Memorial Day From UK Perspective By Andy Sharp

The Somme American Cemetery, France.

With the approach of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War here in the UK there has been resurgence in interest in the history of the conflict. New TV documentaries and films, commemorative events, specially commissioned museum displays and exhibits and tours to the battlefields catering for any depth of interest in the conflict have never been more popular. American involvement in the European war did not start until April 1917 so it could be that US commemoration won’t start or reach the same level of interest until 2017.

The centenary has also sparked a lot of family history interest here in the UK. My own family on both my mother and fathers side had great grandfathers who fought here somewhere. As yet I have not researched this properly but it’s only a matter of time before I find out their history after visiting this region. My next door neighbour has a picture of the gravestone of his great uncle killed in action during the last Somme offensive.

A friend and I went on a bespoke tour guided by a former Welsh Guards officer in November 2013 for 10 days to visit the British battlefields but also touching on the French, Canadian, Australian and American sectors which were relevant to the British actions in Northern France and Western Belgium. Visiting some of the World War One battlefields has been something my friend and I have long wanted to do and we were not disappointed.

The Somme is infamous for the slaughter of British and Commonwealth soldiers in the various campaigns across this area throughout the conflict but of particular interest to U.S. readers is the Somme American cemetery. The Somme is forever associated with British loss and sacrifice but I suspect hardly anyone would realise that American soldiers also fought and died alongside their British comrades in this region too and they are buried in an immaculately kept cemetery near Bony in Northern France. American forces fought under British and French command between May and October 1918 seeing action during the last German offensive of the war – Operation Michael.

Looking towards the centre of the Somme American Cemetery. It was cold, damp and rather gloomy during our visit.

The Somme American cemetery has 1844 graves laid out with milimetric precision in four plots divided up by pathways radiating out from a central flagpole. As with the British & Commonwealth cemeteries the grounds are kept in an immaculate condition and there is a resident U.S. presence at the Somme cemetery to ensure it’s maintained to a high standard and to help U.S. visitors find their relatives headstone.  At the end of the longest pathway is a memorial chapel with the names of 333 missing in action. Only one other couple were there during our visit but inspecting the visitor’s book on the way out, there were hundreds of signatories from the U.S. who had paid their respects either as tourists or deliberate visitors.

Some of the missing listed on the chapel wall. Sadly several were killed just days from the end of the war. Pretty well all the States had someone commemorated on this wall.

Amongst the plots is Medal of Honor recipient First Lieutenant William Bradford Turner who commanded a small group of men who had become separated from the rest of their company. Despite this he and his small group continued attacking successive trench-lines and knocking out machine gun posts before finally being surrounded and killed.

First Lieutenant William Bradford Turners headstone in immaculate condition

The grounds were originally a temporary burial site after the Somme battles but after the war the French government gifted the ground in perpetuity to the U.S. as a permanent cemetery and memorial site.

Perhaps in 3 years time when the centenary of America’s involvement in the First World War comes round there will also be a resurgence of interest in the U.S. for a war that has probably been overshadowed by the bigger and more protracted commitments of the Second World War. In the UK due to the huge numbers of men called up for King and Country  most families  have a distant relative who fought in the Great War or was intimately involved in it. Tracing their regiments, where they fought and fell and what their contribution or sacrifice was is a fascinating subject and I am sure the ordinary Americans appetitive for family history will be insatiable if the U.S. civil war is anything to go by. A visit to these cemetery and memorial sites is highly recommended.

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