Somme report

July 6, 2016

St. Pauls Community College Students attend International commemoration of the Battle of the Somme at the Thiepval memorial in France on July 1st and remember all Irish people lost in World War 1.

On June 28th a group of 25 very excited students from St Paul’s Community College, accompanied by Principal Noreen Reilly and teachers Gerard Lohan and Mai O Keeffe left Waterford to attend the International Commemoration of the Battle of the Somme.

This came about when teacher Mr. G Lohan entered a national competition and was awarded the honour of leading the only 25 students from Ireland to the Somme Celebrations. St Paul’s students remembered all Irish people lost in World War I on July 1st at the Thiepval memorial in France on July 1st.

Noreen Reilly Principal commended teacher Mr. Ger Lohan on his interest and participation in the project which was funded by the British Council. “This was a fantastic opportunity for the students of St. Paul’s Community College who had the honour of representing all Irishmen and women who lost their lives in World War 1. It was a privilege to take part in this historic moment, to reflect on the futility of war and the need for peace. Forging lasting friendships among young people from Ireland, UK and France will I believe contribute to greater understandings and good relations for the future, hopefully ensuring that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. We are grateful to the British Council for affording us the opportunity to represent Ireland and participate in this fully funded 5-day event in France”.

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It was truly a week that students will remember for ever. A century on, the Battle of the Somme is one of the most tragic battles of the First World War, in which more than one million men were lost. The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and was fought along a 15-mile front near the River Somme in northern France. 19,240 British soldiers died on the first day – the bloodiest in the history of the British army. The British captured just three square miles of territory on the first day. At the end of hostilities, five months later, the British had advanced just seven miles and failed to break the German defence. In total, there were over a million dead and wounded on all sides, including 420,000 British of whom there were 1200 Irish men, about 200,000 from France and an estimated 465,000 from Germany.

St. Paul’s Community College visit to France was the culmination of six months of dialogue and hard work with their partner school in France, which led to the creation of high quality art work. St. Paul’s Community College has established friendships between teachers and students alike from France, and the UK. It is hoped that these links will be a truly lasting legacy and testament to the many people of all countries and faiths who died during this terrible battle.

St. Paul’s Community College students were accommodated at the Lycée Thuillier a boarding school in Amiens for the duration of the visit.
On day 1 included a visit to Amiens Cathedral, also called Notre-Dame d’Amiens or the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Amiens, which is a Gothic Cathedral located in the historic city of Amiens, in the Somme River valley north of Paris. St. Paul’s Community College students participated in a workshop where they got to see real artefacts from the trenches and had the opportunity to try on a soldier’s uniform. Then the group left Amiens to travel to the Thiepval site for the first rehearsal.

On Day 2 included a visit to the Commonwealth War Graves Commissions Cemetery at Serre in the Northern area of the Somme. This was a poignant moment for Teacher Gerard Lohan whose Great Uncle Private Joseph Monaghan was one of the missing of the Somme. Student Graham Drohan who’s Great Grand Uncle Fredrick Forysthe from Waterford was also killed in action during the Great War was remembered especially here.

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The visit to Serre was followed by a picnic which due to inclement weather was held in a school in Albert before travelling to the Lochnagar Crater. This was the site where 60 tonnes of explosives were detonated under the German trenches at La Boisell at 7.27am on the morning of July 1st 1916 heralding the start of the “great push” on the first day of the Battle. at the launch of the British offensive against the German lines on the morning of 1st July 1916.

Today grass covers the Lochnagar Crater, a dent in the earth that spans 91 meters (299 feet) wide and 21 meters (69 feet) deep. It’s a huge, unusual peace memorial near the French town of Ovillers-la-Boisselle. St. Paul’s students joined with the other 575 students to remember those lost in the Somme. A two-minute silence was held before a lone piper played “It’s a long way to Tipperary” much to the delight of Principal Noreen Reilly a Tipperary native herself.

After leaving the Crater St. Paul’s Community College students then had the opportunity to be interviewed by Irish Times reporter Ronan McGreevey who travelled from the Belgium border to meet us at the side of the road on the country lane leading to the Lochnagar Crater. It was then on to the Thiepval Memorial for our full dress rehearsal where Colonel Michael Kiernan Aide-de-comp to President Michael D Higgins and other senior officials of the Irish Army greeted our students and commended them for their enthusiasm, diligence and commitment to the project.

