19 Jun First World War Centenary Battlefields Tour
Written by Duncan Van Den Top – Year 9 student reporter
“The cries of the wounded had much diminished now, and as we staggered down the road, the reason was only too apparent, for the water was right over the tops of the shell-holes.” — Captain Edwin Vaughan (a British Army officer), 1917
Day One – Friday 2nd February 2018
Ciaran, Miss Kiteley and I started our incredible journey to visit the Battlefields of the Great War in France and Belgium. On the Friday morning, we had to wake up early to arrive at Corley Service Station for our departure, something we quickly learned we would have to get used to with such a packed itinerary! Before we knew it, we were on the bus and ready to leave for our first destination: Kingswood Grosvenor Hall in Kennington, Ashford.
On arrival at Ashford, we were very efficiently briefed by the trip organisers, alongside the other schools on the trip, and then shown to our rooms for the evening. Ciaran and I shared a nice room on the bottom floor; it had a bunk bed, several outlets, a clean toilet and lots of wardrobe space. We played Black Jack to kill time before we had to return to the hall. Later in the afternoon we met up in the hall again and were split into two groups: teachers and students. The students went out to do either an obstacle course or a ladder, which gradually had bigger gaps, whereas the teachers were briefed about what they would have to do when we arrived in Belgium. I chose to do the ladder, whereas Ciaran did the obstacle course. My activity was challenging and you had to work collaboratively to reach any height at all, whereas Ciaran’s activity was much more simplistic. Afterwards we met up for dinner (fish and chips, if you’re interested in the finer details) and excitedly discussed what we were going to do next.
The next session was artefact handling, where we were able to explore both real and replica weapons, medals and other fascinating objects. It was a captivating discovery-based learning experience; we were thoroughly impressed with how much it was possible to learn in a relatively short amount of time. When handling the weaponry, we discovered that the British Enfield rifle could fire a maximum of fifteen rounds per minute in comparison to the German Mauser, which could fire a maximum of eight. This had been evident during the war as, in certain battles, German soldiers wrongly assumed that the British were armed with machine guns as opposed to rifles.
Interestingly, each country’s design of weaponry also revealed much about their policies of war – what they considered to be important tactically and how they defined war. This was apparent in the stark difference between the designs of the French and British Bayonets, we saw how the French bayonet was shaped like a sharp fire poker, whereas the British design was much thicker with curved edges. The army officer leading the session explained that for the French, war was a wholly offensive affair; put simply, weapons were for destruction. On the other hand, for the British, weaponry could be multi-functional, such as the bayonet being used for cutting rope, hanging clothes or cutting wood: a tool for survival as well as attack.
We later proceeded to find out about the post-tour project called ‘Legacy 110’, which aims for every participating student to create an enduring legacy by impacting upon at least 110 people within their local community. At this point, we were given the names of two soldiers – Frank Gayton and James Henry – who had died in WW1 and were in some way related to our school community. Using the online access tools, we searched for the soldiers we had been given and found out how they were related to us and where they had been buried.
As the evening drew to a close, the groups were split into two to complete a series of relay events. We then enjoyed some hot chocolate before getting off to bed. Falling asleep was effortless after such an eventful day.
DAY 2 –Saturday 3 February 2018
The next morning, we woke up early to get our suitcases ready and go to breakfast. On entering the dining hall, our nostrils were welcomed to the aroma of a full English Breakfast which awaited us. As quick as a flash, we consumed our breakfast of champions and boarded the coach to the Euro tunnel. A few hours later, we arrived at our first cemetery, the ‘Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery’, the second largest CWGC cemetery in Belgium. Here, over 10,000 men were buried alongside one woman: Nellie Sindler. Nellie was a nurse who had been struck by a shrapnel fragment from German artillery that had been aiming for the British ammunition.
The cemetery was enormous and held soldiers from throughout the Commonwealth, Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa and India all had soldiers buried there. On the way to the entrance of the main part of the cemetery there were copper posts marked with a tally of how many people had been buried there each day. It was unbelievable to witness the amount of tallies marked on some of the poles and seeing it so visually emphasised the extent of the fatalities that had taken place during the Great War.
Inside it was even worse. All you could see was grave upon grave upon grave. I felt sorrow. Sorrow for the soldiers’ lost souls. Sorrow for the families who lost their joy. Sorrow for all the innocent lives lost. From a distance, all the graves looked the same. All treated equally regardless of rank or background of the person who was lay to rest there. The only differences being the badge or religion on the headstones. Some even had quotes given by the loving families of those lost such as ‘Character is Destiny’ – Miss Kiteley’s personal favourite.
One of the stories behind the gravestone that we all found particularly moving was that of John Raphael, a famous sports star, who is buried beside his mother. Raphael was a well-known person and was very successful sport’s star but when war came, despite his amazing life, he still went to war to fight for his country. They tried to avoid his death, but the first time he went near the front line he was killed. In 1929 a black Rolls Royce arrived at the cemetery and a women stepped out stating ‘I am Raphael’s mother. Where is my son?’. She was lead to his gravestone where she mourned. The next year the same Rolls Royce arrived at the cemetery, but this time the chauffeur came out with a vase of ashes. They were the ashes of Raphael’s mum. She requested to be buried beside her son and so the caretaker buried her right there beside him. She is the only civilian buried in the cemetery. It was humbling to hear stories of how the families felt and how war had such a lasting impact on their lives.
