Day two saw the group visit the Somme Battlefield starting at the incredible yet harrowing Thiepval Memorial where 72,000 missing soldiers are remembered. Here we were met by Commonwealth War Graves Commission Intern and rugby fan Olivia Smith, who at the age of 21, took us through a detailed and bespoke tour of the site focusing on the rugby players Jack King, Lancelot Slocock, Rupert Inglis and Alfred Maynard who were commemorated on the memorial. The group were left staggered by the sheer scale of sacrifice. The group left Thiepval where the England Internationals were commemorated, to move onto Guillemont, the site of the battle in which they were lost. Here Phil McGowan was able to talk us through the battles and the deaths of each international rugby player. Truly humbling.
The penultimate location was the Guards’ Cemetery at Lesboeufs, where we had the honour to see our charity’s patron Mike Tindall be introduced to his relative Harry Tindall who had been killed during the fighting. Phil talked through the action in which Harry had been killed and it highlighted to us all the impact of the war upon every family in British society, and the ubiquitous nature of the First World War.
The final site that was visited was the South African Memorial at Delville Wood, where the South African Division distinguished themselves. Historian Peter Jones took the group through the action which saw the South African Division holding a wood which was overwhelmed by German artillery leading to a 80% casualty rate of all units entering the wood. It was here that the multi-national nature of the forces involved on the Western Front came to life with rugby players from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand showing the same bravery, leadership and selflessness that had been common to all those rugby players we had commemorated. We were then shown the sole surviving tree from Delville Wood. It now stands protected, yet growing and green with leaves. A perfect way to end what had been two days of moving and emotional accounts of bravery and sacrifice, signifying that throughout the destruction and hell of war, life will find a way to continue and renew.
As we commemorate the Armistice Centenary, we remember and say thank you to all those who gave everything in the First World War. In this important anniversary year we must also remember and understand the challenges faced by those who survived the war and their families. 100 years on, a generation of soldiers today face the transition into society after experiencing the horrors of war…. the challenges haven’t changed!