Students Staff

15 November 2018

One student’s role in commemorating the end of the First World War

Filed under: Colchester — Tags: , — Communications Office @ 8.33 am

History MA student Olivia Smith has spent four months working as a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) intern at the Thiepval Memorial to the missing of the Somme in northern France. Last week she gave Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron a tour as part of the centenary commemorations. Here she tells us what it’s been like to play a role in ensuring the First World War dead are never forgotten.

Olivia giving a reading at the memorial

Olivia giving a reading at the memorial

Every day on site we give tours to visitors of the memorial. Only last week I had a school group of around 35 ask me for a tour, all around the age of 13 and14 so quite an impressionable age. I told them the story of one of the Victoria Cross winners William Macfadzen who died on 1 July 1916.

Macfadzen won his Victoria Cross because of his instant bravery. In the early hours of 1 July he was in a trench with his men preparing for battle. He was handing out grenades to his comrades and accidentally dropped the box of grenades. Two of the safety pins came out and without hesitation Macfadzen jumped on top of the box and sacrificed his life so that the rest of the men in the trench would be spared.

I told this story and I looked over to a little boy who was crying. He was crying in his sisters arms and said “I will always remember this story”. I felt so glad that he cried, because to me that meant he understood exactly why he was here.

Why it matters to keep telling the story of those who died

For me the most important aspect of this whole job is ensuring the younger generations understand what they are visiting on the Western Front and why.

It is down to my generation now to ensure this educational message is passed on.

Four months seem like such a long time but it really isn’t.

I feel very sad that the internship is coming to an end. I have no war dead in my family, but I have built up a wonderful personal connection with the stories of the men I have learnt about and I feel strongly that as part of the younger generation, it is now our duty to ensure these men will never be forgotten.

What it means to be part of the centenary

I can’t put into words how lucky I am to have spent just over a quarter of a year working in France with the CWGC. It is an experience I truly wish didn’t have to end; I am beyond proud to have worked with the CWGC. I am proud to say I have been a part of the centenary and I am more proud that I have played a role in ensuring the men of the First World War will not be forgotten.

11 November 2018 marked a century since peace on the Western Front; it marked the end of the centenary years but what it won’t mark is the end of remembering the men who died.”

Find out more about Olivia’s experience working at Thiepval.

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