Reporting on a school trip to the battlefields of WW1 proves a powerful lesson in how personal stories connect us to the bigger picture.
A small boy stands solemnly against a wall awash with the names of missing soldiers from the First World War. Several feet above him, chiselled in stone and lit by the low winter sun, is the name of his great great uncle. It’s a photographic moment that captures the essence of this school trip to the battlefields of Belgium and France. At every turn we face the incomprehensibly vast loss of life, but it’s the personal connections and individual stories that make it most poignantly real.
We are at Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, a monument for the British and South Africans who died at the Somme and whose bodies were never found. As we gather beneath the arches of the memorial to learn of what unfolded on the battlefield, we’re told that artillery killed more men in the Great War than any other weapon and for many of those killed by a shell, nothing remains of their bodies. On the walls, we notice every so often a space between two engraved names. A soldier’s name has been erased because his missing body has been identified since the memorial was built. Such discoveries still happen today. The families of these men now have a grave to visit, and perhaps some comfort.
Behind the monument is a joint Anglo-French cemetery. Few graves are named; most are simply marked ‘Inconnu’ – unknown – or ‘A Soldier of the Great War’. A teacher suggests we each find a grave to stand beside, and reflect on the life of the person who lies beneath. Slowly and silently the group of 40 pupils fans out across the cemetery in one of the most moving moments of our three-day trip. Each takes their own path. Some stop alongside a French grave, some a British. We feel the pain of war not through the mind-numbing figures – more than a million soldiers were casualties of the Somme – but through imagining the life and loves of just one man and his unlived future.
We regroup, huddling close in the snow, the silence as always impeccably maintained. A teacher reads a poem he composed after first visiting Thiepval. Consider, he writes, not what the soldier whose grave you stand alongside died for, but what he lived for. We reflect on ordinary men and extraordinary deeds. We hear how 20-year-old Private William McFadzean was awarded a Victoria Cross. When a box of grenades slipped into a crowded trench and two safety pins were dislodged, he instantly saw the danger and without hesitating threw himself onto the grenades. He was killed in the explosion, his act of bravery saving the lives of many comrades.
The first cemetery we visit on our trip is Tyne Cot. As we leave the warmth of the coach and swiftly march two abreast through the snow, we’re told to keep our eyes right and look out across the ploughed fields. This is the site of Passchendaele, part of the Third Battle of Ypres. After a while we turn left, form a single line and stop. It’s a quietly dramatic moment. We are facing the largest British cemetery in the world. Here lie nearly 12,000 men, almost three-quarters of them unknown. One gravestone inscription begins ‘Believed to be’. Who weighed the odds of which poor soul lies here? Another 35,000 men with no known grave are commemorated on memorial panels at the rear of the cemetery.
It’s early morning and we’re the first to make footprints on this monochrome landscape. The peace, symmetry and orderliness, the rows of coppiced trees, could make no greater contrast with the sights we are asked to imagine from a century ago: the heaviest rain for 70 years, soldiers drowning in the mud, the relentless shelling. We learn it took two hours for men to advance just 150 yards. ‘I died in hell,’ says the soldier in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Memorial Tablet. ‘They called it Passchendaele.’
As at every cemetery we wander between the gravestones, lingering awhile at some. We’re drawn to a name, an age, an inscription. We want to remember someone we never knew. Is just a few moments’ pause too little? How long could ever be enough? A teacher reads In Flanders Fields, the poem by John McCrae that led to the poppy becoming the symbol of remembrance. It was written in 1915, in the back of an ambulance at Ypres, the day after he buried a close friend. Through the voice of dead soldiers, the poem calls on others to take up the fight and was often used for propaganda.
Any hint of a rallying cry is entirely absent from Dulce et Decorum Est, the poem Wilfred Owen writes two years later, which tells instead of the ‘guttering, choking, drowning’ agonies of a gas attack. It’s read to us at the Brooding Soldier, a Canadian memorial for the 18,000 soldiers who at the Second Battle of Ypres withstood the first German gas attack, an act seen by the British press – months earlier appalled by the first Zeppelin raids – as confirmation of Germany’s barbarism. We learn about Fritz Haber, a German Jew considered the father of chemical warfare. He weaponised chlorine and other poisonous gases, and stood witness at the front line at Ypres when the first gas was released. We learn, too, of how Haber’s wife, a pacifist, used the pistol he was presented with at a celebratory party to shoot herself in the heart. Of how Germany came to reject Haber in later years as antisemitism grew. And of how, in a further ironic twist, another of his inventions – Zyklon B – was used in the Nazi gas chambers, where members of his family lost their lives.
There are equally difficult thoughts to process at Langemark, a German cemetery. Here, we pause to consider how soldiers from the losing side should be commemorated. As always, the teachers leading the trip do a brilliant job of sharing facts from the past without ever telling us what to think. These three days are for us to reflect, to gather our own thoughts. There’s no jingoism, no dogma. At one point a teacher tells of how his great uncle was awarded the Victoria Cross. It’s not the heroism he highlights but how all of our families are connected in some way to these battlefields. And perhaps what we remember of his tale is not the remarkable bravery of this man, but that when he is discharged before the end of the war, heavily gassed, he scrapes a living as a crane driver in Portsmouth Dockyard. Did he feel bitter, or blessed relief to be out of the line of fire?
