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Year 9 Trip to the Battlefields of the Ypres Salient

At the very dark and cold time of 5:30am on Thursday 24th November a group of Year 9 students started to gather in excitement for what was going to be a long and thought provoking day for them all. The group left via coach to catch the shuttle to mainland Europe and picked up their guide Ian Coyne on route. Ian has worked as a guide for Anglia Tours since its near beginning and his interest stemmed from visiting the Western Front as a student himself and so was well equipped to deal with 42 inquisitive Fulston students.

When the coach disembarked the shuttle in Calais there was a journey of around an hour before they reached their first stop at Voormezele. As we approached Ypres we had an interesting commentary from Ian about the importance of Ypres and the land around it and its impact on the Great War.

The coach arrived at Voormezele, one of the more obscure cemeteries on the Ypres Salient, and relevant to the students because of one man, Lieutenant George Llewelyn Davis was the adopted son of J.M Barrie the writer of ‘Peter Pan’. Barrie took his inspiration for ‘Peter’ from his loss of Davis who had written a letter home the day before his death. This was read out to the group as they stood silently around this young man’s grave. Ian also explained that Barrie had taken his inspiration for the ‘Lost Boys’ in the story from the generation of young men, some not much older than the students on the trip, that laid in the cemetery. The group had chance to ask a few questions and were told about the layout of British and Commonwealth cemeteries. Finally the group had a few moments to themselves to reflect on what was for many, their first experiences of the sacrifices that many young men made so that the students on the trip could live the life they do today.

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After this sobering first stop the party continued on to the Bayernwald trench system, a German fortified trench system which ran through a small wooded area thus the name Bayernwald which loosely translates into ‘Bavaria wood’. Here the students were greeted as new recruits by Sargent Walter Belcher and lead into the trenches where they gained an insight into trench life. They were served some everyday trench food by Rifleman Henry Williamson and were shown the equipment that your average ‘British Tommy’ was supplied with throughout the Great War and its usage by Sargent Belcher. The students finally got to hold and try on some of the kit that was previously explained to them and then started to understand some of the drawbacks it had.

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After this short introduction to trench warfare by the men of the London Rifles, the group moved back through Ypres to Langemark and one of very few German Cemeteries on the Western Front, all the while listening to the outstanding commentary about the surrounding areas and the impact the Great War had on it. On arrival at Langemark the students were directed to enter in silence and to reflect on the massive differences between this and the British Cemetery they visited earlier in the day. The students took in the whole situation incredibly well asking some very thought provoking questions and equally giving some very intelligent and interesting answers. Everyone realised that these were just young men, far from some of the propaganda they may have seen throughout their studies about the Great War.

After another short coach journey the group arrived at Tyne Cot, the largest British and Commonwealth cemetery on any foreign battlefield. The students were led in and were gathered around a group of graves to the left of the Cross of Sacrifice. Ian explained the importance of the cemetery and its design along with the battle of Passchendaele and the extensive fight for the Tyne Cot area. He also made a point to explain the ‘Memorial to the Missing’ at Tyne Cot which is a large stone wall running around the top of the cemetery which holds the names of the men missing from the Great War. The students were finally told about two graves in particular, one of which was of a man who was engaged to a young lady who had lived her life without re-marrying, finally to join her fiancée just after the Year 2000 when her ashes were scattered with his grave. The second grave was of Second Lieutenant Arthur Conway whose grave is inscribed with the words, “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war.”, a thoughtful statement which the students discussed and understood. The group finally had sometime to themselves to reflect on the day and visit a few of the fallen warriors. Two students even found names of relatives on the memorial to the missing, which brought a war, that was fought nearly 100 Years ago in a foreign land, very close to home for them both.

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The students were then to driven back to the Bayernwald trenches where they were treated to a re-enactment of the 1914 Christmas truce involving on this occasion Sargent Belcher, Rifleman Williamson and a German soldier. The students were told about the truce and the events that happened, such as carol singing, football matches and the swapping of luxuries such as alcohol and cigarettes between the English and German soldiers. They were also told about the more emotional part of the truce such as a chance for both sides to burry their dead that lay in no man land. The day’s events at Bayernwald were ended with the group looking out from the trench system down to Ypres singing the Christmas carol ‘Silent Night’, a quite emotional way for the students to try and recreate in their own minds a picture of the 1914 Christmas truce.

The final stop off of the day was a visit to Ypres. On arrival the group walked into Ypres through the Menin Gate where they stopped whilst it was quite and the monument was explained to them all. The students seemed quite overwhelmed by the sheer size of arch and the names of the missing that were inscribed on all the walls that held the gate. The students then had some time purchase some of Belgium’s luxuries in the shape of chocolates and chips. Finally just before 20:00 the students gathered at the Menin Gate for the service lead by the Ypres fire service to commemorate the Great War. Three students laid a wreath on behalf of the school and history teacher Mr.McCutcheon read the Ode of Remembrance.

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The final part of the day was that of the long journey home, it had been a long emotional and life changing day for many students and for a few it was time for a good sleep! Everyone had been a great credit to themselves and brilliant ambassadors for Fulston Manor School.