Sounds of the Somme – Springwatch’s Gary Moore
I have always been fascinated by the Battle of the Somme, and have wanted to visit the battleground for years. Little did I know that this centenary year, I would have the opportunity to go there, but via one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
My day job is as a wildlife sound recordist so I am used to being out in the field, listening and watching and trying to capture bird and animal sounds. For me one of the most moving things about World War I is the number of poets who write about birdsong, and how for them it is a sound of peace, and a memory of what must have seemed like a lost world. Larks is one of the sounds often mentioned in World War I poetry. I wondered whether I could record a piece about birdsong at the Somme as we hear it today.
But how to get there? By the time I had worked out that I’d like to do the recordings, most forms of transport to France for this special memorial year, and with the football as well, were already booked up.
I had already done some work at Stow Maris airfield, when I was working on Springwatch earlier this year, with Russell Savory, the wildlife photographer. And funnily enough this was where my adventure really began. Russell knew I was struggling to get to France so he put me in contact with Dick Forsythe, who is a trustee of the World War I Aviation Trust. Dick kindly suggested I could join their party over to France, to act as ground crew for the two World War I planes (the BE2 and the Albatross) that they were sending over to do a fly-past of the Thiepval Memorial.
I can tell you I was literally shaking with excitement at the thought of seeing these amazing replica planes.
I got to the airfield at 8.30, and the planes were already out on the grass. It turned out the observer’s seat in the BE2 was free, so Dick suggested I could take the place. I was delighted – I know what a rare opportunity this is, and I am so grateful to have been given the chance.
Dick and colleagues kitted me out with a leather coat, goggles and hat and had to show me how to climb in to the seat. The first thing you really notice is the materials that the plane is made of. The outer coating of Irish linen and wood, and the seat of wicker puts you in mind of going on a picnic rather than a flight across the Channel. The smell is powerful too – heated petrol mixed with castor oil.
I had no idea in advance how noisy the take-off would be, and the wash of the prop was incredible. I literally thought my goggles would blow off. Because of the basic engineering of the plane we couldn’t fly over built-up areas, but we flew across over the Thames.
The highlight of the trip for me was seeing the Albatross circling ahead of us over the Thames Estuary. On cue, the sky got dark and moody. It really made you realise how brave the young men who flew these planes in war were. No wonder they pilots used to salute each other when they ran out of ammunition.
The smell, the wind, the pressure, the cold. The taste of the castor oil – on your face, all over your goggles and on the windscreen. These are the things I will remember forever about my flight. We were in the sky for about an hour – but it seemed to go in 30 seconds it was over so quickly.
What an incredible experience. I’m so grateful that Dick and his team let me be a small part of their World War I commemorations. This was a trip I’ll remember forever.