L5 English Trip to the Somme
Friday 4th July 2014
On Friday 20 June, the L5 year group travelled to the Somme in France as part of their English trip. Emma Taylor, L5, shares below her account of the excursion.
The morning of Friday 20 of June was a very early one. I had previously set my alarms for 02:00am and 02:07am to wake me up so that I had time to get ready and not look so much like I had only benefitted from two and a half hours’ sleep the night before (which I did). At 2:30am, I was ready to leave my house. I had dragged my mother out of bed to drive me an hour away to school, which I do not think that she was best pleased about! Other than the occasional police car or truck, the roads were pretty much clear so I arrived at school at 3:20am, still three hours before I would normally ever consider waking up.
At 4am, the coach which we would spend the next day on arrived and the whole year piled on, clutching their pillows and blankets and looking very sleepy. As per usual, the front of the bus and the back of the bus filled up very quickly, leaving the middle for everyone else. I had to sit in the middle of the group of people who had dominated the back seats as they each wanted two seats each but there were not enough. It is probably needless to say that I got many headaches as the energy levels increased after they woke up from a few hours of rest.
At 5:30am in the morning, a coach load of Queen Anne’s girls arrived at a service station near Dover where we were to pick up our guides for the day. Since under-caffeinated teenagers are more similar to zombies than they are to living people, the majority of my year used the little energy that they had to sprint to Costa Coffee to pick up a beverage that was very high in caffeine to increase their energy levels dramatically. Many others went into WH Smith’s to pick up some chocolate supplies, and one even bought an ice cream. It was not yet even 6am!
We had half an hour to relax in the services and then we all had to get onto the bus again as we were to drive to the Shuttle and finally begin our journey to France. Our guides welcomed us to the day and then we departed from the services and made our way down to the Shuttle, which was to depart at 7:36am. It is amazing how much we had done before school had even started.
By the time the coach had reached the Shuttle, there were mixed feelings of excitement and tiredness. The coach drove onto the Shuttle and, apart from the lack of air conditioning for the next 40 minutes, there was not much difference to the conditions of the coach when we were not in it. Most of the occupants of the coach were asleep at this time, or, at least, trying to during the journey.
The coach arrived in France at 9:15am (local time) but the journey was not nearly at its end; we still had to embark on a 2 hour journey to the Somme, where we would visit various places during the day. The journey from Calais to the Somme was more exciting than the journey throughout England, as everyone, apart from the teachers, were beginning to wake up and energy levels throughout the coach were increasing by the minute. The year group began becoming its usual self again: rowdy and unruly. There was talk of boys having ‘hot names’ and other ridiculous topics similar to that. It was very amusing to hear what the person sitting next to me, who is very opinionated, had to say whenever they either said something that was not grammatically perfect, or was just completely ridiculous.
At 11:15am we arrived at the Somme. The first place that we visited was the Serre and Sheffield Memorial Park. The year was split in half; Mr Owen’s class and Mrs Hughes’ class each went with one of the guides. We walked down a field in which the front line once stood, and we even found a ball of shrapnel. We then walked past numerous cemeteries which really made me realise how many men were killed, most of them on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which made us all quite shocked and emotional. We then went into a fenced-off part where the front line was preserved and untouched and we all discussed the ranks and roles of a soldier in World War One. We were told that we were all to pretend to be workers of the “Queen Anne’s Bandage Factory”, and the people in the group that held responsibility within our year were told that they were to become officers, and it was explained that, if one person was an officer but did not hold a high position in the company, their colleagues who did hold a high position could take their role as officer.
After we had a talk about our roles as soldiers, we went to a small cemetery for a battalion of people from Sheffield, and the other guide talked to us about Wilfred Owen, and also about the advertisements by popular celebrities at the time encouraging young men to go and fight, and promising that everything would just be a laugh and the Germans would be defeated within a few months, which obviously was not true.
The sheer scale of the Serre Road Cemetery Number 2 shocked me. There were over seven thousand graves, and they seemed to go on forever. When people say that hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the war, it just seems like a figure. Seeing only a tiny proportion of the casualties made me realise how severe the war was and how extreme the number of fatalities was. We then went to the side of the cemetery, which overlooked the field in which Wilfred Owen experienced the event which later caused him to write one of his most famous poems called “The Sentry”. It was unbelievable how what is now a field used to be a battlefield and we were standing so close to the German front line. Without our guide, we would have just ignored it, as if it was any field, without any awareness of the history that occurred in that very stretch of grass.
