Battlefields Blog 2017 – Update

Day One

4:00am – Wake up! (aargh!) Definitely not something to do regularly! However we all somehow managed to arrive, just about! It was quite a challenge dragging our bags onto the bus, but the zombies of Year 10 History somehow made it. We managed to make it all the way to Fleet service station without too much noise, except snoring! After a quick caffeine hit we started to appear a bit more human. Before getting on the Eurotunnel we picked up our incredib-LEE interesting tour guide Mr. Lee. To some the Eurotunnel was exciting enough that they simply HAD to sit on the sidewalk, rather than the luxury coach! As we arrived in Belgium… We didn’t see any difference to France, except that it was flatter than last Tuesday’s pancakes.

Although we hadn’t done much exercise, we still managed to find room for more food, in the shape of lunch in windy Belgium. Eventually, we started doing some History at the “Trenches of Death”. It was a fast-paced, high intensity tour of the trenches with an interesting (yet brief!) insight into trench warfare. It was scary how close the opposing trenches were to each other, and yet the Princess of Belgium still had the guts to visit the front lines. #Respect! We learnt that this was the only area in Belgium never to be conquered by the Germans, and has therefore earned the name of “Free Belgium”. #Respect!!

More travelling! This time toward Ypres. First to hear some Lee-exclusive tips on the Gloucestershire regiment and their spectacular triumph in a time of need. We then moved on to see a memorial of an Old Clayesmorian and his fellow comrades. It was particularly moving standing in the place knowing that somewhere below us he was resting. We lay a wreath to commemorate his brave sacrifice.

Drama alert!!! We FINALLY found out our sleeping arrangements. Fortunately, not too many tears were shed, but (and we quote) “Sir, the suspense is unbearable!”. After some intense squabbling over who should have the double bed, we returned downstairs for dinner and a visit to Menin Gate.

Afore mentioned, Menin Gate was a spectacular sight, dedicated to those whose bodies were never recovered. A staggering 55,000 names could be found and a further 38,000 that could not be fitted in the immense structure. We attended the Last Post Ceremony, a tradition that has occurred every night since 1929, without fail (even though it had to move to England for a little while, whilst Belgium wasn’t available). Two of the members were lucky enough to lay a wreath at the Menin Gate, both in Mr Newland’s class (just saying!).

An unexpected DRAMA ALERT, Mr Newland was cruelly stealing all of the phones from the home-sick, exhausted, vulnerable pupils before bedtime!! This time there were a lot of tears! #WeNeedaNewHistoryTeacherFast!!! But in all seriousness thanks to Newpak and the squad for an amazing day, France tomorrow, here we come! #watchout!!!

Day Two

7:00 am – we are awoken by the monotonous sound of the telephone, which signaled the start of our new day. We went downstairs tiredly to petit dejeuner, complete with classic Belgian waffles.

After a two hour long coach trip we arrived at the Musee de Somme 1916, where we followed a 10m deep air raid tunnel, while we completed an educational quiz about the First World War.

Following a hearty lunch, we arrived at the Canadian war memorial of Beaumont Hamel, here we paid our respects to those who fell in the infamous battle that occurred here, in the Somme. In addition to exploring the trenches, we discovered how angered the Canadians can become when instructions are not followed (lesson learnt; closed paths should not be walked down, even after rational consideration by all)!

After that, we visited Thiepval, where we laid a wreath for two old Clayesmorians and ventured around the memorial, which contained thousands of names of the fallen.

However, the most exciting part of the day was when we went to not one, but two chocolate shops, in which we stocked up on goodies, much to the delight of some (all) of us!

Day Three

Saturday 4th March 2017 Essex Farm – Langemark – Tyne Cot – Bayernwald

At Essex Farm we learnt about private Strudwick, the youngest recorded British casualty of the Great War. Private Strudwick signed up at 14 and was killed at 15. We also learned about the writing of McCrae’s poem: ‘In Flanders Fields’. Isabel M read the poem before a brief silence and Mr Lee said it was the best pupil reading of that poem he had ever heard – and he has shown round a lot of school groups over his years as a guide. Well done, Izzy!

After visiting Essex Farm we headed to Langemark, one of the large German cemeteries. This was a very moving part of our trip. It is different and thought provoking to see a graveyard for the soldiers of the opposite side. We began to understand that this was not a patriotic, Brexit-bashing history tour but an opportunity to learn about the waste and suffering of all combatants. There is quite a contrast between the British cemeteries and the German ones, for example, instead of white headstones, the German cemeteries are all very dark. Our tour guide told us a brief history of the battles fought in that area and we had time to explore the graveyard before moving on our way. At the centre of the cemetery is a mass grave made up of just under 25,000 Germans who were killed in the early years of the Great War, mostly young university student volunteers, mown down by the accurate rifle fire of the BEF. So young! Mere Sixth Formers! More sinisterly, we walked through the same entrance that Adolf Hitler had walked through in 1940.

Overall this trip has been an insightful and interesting step back in time. We visited many diverse and interesting places varying from the pine trees of the Canadian Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont Hamel to the English gardens of Tyne Cot Commonwealth Memorial and Cemetery. The architecture of memorials are a tribute to the great sacrifice of the men, from all sides of the Great War. For example, the awe striking Thiepval Memorial and the Menin Gate Memorial, with (almost) every name of the missing (I make the two sites add up to about 110, 000 lost souls without a known grave) carefully chiselled into their walls is a reminder of the loss that must never be forgotten. As our trip went on we further related to the soldiers on a personal level through the letters from and reports about the deaths of Old Clayesmorians – young boys, barely men, whose courage and commitment is inspiring to all. The extracts from the OC magasine from 1914-1918 are a wonderful source of moving information.

As the last post will forever play at the Menim Gate, Ypres, so we will remember them.

The last thing we did on our trip was visit the Bayernwald German trenches. Unfortunately this was the first (and only) time that we needed our walking boots which some people had forgotten and consequently were left in their brand new white trainers in the muddy trenches. Unfortunately, many of us had assumed Bayernwald would be as unmuddy as all the previous sites – despite Mr Rimmer’s incessant warnings – and many of us had put our wellies away for the last day! Argh! Still, Mick the coach driver seemed very forgiving – or was he simply resigned to a muddy coach!? Actually, it was not as bad as it might have been and the journey back was relatively mud free. Lots of chocolate but little mud!

This has certainly been a journey to remember on a number of contradictory accounts. On the one hand, we had a lot of fun together but we have also had the privilege of becoming aware of the sacrifice of so many young men. I think I have a greater undertsanding of what happened there bewteen 1914 and 1918 and visiting the battlefields has certainly brought the experience to life (no pun intended). We know we will be back and we know we will remember them.

The Final Roll Call by Rupert Doyle

Monuments and trenches, Echoes of the past. Reliving history for the first time: Pages and pages of names that we knew, That are dead in the Earth. Who survived? Every name was there, From outside and inside the walls of the school. Whose desk do we sit at – That we saw on the Walls. Their names will live on In every roll call.

Dark, wet and muddy The trenches are. Every morning a new list Of those alive And of those dead – Shot. Later, only a name, A list, a roll call.

As young as 15, Confused and led to believe a lie Of glorified war, of adventure, of fun. Their name transcribed To a gravestone or wall From the final Roll Call.