Exit Stage Left

All of my life, I have believed in the power of arts education. I know that we develop empathy and understanding through the arts. We strengthen our all-important, intuitive right brains. We learn specific and tangible skills that benefit every aspect of our lives. As an artist instructor, I have taught calligraphy, writing and theatre arts and in each discipline, I’ve witnessed a tangible difference toward making the world a better place.

I’ve worked in theatre arts education in Ottawa for over twenty years. In 2013, I began the Ottawa Children’s Theatre with four classes on Saturdays at The Avalon Theatre on Bank Street. We had 28 students. In 2017, the school found a wonderful home at Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre. Over the years enrolment grew, we expanded our role as representative for Trinity College London, we learned how to teach online during the pandemic, then bounced back from the pandemic and celebrated live performances. This past spring we had 211 students, ranging in age from 5 – 17, in 25 different classes. A few of those students have been with us since 2013, many were with us pre-pandemic, and all are now part of the wonderful OCT family.

Through it all, I have had tremendous support. I have come to know parents, students, and instructors and to develop friendships that have deeply enriched my life. I have watched young people grow, solve problems, and thrive as they embrace the world of drama. It has been enormously gratifying, and I am deeply proud of everything OCT has accomplished.

But these years have been busy for me personally, aside from OCT. Over the course of the last eight years, I produced a play that went on to be produced at The National Arts Centre (Up to Low), I did an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I published three novels and have another three books under contract. And I have happily entered the world of grandparenthood.

I’ve decided it is now time for me to pass along the torch at Ottawa Children’s Theatre and focus on my family, my books and my garden.

I have worked with Nick Miller for 18 years. When I was Artistic Director of The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama, Nick was one of the first new artists I hired. He came to OSSD with exciting ideas about drama, clowning, improvisation, and circus skills. Over the years I have deeply valued his collaborative spirit, generosity and creativity. As I began to look for a successor to the work that I have done, I realized that Nick was the perfect person to take on this role. He has already had a tremendous impact on the development of OCT, and I am thrilled to announce that he will be taking over the reins. While it is very hard to leave, I know I am leaving OCT in wonderful hands.

This is not “retirement” as some people label it. It is a new phase. It’s been a great run and now it’s time to exit this particular stage.

I’m looking forward to the next show. Stay tuned…

Passing the Torch

Writing: These Are Not the Words

My new novel These Are Not the Words was officially released in North America on April 5, 2022.

Me with Scatty in our apartment in Stuyvesant Town, circa 1960. Self portrait taken with a timer.

These Are Not the Words is a semi-autobiographical novel.That means there are real people in it who do imaginary things, and imaginary people who do real things. I am not Miranda Billie Taylor, but we share a lot of history.

I started writing the story from a memory. I was taking the Picture Book Intensive at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults program, and we had been given the prompt to write from an early childhood memory.

What came out was a memory of walking through the living room late at night to get a glass of water. The dark stillness, the flicker of the TV light, the sound of the record, the smell of cigarettes and marijuana are vivid. I was probably about four years old.

Nothing “happens” in that memory, but the assignment was to turn it into a picture book.

Because it was a picture book, the language was spare, evocative, and poetic. It didn’t work as a picture book, but it inspired me to begin writing vignettes, initially as prose poems and then as verse. As I began to drill down, more memories began to bubble up. I found myself writing a novel in verse.

Although I was writing from personal memories, I wrote in third person. I made the character older, and distanced her from me so I could tell, I thought, a larger, more interesting story.

It took a couple of years and many re-writes, but finally I started sending the book out on submission. The reactions were positive –– editors and agents told me that they thought it was beautifully written. (“Heartbreaking and lovely.”) But it wasn’t for their list, it was historical fiction and hard to sell, the character seemed too sophisticated. But one response really stuck out. An editor I respect they said that it felt as though the story was told from the perspective of an adult, not the child. It was verging on nostalgic. Clearly, I wasn’t “in” the story.

Out of frustration, I decided to try to write one chapter in first person. I’m not a big fan of first person and feel it is easily overused. But I chose the first chapter, the one that had started the process, just as a writing exercise. I was totally unconvinced that it would be possible. “I hate writing in first person,” I said to myself.

