updated 7/1/2006 7:42:03 AM ET 2006-07-01T11:42:03

Church bells rang in villages across a patch of northern France on Saturday, marking the moment 90 years ago that launched one of history’s bloodiest episodes, the Battle of the Somme.

The poignant tolling began a day of commemorations honoring the soldiers of 20 nationalities who fought in the Somme. But it is Britain that feels the battle’s scars most deeply, and Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, were on hand for ceremonies at Thiepval honoring troops who fought in the deadliest day the British army ever saw.

The battle has nearly receded from living memory, but its legacy remains. Monuments — from simple markers to major museums — in the fields and towns of the Somme region serve as a reminder of how the Great War changed Europe forever, and how young European unity is.

Britain led allied forces into battle July 1, 1916, hoping to end 18 months of deadlock with a decisive Allied victory over German forces. Yet when it ended, after four months of vicious trench warfare ravaging the countryside, Britain had only advanced about six miles.

And more than 1 million troops lay dead.

Until then, Britain thought it could beat the Germans easily.

'A turning point'
“The Somme marks a turning point, not just in the war, but in the whole of British history,” said Nigel Steel, a historian at London’s Imperial War Museum, comparing it to the shock the United States felt after Sept. 11, 2001.

On the first day of the battle alone, more than 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 40,000 wounded.

Ninety years on, the battle still haunts the British memory, particularly in parts of northern England where many of the battalions of Britain’s raw new volunteer army were recruited.

One of the world’s few remaining World War I veterans joined in the 90th anniversary tribute: 110-year-old Henry Allingham, who was not at the Somme but fought for the British in the Battle of Jutland.

“He’s one of few voices of his generation, and he wanted to come to represent all those who couldn’t, and those who have passed on,” said Dennis Goodwin, founder of the First World War Veterans’ Association.

Along with British troops were Irish, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders — and French, including many soldiers from Algeria and other French colonies, soldiers whose feats were long ignored.

High expectations
Troops went into the Somme with high expectations, believing most German positions in the area had been wiped out.

But when they climbed out of their trenches that morning, volley after volley of machine gun fire greeted them, mowing them down. Torrential rains turned the battleground into a muddy quagmire.

Saturday’s ceremonies began with bells ringing around the region and a ceremony at La Boisselle at the moment of the battle’s first charge.

Several camps were set up across the Somme countryside resembling those that housed the troops of the time.

The biggest event was to be held at Thiepval Memorial, one of the largest monuments to Britain’s war dead, the site of 600 British and French graves. The names of 72,000 British soldiers are etched into the stone.

France is coming to grips with its colonial history at the same time that it is remembering World War I. Last weekend, during ceremonies marking the anniversary of the Battle of Verdun, President Jacques Chirac unveiled a long-awaited memorial to Muslim soldiers who fought for France in the war.

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