Students play role of fallen soldiers in Somme tribute
Actors dressed as First World War soldiers were present at transport hubs across the country last week in a powerful tribute to those killed during the Battle of the Somme.
Duncan Westbrook and Henry Guttridge-Smith, both 18 and from Stamford, volunteered to take part in the initiative, commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary.
The project was shrouded in secrecy until actors started appearing at busy public locations on the morning of Friday, July 1 – 100 years ago to the day that the Battle of the Somme began.
Duncan, who lives in St Leonard’s Street and has just finished his studies at Stamford School, said: “A few years ago I auditioned for the National Youth Theatre, and didn’t get in, but they still had my details and sent out an email a couple of months ago seeking participants for a secret project.
“It sounded fascinating and so I went down to London to find out more and sign up.
“It was a fantastic opportunity to work with some top-class directors.”
Duncan and Henry began their day at Paddington Station, and later travelled by train to Reading where they spent four hours, before returning to central London.
Duncan, who intends to begin a degree at the Leeds College of Music in September, said the many soldiers received a positive response from passersby.
He said: “We weren’t allowed to speak to anyone, it was a silent performance, but we had worked on how to react to people in non-verbal ways.
“We had cards to hand out to those who were curious bearing the hashtag #wearehere so people could learn more about the performance.
“The vast majority were delighted to see us and it was a real pleasure to be involved.”
Each participant was playing the role of a real soldier killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme – which lasted five months and saw more than one million men killed.
Duncan assumed the role of Sergeant Ernest Leonard Burley, of the London Regiment’s Queen Victoria’s Rifles, who was just 27 when he died.
Henry, who is studying acting at Brooksby Melton College, played the role of Private John Rogers, of the Royal Fusiliers.
He added: “A number of people who lost family members during the war came up to us and it was very difficult not being able to speak to them. We sang ‘We are here because we are here’ to the tune of Auld Lang Syne and virtually everyone in the station stopped and looked.”
l See page 22 for a round-up of other Somme events.