I remember starting to shake as I re-wrote that first chapter. Suddenly it was real, vibrant and alive. And suddenly it was a bit close for comfort.

I’ll confess to a lot of tears in the months that followed. But being a writer is not about being comfortable.

I created a book trailer for These Are Not the Words. I used some photos that my father took and a recording of Billie Holiday singing Tell Me More, recording it from a vinyl LP that belonged to my parents. I recorded myself reading a chapter of the book and then worked with a technician friend, AL Connors, to bring it all together.

Putting the trailer together was hard. The photos pull me back to those years. The living room is the one where that first memory came from, where I hear Billie, always. It’s the image and the sound that started me writing the book.

I am not Miranda Billie Taylor. But we share a lot of history.

Challenging Choices

A new family walks into my yard

In March, I marked a year of online programs at The Ottawa Children’s Theatre. I had to try to figure out what to plan for this summer. Last summer was the first summer OCT had done summer camps. We launched into running 17 online camps that were wildly creative and hugely fun. Everyone was thrilled to leap into online programming and our campers had a fabulous time.

A year later, we are all weary of our isolation and our online lives. But I had to think carefully about whether OCT was ready to make the transition back to in-person programming this summer. I had to try not to be impatient. Not my long suit.

I thought long and hard about whether to take a risk and pivot to in-person programming. I desperately want to be with students and instructors again! But in the end, there were too many uncertainties. I decided to keep the business online and stay committed to the virtual world for, hopefully, one last semester.

And yet my non-virtual life is thriving.

My writing life has taken off. I have a novel and a picture book in final edits. (I can’t wait to tell you more about them soon!) I’m working on new manuscripts, and a lecture for Canscaip for the fall. I have a wonderful and busy family who I want to spend more time with. My garden calls daily.

It’s a bit of a schizophrenic existence. I’m not entirely sure where I am at my most “real.”

I find myself wondering if this summer’s virtual camps will be the last gasps of my pandemic adventure? Or will life retain some of the positive elements that have come from my virtual life? Or, God forbid, will the variants take off and force us to endure another pandemic year?

The future is opaque. But whatever happens, I don’t want to pretend these past 16 months didn’t happen. They have deepened my relationships and priorities and made life richer in so many ways. They have helped to open new paths. Not always places I wanted to go, but places I returned from wiser.

Being Thankful

Classes started up again at The Ottawa Children’s Theatre last weekend. Teaching drama virtually is, for me, a constant challenge, both technologically and conceptually. I definitely miss our beautiful studios at Carleton Dominion Chalmers (check the profile of me and OCT at CDCC) But it is wonderful to have the opportunity to meet vibrant and thoughtful adolescents, and to get a glimpse into what the world looks like from their perspective. And the only way I can do that right now is through Zoom boxes.
 
My online drama classes have different rules from online schooling. I keep reminding students to keep their microphones ON, instead of muted. I WANT to hear their voices and make some noise! I WANT their unique contributions. I WANT them up on their feet, bursting with energy.
 
I’ve been searching out new materials that will work well in this format: group poems, where everyone can take a line and pauses don’t destroy the flow; neutral paired scenes, where students can work in Breakout Rooms to create characters and scenarios; treating each box like its own stage, with proscenium edges for entrances and exits. I’m also discovering ways of teaching drama skills that I wouldn’t do in a studio. Small movements become magnified on camera and they create moments of truth and honesty that do my heart good.

 Someone said to me recently that the most important thing about the pandemic is what you can learn about yourself. That’s certainly my case. It’s a rich time. Working with my wonderful drama students helps me to reflect and articulate what I am discovering about myself. I hope the classes do that for my students as well. As I look forward to a Thanksgiving like no other, I am grateful to be in such a caring and supportive community.

