Fought between July and November 1916, the Battle of the Somme was one of the defining events of the First World War.
It is often remembered for the huge losses on the first day (1 July, 1916) but the Somme offensive continued over the following months – a total of 141 days – and men from every part of Britain and across the Empire took part. When it was halted in November, more than 1,000,000 Commonwealth, French and German soldiers had been wounded, captured, or killed.
Some 150,000 Commonwealth servicemen lie buried in 250 military and 150 civilian cemeteries on the Somme. Six memorials to the missing commemorate by name more than 100,000 whose graves are not known.
The cemeteries and memorials built and cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission across the Somme stand as a lasting reminder of the human cost of the fighting in this region throughout the First World War.
To mark the centenary of the battle, which will be commemorated this week, we have teamed up with journalist and Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark to launch a new initiative to get the British public to visit their local war graves and discover the stories behind the names of those who gave their lives in the First World War.
The Living Memory Project has been launched to remember the forgotten front; the 300,000 war graves and memorials in Britain from both world wars. It aims to encourage community groups to discover, explore and remember their war heritage – with everyone in the UK having at least one war grave three miles from their front door.
In Scotland alone there are more than 20,000 war graves and memorials commemorating men and women from the First and Second World Wars.
The CWGC is looking for 141 UK groups, to hold 141 events to mark the 141 days of the Somme offensive.
Wark, ambassador for CWGCs Living Memory project in Scotland, said at our launch: “I have a very personal connection with the Battle of the Somme, as my great uncle, James Wark, fought for the entire 141 days of the battle. However, fighting during the Somme and for three years, he died from Spanish flu just days after the Armistice in 1918.
“He had the most poignant letter in his kitbag, which the family now have, saying how much he looked forward to coming home. Sadly, as we know, he never made it, but thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, he is buried and remembered at the Ascq Communal Cemetery in France.
“The men who fought at the Battle of the Somme did so in some of the most horrendous conditions and saw many of their fellow comrades killed or badly wounded. We must never forget them, and instead remember these men by visiting their graves here in Scotland and finding out their stories.
“With more than 19,000 war graves in Scotland, I would encourage people to get together and explore their nearest war graves – find out about the person behind the headstone and remember them for the sacrifice they gave.”
CWGC has graves located in more than 1,200 locations in Scotland. The majority of men and women buried or commemorated either died in a British hospital of injuries sustained during the First World War or in the influenza pandemic that followed.
Funding and creative resources are available to help groups identify a CWGC war grave near where they live. This can be to help towards researching about some of those buried locally and to stage a commemorative event.
Any community group interested can register now by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting www.cwgc.org/livingmemory.
We urge you to keep the promise to remember – not just the numbers but the names, and not just on 1 July but throughout the 141 days of the Somme offensive.
Samantha Daynes is media manager for UK operations at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission