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Remembering the Battle of the Somme

Environments, Features / 8th November 2016

As Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday ceremonies draw near agronomy manager Steve Gingell reviews the preparations, management and aftercare at the Thiepval Memorial, when it marked the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

On 1st July 2016 the world joined together to commemorate a hundred years since of the Battle of Somme. The most devastating encounter of World War One, where more than a million men were wounded or killed. To commemorate the battle, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Department of Media, Culture and Sport hosted a ceremony at Thiepval.

 

 

Thiepval Memorial

 

 

The Thiepval Monument contains the names of around 62,000 missing soldiers that fought during The Somme campaign. It was designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, and sits over German trenches on the ridge above the allied lines. It is an imposing and sombre reminder of the missing French and Commonwealth troops.

As the main memorial on The Somme, Thiepval was the focus of the 1st July commemorations, and hosted over 10,000 guests and many heads of state. The memorial service involved a morning of reflection and the story of the Battle of the Somme as it unfolded.

The ceremony was planned prior to Christmas 2015 and H Power were chosen by the Department of Media, Culture and Sport to deliver the event. The aim was to provide a seated area in front of the monument and on grandstands, stages, catering and display areas. As consultants to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission STRI undertook a precondition assessment prior to the build of the commemoration and a post assessment once H Power had left the site. This would then determine the reparations required. STRI consultants also advised on the presentation and pre-conditioning of the site.

The site is on the silty soils of The Somme, which are very wet in the winter and very dry in the summer. Therefore, most of the plans were designed to accommodate dry soil conditions. For areas that expected high traffic or heavy equipment a trackway was laid down, while rubber matting was added to lesser areas.

Unfortunately, France endured one of the wettest early summers on record, with floods spreading throughout Northern Europe. This rendered the soils particularly soft. Our consultants identified potential risks and recommended that effective maintenance strategies, such as using fungicide treatments, aeration and sand dressing, would help mitigate some of the issues. The pre-inspection highlighted those risks and raised concerns that there could be significant damage, particularly on the main forecourt where most of the seating was placed. Fortunately, H Power’s decision to cover the grass in the central seating area, similar to stadium concerts, helped protect the sensitive grasses on the site.

 

 

Thiepval

 

 

The post ceremony report identified the majority of the areas to be in good condition, especially places of visual high importance. There was naturally some compaction on traffic routes, covered or not. These areas were verti-drained and dressed with sand to relieve compaction. In places the trackways caused loss of ground cover but did not significantly affect surface levels. This was typically where light traffic had occurred or  where pedestrian grandstands and marquees were present. The simplest way forward here was to overseed with suitable ryegrass and verti-drain on a number of occasions to relieve any compaction that may have occurred. As these areas were not visually of high importance, there would be less need to apply a sand dressing. There would also be a degree of natural recovery.

The most significant loss of surface levels and grass cover occurred on main traffic routes where heavy vehicles had run into the site. In places this had caused depressions to a depth of 50mm. These areas were cultivated to a depth of 150mm, which helped open the soils and allowed them to dry. There was a concern that cultivation on its own may not be successful as it would have smeared and not ‘fluffed’ up the soil satisfactorily due to the very high silt content. Once the soils  dried out, sand was applied before final grading cultivations and seeding. These were relatively small areas but quite important within the wider landscape.

After the very moving but spectacular commemoration, it was very pleasing to see the moderately low levels of disturbance, especially after the terrible weather conditions experienced through the construction of the memorial and post event. The assessment clearly identified where problems had occurred and gave solutions that were cost effective and not extreme.

Working with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission allowed the risks at the site to be identified and ensured the presentation matched the importance and remembrance of the Battle of the Somme. It was a great privilege for STRI to assist in the ceremony.

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