Haverhill’s commemoration of the Battle of the Somme began today with the same signal as the battle itself – three blasts on a whistle.
On July 1, 1916 in Northern France, three blasts on officers’ whistles was the signal for the men to ‘go over the top’ from our trenches to start the bloodiest battle in British military history. It would last 141 days and take a million lives on both sides, 23 of them men from Haverhill.
So to mark the start of the town’s commemoration, a member of the Royal British Legion blew three blasts on a whistle at 7.30am this morning beside Haverhill War memorial, 100 years to the hour after the Battle of the Somme began.
Two hours later, a wall of 20,000 poppies – one for each life lost on the first day of the battle – was unveiled in St Mary’s churchyard, where it will stand until November 18.
Haverhill school children have woven 20,000 Royal British Legion poppies into mats that will be suspended from a scaffolding donated by a local company.
Then, Haverhill Town Mayor David Roach opened the Great War Exhibition by Haverhill Family History Group and the Royal British Legion in St Mary’s Church.
Haverhill Royal British Legion secretary Alan Bumpstead said: “The churchyard poppy display was obviously moving to people of all ages and very well received.
“Haverhill has punched above its weight. It was a credit to all the people who took part. So many were children.”
Until Sunday visitors were able to find out more about life on the battle fronts and at home in Haverhill and discover the stories of the local casualties.
The display also included a World War One tunic made by D Gurteen and Sons in Haverhill, which was brought into the church by Christopher Gurteen current director of the family firm, founded in 1784, that also made uniforms in World War Two and still makes menswear at Chauntry Mills in the town.
The church is also the venue on Saturday at 11am for historian William Tyler’s free talk about the Battle of the Somme, for those who wanted to find out more.
William said; “One historian has written that we didn’t get over it then, and we haven’t got over it still. For the nation, as well as for individuals, the Somme is forever etched in our memory.”
Six Suffolk Regiment battalions took part in the Battle of the Somme, though many local men would have fought with other regiments in the battle, which also saw the first use of tanks, which had been tested on Suffolk’s Elveden Estate.
Allied forces also included soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Bermuda, India, South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).