Very early on the last Friday before half term, 41 Year 9 and 10 students arrived at school to set off by coach to Belgium. By lunchtime we had crossed the English Channel and were at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, just outside Ypres. The graves in the cemetery were from soldiers from all over the world who had died from their injuries in the military hospital which stood at the site during the First World War. The cemetery also contains the grave of a female nurse, Nellie Spindler, who died when the tent she was working in was hit by a shell. We visited a section of the trench system nearby and as we could walk through we could see how they were built and get an idea of what it was like to be down inside the trenches. We had an evening meal in a restaurant in the beautiful town of Ypres. The centre of the town, including the stunning Cloth Hall was obliterated during the war and has been carefully reconstructed.
The next day we set off early and crossed the border into France. We headed down to the area around the river Somme and visited the Sunken Lane, which had been used for protection by British troops during the battle of the Somme. We climbed out of the Sunken Lane into what would have been No Man’s Land, heading for the German trenches which were up on a ridge. We could see the difficulties the troops faced as they walked straight into machine gun fire. We also visited Newfoundland Memorial Park and here we could clearly see the outline of the trench system with the enemy trenches very close by. The site has not been reconstructed and the landscape was peppered with shell holes. When we visited Thiepval we found that one of the names on the memorial was a relative of Alex Broadbelt. Our guide, Steven Jolly, had researched local connections to Thiepval and did not realise the name he had was related to one of our students! It was shocking to see the names of 72,000 men whose bodies have never been found. The countryside around the area contains many cemeteries with the bodies of soldiers who were identified and it showed us the huge scale of the losses.
We returned to Ypres that evening and attended the daily ‘Last Post Ceremony’ at the Menin Gate. Mr Sugden, Fin Atkinson and Alex Broadbelt laid a wreath on behalf of King James’s School. We found the names of two former pupils who had died in the Ypres area on the Menin Gate.
Our final day was spent around Ypres. This town was on a salient on the Western Front and so was fought over continuously during the four years of the war. We visited a high point in the area, Hill 60, which changed hands several times, and by exploring the pill boxes and craters we could see why this was such a strategic site. We visited reconstructed dugouts and trenches at the Paschendale Museum and studied artefacts which taught us about developments in medicine during this time, as well as advances in technology to win the war. We visited Tyne Cot, the largest of the Commonwealth War Graves sites. Once again the scale of the losses was clear as we explored row after row of crosses for men from all over the world. The visitor centre contained some very moving letters written from the trenches. The tour finished with a visit to Langemarck, a German cemetery. We were immediately struck by how different this site looked to the Commonwealth cemeteries. The headstones here were set into the ground. They were a dark colour and contained the bodies of several soldiers. There was also a mass burial pit of the ‘comrades’ who had fallen together but could not be identified. We laid a poppy cross on behalf of the school in recognition of the fact that these German soldiers were boys and young men who had been persuaded to fight for the same reasons as their British fellow soldiers.
We finally arrived back home very tired but having learnt so much about how the First World War was fought, and about its impact on both soldiers and civilians in countries around the world.