Sir Edwin's Lutyens' 'Monument to the Missing of the Somme' at ThiepvalThe Battle of the Somme began early in the morning of 1 July 1916. It was an Anglo-French campaign fought over four and half months through the summer and autumn of 1916 across a front which stretched some forty-five kilometres from north to south.
During the course of that campaign, British and French armies advanced twelve kilometres at the point of their greatest gain, but still failed to capture either of their two target towns, Bapaume and Peronne.
Casualties (dead, wounded, missing, captured) amounted to about 420,000 for the British, 200,000 for the French, and 580,000 for the Germans.
Those bare statistics contain some figures of local interest. For example, six of the 42 members of St Peter's Parish in Marlborough who died in the war were killed on the Somme.
The numbers from Marlborough College are even more heart-breaking: twenty former members of the College died on the first day alone, and another ninety before the fighting in that part of France was over.
There was not a community in the country left untouched by this Battle.
If the battle failed to achieve the much-heralded "break-through", it did succeed in one of its objectives, namely saving the French at Verdun. During the course of the following winter the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, surrendering five times as much territory as the British and French armies had won the previous year, and adopting an essentially defensive strategy until the spring of 1918.
The Lutyens monument, which sits astride the Thiepval Ridge at a point where the British took three months to advance less than half a mile, commemorates the 72,000 missing of the Somme, those who have no known grave. Ninety per cent of those men died between July and November 1916.
Stone marking Devonshire Trench: buried there are 163 men killed on 1 July 2016 during their attack on Mametz villageIt is an imposing memorial whose "precise geometry and intellectual imagination subverts and elevates the simple form of the triumphal arch into a meditation on war and loss". Guarded by redoubts - fortress-like entrenchments on the crest of the ridge - thousands of British troops died in the course of wresting Thiepval village from German control.
Further north, other villages made equally impregnable by the steep slopes of the River Ancre's valley, likewise blocked the advance of the British forces. One village only falling in November and another remaining in German hands after the battle was over.
How the Allied line advanced in the direction of Bapaume (click to enlarge)What success was achieved on this part of the front came largely as a result of the threat to the German defenders of being outflanked by the eventual fall of the village of Pozieres on the Albert-Bapaume road, the capture of Mouquet Farm, and the partial successes of the battle of Flers-Courcelette in late September.
Prior to this it had taken the Australians forty-five days and nineteen separate assaults at a cost of over 27,000 casualties to capture Pozieres which dominated the central part of the ridge against which the British soldiers had to advance across the entire length of their part of the front line from their starting point on July 1.
Despite blowing mines to dislodge the Germans from their strong defensive positions at La Boiselle, progress up both Sausage and Mash valleys either side of the road to Pozieres was slow and costly. Charles Edmonds in A Subaltern's War described the scene at the village of Ovillers just two weeks after the first attack went in: "Among the wire lay rows of khaki figures as they had fallen to the machine guns on the crest, thick as sleepers in Green Park on summer Sunday evenings."
The aftermath of war: the remains of Delville WoodFurther south and east where the slopes were less steep and the German defences weaker, there had been initial success against other villages, but further progress in this sector was hindered by large thick concentrations of trees - Mametz Wood, Delville Wood and High Wood - where it proved almost impossible to break the German stranglehold on the surrounding land.
At Mametz the 38 (Welsh) Division suffered 4,000 killed or wounded in the course of just six days. In a similar period of time, three quarters of the South African troops who tried to capture Delville Wood became casualties. And High Wood survived for over six weeks in German hands despite persistent but limited attacks which feature in Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That.
Beyond Maricourt and Guillemont either side of the River Somme the French were having greater success, thanks to the greater effectiveness of their artillery bombardment, the relative weakness of the German opposition, and the strength, skill and co-ordination of their infantry attacks.
They were, however, somewhat distracted by events at Verdun, and when the Germans brought up additional troops from that battle the French advance slowed. The village of Rancourt, one of the many such places devastated during French offensive and German defensive operations, is now an important site of remembrance, with its vast military cemetery, containing the graves of 8,566 Frenchmen.
Railway Hollow Cemetery with the graves of 107 Commonwealth soldiers (44 of them unidentified) killed in the battle - and two French war gravesThe Battle of the Somme began on a glorious summer day - July 1, 1916 - when in the short break between the lifting of the artillery bombardment and the infantry advance at 7.30am, soldiers reported hearing the skylarks singing - they still do in the poppy-strewn fields where the cemeteries mark out the line that was no-man's land one hundred years ago.
The Battle ended in the dreariness and dampness of a very soggy October and November when those same fields had been reduced to muddy quagmires, when the trees had been smashed to stumps and the villages crushed to piles of rubble.
In popular mythology the Battle encapsulates all that is seen to have been wrong with that war, indeed many wars - pointless but heroic sacrifice under the dubious leadership of at best distant, and at worst incompetent, commanders - the epitome of "lions led by donkeys".
In truth it was the point at which armies on both sides learnt the very painful lessons of this new form of industrial warfare, and began to devise the necessary strategies and tactics both to pursue it and to combat it.
[Photos courtesy of David du Croz - with thanks. Click on photos to enlarge them.]
A new Marlborough tradition has been born at St Peter's Church: they mark thirty national days and anniversaries of relevant events each year by flying the appropriate flag, standard or arms. This tradition began some years after the Church was declared redundant in 1974. A Trust now runs the Church on a 99-year lease from the Diocese of Salisbury.
