the British in July 1916, with 57,000 casualties on the first day alone and, by November, just seven miles (12km) of ground had been taken and the hoped-for breakthrough was as far away as ever. The Allies suffered 620,000-plus casualties and the German losses were at least 450,000 either dead or wounded.
After the conflict finished in 1918, the battlefields in the Somme area were visited by the families and friends of the fallen, and have since become places of reflection, with vast cemeteries, the preserved remains of trenches and memorials.
At the heart of France’s remembrance of those who fought at the Somme are two museums created by the Département de la Somme in 1992. Known collectively as the Historial Museum of the Great War (Historial coming from the words history and memorial), the collections are based at Péronne and Thiepval in northern France. With a pioneering, international approach, the Historial interweaves the British, French and German perspectives of the conflict. Research conducted by historians of all nationalities has been based on a cultural approach to the war, focusing on the people, soldiers and civilians who endured its violence.
“With a pioneering, international approach, the Historial interweaves the British, French and German perspectives of the conflict”
The Historial’s collection, consisting of 70,000 objects and original documents, provides a rich source of material for the permanent and temporary exhibitions. The items displayed at the museums are mainly historical accounts, illustrating the daily lives of the soldiers and civilians during the conflict. These include military equipment, handmade objects from the trenches, industrial products, newspapers, posters, caricatures, letters, postcards, illustrated plates, games and toys, food ration cards, artwork, photographs and films: these personal and collective items from the Great War recreate the life of soldiers and civilians, British, French and German alike.
For the rest of this museum review please see the October issue of Britain at War – in the UK shops today.
The museums are open every day from April 1 to October 31 from 9.30am to 6pm. From November 1 to March 31 they are open from 9.30am to 5pm (closed on Wednesdays). The museums are usually closed around Christmas and New Year – readers are urged to check the website for details and for the latest information on opening times/days before travelling. Admission is charged. Contact: Musée de Péronne, Château de Péronne, Place André Audinot, 80200 Péronne, France. Tel: (+33) (0)3 22 83 14 18. Thiepval Museum, 8 rue de l’Ancre, 80300, Thiepval, France. Tel: (+33) (0)3 22 74 60 47. www.historial.fr