GCSE History Battlefields Trip July 2012 – Personal Reflections.
William Price is my great great great grandfather and was born in 1878. He joined the army in late 1915 to help the war effort, he was entered into 8th York and Lancaster Service Battalion along with his friends. At 07.30 on the 1st July 1916, William left his trench in an attempt to cross ‘No Man’s Land’ and take over the German trenches. Sadly he was killed along with 20,000 other men in the Battle of the Somme. He is now buried in the Lonsdale cemetery which is close to a village named Authuille. I am the first of my family to visit the grave, so I thank those who allowed me to visit the resting place of William Price.
During the First World War thousands of men lost their lives. Many were found and identified and given graves, but some were never found. Thiepval Memorial and the Menin Gate are memorials to those British and Allied soldiers still missing. My great great great grandfather, James Bates, was one of those men and his name is on the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres in Belgium where those soldiers are remembered every night by the people of Ypres for their bravery. I also have a great great great uncle who served during the First World War in the Battle of the Somme called Frank Bates. He was also a missing solider. His name, along with thousands, is on the Thiepval Memorial in France. These two memorials are very important for the family and friends of these men and they will not be forgotten.
I thought that the trip was breath-taking. During the week, we all visited some of the most famous historical sites and battlefields from the Great War. My personal favourite visit was to the Newfoundland Memorial. What was really interesting was that you could actually walk inside some of the trenches that had been well-kept since the war. Bullet holes could even still be seen! There was certainly a lot to take in and the trip left everyone feeling quite emotional to not only leave the battlefields, but also the new friendships that had been made along the week. It was a brilliant experience!
Last week on Monday 9th July the history department took a trip to France and Belgium to relive the story of the First World War visiting cemeteries, the number of which is quiet overwhelming, especially considering that the number we visited is only a small fraction of those that exist in France and Belgium. This is a thought that shocks me. The largest British cemetery was Tyne Cot near Passchendaele which contained more than 11 thousand war heroes. We also visited a wide range of museums, each containing many war relics which ranged from missile shells to uniforms. These museums, in particular the “In Flanders Field” museum, presented many facts in both text and stories. The trip would not have been the same without our guide, Tom, who brought the trip to life by adding facts about the lives of some of the soldiers. An experience that I don’t think will be soon forgotten is the French cuisine – snails – which received a mixed reaction!
I thought it was a big eye opener to see the various memorials of the missing because I’m sure a lot of people hear the death figures and think “That’s bad” but when you actually realise that each individual had a family and kids, its hits home. The guide was fantastic with his various stories and he really helped me personally to think from the German perspective too, that they were just soldiers taking orders, just the like the Allies. I wish we could have spent longer at some places but overall it was a fantastic trip. Just to see graves saying “Age 15” puts it into perspective. Boys thought that it was an honour to serve your country but if it were us today, we probably would think twice about lying to get into the army.
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” – ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – Wilfred Owen.
On the 9th July a group of Year 10 students departed to France – looking back, I don’t think that any of us really knew what was coming. We were making the same journey that thousands of boys close to us in age made nearly 100 years ago. One of the first destinations we visited was where John McCrae wrote his now world-famous poem: “In Flanders Fields”. Having now read this poem numerous times, I feel I have a unique insight into one soldier’s view on the war. The site was also home to a cemetery. Looking closer at the graves, I noticed the ages of dead soldiers: 18,19,20,21,22,23. The youngest in the cemetery was a boy called V J Strudwick who died at 15 years old, the same age as I am. The graves were each marked with the soldier’s name, if known, their age and their regiment. Any unknown graves were marked with “A soldier of the Great War, Known unto God”. It was painful to see how many unknown graves there were. There was also a medical area near the cemetery where the soldiers would be treated for wounds. Entering these rooms was like entering a concrete hole. There were no windows in the rooms; just concrete going all the way around, it was like a small bunker, dark inside. A death chamber for those who went in. This made me realise that people died in these small concrete rooms; it made me remember the amount of suffering that these walls must have borne and I felt fortunate that we have better military medical facilities today, and that I was not an injured soldier in one of these chambers.
Another interesting part of the trip was the visit to the Canadian owned Newfoundland Memorial Park in the Somme. The Canadian Government had bought the land in memory of the Canadian 29th Division and Royal Newfoundland Regiment who gave their life there helping the British. This was the highlight of the trip for me. Newfoundland Memorial Park is a fully preserved battlefields dating back from 1914. The trenches are still there, fully preserved alongside a tree known as “danger tree” that was present on the day of the battle. There is also a memorial to the 51st Scottish Highland Division in the park. The Scottish played a key role in WW1 and the German soldiers were quoted to call the: “the soldiers from hell”. In the Newfoundland Memorial park we had the opportunity to enter the real trenches and visit both British and German frontlines. The frontline was zigzagged with trenches. When entering the trenches, I felt like something heavy had been placed over my chest. It took a few seconds to settle in that these really were the WW1 soldiers’ trenches; that I was actually walking in the footsteps of soldiers. We were able to have a moving walk along No Man’s Land, where hundreds of soldiers were slaughtered. Looking at the barren mounds of grass with sheep lazily grazing, it was hard to imagine the amount of death, bloodshed and destruction the landscape would have seen.
To conclude the WW1 History trip, I would confidently say that it has changed my life and my actions. I feel I have been keeping a mental diary of all I have seen, felt and experienced, a diary I will treasure forever.
“Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’” – Aftermath – Siegfried Sassoon.