Visit to WW1 Battlefield in Belgium

Over the first weekend of the half term holiday a group of thirty students from Years 9 – 11 were in Belgium to visit some of the key sites of the World War One Battlefields.

Although the weekend was primarily educational, the students spent an enjoyable first day at Bellewaerde theme park for a bit of rest and relaxation before the more serious, hard-hitting itinerary began. Bellewaerde is similar to Chessington World of Adventures, so there were a variety of animals (elephants, lions, tigers and giraffes included) to see as well as the rides to enjoy.

The second day began with a visit to Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest British & Commonwealth memorial cemetery in the world, on the site of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele. The students were completely in awe of the rows and rows of headstones marking the graves of some of the soldiers from the UK and other Commonwealth countries who died in the battle which claimed almost three quarter of a million lives, some buried where they actually fell. The students looked for the graves of the three soldiers who were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour.

We followed this with a visit to Poperinge to see the prison cells of those soldiers who were shot at dawn by their own side for desertion. Today it is clear that they were suffering from shell shock or post-traumatic stress and all soldiers have now been given an official formal pardon. We also located the grave of the only officer to be shot for desertion, although there is no record of this on his head stone. A visit to the Passchendaele museum in Zonnebeke gave the students an opportunity to see a recreation of life in the underground world of the trenches before the experiencing the real thing in the preserved trenches of Sanctuary Wood on Hill 62. They trudged through the mud and water and thereby gained some idea of the actual conditions the soldiers were faced with.

The day finished in Ypres with a visit to the Menin Gate, the vast stone arch that is a memorial to the missing and which contains some 55,000 names of dead soldiers whose bodies were never found. We attended the moving “Last Post” ceremony that has been held there at eight o’clock every evening since the end of the Great War, with the exception of the time under the German occupation in World War Two.

The final day began with a trip to the German cemetery at Langemarck : an almost spiritual place in atmosphere, very different in design to the Commonwealth cemeteries but just as moving and containing the bodies of nearly 45,000 German soldiers (including 25,000 in one mass grave), many of whom were school leavers. We then returned to Ypres to visit the splendid “In Flanders Field” museum with its wealth of information and interactive displays. We also climbed the Bell Tower and were rewarded with spectacular views of the Ypres Salient. We had a final look at the Menin Gate and all the floral tributes there in daylight before finishing the trip with a little retail therapy in Calais.

None of the group failed to be moved by the sites and experiences of the trip. In the words of one, “I had a fantastic time, even though I couldn’t help feeling so sad when thinking of the waste of young lives and the horrors endured by all”.

Mrs. Jones

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