UK falls silent, exactly 100 years after Somme offensive began

The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery fire First World War guns in Parliament Square, London on Friday July 1, 2016
The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery fire First World War guns in Parliament Square, London on Friday July 1, 2016

The nation fell silent on Friday to honour thousands of soldiers killed in the Battle of the Somme 100 years after the bloodiest day in British military history.

Ceremonies across the United Kingdom honoured the hundreds of thousands of victims of the brutal offensive which started in northern France on July 1 1916.

A message on a memorial poppy placed in the ground ahead of the Commemoration of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

A message on a memorial poppy placed in the ground ahead of the Commemoration of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

The two-minute silence ended at 7.30am, the time when the British, Commonwealth and French forces went “over the top” a century ago.

The British Army suffered almost 60,000 casualties on the first day alone and more than a million men would be killed or wounded on both sides over the course of the 141-day offensive.

The silence came after a night-long vigil across Britain, launched on Thursday by the Queen at a Westminster Abbey ceremony, and at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which towers over the rolling Picardy fields where so many fell.

Senior royals including the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry will join Prime Minister David Cameron, French president Francois Hollande and other leaders at the memorial later for a service of remembrance in front of an audience of 10,000.

Members of the London Fire Brigade pay their respects

Members of the London Fire Brigade pay their respects

In London, people lined Parliament Square, where the roar of guns was followed by the two-minute reflection.

People huddled under trees and umbrellas paused from their journeys to stand quietly.

The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery were present, having been at Thiepval on Thursday night.

The soldiers manned three sets of guns, drawn into place by horses, and fired every four seconds for 100 seconds.

Whistles were blown and Big Ben chimed when the two minutes were over, though many still continued to pause in reflection.

In Edinburgh, a two-minute silence was held at Scotland’s National War Memorial, with descendants of some of those who died at the Somme in attendance.

Alan Hamilton blew the whistle that his great uncle Robert used when leading men into battle 100 years ago.

He said: “He was attached to a Scottish unit as an observation officer and he blew this whistle on July 1 at 7.30am 100 years ago to take his men over the top into action.

“He went forward with the regiment and, because of the high rate of casualties among the officers, he ended up commanding the regiment until he was wounded and evacuated.

“After the war, my father was given the whistle by uncle Robert, then carried it through the whole of the Second World War when he was in the RAF, and when I joined the Army he passed it on to me.

“I carried it for 41 years and my son, who is a corporal in the Army, will be getting the whistle once these commemorations are over.”