Ceremonies mark Battle of the Somme

OFFICERS wept, families traced the steps of fallen relatives and church bells tolled across northern France over the weekend to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, one of history’s worst bloodbaths.

Ceremonies around the world honoured the soldiers of some 20 nationalities who died in — and those who survived — the British-led push against German forces. Thousands of Irish soldiers were among the dead.

Four months of vicious trench warfare ravaged the gentle hills of the Somme region and left more than 1.2 million on both sides dead, wounded or held prisoner.

The battle has nearly receded from living memory, but its legacy remains. Monuments — from simple markers to major museums — in the wheat fields and towns of the Somme serve as a reminder of how the Great War changed Europe forever, and how young European unity is.

Britain feels the battle’s scars most deeply. July 1, 1916, was the deadliest day the British army ever saw, leaving 20,000 victims.

Britain led allied forces into battle hoping to end 18 months of deadlock with a decisive Allied victory over German forces and relieve pressure on the French army at Verdun. Yet when it ended in November 18, Britain had only advanced about six miles.

“I’m quite glad that there are Germans here today,” said Richard Allen, a Briton who recently discovered a relative had been killed at the Somme and came to Saturday’s ceremony at Thiepval Memorial.

The German ambassador to France laid a wreath at Thiepval, and a German general attending a ceremony honoured a Canadian regiment that saw two-thirds of its troops killed or incapacitated in the first half-hour of fighting in the Somme.

In Dublin on Saturday President Mary McAleese laid a wreath during the historical service at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens.

Attended by 800 dignitaries, it was the first official State ceremony in the Republic to mark the courage and bravery of those who gave their lives in the battle.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the Lord Mayor, TDs and members of the Defence Force, gathered in the sunshine to honour the tens of thousands of people who fell in the bloody battle in northern France in 1916.

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