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World War I Centenary Battlefields Trip

As part of the recognition of the centenary of the First World War, UCL (University College London) in partnership with Equity Travel, organised a free trip for two Year 9 students and an accompanying staff member from each state school in the UK. Ayrton Moore and Theo Lender-Swain were the two successful applicants from Bradon Forest. English teacher, Mrs Allen, accompanied them and here is her report:

Day One

We spent our first day in Passchendale, near Ypres. We explored the question: “What do we learn about comradeship, division between ranks and matters of Military discipline from First World War literature?” through a series of visits, exercises, extracts and field work. We began at the Passchendale Memorial Museum where we explored a recreated dug-out, looking at the conditions during the “waiting for action”. We were very surprised by the difference between an officer’s quarters and those of the regular Tommies. We went on to Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery where there are only 35 unnamed graves-unusual in Flanders. Here we learned about the agreement to make all soldiers equal in death: Privates were buried next to Majors and all headstones were the same size, denoting the same basic information and there were no 
re-patriations to Blighty.

We were shocked to hear a story from one of our guides about two Chinese workers who were buried in this cemetery, having been shot in cold blood by a local publican. He was never convicted for this double-murder because the innocent victims were foreigners and the word of the landlord was undisputed.

In the afternoon we warmed up a bit by visiting Talbot House in Poperinge, the home-from-home for British soldiers on leave. Soldiers used Talbot House as a place of rest and recuperation. We discovered a pre-21st century Facebook- the Friendship Wall- where soldiers would leave messages for each other.

In the afternoon we warmed up a bit by visiting Talbot House in Poperinge, the home-from-home for British soldiers on leave. Soldiers used Talbot House as a place of rest and recuperation. We discovered a pre-21st century Facebook- the Friendship Wall- where soldiers would leave messages for each other.

That evening, we explored the city centre of Ypres and attended the ceremony at The Menin Gate. The Last Post was played by three buglers and a ceremonial wreath was laid. We saw the names of over 50,000 commemorated soldiers on the walls of the memorial. Each of these soldiers would have passed through this very gate on their way to war. This ceremony takes place every evening at 8pm, and has done since 1927 (excluding during WW2). The engraving above the Eastern Arch reads:

“TO THE ARMIES OF THE
BRITISH EMPIRE
WHO STOOD HERE
FROM 1914 TO 1918
AND TO THOSE OF THEIR DEAD
WHO HAVE NO KNOWN GRAVE”

Day 2

Our focus question for our day trip across the border into France was: How does First World War literature reflect the changing view of War as it progressed? We began our day in Sunken Alley, the sight of the following photographs:

 

Ayrton and Theo stood in the exact same spot- a sobering thought when we learnt that this photograph was taken about an hour before all these men advanced towards the village of Beaumont Hamel and a third were killed on the spot. Across the road we saw the Hawthorn Crater created by the British at 7.20am: 10 minutes before they attacked the Germans, giving them 10 minutes warning- a terrible error. The explosion was created by 40,000 pound mine and the explosion was captured by War Photographer, Ernest Brooks, who also took the photograph of the soldiers in Sunken Alley- around 40 minutes earlier.

Later in the morning we went to Redan Ridge: a very exposed piece of land which was occupied by Wilfed Owen as an officer. Two of his most famous works were inspired by his experiences here: The Sentry and Exposure. The Sentry told of soldiers trapped under enemy fire in a dug out filled with more than two feet of freezing water. One young sentry who went outside the dugout was blinded, which inspired the following lines:

And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping
And splashing in the flood, deluging muck —
The sentry's body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged him up, for killed, until he whined
"O sir, my eyes — I'm blind — I'm blind, I'm blind!"
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he'd get all right.
"I can't," he sobbed.”

We ate our lunch at Avril’s famous café in Auchonvillers, where I also had soup and baguette, aged 17 on my very own school battlefield’s trip; it hasn’t changed at all! Ayrton and Theo, along with the students from other schools, went to visit the preserved trench system round the back of the farmhouse. Even though it was partially flooded and a little ramshackle, it was a bit of fun in an otherwise rather grim day.

  

 That afternoon, we also visited the site of the Devonshire Trench and cemetery, where the majority of the regiment were cut down by machine gun on the first day of their campaign. This small cemetery is also the resting place of poet, Lieutenant Noel Hodgson. The following poem was published two days before his death:

 

“I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; -
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.”
from Before Action

Day 3:

Our final question for the tour was: Is remembrance more or less important 100 years on? My proudest moment of the trip occurred in the most sombre place- Langemark Cemetery. This German cemetery is in stark contrast to the pristine white gravestones of the other gravesites. Unlike the Commonwealth cemeteries, the graves are black, flat to the ground and contain up to 23 men each. Ayrton and Theo gave two poignant readings in front of the central mass grave which contains the remains of over 20.000 German soldiers. The readings were from Journey’s End and All Quiet on the Western Front.

   

 Our final stop was at Tyne Cot Cemetery where we found three important names on the walls: George Gibson, Sapper of the Royal Engineers, Ayrton’s ancestor; Lance Corporal Harry Christopher Sparling, my great-great uncle; and a local soldier to Purton, Serjeant Frederick Walter Sutton. We laid crosses for all three soldiers. We finished our tour with a reading of Vera Brittain’s Perhaps. 

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.'

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.