St Peter's 'flag days' vary from the day Thomas Wolsey was ordained in this church (10 March 1498) to the ten days of the Battle of Britain and back to the day King John granted Marlborough its Charter (20 June 1204.) As people often ask why an unfamiliar flag is flying over St Peter's, we are publishing the full list below.
They also fly flags to mark specific anniversaries. On Bank Holiday Monday (May 30) the White Ensign was flying to mark the day HMS Marlborough was adopted by the town - one of the regular days. This year the Ensign is staying aloft for two more days to mark the hundredth anniversary of the important First World War naval engagement, the Battle of Jutland - in which the battleship HMS Marlborough played a significant role.
Some of the these flags and standards are regular ones you can buy, but many of the flags flown over St Peter's are so esoteric that they are specially made - by Marlborough resident, former ceremonial officer and embroiderer David Sherratt. He also made the new banners in the Church.
A specially designed 1914-1918 War remembrance flag - designed by David Sherratt - is being flown to mark the hundredth anniversary of days on which individual Parishoners were killed during that war.
Major York with the flag of the Shakepeare Family Arms Another example of David Sherratt's work is the Shakespeare Family Arms. This is flown on May 3 to mark Shakespeare's birthday (1564).
This is often celebrated on April 23 - which is inconvenient for as it conflicts with St George's Day - and that day certainly needs a flag. However, by using the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced during Shakespeare's lifetime, his birthday slides neatly forward to May 3.
The man who looks after the flags and often raises and lowers them, is Major Jeremy York, St Peter's Constable of the Tower. He also organises - and often conducts - the tours of the church tower. Some 1,500 a year make the climb raising about £2,000 towards the Church's upkeep.
It is a fairly cramped climb up 137 steps to the top, but it is well worth it for the history you pass on the way up and the amazing views from the top.
1966: the bigger bells were removed from the Tower The surviving bell The clock - still punctual after all those years John Bayly was here
Even on a dull Bank Holiday Monday, once you are 100 feet above street level the views of the town and its surroundings are a revelation. You certainly get a unique view of the Marlborough Mound.
This Mound is hidden away in Marlborough College grounds and has only recently been proved to date from the same era as Neolithic Silbury Hill. Later it was used by the Normans to raise the castle's keep above the homes of the hoi polloi. And later still, the stone from the castle was used to build St Peter's Church.
Did you know the High Street curls so much? View from St Peter's Tower of the Marlborough Mound [Click on images to enlarge them]
As you climb the tower you pass through The Priests's Room (where the flags are stored), the ringing chamber (from which they used to ring the bells), the clock room (with its working clock), the belfry (now with just one bell) and so to the tower roof itself.
At one point you can see the signature of John Bayly - once of the Merchants House - inscribed into the wall. Other graffiti are more recent and not so interesting!
The church's bells were removed in 1966 because their great weight was damaging the tower. Only the smaller Sanctus or curfew bell remains - it was cast in 1741. It now provides the chimes for the clock.
The clock was made by a Shropshire company in the very early years of the twentieth century. It is regularly serviced by an expert who says it will not need a major overhaul for another 150 years.
It is known that a church on the site was dedicated to St Peter in 1223. It was rebuilt in about 1460 - taking some of its stone from the castle. In the later sixteenth century the dedication was changed to 'St Peter and St Paul' - and although the Trust bears both saints' names, it is now known once again as St Peter's Church
Tours of the tower are available most Saturdays and Bank Holidays between Easter and early October, and are possible at other times by appointment via the St Peter's website. St Peter's The charge (at the time of writing) is £2 for adults and £1 for accompanies children. And once down again, there is a very good café in the Church serving good pick-you-up coffee - and very good cake.
St Peter's Church schedule of regular flag raisings through the year:
26 January Australia Day Australian national flag
5 February Waitangi Day New Zealand national
6 February Accession of HM The Queen Union flag
March (varies) Commonwealth Day Union flag
1 March St David's Day Welsh national flag
10 March Ordination of Thomas Wolsey
(1498 at St Peter's Church) Wolsey's Arms
17 March St Patrick's Day St Patrick saltire
21 April Birthday of HM The Queen (1926) Union flag
23 April St George's Day Flag of St George
3 May Birthday of William
Shakespeare (1564) Shakespeare family arms
19 May Marlborough Charter Day -
Queen Elizabeth I (1576) Royal arms of Elizabeth I
25 May Wessex Day Flag of Wessex
30 May HMS Marlborough adopted by Union flag or
the Town White Ensign
2 June HM the Queen's Coronation (1953) Union flag
June (varies)Official birthday of HM the Queen Union flag
15 June Sealing of Magna Carta Royal standard of King John
20 June Marlborough Charter Day - King Royal Standard of
John (1204) King John
June (varies) Armed Forces Day Union flag
29 June St Peter's Day Flag of St Peter
1 July Dominion Day Canadian national flag
4 July USA Independence day Stars and stripes
3 September Merchant Navy Day Red Ensign
6-15 September Battle of Britain RAF Association Standard
21 October Trafalgar Day (1805) Union flag or White Ensign
25 October St Crispin's Day (Battle of
Agincourt - 1415) Flag of St George
26 October Death of King Alfred the
Great (899) Flag of Wessex
November (varies)Remembrance Sunday Union flag
11 November Armistice Day (1918) Union flag
29 November Death of Cardinal Wolsey (1530) Wolsey's Arms
30 November St Andrew's Day St Andrew Saltire
(St Peter's flag is also flown on days associated with the Trust that looks after the church.)