A group of 51 students and six teachers departed from Woldgate College on a whirlwind 48-hour trip to the battlefields of France and Belgium.
They journeyed down to Dover and then set sail for Calais on the ferry. On their arrival in France, they drove straight up to the city of Ypres and began a tour of the area.
Their first visit was to Essex Farm where, nearly 100 years ago to the day, John McCrea wrote the now iconic ‘In Flanders Fields’ poem. Today the site includes a preserved set of field dressing stations which really gave the students an insight into the make-shift nature of the medical care soldiers would receive. Movingly, right by the dressing station, is the cemetery where soldiers who did not survive their wounds were buried. These include the grave of a British soldier aged just 15 and a recipient of the Victoria Cross who paid the ultimate sacrifice, aged just 22. From Essex Farm we went to Talbot House in the town of Poperinge. Talbot House was created to provide soldiers with somewhere to spend their time away from the front line. It was intended to be a place of peace and rest where the horrors of the front could be forgotten for a time. From Talbot House the group travelled to Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in existence, where the dead of the famous Battle of Passchendaele were buried. Lying alongside the 8,000 Commonwealth war dead are four German soldiers, illustrating that even in the midst of the worst war ever fought, the men respected the dead from both sides. The group’s next visit took them to Hill 62, an area of preserved trenches which give the students a good idea of what living in a muddy trench would really have been like. They then returned to the City of Ypres itself for the rather more light-hearted activity of chocolate shopping. Fuelled with sugar and e-numbers, they made their way over to the In Flanders’ Fields Museum situated in the Cloth Hall in Ypres. The Cloth Hall, along with the rest of the city, was destroyed but the people of Ypres, faced with the choice of building a new city or re-creating their old one, chose to rebuild as close to the original as possible. After the group settled themselves in their hostel and had tea, they travelled back to Ypres for the ‘Last Post’ ceremony at the Menin Gate. The Menin Road was the path to the front line and was for many soldiers the last road they trod. The impressive memorial has the names of 54,000 men with no known grave, including my own great great uncle who was killed in action on 9 May 1915.
The next morning they travelled to The Somme region of France, site of the infamous battle of 1916, the area is still marked by the scars of the war nearly 100 years later. One such scar is the Lochnagar Crater, an impressive site when you consider the tonnes of explosives that were used to create it. The main memorial to the missing of the Somme is at Thiepval, a town which held great strategic significance. There were originally 73,000 names engraved on the memorial, but since its inauguration in 1932, nearly 1,000 of these man have been found and buried with their comrades. The group were fortunate enough to meet four men from South Cave in the museum who were there to lay a wreath on their way to kick start the Dutch commemoration of VE Day. Two of these men had been involved in the D-Day landings and one was the son of the famous ‘Piper of D-Day’. It was an honour for the group to observe the laying of the wreath and for the students to meet war veterans. The men were extremely complimentary about the behaviour of Woldgate’s young people. Leaving Thiepval, the group travelled to the Vimy Ridge memorial, a Canadian-run site which includes the area where the front line trenches were at their closest, just 30 feet, and underground tunnels used to prepare for the battle.
The journey home brought the group back to Woldgate, tired but having had a wonderful experience.
The behaviour of the students was exemplary.