The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme By Gavin Stamp.Profile Books, 2006.214pp. £14.99
Most of the British population was too preoccupied with the World Cup on 1 July to recall that it was the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme - 'the most violent and ruthless battle in the history of the world', as a survivor later described it. At 7.30am that day, British troops began to go 'over the top' to attack the German lines. By the end of the day the British army had suffered 60,000 casualties, a third of them dead.
The battle raged into the late autumn, by which time the total number of casualties, British, German and French, had topped a million: all for 'six or seven miles of pulverized, muddy territory and destroyed villages'. On the Allied side, some 73,000 men remained unaccounted for, their bodies lost in the mud, blown to pieces by shells, left to rot. Edwin Lutyens' Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, a short hop from the Channel ports, was built to commemorate them. It was unveiled in 1932, its completion largely ignored by the press - the AJ devoted a paragraph (no picture) to what Gavin Stamp describes as 'the greatest executed British work of monumental architecture of the 20th century' designed by 'the greatest of British architects, of any generation'.
Stamp's account of Thiepval is a miracle of compression, providing the necessary context. The idea of the war memorial, it seems, emerged only after the Great War. (The dead of Waterloo, officers excepted, were dumped in mass graves. ) It was the inspirational vision of Sir Fabian Ware, who set up the War Graves Commission, that ensured that leading architects were commissioned to design British cemeteries in France and Belgium, and it was at Ware's insistence that a simple headstone marked the graves of all, officer or common soldier. Stamp's architectural analysis is succinct - and masterly. Far removed from the conventional triumphal arch, the Thiepval memorial, he explains, is essentially a tragic, not a triumphant structure; its three-dimensionality rooted, as was Lutyens' work, in the Gothic Revival.
With Britain currently engaged in a series of pointless foreign wars, it isn't hard to sympathise with the passionate stance of Stamp's text, at odds with the arid apologetics of contemporary revisionist historians who seek to make excuses for the 'repellent' Earl Haig and his like. 'One of the least attractive aspects of the English is our refusal - manifest facts to the contrary - ever to admit we were wrong, or ever behaved in anything but an upright, heroic, honourable way, while former enemies are demonised.'
The greatest strength of Lutyens' Thiepval - and equally of his Cenotaph - is its universality. The revisionists, who think it was worth sacrificing a million lives to prop up the collapsing British Empire, can read into it what they like, but both Lutyens' masterpiece, and this remarkable book, speak only of the 'pity of war'.