In My Zoom Studio

Dramatically Different

…the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location…

Recently, I was asked to do an interview with theHumm. theHumm is a great journal, both in print and online, that is dedicated to the arts in the Ottawa Valley. The questions that they asked gave me a chance to think about the process that we’ve gone through at OCT to make our conversion to online programming. Below is a transcript of the interview, but you can also read it online at: https://mailchi.mp/thehumm/h9si4v29uh-2052385?e=fb3712bb99

Dramatically Different: an interview with Amanda West Lewis

theHumm is reaching out to members of our Ottawa Valley community to ask how they are finding ways to use their gifts and skills in these challenging times. Today’s subject is Amanda West Lewis — actor, author, and founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre (OCT). We contacted her to find out how the OCT is rising to the challenge of providing creative instruction to kids during this time of social distancing.

theHumm: You live in Brooke Valley but have been active in the Ottawa youth theatre scene for many years now. Are you finally getting to work from home? If so, what have you enjoyed about it, and what are you missing?

I’ve been lucky to have Brooke Valley as my base for the last 30 years. But I’ve also lived in Ottawa off and on, which has allowed me to be part of the vibrant arts community in that city. For the past six years running The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, I’ve worked from home during the week then gone to Ottawa to work in the studios with the kids on the weekends. It’s really been the best of all possible worlds.

Now, with isolation, my schedule is basically the same, except that everything happens from my Brooke studio. I’m not travelling anywhere. I love that I’ve lowered my environmental footprint and that I have a bit more time to get into my garden.

But I do miss being in the same physical space with people – I miss the spontaneity and energy that is generated by the live space. Before Covid, we had twenty-seven classes happening every weekend. The studios buzzed with energy! I loved seeing what all of the different groups were doing. There is nothing more inspiring than watching kids create and share their stories! But now that the courses are taking place on virtually platforms, I don’t get a chance to pop in and watch what others are doing. I’m excited by the classes I am teaching, but there is that sad moment when I hit “end meeting for all” button, and everyone disappears.

I also miss talking to parents. We were very much an extended family, all dedicated to giving the children and youth the best experience we could. I miss those personal interactions.

You and your team of instructors have been busy pivoting from live classes to “LIVE Online” classes. What can people expect from this new format?

I’m working with the same core team of dedicated instructors that I’ve worked with for many years. We’ve developed a really strong curriculum that is both fun and teaches specific skills. None of that has changed. Converting to online has meant we’ve made the class sizes smaller so that we can focus on each child as an individual. We’re making sure to take time to listen to each child’s needs.

We’re running Musical Theatre, Drama, Acting, Improvisation and Writing camps this summer. We’ve designed the camps to be really interactive. There is a lot of physical and vocal activity. There is a lot of ensemble and shared work. Even the breaks keep kids occupied ––we’ve designed off-screen breaks where campers do theatre crafts. No one is just sitting and watching.

How has the technology been treating you? Have there been unexpected benefits, or major challenges you and your team have had to overcome?

The great advantage of teaching drama from home has been how personal it is. I have weekly Zoom meetings with my instructors, and it’s made us really close. We are sharing all of the joys and frustrations of our lives in isolation, as well as brainstorming how to teach drama online. It’s pushed us to be really creative problem-solvers. Also, the virtual medium is more intimate –– we’re talking to each other from our homes, with our art on the walls, our books on our bookshelves, and our pets, children, and partners in the background.

Some of this immediacy carries over to our relationships with students. You need to be attentive at all times when you are teaching online. There isn’t a moment of downtime. So the classes take on a different kind of bonding.

But the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location. I have some fabulous actors, writers and composers from New York City teaching for us this summer! They are inspiring all of us with their talent, passion and commitment.

The technological challenge in Lanark County, however, is bandwidth. I get my internet via a satellite and as those of us who live in the country know, it isn’t exactly a consistent signal. I cross my fingers every day that there won’t be a storm while I’m teaching. I’ve also had to make a decision to buy a new computer. I’ve been working on a 10-year old laptop which was fine for admin but not the best for online teaching!

Why is it important to try and keep young people engaged in artistic activities and pursuits even when we can’t physically get together?

