04 November 2015

History visit to the First World War Battlefields

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Forty Year 9 students were fortunate enough to make an exciting visit to the First World War battlefields this October, where we would be able to discover and experience exactly what happened during and after World War One.

Having woken up early on a Friday morning, we all seated ourselves on the large coach that awaited us at 7:15, for a 7:30 departure to Folkestone to board the Eurotunnel.

After a relatively short drive to Belgium, we reached our first stop for the day – Essex Farm British Cemetery. First of all, we were shown the Advanced Dressing Stations – the original medical dugouts that had been then expanded in to this dressing station in 1917. It was here that John McCrae wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’. It was amazing how small each of the bunkers were; it would have been hard for the nurses to move properly, and it would also make the spread of disease from soldier to soldier a lot faster. Some of us took a torch and looked inside – it was very cold and dark, and would have been, even by candlelight. It was obvious that, once wounded and placed in the medical army hospital it would have been very tough to survive.

We moved on to the cemetery itself – we estimated that around 1200 soldiers had been buried here. Of these burials, 103 were inscribed as ‘Known Only To God’. All the graves were made out of shining white stone. As we walked along row after row of graves a particular grave caught our eye – that of Valentine Joe Strudwick. He was only 15 when he died. He must have joined up prematurely, but we were told that at that time, as long as you could perform all the tasks a soldier should, they often pretended they didn’t realise that you lied about your age because they needed so many men to join up. We were all shocked that there must have been many soldiers like Valentine Joe Strudwick who died after only having lived for a very short time.

When we had seen all we needed to see, we headed back to the coach and on to our next place to visit – Tyne Cot Cemetery. This is the largest British war cemetery in the world. At one end there is a wall on which are written the names of 35,000 soldiers with no known grave not on the Menin Gate (which we visited later in our trip). We conducted a small survey of two rows of graves; we were sad that there were so many unknown soldiers who could never be recognised for what they had done.

Our final stop for the day was Langemark German Cemetery. We knew that the contrast between the British and German cemetery was going to be quite dramatic, but we couldn’t have imagined exactly how different they really were. Instead of the glorious white marble gravestones in the British cemetery, there was a large mass burial for many of the soldiers to one side of the cemetery, with large blocks of black stones with the names of these soldiers written in small writing on them. We discussed how difficult it would be to find a friend or relation on one of these in comparison to the English cemeteries, where almost every soldier had a designated gravestone.

On the other side of the cemetery were small slabs of black stone on the ground, each with around one to eight names on it of the soldiers who were lucky enough to have a more personalised burial. There were trees grown all around the cemetery so that if you did not know there was a cemetery there you would not have noticed. We found this very sad that just because these men were German, the Belgians did not want their graves to be seen as they had fought against one another, and did not want to waste their land to bury the dead of the enemy.

After our first day, we arrived at our youth hostel to a hot dinner. We also had an evening study session to discuss what we had done during the day and what we would do the next day. Finally, we went to our dormitories and went to bed, after an interesting and exciting day.

We woke early on Saturday morning. After we had breakfast, we set out for our first stop of the day Beaumont Hamel and the Newfoundland Memorial Park. We were given a short tour around the area by a Canadian history student, which explained the significance of where we were. We learnt about the devastation the Somme left behind, especially in this area where almost the whole Newfoundland regiment was wiped out. After the tour we took a brief sojourn to the small museum on site, which was extremely interesting.

We then moved onto the Thiepval monument. We were each given a small remembrance cross which we were allowed to place anywhere we felt appropriate and after a brief talk from Mrs Fitzgerald we went on to the monument. The monument itself was dedicated to all the British soldiers who died in the Somme but were never recovered. We found out why the monument caused controversy and talked about what we thought the monument conveyed.

Our next stop was to the Ulster tower, which was built to commemorate the 36th Ulster division. We ate our lunch in the small picnic area and went to the small café, before looking round the area. We learnt about why the tower was built in a very different style from most of the architecture around us and the significance of it.

Following this we had a small stop at the La Boiselle Lochnagar crater. This was extremely interesting. British mines that destroyed part of the German front line, which was the British objective, caused the crater. This left the huge crater and we were able to walk round it and fully see the extent of what happened.

For our penultimate and last stops we went to two cemeteries, the German Fricourt cemetery and the English Devonshire Cemetery. Firstly we went to Fricourt cemetery. We saw that the cemetery was very small and had a large amount of mass graves, as well as this the cemetery was surrounded by trees so it was not noticeable. We also saw there were quite a few Jewish graves, which we found fairly surprising considering what would happen in the next 25 years. We then moved onto our last stop, which was the Devonshire cemetery. The cemetery was built on the area of the trenches the Devonshire regiment were based in. We placed our poppy wreath on the memorial cross and wrote a small inscription in the middle of the wreath. We were all moved by the inscription at the front of the cemetery, which read ‘The Devonshires held this trench: They hold it still.’

We then stopped at our hostel for dinner and a short talk with the teachers about what we had done that day and what to expect from our next stops, before heading off again for the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. We found the ceremony to be the perfect ending to the day; it was a simple but moving tribute to the all fallen soldiers of the war and was extremely emotive.

We then returned to the hostel and finally had a moment of relaxation from our busy day.

We woke to our last day of the trip, and after breakfast packed up all our bags, made sure we had passports and money for chocolates, and left for Ypres. We arrived outside the beautiful In Flanders Fields Museum just before 10:00, and after a quick discussion with Mrs Fitzgerald as to the significance of the building, we were given 45 minutes to explore. We found it very interesting and insightful, especially as you were given little poppy wristbands that meant you could interact and find out more information about lots of the things displayed.

After a quick trip to the gift shop, 40 excited pupils were let loose among the many and varied chocolate shops of Ypres, and soon found a particular ‘Leonidas’ had an excellent deal, involving a lot of chocolate and sweets for €10! Ypres was very enjoyable for us all, and not just because of the shopping, but it is a very beautiful and interesting place.

Our final stop of the trip was a guided tour of Vimy Memorial Park, seeing the trenches and the tunnel there. This is a Canadian memorial park in France, and like the Newfoundland Memorial Park we had visited the day before, had Canadian guides. We ate our packed lunches, and then were split into two groups, so as not to crowd the tunnel. This was an incredible experience, because it was really quite unbelievable to walk through a small, cold and fairly dark tunnel that would have been smaller, colder and darker 100 years ago, when filled with soldiers. It was an awe inspiring and eye-opening experience, because it showed us just how scary it must have been, knowing that any minute the enemy, also digging tunnels 8m underground, like this one, could discover your tunnel, and try to set off mines to destroy it. And all the while there would be fighting too.

We then were shown around the trenches, which, although there were noticeable efforts, as in the tunnel, to preserve and make them safe, you could see the network of shell holes and trenches surrounding you. It was a very special and strange feeling, trying to imagine soldiers walking through this trench in the rain, like you, but fighting for their lives, knowing that they could be killed.

We then boarded the Eurotunnel and were off across the sea back home. The trip was an amazing opportunity for everyone, and it was so interesting. Over only three days we learnt so much about the different cemeteries and memorials of different countries, saw first-hand the trenches and tunnels that the soldiers would have spent so much time in, and were fortunate enough to visit the Flanders Field Museum and go to the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. Everything we did on the trip was fascinating and really broadened our knowledge of the First World War. A brilliant few days!

Naomi Jennings, Amy Thomas and Aria Baker

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