Battlefield Trip, Belgium
To get the opportunity to take young people abroad for the first time is exciting enough but to take them, all expenses paid, on an emotional trip to visit the Battlefields of the first World War 100 years on was beyond my comprehension. Would they enjoy it? Would they understand its relevance? Would they gain anything from it?
Luckily, for the one student who represented Whiteheath, I can honestly say the answer to all three of those questions is a resounding YES.
We started our journey early on Sunday 13th September, travelling to a residential centre in Ashford, Kent where we took part in team building activities and discussion and handling of WW1 artefacts. After a good night’s sleep we boarded our coach accompanied by a serving soldier and ventured through the Eurotunnel to France and then travelled on to Belgium.
Our first stop was the Flanders Field Museum in Ieper where we saw artefacts, displays and read emotional accounts of those involved in the conflict. We then travelled on to Lijssenthoek Cemetery where I was asked to read about the life of Nellie Spindler, a female nurse killed and buried amongst 10.000 men. Very poignant.
We then ventured on to the Death Cells at Poperinge where we were met by two senior officers who discussed why the British Army chose to kill their own men during WW1 for things seemingly as trivial as falling asleep at their post.
After a very quick pit stop at our rather pleasant hotel, Flanders Lodge, we were again on the road to visit the Menin Gate for the daily Ceremony of the Last Post. This was a very moving experience more so because two of the pupils from our trip headed the laying of the wreaths. We then went on to find the name of Harold Bache, a West Bromwich Albion footballer whose name appears on one of the many panels of the memorial. We left a WBA pin badge as our tribute and then explored the beautiful town by night.
After a less than hearty breakfast we made the long trip down into France to the Somme. Our first stop was Ulster Memorial Tower, where we visited the replica building and listened to the interesting guide who had travelled over from his home in Ireland especially to do our guided tour. He then took us over the road where we saw Connaught Cemetery before walking into Thiepval Wood where trenches have been uncovered and re-dug to enable us to visualise how they really looked.
After another short drive we were warned about the French farmer who dislikes people visiting Sheffield Memorial Park! This was a fascinating site that showed how close the cemeteries were to the actual fighting. The memorial to the Accrington Pals was especially emotive. On our return to the coach the farmer emerged. I was asked if I was dame Judy Dench. She’s 5 foot, grey haired and 80 years of age. Make of that what you will!
Our next visit whilst still in France was to the absolutely beautiful and magnificent Delville Wood Cemetery. This is the South African Memorial and it is truloy a sight to behold. We also managed to see the last remaining tree in the wood at the end of the war. It was lovely to see it flourishing.
Another short drive saw us arrive at Thiepval Memorial. Unfortunately, some of the impact of this memorial was lost as it was shrouded in scaffolding as they are cleaning and repairing it in preparation for the 100 year commemoration of the battle that started there on the 1st July 1916. We did, however, manage to find the name of our second WBA footballer and we laid our wreath at the panel that bared his name, George Elmore.
We travelled back to Belgium with the mood lightened a little by our lovely tour representative, Mark, had another awful meal at the hotel and then took part in a ‘Then and Now’ hands on presentation of soldiers uniform and equipment.
The last morning saw us bid farewell to our hotel and take another short drive to Langemark Cemetery. This was a very different cemetery as it holds the remains of German soldiers and all of the headstones are dark and laid flat in the ground. This cemetery was, unfortunately, closed so we viewed it from outside its perimeter but still it was a poignant experience. It was beautifully kept, as are all of the cemeteries, but it had a different feel to the others. There are lots of trees amongst the gravestones and the darkness of the stone was a huge contrast to the other sites we had visited.
Our final visit was to Tyne Cot Cemetery. It is now the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world in terms of burials. At the suggestion of King George V, who visited the cemetery in 1922, the Cross of Sacrifice was placed on the original large pill-box that had been used as a dressing station during the war. It makes a magnificent central point to what is an overwhelming place to visit. Lots of tears were shed at this memorial, not least because the last grave I saw marked the grave of a young man who shared my son’s name.
The itinerary was superbly put together for us to get the VERY best out of our visit. We left Tyne Cot emotionally drained but grateful to have been privileged enough to have taken part in this four day trip.
Our very last activity saw us taking part in the ‘Coming World Remember Me Workshop’ where we had the opportunity to create a clay hunched figure that will form part of a sculptural art project aiming to create 600,000 clay sculptures by 2018 - each representing a soldier and spanning 50 nationalities that died on Belgian soil during the First World War. The sculptures are to be unveiled in an impressive public art installation in 2018 in the no man’s land of the frontline around Ieper (Ypres). What a way to end our trip.
With thanks to; Mrs Sorrell for accompanying us and therefore making the trip possible, to the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Company for the fabulous organisation and the government for funding it but most of all to Bethany Skidmore for making the whole trip worthwhile. To experience something like this with such a genuinely appreciative pupils makes it all the more worthwhile.