Over the first weekend in October, the History department ran a trip for 64 Year 9 students to the First World War battlefields of France and Belgium. Nothing helps bring such monumental events alive than being where they happened.
After a prompt departure on the Friday morning it was straight to the Channel Tunnel and then on to Ypres in Belgium (our base for the trip) soon after lunch. We launched straight into the history, heading first to Tyne Cot cemetery with it’s 12000 burials and 35000 names of the missing – staggering numbers to comprehend. Nathan Simons (9Story) laid a wreath on behalf of the School, whilst ‘In Flanders Fields’ was read to the group. Students and staff then had time to each lay a small wooden cross at a grave that they may have found particularly moving – helping emphasise the individual nature of the losses in the First World War. After that it was on to the German cemetery at Langemark, which felt much more ‘sombre’ and less about remembering the glorious dead. A mass burial of 25000 German soldiers again emphasised the scale of loss. From there we checked in to our hotel in the centre of Ypres, dined out (pasta!) and then attended the Menin Gate wreath laying ceremony, where Mrs Christopher, supported by Melodie Lushington (9Burrows) and George Stanbridge (9Andrewes), laid another wreath on behalf of the School. It was then back to the hotel for free time (including a very popular games room!) before lights out.
Saturday saw glorious weather, and after a hearty breakfast we headed with packed lunches to the Somme battlefields in northern France. However, before this we visited Sanctuary Wood/Hill 62, where a museum full of artefacts, and a preserved trench system, including tunnels, gave some sense of the war we were on the visit to remember. On the Somme our first stop was Lochnagar Crater – a giant crater created by the British (using 27 tons of explosives) on the 1st day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. From there we visited Thiepval, site of the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the World, with the names of 72000 British soldiers with no known grave – an incomprehensible number. It was here that we also stopped and had a group photo. We may not have been in school for the whole school photo, but it is hoped that our group photo can be found a home in school! From there we went to Beaumont Hamel to see the Newfoundland Memorial site, including preserved trenches – the close proximity of both front lines showed the futility of the attacks made on 1st July 1916, when there were 60000 casualties in just 1 day. It was then back to the hotel, a meal out, and more free time, again often in the games room!
Sunday saw good weather again, as we departed nice and early for the Tunnel, via a hypermarket, where many students proceeded to make sure they had some form of souvenir of the trip, no matter how sweet and chocolatey! It was a tired group that eventually returned to School at exactly the planned time.
The trip went very well, and the students time-keeping was exemplary. They also showed great maturity and solemnity at all of the historic sites, and were a credit to the school. My thanks must go to them, and to the staff who accompanied the trip and made it possible. Planning is already underway for next year’s Year 9 visit.
Justin Barnett, Head of Humanities