Oh, my goodness, where do I start? Drama is all about communication. We work with language and gesture. We work with our voices, bodies and our minds to tell our stories. Is there anything more important for young people than the ability to communicate their ideas, fears, hopes and dreams? Especially now, when their voices are diminished because of isolation, young people need the opportunity to be seen by someone who isn’t a parent or teacher. Someone who can hear them and give them tools to express themselves. Someone who can help them to keep their heart and mind open.

Do you think that both children and adults will continue to perform (and watch others perform) while we are not allowed to gather in person?

I think that stories are more important than ever. I think we will always need to watch and listen to other people’s stories. Through story, we come to understand who we are. Story gives us a way to put the puzzle pieces of life into some kind of coherent whole. And I think that people will always need to share their stories, as they have done since the beginning of human times. We became a story telling species the moment we created language, the moment that we understood the concept of time, of birth and of death. I don’t think that isolation will stop that. In fact, I think the need has been exponentially increased.

What are you personally most concerned about at this time?

I’m concerned about the children who have fallen through the cracks. There are countless children who have no access to computers, let alone the kinds of opportunities I am talking about. When we were on site, I was able to give scholarships and bursaries to kids of need. But now? Who is looking after those children? Who is enriching their lives? There are so many children whose isolation is a nightmare. They are falling behind socially and academically. It is taking a terrible toll on their formative years.

There is a huge disparity between people in terms of how they are able to navigate the pandemic. This inequality in society will, I think, become even more apparent as we transition to the next phase, whatever that phase is.

What are you optimistic about in terms of what happens to the arts during and after the pandemic?

As I’ve said, I think the arts are necessary to give people the skills to understand and appreciate the world around them. I’m incredibly moved by what artists are doing online right now – the kinds of things that are being shared are powerful testaments to the resilience and empathy of human beings.

We are going to have huge challenges coming out of the pandemic. We won’t be going back to the way things used to be. Covid and the deep inequalities of our society require us to make major changes. Re-imagining our lives is not going to be easy. But I think that the arts will give us a voice to build that new world.

Teaching Drama Online

Learning together and staying connected

We’ve just finished our first week of Online Spring Semester classes at The Ottawa Children’s Theatre. What a whirlwind! In the past 3 weeks we’ve designed new programming, got it up online, offered it and filled it! There are 183 creative and energized children aged 3 – 18 taking drama classes, acting classes, musical theatre, writing for theatre, theatre criticism and more.

I’m learning so much! It’s been really exciting to see which of our drama exercises translate onto the Zoom medium. The artist/instructors are doing warmups: breathing, articulation and resonance. We’re playing “Pass the Face,” “What am I Doing?”and the “Tableau Game.” We’re teaching dance moves, character development, scene studies and vocal techniques. We’re re-imagining our spaces and creating individual set designs. Most importantly we’re laughing, and we’re moved to tears by the power of theatre.

It isn’t all working perfectly. Sometimes the internet goes down. Sometimes someone gets accidentally shut out in the waiting room. Devices behave differently and sometimes in mysterious ways. The time delay makes teaching singing really challenging! We miss being together and miss the way that we were able to create stories with our bodies and voices in the same space.

But we’re doing this together – artist/instructors and students – helping each other. Our students have great ideas. They are getting to know each other and to trust this new way of working. We are all learning and playing, experimenting and discovering.

We’re staying connected. One Zoom box at a time.

pass the face Emily's Acting up

 

Creative Adaptations

“Theatre people are trained to be flexible, resourceful and resilient. We know how to improvise when our scene partner forgets her lines, know how to step in when the leading man breaks his leg … The show, indeed, must go on …”

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog. My life fluctuates between my role as the Artistic Director of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, and my life as a working writer. I get confused sometimes on how much I should, or shouldn’t, mix my worlds. But right now, in the midst of self-isolation, I am trying to work on wearing multiple hats at the same time. So with that understanding, I am going to publish my Ottawa Children’t Theatre blogs here, on my Stepping off the Treadmill site. Granted, OCT can be a bit of a treadmill for me, but it’s my treadmill and it is decorated just how I would want a treadmill to look.

