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Abide With Me: A Remembrance of the Somme’s Dead

November 11, 2009

Today, 11/11 at 11:11 a.m., Armistice Day, we bring you a memorial in song, photographs and poetry to recall those who died in the Somme during the “Great War” of 1914-1918. Start by opening this hymn, sweetly sung by the boychoir of St. Paul Cathedral, and listen to it as you scroll.

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An independent Commonwealth dominion until 1948, when it joined Canada, Newfoundland sent its own force of 801, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, to fight the Hun. All but 68 of them died on July 1, 1916, at Beaumont-Hamel, where this monument depicts a wild caribou, the regiment’s icon.

Newfoundlanders monument at Beaumont-Hamel, Somme

The Newfie boys were ordered “over the top” of their trenches and into a hellish landscape of barbed wire and machine gun fire in an effort to take a ravine, known to experts as “the Y,” below.


The imposing hilltop memorial near Thiepval in France’s Somme Valley, Britain’s largest war memorial, bears the engraved names — also listed in thick notebooks — of 72,189 World War I soldiers whose bodies were never found.

Photo from Brenda Slater on Flickr.

These deaths occurred in the Somme alone, just one sector of the European front, and only through March 20, 1918. For the sake of comparison, the number of American missing, or MIAs, in the entire Vietnam conflict numbered 2,646 when prisoners of war were repatriated in 1973. There were 78,000 American missing after World War II and 8,000 MIAs in the Korean War.

Casualties remembered at Thiepval include H.H. Munro, the writer known as Saki, aged 45, and the grandson of Charles Dickens.

In Flanders Fields

Here is the poem perhaps directly responsible for the association of the poppy flower (coquelicot, in French) with remembrance.  So many have heard just its first two lines, but how many recognize it as one of the few well known poems from the notorious Western Front to urge the war’s pursuit as a way to honor the dead?

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up your quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

Its exhortation not to break faith, accompanied by the uplifting image of passed torch, echoes for me today’s voices calling, rightly or wrongly, for victory in Afghanistan and Iraq as a way to honor those who have died there.

John McCrae died at the front, of pneumonia, on January 28, 1918.


At Vimy Ridge, site of a hardwon Canadian battle, you can see not only the tall white spires of an official monument, but also the trenches themselves. Reinforced and tidied up for public access (the “sandbags” now are concrete) and pleasantly grassy, they slice into a hilly landscape surrounded by grazing sheep and several stands of gentle pines. Entering the woods is forbidden, however, on account of the live ordnance that still lies beneath their branches.

Vimy Trenches by Pir6mon on Wikimedia Commons.

Forces from several countries had tried to dislodge the Germans dug into the strategically located fort at Vimy in 1917. When the Canadians finally took it, at a cost of 60,000 lives, the victory helped solidify a nascent national pride.

The Germans soon recaptured the ridge. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dorothy M. permalink
    November 13, 2009 10:24 pm

    Beautiful. You captured it.


  1. Dulce et Decorum Est — of Poppies and Wreaths « AngloFiles

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