At the back of the cemetery there was a group of graves, different from all the others. They were the graves of the Chinese Laborers. Their headstones all said they were killed after the war was finished. The reason was because the British did not want to risk losing any more men so sent them out to collect un-exploded ammunition, thus leading to the death of several men from the explosions.
Once we had finished reflecting on the lost lives, we got onto the coach to visit the Memorial Museum ‘Passchendaele’, which is built on an old battlefield. It was amazing inside. It had everything you could possibly think of from WW1: uniforms, weapons, artillery, trenches and even a underground dugout! We were rushed through the main part, but as we got to the dugout it was amazing how realistic it was. It had a weapons smith, a medical room and several bunkbed rooms. We then found a mini-cinema, where we saw the victory of the British against the Germans in Ypres. It also had a mini map, which changed colour in specific places to represent places being taken over shown on the screen above.
Lastly, we saw replica trenches, showing the difference between the British and German trenches. The German trenches were pretty simple, wood on the floor and bits of metal to protect, whereas the British had gaps between the floor to let water drop through. Whilst outside, we were also shown some of the American flat-pack style buildings which could be self-assembled, so that the citizens of Ypres had somewhere to live after their homes had been completely destroyed.
Once the visit was finished, we left for the hotel, where we would be staying for the next two nights. On the coach we were told our room number and roommates. Ciaran and I were in the same room again, but this time we shared with three students from other schools on the trip. It was interesting to meet new people and share our experiences of the trip. The hotel looked nice, we all instantly went to our room to unpack, and soon came down for dinner, which was pork with carrots and peas. It was delicious, and for desert we were treated to ice-cream.
After dinner, we quickly dressed into our school uniforms, ready for our visit to the ‘Menin Gate’, to watch the daily memorial of the soldiers who died in Ypres. I had been given the honor of placing down a reef of poppies to show respect. When we arrived at the ‘Menin Gate’, the sight was instantly astoundingly beautiful, all lit up in the night sky, the perfect structure to show how much we appreciate the sacrifices made by the soldiers in WW1.
Swiftly after arriving, I was shown what I was supposed to do, and went to line up. On the wreath we wrote our school’s name; the other pupils who would be walking alongside me did the same. On the stroke of eight o’clock, we held a minute silence, followed by the playing of the last post. When the song was finished, the first group started walking. As my turn to walk got closer, I got a little nervous but successfully managed to carry out the task and stood and remembered the soldiers who died in the First World War.
When the ceremony had ended, we headed off to the shops in Ypres. I bought myself some chocolate milk, and a waffle for the walk, then we left for some chocolate shops. I bought a 10-euro selection box, whereas Miss Kiteley spent 35 euros on chocolates for everyone she knew well. Before we went back to the coach, I bought a rabbit for my sister wearing a Belgium shirt. We went back to the hotel and swiftly went to sleep.
DAY 3 –Sunday 4th February 2018
Day 3 started at 7:45 am the next morning. We originally had decided to wake up at 7:15 am, but we slept through the alarm and finally woke up 3 minutes before breakfast, so we all swiftly got dressed and scurried outside where breakfast was being eaten already. It was bread croissants and pain au chocolate. Once we had finished breakfast, we made our lunches and got on the coach. It was an hour’s drive as we were visiting the Battleground of the Somme.
We first visited The Beaumont Hamel, a memorial park of the ‘Newfoundlanders’ (Canadians) soldiers who died at the Somme. It was beautiful. It had a small museum inside commemorating the sacrifices of the brave soldiers of Newfoundland. It showed us stories of brave war heroes as well as their equipment and their connection with the British. They had built a small room with a picture of the soldiers, lined up like how footballers do now on team photos. There was a caribou hung up on the wall. The caribou was their animal symbol in the First World War.
Outside in the park itself, we could see the now ditch-like structure of the trenches used in the Battle of the Somme. We walked through them and felt how narrow they were and our tour guides gave us mini-tasks, unknown to the back of the queue, to show how difficult everyday simple tasks were. Firstly, he sent one student from the front to the back to collect the other tour guide, but, due to it being so narrow, he didn’t even reach half way. The next task was to pass the message along the trench but that only got a quarter of the way until it stopped being passed along. Afterwards, we got to walk around the park and saw a large monument of a caribou on top of a hill. Under it was the name of all the soldiers who had lost their lives. Once we had regrouped and got back to the coach, we left for the Sunken Lane.
The Sunken Lane is the place where the Lancashire Fusiliers where brutally shot down by German machine guns due to the assumption that the machine guns had been destroyed. They were to move out after the mine had been blown up. They hadn’t even ran out 50 meters before they were all killed. Our tour guide used a demonstration to emphasise how quickly the soldiers died. We all walked out on the whistle and he read out the names of the schools, one by one. As each school was read out, we had to stop. One by one by one we stopped. We had hardly left. It was difficult to see how brutally these men’s lives had been taken. Afterwards we walked to their grave, which was a few meters away, and bowed our heads in sorrow. After our respects were paid, we got on the coach and left for the restaurant where we would get our soup and baguette. We enjoyed our soup then left for Caterpillar Valley Cemetery.
