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Michael Morpurgo: The Somme should be a lesson to us all

When we rounded the corner of the cemetery he looked up. The Memorial to the Missing is breathtaking in its scale - and Michael Morpurgo was clearly overcome, realising as we all did, that you needed something this large to be able to carry all the names of the fallen here.

Michael Morpurgo has written many, many books. But for this former Children's Laureate, it is the ones he has written about war, most notably of course War Horse, and Private Peaceful, with which his name is most synonymous.

And so he accompanied ITV News as we visited the cemeteries that stretch over the horizon in this part of Northern France. He has visited battlefields before, like Ypres, which have left a lasting impression. But this was his first opportunity to see in person, the graves to those unknown soldiers at Thiepval.

We filmed at dawn, and for much of the time, it was just us. Seated on that vast memorial and looking out. It was misty which lent an eerie atmosphere, it was like this in the days and hours leading up to that fateful blowing of the whistle.

War Horse and Private Peaceful author Michael Morpurgo. Credit: ITV News

Michael struggled he said, to imagine how different this scene was then. The sounds of gunfire, of human pain and misery replaced by an incredible stillness today, the birds singing.

He was a war baby he said, a child born in the second world war, a picture in the family home of his Uncle Peter who served in the RAF and died, a constant reminder he said, that war did terrible things to families, to societies.

But it was when he met old soldiers of the First World War, in his home village in Devon, that his war books were born. "I tumble on stories" he said, "because I tumble on people".

A chat to veterans about the horrors of the trenches lead him to write War Horse, his desire to tell the story from a neutral viewpoint decisive in choosing a horse as the narrator for the book. As we know that book would be made into an award winning play, and then a film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Credit: ITV News

Indeed as we talked at Thiepval, the silence was broken by a group of Scottish schoolchildren on a trip to see the memorial. When they realised that seated before them was the man who wrote the war books they had been studying, the excitement was palpable. It was clear that these children had loved Michael's stories, the fact that they had happened upon him here ensuring that they would never forget.

Without anyone alive to share their first hand stories of the Somme, Michael's fear is that the connection between then and now will be broken - and so he writes to keep those stories alive.

"We must learn from this" he said as he gazed out to the fields and beyond. "This is what happens when men go mad", he said, referring to the catastrophic decisions that brought the world to war, and unleashed its weapons.

Credit: ITV News

Poignantly, he wondered if he would have had the bravery to keep walking towards the enemy as the bullets flew. "I'd like to think I would" he said, "for the comrade to the right of me, and the left of me, I hope I would".

After we returned home, Michael wrote to me about his hopes for the visit and for the news pieces we recorded on that day, in that location.

"I hope everyone there will feel we all achieved something way beyond the ordinary. Ordinary is not enough for those left lying there".

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