For those of you who don’t know that part of my world, here’s a taste of the transitions that have encouraged me to dig deep and find a new approach to my creativity.

On March 16, when I realized that we had to postpone, or perhaps cancel, our studio classes, I wanted to curl into a ball and stick my fingers in my ears. We’d just finished fabulous open house presentations and were looking forward to a spring with the highest enrolment ever. My immediate response to the Covid crisis was that I wanted to give up.
 
“Well, you could do that mom,” said my eldest son, “OR you could get together with your instructors and see if they have any ideas.”
 
And thus, our first Zoom instructor meeting took place and OCT Online was born.
OCT zoom photo 1
 
Theatre people are trained to be flexible, resourceful and resilient. We know how to improvise when our scene partner forgets her lines, know how to step in when the leading man breaks his leg, know how to give our best performances in the middle of a snowstorm with only two people in the audience. The show, indeed, must go on, and we spend our lives training for these moments. So, it should have come as no surprise to me that our instructors were ready to leap in with new ideas and new approaches.
 
None of us had ever taught online before, but within a week, we had 11 trial classes up and running. The stipulation was that they had to be interactive. I thought that it was important that kids stuck at home in isolation see familiar faces, sing familiar songs and do familiar drama games. We basically approached our Zoom studios as we do our on-site studios. We soon discovered that we could “Pass the Face” from Zoom window to Zoom window; we could throw and catch imaginary balls; we could meet everyone’s pets and stuffties and act out animal scenes; we could write and perform monologues; we could teach choreography, songs, scene study and improvisation. In short, we could run our regular drama classes, albeit with new ways of working.
 
This week, we’ve launched 30 online courses filled with dramatic fun. We’ve adapted existing courses and created entirely new ones. In the space of 3 weeks, we’ve reinvented our business. And best yet, we’re still able to continue to work with our students!
 
Our online classes will have the same qualities that you’ve come to expect from Ottawa Children’s Theatre –– professionalism, empathy and creativity. But we’ll have something else, too: a renewed excitement about the value of drama skills to teach adaptability. We and our students are the proof.
Musical theatre1

Their Name Liveth For Evermore: The Somme Part 4

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Every cemetery has a stone that states, simply, “Their name liveth for evermore.”

I’ve focused on the Allied side of the Battle of the Somme. The British led the attack, and young men from all parts of the globe were wounded, went missing or died in this pastoral landscape. 44 of the 45 memorials and cemeteries are dedicated to the Allied dead and missing.

The cemetery at Fricourt is the final resting place for 17, 026 Germans who died in the battle of the Somme. It is quiet and moving, and, I suspect, not often visited by the British or French.

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The German cemetery at Fricourt

But these crosses have their own stories to tell, stories of young men doing what they were told, following their leaders into battle just as the British and French men did.

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A Jewish headstone in the German cemetery

I was brought up short by the Jewish gravestones in the German cemetery. Pebbles have been placed on many, telling us of someone’s visit. These seemed to me the saddest markers of all. During the Great War, Jewish soldiers were accepted into the ranks without hesitation. They would see a different fate twenty years later.

The only story that Dave can give us here is that the infamous Baron von Richthofen, the Red Baron, used to be buried here until his family came to collect his remains in 1925 to inter them in Germany. Thousands of names, lettered in classic German typography of the early 20th century. Thousands of stories.

Too many to tell. We visit Mamet Wood, Death Valley, Contalmaison, Delville Wood, Caterpillar Cemetery, Poziers. I lose track of specifics and drown in the weight of the numbers and the stories.

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The Welsh memorial at Mametz. 4000 men were killed or wounded.

We move on for one final Canadian story in the Adanac Cemetery (yes, that is Canada spelled backwards. Not sure whose “cute” idea that was). 1075 Canadians are buried in Adanac.

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Adanac Cemetary

One more story. An uplifting one. A Canadian story. A story from the fall of 1916, when the battle of Somme was still raging. The battle that was supposed to have ended on one sunny morning in July continued on for five months.

