100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme: Last Post Ceremony address

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The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO

Today marks the centenary of the beginning of the battle of the Somme.

On this day - almost to the hour 100 years ago, 80 battalions of the British and French armies went ‘over the top’ and advanced across no man’s land in the Somme valley, France.

They went determined; many went into heavy, enfilading German machine-gun fire, finding brutally that the week-long artillery bombardment had inflicted little damage on German defences – its tough defensive complex of trenches, fortified villages and wide belts of barbed wire still cruelly intact.

Their courage was extraordinary.

At the end of that first day, British forces had suffered nearly 60,000 casualties - almost 20,000 dead.

The 36th (Ulster) Division advanced far but was forced back, as did the 18th and 30th British Divisions and the French Sixth Army.

But it was all for little measurable gain.

Over the following four months the Somme became a gruelling campaign of attrition that drew in some 55 infantry divisions to fight across a front of almost 30 kilometres.

Three weeks after the campaign began; Australian divisions began to join the battle, fighting their way along Pozières Ridge in a relentless ordeal that lasted six weeks with 19 attacks in 42 days. Nearly 7,000 of the names on the wall to my right belong to men of the Australian Imperial Force who lost their lives during the battle of the Somme. Australia’s allies suffered hundreds of thousands more.

So too, the Germans suffered terribly.

As a bitter winter approached and the Somme battle finally drew to an inconclusive end, the allied front line had been advanced no more than 12 kilometres at an enormous cost.

In total 1.2 million troops of all nationalities had been killed, wounded or were missing.

This, the first day of the battle of the Somme remains Britain’s greatest military disaster. Families and entire communities throughout the United Kingdom will today recall, down the generations, memories of loved ones who died or were reported missing on the Somme.

So too do we, the nations represented here today.

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