On Friday 14th October, 64 students and seven staff departed on a History visit to the First World War Battlefields of Belgium and France. A comfortable double-decker coach took us across the Channel after a very early start! We headed straight to Ypres, and started at Essex Farm, visiting the grave of a 15 year old who volunteered at 14 – an immediate introduction to the tragedy of war. We then visited Tyne Cot cemetery, the site of nearly 12,000 British & Commonwealth burials, the majority unnamed. Sophie Williams (9Otter) laid a wreath on behalf of the School, and a moment’s reflection, and reading of ‘In Flanders Fields’ marked the solemnity of the occasion. Then it was a visit to Langemark German Cemetery, where a mass grave of approx. 24000 troops was shocking statistic to consider.
We then checked in to our accommodation in central Ypres. We had booked the entire hotel, and could enjoy good facilities, including a well-equipped games room that was well used! After a meal at a local restaurant, we attended the Last Post service at the Menin Gate, where Mr Jackson and two students laid another wreath on behalf of the School.
The next morning saw a hearty breakfast and a day on the French battlefields, after a visit to Hill 62. Here the museum was fascinating, and the preserved trenches a quite exceptional way to picture, as far as we could, the horrors of trench life. (The tunnels being especially claustrophobic). We then proceeded to Lochnagar Crater, a huge hole created on the 1st day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Then it was on to Beaumont Hamel, and the Newfoundland Memorial. The surviving trenches really highlighted the dangers faced by the troops, and signs warning of unexploded ordnance emphasised the impact of war, even today. Then it was off to the immense memorial at Thiepval, and an overwhelming list of names of those with no known grave. On our return journey to Ypres we visited two smaller cemeteries to mark individuals that myself, and then Alyce Turnbull (9Sherborne) wished to commemorate. These moments helped emphasise the personal loss associated with war. The evening saw free time, including the obligatory visit to a chocolate shop, and another meal in a local restaurant.
Sunday morning saw a visit to Lijssenthoek, where Sam Holben (9Andrewes) laid a wreath at the grave of his Great Great Grandad. The story of his family’s experience of war was one of real tragedy, and the wreath laying was a moment of great solemnity. Also in the cemetery was the grave of a nurse killed in war, which many sought out. After this sombre visit, it was off to the Tunnel via a French hypermarket. Many students found this a somewhat overwhelming experience, with many purchases made!
It was a tired group that returned to School on Sunday evening, but I know that they had the chance to see some important sites, and also have a good time with their friends. After so many missed opportunities due to lockdown, I am sure that this visit had extra significance.
The students were a credit to the School, well-behaved, thoughtful, mature, and on time when given timings to meet! They showed that the future of commemoration is in safe hands, and when we study the First World War, it won’t just be photos in a book, but real people, and real places. The trip was hugely oversubscribed, and my only regret is that we couldn’t have taken more. As it was we were, by far, the largest group I encountered.
My thanks must go to the staff who made the trip possible, Mrs Grove, Mr Jackson, Mrs Cooke, Mr Petts, Ms Hurry and Ms Lawlor. (who stepped in at short notice).
Mr Justin Barnett, Head of Humanities