“These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched furs and flowers and cheeks. All this is ended.”

Standing here on this hallowed ground as we gather to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, it is impossible not to be almost overwhelmed by a mixture of deep emotions - of humility and awe, of sadness and pride…. but also of a determination to honour the memory of those who gave their lives here so long ago and in such unthinkable conditions.

The magnitude of the Allied losses on 1st July 1916 are unimaginable in these days of instant communication and the ever-present media, but even 90 years ago they caused a most profound shock to our nations and left scars that remain with us today. It was not just the huge scale of our losses (some fifty thousand casualties in one day, of which twenty thousand were killed or missing, presumed dead), it was also the fact that for the first time in our history, we put mere boys into an assault against the bomb, bullets and the terrible wire entanglements, equipped with little more than raw courage and a deep trust in their young leaders.

Hundreds of young men, friends from neighbouring farms and streets, factories, tram works and coal mines, volunteered together to form battalions of Pals; they went over the top together and died together, in many instances before they could even reach the enemy trenches.

Being here today can only go a very small part of the way in helping us imagine how this beautiful countryside was devastated. Great swathes of our countryside, its mountains and glens, dales and fells, its villages and towns lost an entire generation of their menfolk,….. in fact nowhere was left untouched, as their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers fell in one terrible day…as did unmentionable numbers of men from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India. All this indescribable carnage is made ever more poignant in a personal way – and for many of us here today by the fact that my wife lost three great uncles in these terrible battles and I lost one. In Rupert Brooke's immortal words –

“These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched furs and flowers and cheeks. All this is ended.”

There are monuments to their memory throughout the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth; their headstones, in hundreds of cemeteries across the Somme, are testament to their sacrifice. Their simple epitaphs, so movingly crafted, tell the story of these splendid young men ‘who died so that those of us who are left may grow old' – in peace. This Thiepval monument alone bears the names of more than 72,000 British and South African soldiers who have no known grave and who are still missing from the battles of 1916-1918.

There are very few now living who survived the First World War, but nothing could give me greater pride than to have met, and known, a considerable number of these remarkable people who endured and suffered so much. However, the story of their suffering, their tenacity and courage, lives on – not just on Remembrance Day, but also as a most important part of our educational curriculum.

More school children visit the battlefields of Northern France today than ever before. Here they learn of the legacy of those fine soldiers which has been passed down to us. Here, on these fields whose names resonate with that sense of duty, loyalty and comradeship…. with that wonderful example of ‘putting others first'; of simple good manners and humanity; that cheery spirit in adversity, and a gentleness and compassion for the weak, the homeless and the defeated; here our children take on their inheritance.

Whilst the Somme has become a site of pilgrimage for many British and Commonwealth visitors every year, it is also home to the villagers and townsfolk of this lovely part of France whose forebears suffered and lost so much in the course of the unutterable hell which engulfed them. Many of you are here today to share this commemoration – and I can only thank you all for what you do and continue to do each year to maintain the memory of all our brave soldiers who fell on this dreadful battlefield 90 years ago today. We will never forget them.