James Richardson was a Scot who emigrated to Canada with his family in 1913. When war broke out, he enlisted with the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion. James was a Piper, and as such, his job was to inspire the troops. He wasn’t supposed to go into battle. But on the morning of October 8, 1916, he found himself in a company in disarray, with no senior officers, a line of wire that had not been cut, and troops with no direction. So he picked up his pipes and strode up and down playing, inspiring about 100 men to force their way through the wire into the next trench (the Regina Trench), which the company took successfully.

James then turned his attention to escorting German prisoners out of the trench into the rear of the action, until he realized that he’d left his beloved pipes behind on the front line. He went back to get his pipes and never returned. His body was found by a farmer in 1920.

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Piper James Richardson

But his story doesn’t end there.

In 2002, a school in Scotland posted information about a set of mud stained bagpipes that they had had on display for 90 years. The pipes had been brought home from the war by a British Army Chaplain who taught at the Ardvreck School in Crieff, Perthshire, Scotland. They had a distinctive Lennox tartan pattern on them, the pattern of the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion.

Through an investigative search by The Canadian Club and several army sleuths, the pipes were positively identified, in 2007, as James Richardson’s bagpipes. They are now on display in the B.C. Legislature.

The Battle of the Somme represents one small corner of the Great War. Each of these stories and memorials connects us to a single person, to a young man who had the misfortune of living at a time when it was expected that he would go into battle. Over the course of four years, 38.2 million men were killed, wounded or went missing in action.

All we can do now is to sit together, and tell their stories. Dave’s done a phenomenal job of bringing some of these young men back to life, and giving us an insight into a moment in time when Western Civilization was irreparably altered. (If you are ever interested in a tour, he said to feel free to contact him. You can leave a comment on my site and I can connect you up.)

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A lunch stop

But I think the last word should go to Private Harry Patch. Harry was born in 1898 and died in 2009, living to be 111 years old. It wasn’t until he was 100 that he started to speak openly about the war. His perspective sums it up.

“It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives, let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it … the First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. T’isn’t worth it.”

Private Harry Patch

 

 

 

 

O Love, your eyes lose lure: The Somme, Part 3

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Dave shows us Leipzig Salient and a good view of the middle battleground

On the morning of July 1, 57,470 men on the Allies side were killed, wounded, went missing or were taken prisoner. Figures for the German side are harder to come by, but estimates say that there were between 10,000 – 12,000 German casualties that day.

Until my visit to the Somme, I could look at these as large numbers, but not feel them as individuals. I could grapple with trying to feel the enormity, but I couldn’t relate to these numbers as humans.

But Dave has at least one story from each cemetery. Some stories are of remarkable bravery, like Billy McFadzean from the Ulster Division. Prior to the Ulsterman’s attack on Thiepval Wood, a box of grenades fell on the trench floor, and pins fell out of two of the grenades. They had a 4 second fuse. Billy threw himself onto them to save his comrades. After the war, no one could be sure where the parts of his body ended up so he is named on the huge moment to the missing, the Thiepval Monument.

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Theipval Monument.

But each name holds a story. There are over 70,000 names on the Thiepval Monument, all names of British and South African men who died in the Somme between July 1, 1916 and March 20, 1918, men whose remains were never found.

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Looking out from Theipval Monument. The names of 70,000 missing men are carved in the white marble surrounding the base,

The monument is an impressive and imposing sight, like a statement that seems to shout on the landscape: Never Again. Construction began in 1928, overtop of a warren of German trenches and tunnels. The monument was unveiled in 1932. In seven years, the world would be at war again.

I’m moved by the memorials to the tunnellers.

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A memorial to the men who tunnelled. Lochnagor Crater.

Strategic mining was used by both sides, with many kilometers of tunnels ranging in depth from 30 feet (9 meters) to 120 feet (36 meters). At the “Glory Hole,” eight kilometers of German, British and French tunnels skirted each other by mere meters. As they got closer to their objective, the men needed to tunnel slowly, in complete silence. They worked barefoot and fitted handles onto their bayonets, jabbing the point into a crack in the rock and twisting. Another man caught the rock piece before it fell. Backbreaking work, where they feared discovery at any moment.

