THIEPVAL, France (AP) — One week after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, British Prime Minister David Cameron and members of the royal family are standing side-by-side with France’s president to celebrate their historic alliance at the centenary of the deadliest battle of World War I.
More than 1 million people were killed, wounded or went missing in the Battle of the Somme in northern France, pitting British and French troops against German ones from July 1 to Nov. 18, 1916.
Britain held a moment of silence Friday morning to mark 100 years since the bloodiest day of British military history — about 20,000 British soldiers alone were killed on the first day of battle.
The main ceremony started with the sound of cannon shots shortly after noon Friday at the monumental Memorial of Thiepval in northern France with the participation of 600 British and French children. Each of them will lay a bouquet on the 600 British and French graves of the cemetery.
Many descendants of soldiers, often wearing poppy and cornflower pins — the British and French symbols to remember those who died— were attending the event.
French President Francois Hollande, Cameron and Britain’s Prince Charles were to read texts describing the horrific scenes and the devastated landscapes of the front line in 1916.
The Memorial of Thiepval, built in 1932 by the British government, is dedicated to the 73,367 British and South African soldiers missing in the Somme area during World War I.
Despite the British vote to leave the EU and their opposite political views, the Socialist Hollande and the conservative Cameron want to seize the occasion to stress their World War I alliance and show their attachment to the ideas underpinning European unity.
“In many ways, there is a link between the current events we’re discussing and what happened 100 years ago. It’s the importance of keeping peace and security and stability on our continent,” Cameron told members of Parliament on Wednesday. “We’re going to be standing together and remembering the sacrifices all those years ago.”
Others at Friday’s event included Prince Charles’ wife Camilla, his sons Prince William and Prince Harry and William’s wife Kate, Irish President Michael D. Higgins and former German President Horst Koehler.
“History connects us,” Hollande said Wednesday at a tense and emotional EU summit focused on how to cope with Britain’s departure. “France and the United Kingdom are very close, connected by a tunnel, with a very significant presence of French people in the United Kingdom and of British people in France. … And we have with the British a very close economic relationship.”
Queen Elizabeth II attended a service at Westminster Abbey on Thursday, laying a wreath of roses on the grave of the Unknown Warrior inside the ancient abbey in London before a bugler sounded the “Last Post,” a tribute to the fallen. An honor guard of soldiers and civilians held an overnight vigil at the grave.
Later Friday, Charles and Camilla will pay tribute to Northern Irish and Canadian soldiers in two separate events in Thiepval and in the nearby village of Beaumont-Hamel.
Last month, Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel commemorated together the centenary of the Battle of Verdun, the longest battle of World War I. The leaders praised their countries’ friendship, risen from the ashes of two world wars and strengthened through EU cooperation.
Greg Katz in London contributed.