On the 1st July this year, I was very fortunate and privileged in being able to attend the service to commemorate the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme fought in First World War. The service was held at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and it was attended by about 10,000 members of the public mainly by from Britain, France, Ireland, and some Commonwealth countries.
As I was allocated two tickets in mid-April, I found that the only way for me to attend the event was to travel with a coach travel company on a battlefield tour, and consequently travelled with Leger Holidays, who provided a very good package. We were based in Lille, and as well as taking all those who had tickets for the Centenary Service to Thiepval, we were also given a truncated tour of the Somme Battlefield the day before the Service and day after. The battlefield guide was Marc Hope, a retired serviceman, and was very knowledgeable and imparted it very well. He’d even heard of my Gt. Gt. Uncle, Robert William Thacker, who was the oldest serving British Tommie in the First World War, and that did surprise me!
On the day of the Service, as we were based in Lille and had to be processed through French and British security near Albert at 7.30 in the morning, we were all given a wake-up call at 4.30, and most of our party were fighting sleep the rest of the day.
The service was held in the presence of the following dignitaries:
Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Henry of Wales, Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, M. Manuel Valls, Prime Minister of the French Republic, David Cameron, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Horst Kohler, Former President of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Most of the people who attended the service found it rather moving, and although the seating was far from satisfactory (the seating was placed on duck-boards facing up-hill and the only way of seeing what was happening was too stand-up and obscure the view for people behind you) the proceedings were shown on large screens around the whole area.
Also, on the tour were some local people from the Dickleburgh branch of the RBL who I’d never met before. They were John Roberts from Long Stratton, and the Rev. Norman Steer and Rosemary, his wife from Starston, and as I as by myself, they invited me to team up with them, for which I was extremely grateful. After the service we were allowed to place wreaths on the Cross of Sacrifice at the front of the Memorial. However, there was a bit of a melee in front of the Cross, as over a hundred people tried to place their wreaths, but the RBL group and myself managed to lay our wreaths. Mine was from our branch of the RNA, and I was very proud and moved when placing it at the foot of the Cross of Sacrifice.
Whist having some refreshments after the event, I got into conversation with another male guest, who was wearing three sets of medals. One set was his own, and the other two, which weren’t his. One set had a Military Cross and the other a Military Medal, and on scrutinising them I noticed that the guest was wearing a Special Operations tie. When I asked him if he knew our Stuart Fidler, he said that he did, had been his CO, and that his name was Phil Jones. Is that true, Stuart?
As said above, I was allocated two tickets, and had intended that Eileen, my wife, should accompany me to the event as she always looked forward to such events, especially looking around graveyards, but, with regret, she was unable to do so, because of her circumstances, and I did miss her not being by my side. However, the trip was still worthwhile, and I will attend another such event given the opportunity.