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Lochnagor Crater

We visit the Lochnagor Crater, one of the 5 craters left from the mine explosions set underneath the German encampments. As with the blast site at Hawthorn Ridge, photos can’t do the size of this hole justice. But 2nd Lieutenant Cecil Lewis (no relation, but I’d like to adopt him) of the Royal Flying Corps was sent in his plane to observe the blast at Lochnagor as it happened:

“The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the air. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air like a scrap of paper in a gale. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris…”  2nd Lieutenant Cecil Lewis

We finish our day in a museum in the town of Albert. The museum is in a tunnel.

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Going down into the Somme museum in Albert

Ten meters underground, 250 meters long, the tunnel was originally built in the 13th century. It was used as an air raid shelter in the Second World War, housing 1500 people. Today, it houses artifacts, dioramas and exhibits.

I’m struck by an exhibit on facial reconstruction. Gueules cassées, or “Broken Faces,” became a term that referred to the more than 15,000 men who returned from the war missing eyes, noses, jaws, cheeks. In trench warfare, the heads of the soldiers are particularly vulnerable. The introduction of metal helmets in 1915 saved many lives, but ironically this meant that many men who would have previously died from head wounds now lived with terrible disfiguration. The new field of plastic surgery helped, but for many the reentry into society was far harder than for those missing limbs.

There are so many ways in which war destroys a life. We return to Chavasse Farm and breathe in the peace.

Red lips are not so red

As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.

Kindness of wooed and wooer

Seems shame to their love pure.

O Love, your eyes lose lure

When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

            Wilfred Owen 1918

 

 

 

 

We Stand at the Edge of a Crater: The Somme Part 2

 

Dave Griffiths

“…I remember the lads laid in rows, just as if they’d gone to sleep there, and the sun flashing on them bits of tin on their backs all down the lines. The machine guns just laid them out. Some were hanging on the wire, hanging like rags. Machine guns bullets were knocking them round as if it was washing on the line.” Private Frank Lindsay, 16 years old, Pals Battalion, Barnsley

There are some pertinent facts to keep in mind for this cursory view of the first day of The Battle of the Somme. I’m not going to go into the intricacies of the battle. I can only speak from a personal perspective about what I saw, 101 years later, on a landscape that still shows the scars of the war. But a bit of background information might help.

  • The battle began at 7:30 a.m on July 1, 1916.
  • 13 divisions were deployed under British command. They came from Britain, Ireland, Newfoundland, Bermuda and the colonies of Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Australia. For the most part the men were new recruits, young men who joined up together and took basic training for six months.
  • The French had asked for British assistance to pull German troops from Verdun. There were 11 divisions under French command, but they, too, operated under British command in the Somme.
  • There were 6 German divisions, a professional army of young men who had trained for a minimum of two years.
  • The front was 45 kilometers long
  • The chain of command was like a game of ‘broken telephone’ going horribly awry. A hierarchical structure of twelve layers of information connected the toffs in the War Command office to the working class Privates in the trenches. Each layer had its own vested interest. The Privates had no choice but to the information they were given.
  • In 2 hours approximately 72,000 men (from both sides) were killed, wounded or went missing.

 

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Dave shows us a battlefield near the hamlet of Serre

France is a vast country of rolling farmland. Europe’s garden. It is still farmed by local farmers and families in much the same way it has always been farmed. Cattle graze, tractors harrow, and in the gentle rolls of land it is easy to let the 21st century drift away.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Somme. The area of the Somme is a thriving farming community, but it is also a community that guards the memories of hundreds of thousands of people. The farms are planted around well-tended cemeteries and memorials, sites that are in the middle of the farmed fields.

The cemeteries and memorials are tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who hire local people to maintain them. There are, every day, hundreds of people who come from all over the world to visit and to find graves of family members who they’ve only heard about in stories.

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Up the path, past farms and fields to Luke Copse. Light Railway and Queens  Cemeteries,

It was in the Luke Copse Cemetery that I began to feel the enormity of our pilgrimage.