Walking through the entrance to Langemark, we line up along the edge of a small rectangular plot. It’s chilling to learn, impossible to imagine, that four feet below us is a mass grave for 25,000 German soldiers. In total, 44,000 are buried at the cemetery. Around 3,000 are ‘student volunteers’, half-trained young men who died a couple of months into the war, in their youthful enthusiasm surely not so very different to those who formed our pals battalions. Many bodies were moved here from smaller cemeteries in the years after the war, the Flemish farmers keen to return their land to its previous purpose.
This dark and intense place has a markedly different atmosphere to the Allied cemeteries we’ve seen. Beyond the burial pit, the tall bare oaks planted regularly between the graves create long dark shadows in the snow; at other times of year, a leafy canopy must cast everything into deep gloom. The graves are of bleak granite rather than light stone and lie flat, not upright. A girl gently brushes away the snow from one stone to read the inscription. Each stone is crowded with several names, not one. A boy wonders aloud how it was decided which bodies should share the same grave. The families and friends of the men buried here also fill our thoughts.
We listen to a German Jewish poem, To a Missing Friend, by a soldier killed in the war who is known only as Goldfeld. Later, at another concentrated German cemetery – Neuville St Vaast – we walk between lines and lines of grey metal crosses which carry two names on the front and two on the back. Their uniformity is occasionally interrupted by a gravestone. These are Jewish-German graves, marked with the Star of David, and have an added poignancy.
Between the cemetery stops there are trenches to visit. Those at Vimy Ridge, reconstructed in the 1920s, are immaculately lined with concrete sandbags; at Sanctuary Wood, rougher and more ragged trenches weave amongst the trees, their banks held back by sheets of corrugated iron and metal pipes; at Notre Dame de Lorette, sheep now graze above the trenches on the battlefield ridge.
The slow steps and hushed voices at the cemeteries give way to youthful exuberance at the trenches. At Sanctuary Wood, a spontaneous snowball fight breaks out. At Notre Dame de Lorette, friends excitedly explore narrow muddy trenches and small grass-lined craters. Two boys make a beeline for a rusting French howitzer. ‘I don’t know if you realise,’ shouts one to a member of staff, ‘but this is kids’ heaven’. For a few minutes the trenches become a joyful playground, and it hits home how some of the soldiers who fought here were just three or four years older.
In fact there are many joyful moments during our trip.We all need to escape for a while from contemplating the horror of war and if the sight of a teacher gyrating in a white polyester Elvis suit and wig can’t do it, nothing will. This is the legendary Elvis Night, a fixture of all Bay House battlefields trips. Whether these Year 9 students have even heard of Elvis doesn’t seem to matter. Seven of them are on stage in an Elvis dance-off, emulating his classic moves alongside their valiant teacher. The array of dark glasses and stick-on sideburns stay largely in place through the quivering finger pointing and exuberant knee slides, as one hit after another belts out over the screams of the audience. This memory will likely last a lifetime too.
Later the next day, in the disappearing light, the coach stops at Ancre, a British cemetery that includes the graves of men from the Royal Naval Division. At the centre, the rows of gravestones give way to a circle and we form our own close circle within it. A teacher quietly tunes his guitar and begins singing The Green Fields of France, the story of Willy McBride, a young soldier cut down in his prime. Our voices are soft and few to begin with, but this gentle melody with its plain-speaking words gradually draws us all in. Those of us moved to tears by the exertions of Elvis impersonators the night before find different tears in our eyes this time. It’s perhaps the most perfectly pitched moment of the three days.
A few hours later we’re at the Menin Gate, believed by Churchill to be the most sacred place on earth for the British. This Ypres memorial bears the names of 54,000 soldiers with no known grave and it’s where every day since 1928 – except for a break during the Second World War – buglers have sounded the Last Post. Tonight, two Bay House pupils have the special honour of taking part in the ceremony and laying a wreath before all those assembled. The formalities over, an elderly man cycles through the gateway on an everyday errand as life returns to normal. Our group reconvenes in a nearby chocolate shop where savvy staff have negotiated a Bay House discount.
Many more memories live on from this trip. The thoughtful stops at smaller cemeteries, where individual pupils had the chance to visit a researched family grave. The thundering sing-a-long to Mademoiselle from Armentieres – the lyrics a sight more racy than It’s a Long Way to Tipperary – which raised the coach rafters. The 46 portions of chips served at Le Tommy Cafe. The elderly French couple who, speaking not a word of English, proudly showed us their lovingly curated museum at Notre Dame de Lorette. The warm welcome at the hostel. The ear-splitting music that was our morning alarm call, and the boy who politely asked, ‘Sir, could you instead use the sound of artillery shells to wake us up tomorrow?’. And the passion of the teachers who created this beautifully choreographed, emotionally charged experience. Their love for their subject is infectious.
For three days we’ve been encouraged to reflect, to inquire, to see events from different perspectives. Our hearts have gone out to the known, the unknown, the believed to be. Their stories – real and imagined – have helped us to navigate these famous battlefields and cemeteries and will long stay with us. ‘When you get home, continue connecting with your past,’ a teacher reminds the group after the last coach stop. ‘This is just the start of your journey.’