Caterpillar Valley is a commonwealth grave filled with 5569 dads, sons, brothers and uncles. 68% of these are unknown. It is 13 kilometers east of Albert and 10 kilometers south of Bapaume. It is mainly the New Zealand souls which are here and it is rather close to the German and British front-line.
We soon afterwards left for the ‘Thiepval Memorial’, the memorial for the 72,194 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died before 20 May 1918. The biggest Commonwealth Memorial. The building was beautiful; fitting for the lost souls of the battles. Above it were the British and French flags. The arches, under the walls, were completely covered in names. It was row, upon row, upon row of names of men, lost men, who had sacrificed all that they had, their homes, families, their name and their lives. Behind stood graves: 30 French, 30 British and at the center stood the cross with the sword – the symbol we had become very familiar with, traveling around France and Belgium. It symbolizes the fact that there are more than 20 graves at the location. The difference between the British and French graves was very noticeable as the French graves were crosses whereas the British were rectangles of marble. On the long journey back to the Flanders Lodge we reflected on the events and all we had seen during the day: the dedication to make sure the dead were remembered, and the staggering amount of death involved in the seemingly pointless Great War.
Later on that evening, we had the privilege of being in the presence of army personnel who showed us their equipment and explained how it related to the First World War. Firstly, we were shown the modern day equipment that soldiers carry with them on tours. It was fascinating to see how much they carried – altogether it weighed around 50kg. They carried a full wet weather costume, a self-inflating bed, a provision bag in case they got lost or couldn’t get back, medical supplies and much more. We learned about the medical side of the equipment. For example, they had bandages that could hold exactly a litre of blood, so that they knew how much blood had been lost to see what their situation was. This was related back to the First World War when bandages were also used, but were thicker and could only hold a pint of blood. The soldiers then showed us their provision boxes which included: curry, meat, mints, a pack of biscuits, pasta, nuts and much more.
We were then shown their uniform and equipment, that included gas masks and full-size overalls to protect them from gas attacks. First they would yell gas and they would hold their breath and place on the gas mask and then breathe out hard. The first gas mask was made in the First World War after the first gas attack of the Germans in Ypres. Back then it was very basic with small holes for the eyes meaning they could see nothing at all. They then showed their helmets. It was made of Kevlar and was heavy, but not nearly as heavy as the helmets were in World War I. They were made of leather to keep them warm until they made steel helmets to prevent artillery shells. Interestingly, it lead to the increase of head injuries as it prevented deaths.
DAY 4 – Monday 5th February 2018
In the morning, we arrived at the ‘Menin Gate’ and walked to the top floor to see mini monuments placed for all the lost souls who fought in the First World War in Ypres. On the sides of the building, we could see dark blotches which we later found out were bullet holes made during the Second World War. Later on in the day, we had the opportunity to participate in an exciting commemorative pottery project, ‘Coming World Remember Me’, conceptualised by Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen. The project invited volunteers to make a statue of curled up soldiers, each representing one of the 600,000 lives lost in Belgium during World War I. Each one would go on display as an individual soul, made by us and other students and have its own military-style dog tag bearing two names: that of a soldier or civilian killed in Belgium. After a brief introduction, we started making our sculptures. Once we finished our masterpieces we admired each other’s attention to detail, but decided that Miss Kiteley had made the best one by far.
After, we left for the ‘Langemark Cemetery’, the only German cemetery we visited. It was astonishing to see the difference between the Commonwealth graves and the German graves. The Commonwealth graves where marble blocks which looked identical to show the equality in death whereas the German graves were mass burials. They had an average of around 16 people in each grave as the Germans believed that if you fight alongside your comrades, you should also be buried alongside them. The mass burials seem disrespectful but actually, they have underground systems where the bodies can be moved to add more people. Despite the fact there were so many people buried in each grave, there was still a staggeringly large amount of them. The soldiers buried here were young and had been hastily trained for war.
After we had seen enough, we got on the coach again to head for the ‘Tyne Cot Cemetery’, our last stop until we left for the Euro tunnel.
When we arrived, we were blown away by its size. It was the biggest British War Cemetery holding 11,695 burials and of which 8,369 are unknown. It was shaped as a nearly complete circle, of which all the walls were covered in names. In the center there was a large statue with several graves surrounding it.
At the start of our journey, we had been given the task of finding James Henry and Frank Gayton. We had been given around 20 minutes and it took us around 15 minutes to find James Henry and when we did, we placed down a cross with a poppy and wrote our schools name on it and placed it down in front of his name.
We paid our last respects for the last time on this amazing journey and headed to the coach. The coach that would bring us home.
A few hours later we were nearly home. Ciaran and I were watching a classic Transformers film until we stopped home and were greeted by our families and loved ones.
We had completed the journey and had made it home. Unlike so many 100 years ago…