THIEPVAL, France (AP) — A 100-year-old trench, its edges now smoothed over by verdant overgrowth, snakes through a French meadow. Craters carved by bombs in the Battle of the Somme still pock the countryside. A century on, a birds-eye view of the World War I battlegrounds conveys the unprecedented scale of what happened.
Fields across a swath of northern France became home to soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth, France and Germany as they faced off across the front in the summer of 1916.
On July 1, this eerie, bucolic landscape will host British royals, British Prime Minister David Cameron, other dignitaries and youths from across Europe to commemorate the battle. The gathering comes at a poignant moment, as continental unity is under a new threat following Britain's vote to quit the 28-nation European Union.
Today grass covers the Lochnagar Crater, a dent in the earth that spans 91 meters (299 feet) wide and 21 meters (69 feet) deep. It's a huge, unusual peace memorial near the French town of Ovillers-la-Boisselle.
At Beaumont-Hamel, what looks like a ribbon of grassy knolls from the air is actually a preserved section of the trench line. Generations of British schoolchildren have come here to learn about the war.
Rows and rows of crosses and simple markers surround the towering brick Thiepval Memorial, honoring tens of thousands of British and South African forces who died in the Somme and have no known grave. They are among the battle's many victims. Six months of fighting left more than 400,000 soldiers dead or missing.