 

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We walked up a tractor path, past fields of sunflowers to a small “battlefield” graveyard, where bodies were placed in pairs a trench, the trench that they had just left minutes before. Dave showed us where two brothers, Lance Corporal Frank Gunstone (25 years old) and Private William Gunstone (24 years old), were buried side by side.

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Luke Copse Cemetery

Further along the path we came to the Light Railway Cemetery. Part of battle planning involved building a railway so that wounded men could be carried back to hospitals in Rouen. Trenches and craters from bombardment still mark the site of the battle.

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Light Railway Cemetery

We visited the grave of Private Alfred Goodlad who wrote in his last letter home, “The French are a good nation worth fighting for.” I think about today’s troops, dying in foreign countries far from home. I think about the generosity of Private Goodlad’s family, who decided to put this statement on his tombstone.

Across the tractor path, cornfields frame the Queens Cemetery in former no man’s land.

 

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Queens Cemetery

Many of the Accrington Pals are buried here. Pals battalions came from all over Britain, young men who went to school together, or maybe were volunteer firefighters, or on the same football team. Friends who signed up together to fight together, and for the most part, die together. The 700 Accrington Pals were a battalion from the town of Accrington in East Lancashire. They were tasked with taking the town of Serre. Within half an hour, 585 of them were casualties (385 dead, 200 wounded). Serre was left in German hands.

“… it was slaughter. Men fell like ninepins. There was rifle fire, machine-gun fire, it was terrible.” Stanley Brewsher, Accrington Pals

A few kilometers down the road, British sappers had spent months digging carefully under German encampments to lay mines set to explode at the appointed hour and initiate the battle.

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Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt

Remarkably, there is footage of the explosion at the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, just west of the town of Beaumont-Hamel, the first of five land mines were exploded (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8YfJmwY5Uo) It is remarkable to see the size of the explosion, the earth shooting high into the sky.

There is also footage by the official cinematographer, Geoffrey Malins of the young soldiers of the first battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers waiting in the “Sunken Lane” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Sb7urnjEaE) across from the mine site, ready to attack and liberate Beaumont as soon as the mine was exploded.

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Sunken Lane, where the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers waited for the explosion at Hawthorn Ridge

For reasons beyond my ability to grasp, let alone explain, the mine at Hawthorn Ridge was exploded 10 minutes early on July, at 7:20 a.m., not at 7:30 as scheduled. The explosion effectively warned the Germans that the attack was about to begin. The German troops moved quickly forward into their trenches before the attack officially started at 7:30. They were therefore very ready when the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers from the Sunken Lane came out into the open. The young men whose faces you see in the film clip were easily picked off.

We walk from the Sunken Lane to the top of the Hawthorn Redoubt to look into the crater left by the mine.

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From the bottom of the Hawthorn Ridge crater

Overgrown, it is no more than a hideout for teenagers now. I go down to the bottom and stare up, remembering the young German men who lost their lives suddenly, unexpectedly, as the bomb went off underneath them.

We drive a short distance down the road to Newfoundland Park. Although Newfoundland was not a part of Canada in 1916, it is hard not to feel compassionately patriotic at the sight of a Canadian flag and a huge caribou memorial.

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Newfoundland Park

This site has been maintained so that the original trenches are still in evidence, markers to another horror of this war. 801 young men from Newfoundland were pushed forward as part of a second wave of attack after the Hawthorn Ridge explosion. They couldn’t go through the trenches, because they were blocked with the dead and wounded. They had to move across open fields, with little artillery support. They tried to push through the barbed wire of No Man’s Land, wire they had thought destroyed.

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Trenches in Newfoundland Park

In 30 minutes it was over. Only 68 men of the Newfoundland Regiment survived uninjured. Newfoundland lost a generation of young men. To this day, they are mourned and remembered in Newfoundland on July 1st.

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Cemetery for the men of the Newfoundland Regiment

And on and on. Each cemetery tells the story of a regiment, each gravestone tells the story of a man.

Day one of our tour of the Somme is over. We head back to Chavasse Farm and wine that reminds us to enjoy life. Over dinner we sing snatches of songs about peace.

 

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Wild Poppies

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