On a rainy afternoon at the end of last half term, 85 Year 9 students and 10 teachers from Harrogate Grammar School set off for Hull, on their way to the First World War battlefields of France and Belgium. They were going to spend a packed two days seeing for themselves the places where thousands of young men fought and died between 1914 and 1918. The visit is always moving and thought-provoking, but had an extra poignancy and relevance in this centenary year.
They spent the first day in France, in the area around the River Somme where, between July and November 1916, more than 1 million men were killed or injured. Their first stop was the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. This monument commemorates those British and Commonwealth troops whose remains were never found, and so did not have a grave of their own. The memorial records the names of 72,195 who never came home. There could not have been a more sobering introduction for the students to the sheer scale of the losses suffered on all sides during the war.
They then moved on to the Ulster Tower, a memorial to those Northern Irish soldiers who were killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme. Whilst they were there, they were lucky enough to be given a guided tour of a trench system that has been meticulously restored by amateur battlefield archaeologists. This gave students a real insight into what it must have been like for soldiers in the trenches. Day 1 finished with a pilgrimage to Gordon Dump Military Cemetery to see the grave of ‘old boy’ of Harrogate Grammar School, Donald Bell, the first professional footballer to have been awarded the VC. as students; Ellen Wilkinson laid a wreath of poppies and Tom Godfrey read ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon. They then observed a minute’s silence.
On Day 2, the students visited Langemark German cemetery. In contrast to the Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries they had visited so far, which are laid out in the style of a traditional English country garden, the students noticed that this was a much more sombre and dark resting place. They then moved on to Essex Farm cemetery, where the famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ was written and where one of the youngest British soldiers to be killed in action is buried. Valentine Joe Strudwick was just a few months older than the Harrogate Grammar School students when he was killed at age 15. After some free time in the town of Ieper/ Ypres, our final stop was Tyne Cot Cemetery. This is the largest Commonwealth cemetery for any war anywhere in the world – nearly 12,000 British and Commonwealth troops are buried here. Many students were taken aback by the sheer size of the place and the fact that over 80% of those buried are unnamed.
As the trip came to a close the students and staff made our way back to Zeebrugge to catch the ferry home, tired but knowing that what they had seen will stay with them forever.