On Sunday the 12th of October I took two year 10 students, Khadija Hussain and Megan Hill, on a 4 day trip to Belgium and France to visit the battlefields of WW1. The trip was free as part of the Governments commemorations for the centenary of the First World War.
The trip started with a visit to Grovsener Hall in Ashford where the girls got to meet students from other school and have a go on zip wires and generally get a bit muddy. In the evening we spent some time researching local connections to the war. We researched a man from Wolverhampton, Mr Buvington, who was in the artillery regiment who is buried in Lijssenhoek Cemetery in Belgium. The girls will research Mr Buvington more and will create a presentation about him to deliver in the local primary schools.
On the Monday we had to get up really early to catch our shuttle to Calais. We went straight to Lijssenhoek Cemetery in Belgium. This is a Commonwealth Commissions site where 9000 men – and one woman – are buried. The grave stones are all bright white and stand uniformed in rows. People reacted differently to it, I found it particularly upsetting when we saw the site of a 15 year old boy from Glasgow who had lied about his age to ‘join up’ – he was killed not long after arriving in Belgium.
We then went onto Langemark Cemetery, this was the small site given to the Germans for their war dead. The difference was unbelievable; compared to the white stones of Lijssenhoek marking the individual graves on 9000, Langemark had a small square of ground with a mass grave of 40,000. The grave stones are flat, black stones with very little information on it – there was more than one name on each stone. The Belgian government would not let the Germans commemorate their dead in the same way the British, French and commonwealth countries had.
In the afternoon we went to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele where we got to see a recreated trench along with a dugout and different weapons used – I think I can still smell the mustard gas! During Monday’s activities and visits we were thinking about the idea of: What are the best ways to learn about the First World War? We had enjoyed the visits but the real education about the war would come on the Tuesday when we visited the Somme.
In the evening, although we were all tired, we went into Ypres to watch the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. We were really lucky that a full pipe band were visiting and played during the ceremony; we got a full 20 minutes. It was very moving and thought provoking – the ceremony happens every night at 8pm and has done since 1920. It forced us to think about how people remember and if one way of remembrance was more important than another. The night wasn’t all serious, we did get the chance to go to go to a chocolate shop and wander around the beautiful town of Ypres.
On Tuesday we visited Vimy Ridge, this is a memorial to the Canadian forces that captured the German front line trench in 1916. We were struck by the countryside and how it still bares the scars of artillery shells and trench system from 100 years ago.
We visited the Thiepval Memorial which is a dedication to all the people who died during the battle of the Somme in 1916. We then travelled do Thiepval Wood and the Ulster Tower monument where we saw a recently excavated trench that had been used by the Ulster regiment to attack the Germans. We all agreed that this was the moment that everything fell into place and we could really understand trench warfare and perhaps have a better understanding of what it was like for the men involved in WW1.
On Wednesday we travelled to Tyne Cot cemetery – the largest cemetery with 14,000 graves from people killed during the third battle of Ypres, Paschendaele. This was a very upsetting end as we could visualise the trenches and see so many people why had died in terrible conditions for such a small space of land. Khadija, Megan and myself agreed that we were finding it very difficult and didn’t think we could handle learning about anymore death. This resulted in some excellent conversations about war and is it worth it.
Before heading back to Calais we stopped in at the Flanders Field Museum in Ypres to help us reflect on everything we had learnt. As Belgium and France had left its mark on us, we left our mark in Belgium as part of an art installation taking place in 2018 to commemorate the 600,000 people who died on Belgian soil.
This was an amazing experience that has helped me develop my resources as a teacher and will undoubtedly help the girls in their GCSE exam that deals with WW1 and the Trenches. Keep a look out for future projects linked to our visit and the WW1 centenary commemorations.