After we had visited the cemetery, as we had already been awake for twelve hours, we were all becoming rather restless and hungry so we headed to Newfoundland Memorial Park and ate our packed lunches in the field across the road, and, somehow, one of the girls sitting near me ended up with at least four unwanted apples being thrown at her. It did not seem like we were actually eating lunch for very long before we were ushered into the Newfoundland Memorial Park, which is a perfectly preserved piece of land which, due to a terrible confusion on July 1, became the place in which many Canadians were murdered. It was incredible to see a perfectly preserved piece of land, and although much of it is now covered in grass, you could still see all of the trenches and shell holes. Even after seeing the cemetery, it is not quite the same as actually seeing where it all happened. Our guide gave us a tour of the memorial park, after a bird had decided to use one member of Lower Five as a toilet, which ended up in some screaming, naturally. Unfortunately, this was right after somebody came and told us that we were not to be too loud as it can be quite disrespectful. I think we may have got some evil looks from the people working there. Whoops!
After departing the Newfoundland Memorial Park, we headed to our penultimate destination, called the Ulster Tower. My year scrambled off the bus to sit down on the grass and hoped to get a quick tan as the sun had decided to come out at last. We sat around one of our guides, who talked to us for a bit, but the most exciting part was when he got out a grenade! Do not worry; it had no explosives in it, but he was explaining how it worked. He then told us the inspirational, but also tragic story of a man from the Ulster Division who flung himself on a box of grenades that were about to explode to save his fellow soldiers. I was not previously aware of this type of event happening during the war, and it really stunned me.
After taking many pictures of the poppies across the road, we headed back onto the coach and to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. This is a building with the names of over seventy-two thousand British and South African soldiers who died during World War One, but whose bodies were never found or identified. The sheer scale of the building was incredible. We had an introduction, and were told to be respectful, and we all went to see how many people of our respective surnames we could find. Having a very common name, it took me about three minutes to find five soldiers named ‘E. Taylor.’ We then found a book with every name of every soldier who was upon the walls. There were about seven books filled with names of these poor soldiers. A group of us took turns looking up our surnames to see how many people of our surnames were actually there, as the memorial was so vast that it would take a very long time to actually look for every single person with the surname Taylor. It turns out that there are at least twenty pages of Taylors in the book, but none of them are actually related to me!
We then went to the shop before we were meant to leave. There, we found a picture of a soldier who looked like the doppelgänger of actor Benedict Cumberbatch which caused a lot of excitement, of course! After everybody had finished in the shop, whether it was taking “selfies”, looking for ancestors, lookalikes of actors or actually buying items, we all went on the bus. We were all exhausted but had a great time (well, anything is better than double maths on a Friday afternoon!) and we were glad to be heading home, although we knew it would be a long journey.
At quarter to seven we departed the Somme. Everyone was chatting, but it was obvious that energy levels were falling again and either caffeine or food was needed urgently. The people sitting at the back of the bus decided that they were far too cool to be associated with the rest of us so a blanket was used to separate them from us. They sent recruitment notices to Mr Talbot and Mr Owen asking them to join them at the back, but the teachers just laughed and did not move from their chairs.
We arrived in Calais with time to spare, so we were given 6 Euros each and sent to get dinner at the service station. The majority of my year went to KFC to get dinner, but I did not fancy having a meal that had more grease than actual food, so I decided that I would not have anything, as I also felt quite ill. I did not yet know that I had the same bug that most of my year would have over the next week and I would be in bed all weekend with a raging temperature. We all did a final toilet-stop, stocked up on food that was very high in sugar and then got onto the coach again so that we could start queuing for the Shuttle. We were then told that we had to have our passports checked and that Mrs Hughes would start handing them out and that we “MUST NOT LOSE THEM” whatever happened. We were warned that the men checking passports are not the happiest people and do not have much time for joking about, so we all went in on our best behaviour and it turned out to be unproblematic.
I read for most of the journey back to distract myself from feeling ill, so the journey went quite painlessly and quickly. We arrived back in Dover at 9.30pm local time and then we made our way up to Caversham. We were all happy to hear that we were to arrive back an hour earlier than expected, even though it was still 11.20pm. As soon as we arrived back in England, everybody turned their phones on and started uploading their pictures of the day to Instagram and Snapchat.
The next thing I knew, I had read another thirty percent of my book and we were in Reading. We all started packing up our belongings, as we had spread out rather a lot during the day. We then stumbled off the coach when we got back to school, as dazed as we were over twenty hours earlier. I then jumped (well, not literally for I had no energy) into my mothers’ car and we started the last hour of my journey. When I got home, I do not think that I even need to say that I went straight to bed and did not wake up until just before noon the next day.
The Somme trip was possibly one of the most interesting and emotional trips that I have ever been on. I gained a total of six euros (I did not spend any of my money and kept the money for dinner) and many memories that I will treasure forever.