History students in Flanders Fields – 100 years on.
Students in Years 8 and 9 to reflect on their trip to the Battlefields of the First World War (15th – 17th January 2014).
In an eventful week for the BPS History Department, students in Years 8 and 9 visited Belgium and France to learn about the experiences of soldiers in the First World War. This was preceded by students in Year 10 being featured on the national BBC News, exploring original WWI diaries recently released online by the National Archives.
In the Centenary year of the outbreak of World War One, the 29 students and 4 staff left school before the sun rose on Wednesday 15th January 2014. The first day involved visiting Langemark German Cemetery, following in the footsteps of Adolf Hitler, who had visited the cemetery 20 years after its creation, during the occupation of France in World War Two. Our students reflected on the mass grave containing the remains of 24,000 of the Kaiser’s Armed Forces and took some time to photograph and sketch elements of the site that witnessed brutal fighting before becoming the final resting place for many of the fallen German soldiers in the Ypres salient.
Day One also included visits to Yorkshire trench and Essex Farm cemetery, situated alongside a dressing station for wounded British (including Empire) soldiers. Many students were moved by the stories of Victoria Cross recipient Private Thomas Barratt and the huddled headstones of eight British soldiers who met their deaths together on Christmas day in 1916. In the evening the students were privileged to attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres, laying a wreath that read: “Gone but never forgotten. From Bitterne Park School.”
Four of our students respectfully laid a wreath at the Menin Gate, bearing a message of remembrance on behalf of everyone in the BPS community. We then took some time to read just some of the 54,000 names recorded on its walls.
Day Two (Thursday 16th January) was a chance to follow in the footsteps of the Accrington Pals and other British servicemen who fought in the controversial Battle of the Somme from 1st July to 18th November 1916. After investigating the topography and surveying the landscape to understand the battle tactics in close detail, our students asked our knowledgeable guide, Tony, many perceptive and thoughtful questions about the ‘iron harvest’ and numerous headstone inscriptions. This was followed by a visit to Thiepval Memorial, the largest British war memorial in the world. Students gazed at the thousands of names listed on the walls, commemorating those who were never found on the battlefields. Some students were looking for their own name, or for other family connections, building on the research they had undertaken prior to the trip. The grave of an unknown Hampshire Regiment soldier was a further telling detail that connected our students with the History they had immersed themselves in. Visits to the South African memorial, Lochnagar crater and Devonshire trench were a poignant end to an action-packed middle section of the trip.
The ‘iron harvest.’ Farmers leave this dangerous crop for the bomb disposal teams to collect. These unexploded shells were on show for our students to look but not touch!
British trenches were often on lower ground, as the German forces had ‘dug-in’ to the stronger positions in the ridges, villages and copses of the valleys of the rivers Somme and Ancre. Here our students struggled to even gain access to the cemetery.
Our final day (Friday 17th January) involved a visit to Tyne Cot Cemetery, British trenches at Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood), and the German trenches at Bayernwald (Bavaria Wood). At Sanctuary Wood, our students were submitted to the cold, water-filled trenches and tunnels, reflecting on the experiences of front line soldiers, which they were able to compare to the stronger, concrete-reinforced German trenches at Bayernwald shortly afterward.
Bitterne Park School History students experience for only a few minutes the cold and wet conditions in the British trenches, minus the rats, lice and more obvious dangers that were common on the Western Front 100 years ago.
Follow-up learning will include students exhibiting their sketches, photographs and historical fiction based on the stories of human suffering, patriotic duty and fatalist poetry they encountered in the saturated fields of Flanders.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.