Sir Frank Sanderson, 3rd Bt, who has died aged 89, successfully campaigned for the erection of a museum about the Battle of the Somme next to Lutyens’s great arch, the Memorial to the Missing, at Thiepval.
In the late 1990s, Sanderson, a retired insurance broker and chairman of his local branch of the Royal British Legion, was an usher at the annual remembrance service at Thiepval. Afterwards, he was accosted by women looking for the lavatory, but he was told that there were none. “We must build some!” said the baffled Sanderson. Colonel Piers Storie-Pugh, the British Legion’s Head of Remembrance Travel, replied that, if they did, they might as well build a proper visitors’ centre.
Traditionalists in Britain had blocked earlier proposals for a Somme museum, on the grounds that it would clutter up and “Disney-fy” the hallowed site. When Sanderson wrote to Defence Secretary George Robertson, asking the Blair government to support – or even pay for – a visitor centre at Thiepval, Robertson told him that senior civil servants opposed anything that risked “over-heritisation”.
Sanderson argued that the mute eloquence of the battlefields was no longer enough, given that many of the 200,000 annual visitors to Thiepval were schoolchildren. Moreover, as the French had a museum at Verdun, the Belgians at Nieuwport, and the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, it was only the British and Commonwealth soldiers’ stories that were not being told.
Sanderson’s Thiepval Project, launched in 1998, raised £700,000 from over 2,300 separate donors. Some were regiments, some were civic institutions, some were businesses, some were pensioners who sent in £5 notes. One octogenarian, Mrs ED Thomas, sent more than 10 cheques. Readers of The Daily Telegraph raised nearly £30,000 when the appeal was in danger of missing its target.
Since many of the “Pals” battalions that suffered heavily on the first day of the Somme came from the northern cities – Manchester, Leeds and Hull – Sanderson courted businesses there, including Manchester United. One anonymous businessman gave £72,000, a pound for each name inscribed on the arch – one being that of his own great-uncle, a soldier in the Black Watch.
Money raised from donations was supplemented by €709,000 from the EU, an Sanderson, with his fluent French and dedication to the cause, was instrumental in persuading the Conseil General of the Somme to contribute €951,000 towards the eventual total bill of €2,633,000 (£1,896,000). Sanderson made fortnightly trips to France with Storie-Pugh, who recalls him conducting the delicate negotiations with “steely determination and consummate charm”.
The visitors’ centre was sunk into the ground, so that it would not disturb the setting of Lutyens’s monument. While digging the foundations in the summer of 2003, many more bodies were uncovered and laid to rest.
Inside, computers gave details of every British and Commonwealth soldier lost in both world wars, and texts explained the context of the Battle of the Somme. The narrative conveyed by the museum was that the battle had been inevitable rather than futile: the allies had no choice but to make a frontal attack on the heavily-fortified German lines.
The texts were aimed at a British audience, but translated into German and French, as well. As Thomas Compere-Morel, director of the French Great War museum, which took over the centre after its opening, told the press: “French people know so little about what happened, which I think is shocking.”
The new centre opened on July 1 2004 at a ceremony attended by descendants of Lutyens, Haig and Kitchener, along with the Duke of Kent, President of the War Graves Commission, and bemedalled Chelsea pensioners. Eurostar laid on a special train.
Asked by The Daily Telegraph what he thought of the soldiers who had given their lives on the Somme, Sanderson observed: “Most of them had a degree of patriotism we simply would not understand today. But even that doesn’t explain it. They died for their mates, because that’s what you do in warfare.”
Frank Linton Sanderson was born on November 21 1933 to Sir Bryan Sanderson, 2nd Bt, and his Polish-born wife Annette (née Korab-Laskowska). The baronetcy had been created in 1920 for his grandfather, Frank Bernard Sanderson, a successful Yorkshire businessman and Conservative MP, for his unpaid wartime work as Controller of Trench Warfare National Shell Filling Factories and Stores, Ministry of Munitions, and of Aircraft Ammunition Filling, and Chemical Ammunition Filling.
During the Second World War, Frank’s father served as a pilot with the Fleet Air Arm, while Frank was brought up at their house in Scaynes Hill, Sussex, by his mother and grandmother and their French maid. The language spoken at home throughout the war was French; Polish pilots stationed nearby used the house as an officers’ mess.
After attending Stowe, Frank did his National Service in the Navy, extending to a third year, serving in Greece during an earthquake and in the Caribbean; he remained a Royal Naval Volunteer Reservist until 1965.
After National Service, he was offered a place at Pembroke College, Oxford, but, on discovering that it was for the following year, he decided he was too old to wait that long to be an undergraduate, and went to the University of Salamanca, adding Spanish to his immaculate French.
In 1961, he married the New Yorker, Margaret Ann Maxwell. He worked in Minet as a marine insurance broker for the majority of his career, with a short break in the 1960s, when he worked for his wife’s family, who ran Knott Hotels and the Westbury in London. He was Master of the Currier’s Company in 1993-94.
Storie-Pugh described Sanderson as a man with “a most incisive brain and a bulldog-like determination”. Tall and distinguished, he was noted for his courtesy.
In 2005 he was appointed OBE.
He is survived by his wife and by three daughters and two sons, the older of whom, David, succeeds in the baronetcy.
Sir Frank Sanderson, born November 21 1933, died November 9 2023