Somme Trips 2016

It being the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme, I was eager to take a party of my year 9 and 10 pupils on a memorable journey to the battlefields. I was determined that our field trip would be individual, unique, memorable and meaningful for my pupils, especially so as it was to be the last battlefield tour I would lead as a full-time history teacher, because I was due to retire at the end of the year. I planned it well in advance and at the end of May, during the school half term holiday, took my wife on a four-day trip to the province of Picardy in Northern France in order to reconnoitre the walking routes. We stayed in the picturesque village of Heilly and enjoyed the local gastronomy and countryside as much as the battlefield visits. It was the wettest May and early June in France for many a year and my belief that it never rains all day was proved to be ill-founded. However, I am a great believer in persisting with one’s plans to walk the Western Front despite the weather, as I think we should sometimes be made to feel uncomfortable in order to feel a bit more more empathy for the soldiers who served in those conditions during the Great War. The following images were taken during that preliminary visit.

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The Golden Virgin in Albert, close to where we stayed.

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Poppies grow everywhere in Picardy

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Very few trenches still exist, apart from in woodland, like here at the Talus Boise near Carnoy.

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On the first day, I followed in the footsteps of the Liverpool and Manchester Pals, who captured Montauban on 1st July 1916.

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On the second day I concentrated on the doings of the 11th Border Regiment or ‘Lonsdales’ who attacked in this area on 1st July 1916 – the ‘Granatloch’ near Thiepval

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And headed towards the Lonsdale Cemetery

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Lonsdale Cemetery named after the 11th Border Regiment who suffered so many casualties in this area on 1st July 1916.

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We warmed ourselves up at the Auchonvillers (Ocean Villas) Tea Room and studied some rare excavated trenches.

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Later in the afternoon, I fulfilled my long-held desire to visit the grave of my first cousin three times removed, Lance Corporal William Holmes from Lee Road in Hoylake.

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William Holmes in the ‘Deeside Advertiser’ of 22nd November 1918

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Grandcourt Road Cemetery, the resting place of William Holmes and another soldier from Lee Road in Hoylake – William Price of the 10th Cheshires

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Lance Corporal William Holmes’s Grave

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On the last day, I went to Heilly Station Cemetery in order to see the grave of Ernest Herschell of the 6th Liverpools who came from Meols and I bumped into a French film crew who interviewed me (in English).

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The Grave of Ernest Herschell of ‘Buen Orden’ on Heron Road in Meols, Wirral.

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I was enchanted by this image on an information panel next to Gommecourt Number 2 Cemetery. It tells us such a lot about those early recruits and how they trained and were fed.

We left our school on the penultimate Friday of term and returned the following Tuesday. Peronne, a small, friendly and picturesque town at the eastern end of the battlefields, was our base. By now, the weather was hot, dry and sunny. It felt like the south of France rather than the north. One day, our charming hostess in L’Auberge Des Ramparts confessed to feeling like sitting in the fridge all day! Again, we were required to be stoical and resilient as we sampled the other extreme of soldierly discomfort.

During each of our three full days in France we walked up to ten miles, following in the footsteps of certain units and/or individuals. My students rose very well to the challenge and gradually began to understand what the trip was all about – the amount of gum being chewed, selfies being taken and headphones applied declined as the days went by. By the morning of the third day’s walking, at the northern end of the Somme, in the Queen’s Cemetery near Serre, following an account of the death of a Yorkshire cricketer which was read out by my colleague Heather, total silence descended upon the group and nobody moved for perhaps 15 to 20 minutes. It was the most moving 15 to 20 minutes I have ever spent in a Great War cemetery and is testament to the degree to which the young people had been touched by the stories and and biographies to which they had been exposed.

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I encouraged the young people to interact with the cemeteries by studying the register and by finding examples of cap badges. Here are some of them in Carnoy Military Cemetery.

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Early on, many pupils were very moved and wanted to show their respect for the dead.

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The party was divided into groups who each commemorated a soldier. This group commemorated a Liverpool Pal from Wallasey – 16922 Private Percy Septimus Miles of 18/King’s Liverpool Regiment

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Cornflowers were also prolific

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Marching towards Montauban in the footsteps of the Manchester and Liverpool Pals

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Authuille Cemetery, where we found soldiers from Kendal, Ireland and India.

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Walking from Blighty Valley Cemetery to Authuille Wood on our second day.

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There was a bit of relief from the fierce sun in the Granatloch as we headed towards Thiepval.

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We arrived at the Thiepval Memorial on foot, which I believe rendered it that much more poignant.

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and gathered by the panel for the ‘Kendal Pals’ – 8th Battalion of the Border Regiment

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At the Connaught Cemetery near the Ulster Tower, my colleague Christina, herself from Northern Ireland, led her group in the commemoration of an Anglo-Irish soldier, Captain Charles Owen Slacke of 14/Royal Irish Rifles, 36th Ulster Division, killed 1st July 1916 aged 44

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The top of the Ulster Tower is just about visible behind this group in Connaught Cemetery.

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Relics from the battlefield at the Ulster Tower.

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Alex, Scott and Rob Commemorating Rob’s ancestor from Windermere  who is buried at Villers-Faucon Communal Cemetery Extension

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Villers-Faucon Communal Cemetery Extension

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Joe finds another Irish Soldier at Villers-Faucon

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In the Queen’s Cemetery at Serre

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The View towards Serre from the Queen’s Cemetery – the ground over which the Pals Battalions of the 31st Division would have to advance on 1st July 1916

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The Sunken Road near Beamont Hamel – pupils sit where the Lancashire Fusiliers sat on 1st July 1916

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Our last Cemetery – Waggon Road on the Redan Ridge which contains two Kendal men from the Lonsdales – Privates G.W. Nelson and H.S. Snaith whom the groups led by Heather and Dick commemorated.

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Act of Remembrance for a Kendal Man

Thanks to the preparations  I made well in advance of this trip, to the help I received from Melissa Patrick back at school and from Dick Forsyth, Christina Watson and Heather Wilson who accompanied me, I believe that this was a very successful trip which achieved all that I had in mind for it. The young people responded extremely well and were kind enough to thank me for it at the end. Some of them wrote comments about their experiences. One of the nicest goes like this:-

‘I really enjoyed the trip, especially on a very special occasion as the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Very sunny, great time to come. Mr Roberts definitely knows his facts and figures. He is a very respectable historian and I wish him all the best. Thanks for a great 3 years sir. I will leave you with this:

“Men may die,

Sacrifice for the great,

But we live day by day,

Remembering them;

They will never be forgotten

Because we will never forget.”‘

by Matthew

If you would like to know more about my battlefield tours, please go to this page and/or get in touch via my contact page.

Thanks for reading this post. I hope to hear from you soon.

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