L5 English Trip to The Somme
Tuesday 2nd July 2013
On Thursday 27 June, the L5 went on an English Trip to the Somme. Florence Weaver, L5, gives her in-depth account of the day:
Travelling the winding lanes to Serre the L5 only had to glance out of the window to catch sight of a small cemetery tucked away in the French countryside, a few white headstones, most inscribed simply with “A Soldier of the Great War”; the men that lay here were unidentified, unnamed, and had died fighting for their country.
We stopped at a German cemetery to observe the differences between the German and British headstones and memorial statues. The German grave markers were black crosses, set in rows, with no flowers or foliage in front of them. The memorial statues were a block- like cross in brown stone. I found it very bleak and oppressing, the dark colours and lack of foliage giving the impression that, though well kept, the cemetery was largely ignored. In contrast, the headstones marking the British graves were made of white stone, with flowering foliage springing from the earth in front of them. On each headstone was a cross and, if known, the name and regiment of the soldier, accompanied by an inscription chosen by the family if they could afford it, or could actually read the letter that invited them to do so. We were told the very moving story of a family receiving one such letter and simply throwing it away due to the fact that they could not read it. If the name and regiment were not known, the headstone simply read “A Soldier of the Great War” and the inscription “Known unto God”. The memorial crosses were also in white and were sculpted in an elegant fashion. I found the atmosphere in these cemeteries less oppressive and peaceful; they were also more uplifting to be in due to the splashes of colour from the flowers.
The smaller cemeteries contained only a few soldiers, buried within a few hundred yards of where they died, but even more moving were the concentration cemeteries, row upon row, upon row of graves, row upon row, upon row, of fallen comrades. The thing that moved me the most was the sheer proportion of graves that were unnamed; I found at least two rows of fifteen graves in which each grave had no name.
Moving on from the first cemetery we visited the memorial of the Accrington Pals, a memorial for all of the men from Accrington who were felled, greatly diminishing the population of the village. This was a huge problem in the First World War as we soon learned by being thrown into a role play where we all became private officers signing up and working out that if we all died in battle, the population of Caversham would be decimated. After that we learned about what qualities were needed by members of the Army and what qualities made you a Captain, a Lieutenant and a Sargent Major and elected members of our group to fulfil these roles based upon the individuals’ strengths and qualities.
Also in front of the memorial to the Accrington Pals was a trench from the frontline. Pacing along its length, it struck me how odd it was that I was walking the same route that thousands of soldiers had marched on possibly their final journey. Another thing that struck me was the vast quantity of mud. It was not a particularly wet day, merely overcast, I realised for the first time just how much of an inconvenience the mud would have been for the soldiers.
We also analysed the letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother, Susan, in which he briefly mentions the blinding of the solder who would later be the main character in his poem ‘The Sentry’. In his letter Owen barely describes the events of the four days he spent in the German dugout and the sentences are short and clipped, all over the place. It is as if he does not want to relive the shocking ordeal. However the poem is much more ordered and goes into a lot more detail: it is almost as if this is Owen’s therapy; he is getting these events out of his system.
The second place that we visited was the memorial for the missing at Thiepval. The memorial was a huge monument constructed of white stone and ordinary house bricks, for the architect used the house bricks to represent the ordinary men that were soldiers who died. When we drew closer I could read the names inscribed on the stone, all 74,000 of them. This really brought home the sheer number of men who had fought in the war, all of these names were just a small fraction of the men who fought and yet there were tens of thousands.
Our final destination was No Man’s Land at Beaumont-Hamel. Walking through the trenches that lead to the front line, I was struck at how small they were. I had always imagined them to be deeper, but I found that I could see over the top if I stood up straight, they offered so little protection. The noise was also very distorted: the zigzag formation of the trenches which was used strategically to help minimise the damage of shelling caused the sound inside the trenches to bounce and echo in an odd manner; it must have been exceedingly noisy and confusing in those trenches when the men were shouting to one another, with gunfire and shelling all around.
A dead, blackened tree stood at the edge of the now sheep covered No Man’s Land; we discovered that it was the only surviving vegetation from the war. It had survived the gunfire and intense shelling that many men had not.
I found the trip very powerful and moving; the trenches were extremely interesting and actually being in them gave me a real insight into what it was like for the soldiers and how cramped and noisy it would have been and how much of an ordeal ‘going over the top’ would have been.