Woldgate College pupils’ battlefield visit

Woldgate pupils at Vimy Ridge Memorial
Woldgate pupils at Vimy Ridge Memorial

More than 50 students from Woldgate College recently enjoyed a great opportunity to visit some of the battlefields of the First World War in the centenary year of its commencement.

English teacher Julia Pattison kept a diary of the trip below:

The adventure began at 11pm, when everyone met up at Woldgate, with passports, health cards and luggage, ready to board the coach. The trip down to Dover went smoothly, and we were in plenty of time to catch the 6.40am ferry to Calais.

Day 1

On arrival at Calais it was all systems go, we began a tour of the Ypres Salient, starting with Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British war cemetery in the world. The sun came out and blazed brightly as we all gazed in disbelief at the sheer number of graves- all immaculately kept.

Then it was on to Ypres, and a most eagerly anticipated visit to a chocolate shop. Plied with samples of delicious Belgian chocolate, everyone emerged smiling from this sweet sanctuary, clutching bags of booty.

Walking across the square we visited the Flanders Field Museum which has just recently been renovated. Personal stories provided us all with an introduction to the history of the First World War in the region.

Grabbing a quick lunch en route on the coach, we stopped off at Essex Farm where Lt Col John McCrae wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’ when serving in the bunker dressing station. After that, we were dropped off at Talbot House, a place where soldiers had been able to escape the horrors of war for a while, and were able to get some much needed rest and recuperation. It’s now a museum, and as well as being given a talk, we watched a short film, that re-enacted a typical concert enjoyed by the soldiers during World War One.

It rained a little as we made our way to Hill 62. Everyone donned wellies and waterproofs ready to walk in the footsteps of those long gone, but not forgotten young soldiers in the preserved trenches. As we squelched through the stinking mud, it brought to life some of the accounts we’d read of soldiers in the trenches. You could just imagine how terrifying it must have been to have been under constant shelling, and trying to cope with conditions in the trenches – Horrible History indeed.

The sun came out just as we were about to leave, the rays casting shadows amongst the many trees that grown after the war, transforming the ravaged landscape into a place of peace and tranquillity – a living memorial to those brave young men.

The final activity of this busy first day was to attend Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony. As it was 1 May, all the locals had the day off, and had obviously decided to attend too, as well as many visitors like ourselves. A respectful silence was maintained by the crowd as the Last Post notes echoed in the Gate, and everyone had time to reflect as the ceremony took place. Afterwards, we spent some time looking on the walls at the vast array of names, many pupils discovered family names and posed proudly beside them for photographs.

Day 2

Everyone rose early the next morning, in readiness for the day’s activities. Impressively, all luggage was packed on the coach by 6.30am so there was time to enjoy breakfast before setting off for France at 7.30am. Most people sensibly took the opportunity to have a nap on the journey to the town of Albert.

We met our charming guide Matilda in the town square of Albert just after 10am, and she took us on a tour of the Somme region, beginning with visiting the Lochnager Crater. The explosion that caused the crater took place on 1 July 1916 at precisely 7.28am, marking the launch of the Battle of the Somme by the British troops, the enormity of the crater took your breath away.

Still reeling from such a stunning sight, we travelled on to the Thiepval Memorial, a 45-metre high tower which is the largest British war memorial worldwide. Matilda informed us that it commemorates the 72,205 men of the British and South African armies who died or went missing in the Somme between July 1915 and March 1918. Later on, we visited the New Foundland Memorial at Beaumont- Hamel and learned of the sacrifice made by so many Canadian soldiers.

We made our way back to the town of Albert and said goodbye to Matilda, then ate our lunch on the 45 minute journey to the grounds of the Vimy Ridge Canadian National Memorial – a most impressive place of remembrance. We visited the imposing Vimy Monument, which is Canada’s largest overseas National Memorial. A Canadian nationalistic symbol of achievement and sacrifice, marking the point in which Canada fought under its own flag as the Canadian Corps, and not just as an appendage to the British Army.

Finally, it was time to make our way to Calais to catch the 5.15pm Ferry for Dover.

The crossing was very pleasant, and we made good time. It seemed as though we were going to arrive back at Woldgate by midnight as expected, but, alas, the coach broke down just an hour and a half away from home, on the motorway. Despite the drivers’ best efforts, backup had to be sent for. Everyone remained calm, and every safety precaution was taken as we waited for assistance. Help eventually arrived, and we made it back to Woldgate just before 3am - tired, but thankful to be safely home.

Many thanks to Miss Bradshaw who put so much time and effort into organising this Battlefields Trip, giving so many Year 9 pupils a valuable insight and better understanding of the events of the Great War. They have stood on the very sites of important events they have learnt about in class. Many have been visibly moved by the experience, which should stay with them all their lives.