The excitement for St. Paul’s Community College students was to continue when they were hosts of the Abbey theatre at their famous production of “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme” at the Maison de la Culture in Amiens on Thursday 30 June at 7.30 pm.

Upon arrival at the theatre the 13 students that attended the production with Ms. Reilly & Ms O Keeffe were met by Minister for the Arts, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, Frank McGuinness author of the play “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme”, Fiach Mac Conghail Director of the Abbey and Dr. Bryan McMahon, Chairman of the Abbey Theatre. A wonderful theatrical experience which brought the events of 100 years ago to life was how students described their visit to the theatre. At the end of the production Frank McGuinness signed copies of the programme and Fiach Mac Conghail Director of the Abbey brought student up to introduce them to the cast.
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Meanwhile the remaining members of the group had the opportunity to meet the French Minister for Education while they were engaged with their partner schools in the Pop Up Museum Art work project under the direction of Mr. Lohan.

Finally, Friday July 1st dawned, and the excitement was palpable. A 6.30 am rise to assemble for “airport type” security check saw St. Paul’s Community College “ambassador” for the trip student Ian Maher head off on the ambassadors’ bus to meet the Royal family at a private Inaugural ceremony of a new museum at the Thiepval site. Here Ian got to meet face to face with members of the royal family Kate and the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Ian also had the opportunity to speak in person with Prince Harry.

Meanwhile the remaining members of St. Pauls Community College and their teacher were on the first bus of a fleet of 15 buses under police escort to be brought to the Thiepval Memorial site. En-route they had a bird’s eye view of the canons that were used in the ceremony. Ms. Reilly, Mr. Lohan and Ms. O’Keeffe had the honour of leading the group of 600 students to the hospitality tent where they assembled into their respective groups prior to participating in the ceremony.
The ceremony itself was attended by Kate and the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, who were joined by Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and President Michael Higgins and other world leaders and dignitaries to honour the hundreds of thousands of victims of the brutal offensive, which started in northern France on July 1, 1916.

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The high profile ceremony was broad cast live by BBC and RTE and much to the delight of parents and guardians back home in Waterford, St. Paul’s Community College was mentioned and close up shots of St Paul’s students were broadcast also.

The ceremony itself was a moving fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in this futile battle and the roar of the canons and the lament of the lone piper from the Irish guards brought home to all present what a terrifying lonely place this was 100 year ago for the young men who were slaughtered here. Ar dheis dé go raibh said.
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According to Ger Lohan “Our 25 students were honoured to remember the dead, the girls laid a posy and the boys laid a wreath on the graves of the common wealth soldiers interred here in this solemn lonely place”.
After the ceremony was over St. Paul’s Community College students were greeted by President Michael Higgins and his wife Sabina and also by Prince Harry who told students from St Paul’s Community College in Waterford, Ireland, and Wolsingham School in County Durham: “It’s important that you are here. There are all sorts of parts of history that are being forgotten. It’s important for us to remember older history as well as more recent history. I’m actually quite jealous of you guys getting to spend five days here learning all about it. “You will come back with a huge amount of knowledge.”

St. Paul’s Community College returned home on Saturday July 2nd after a visit to the Chateaus at Versailles where the Armistice was signed signifying the end of World War 1. The group then enjoyed a brief bus tour taking in historical sites of Paris including the Stade de France, The Eiffel Tower, the Trocadero, the Arc De Triomphe and the Champs Elysees. It was then off to the airport for our flight home.
Students were welcomed home by proud parents who were delighted and appreciative of this unique wonderful experience that their children had participated in.

According to St. Pauls Community College Principal N Reilly “The memory of this significant event will remain etched in the hearts and minds of these privileged students forever”.
Mai O Keeffe quoted poet John Keats “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced”.
Mr. Lohan who had been responsible for this great trip said, “This has fulfilled an ambition of a life time, I am the first of my family to visit this solemn place were my great uncle Joseph Monaghan was lost, I feel a special connection with him today and am honoured and privileged to have attended the centenary commemoration. I look forward to visiting the other Somme battlefields in the months and years to come”.

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