Battlefields Trip 2024

From the 28 June until 1 July, fifty lucky GCSE History students got to go on a school trip to Belgium, in order to see some of the battlefields and artefacts of the First World War, which we had studied earlier on in 2024. It really allowed us to experience and understand the immense scale of WWI and gave us time to appreciate and thank those who paid the ultimate price in order for us to live in the world that we do today.

On Friday 28 June we spent nearly the entire day travelling across the English Channel, and through France to get to our hotel - Hotel Pax - situated in the Belgium town of Diksmuide. Diksmuide has a past highly connected to the First World War, as the frontline of one of the battles went directly through it, something we were fortunate enough to learn about on the last day of our trip. We had a mostly smooth journey, leaving Marling at 8:00 in the morning for Dover, where we took a two-hour ferry trip to Calais. From there it was one final coach drive across the French border and into Belgium. We Arrived at the lovely Hotel Pax for 19:00 for a delicious meal and lights out by 22:00.

It was an early rise next morning for a delightful breakfast at 7:30 and a chance to make our packed lunch. We left the hotel at 8:30 and proceeded to the Somme area. The Somme has a horrific history, as it was the location of the bloodiest battle of WWI. It began on 1 July 1916, so we were immensely close to the anniversary of this battle, in which there were 57,470 British casualties on the first day.

First, we visited the cemetery, at Notre Dame de Lorette, in which there was a beautiful memorial which documented the names of all the people who had died in that area because of the Somme Offensive. There were 580,000 names there, all nationalities united in the same section. I think all of us were dumbfounded by the sheer scale of the number of names in front of us, as I imagine many of us couldn’t comprehend how many people lost their lives on the battlefields around us. I found this particularly moving and thoughtful of them because it shows that no matter what side you were fighting for, all the men who died there all went through the same atrocities, and that as a society we can understand and empathise with the suffering of our ‘enemies’. On the site of the cemetery there was also a beautiful church that is still used every Sunday, and a memorial.

Once we were finished there, we visited a Canadian-run memorial park called the Newfoundland Memorial Park. This park was on the site where many soldiers spent around four months trying to push the Germans out of the area. It took them four months to travel what I’d say was less than half a kilometer. It wasn’t until they managed to take the German frontline because it took them so long to manage. The German frontline was situated behind a large crater in the ground, meaning they were able to shoot down into it with machine guns without the British and Newfoundland Regiments able to see where they were being shot from, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. This memorial park also still had the trench network going throughout it, which we were able to walk through and see the design of them (how deep they were, their formation, and their proximity to no man’s land). We also had the opportunity to learn about the Newfoundland Regiments, and the Pals Battalions that fought there.

After this we hopped back onto the coach to visit the Thiepval Memorial and Visitors Centre. The Thiepval Memorial is a memorial to 72,191 British and South African soldiers whose bodies had never been found. It is one of the most extraordinary things I have seen in my life, and rightfully holds UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The memorial features 16 pillars, each with stone tablets inscribed with the names of the men whose bodies were never found. Two of my classmates had relatives’ names on these tablets, and finding their names must have been a beautiful moment for them, and something I will speak about later. It was a wonderful experience and I felt very important to keep these people in mind and what they did, as their bodies will most likely not be found. The Visitors’ Centre was also hugely interesting, as there were many artefacts from the battles that had consumed the land it now stands on.

For our final stop of the day before returning to the hotel, we went to see the memorial at Vimy Ridge. Along with Thiepval, this is an immense feat of human architecture and construction. As we approached it on foot, as it loomed over the horizon out of the clouds, I remember remarking to my friends that it looked like something straight out of a science fiction book. It is made up of two pylons, with various sculptures of humans and angels either climbing it, guarding it, or seemingly begging at it. When asked by our teachers what we thought it depicted most of us replied with “the gates of heaven”, but we learnt that the two pylons were representative of France and Canada, and their steady loyalty and friendship throughout WWI. The figures are all allegorical of values such as justice, peace, and honour except for one. The largest figure was a motherly-looking women, eyes downcast. She is known as “Canada Mourning Her Fallen Sons”. On it are inscribed 11,169 names of the Canadian soldiers whose bodies could not be found.

On Sunday we didn’t have to travel very far, as we were fortunate enough to be located near Ypres, where the Ypres Salient happened, where we spent most of our day. We first went to Essex Farm, where hidden among the ranks of his fellow soldiers we found the grave of the youngest British soldier to die in the First World War (on the record) - V. J. Strudwick. He died on the 14th of January 1916, aged only 15 (meaning he must have enlisted for the war when he was 13 or 14 at the oldest). It was a harsh shock to realise that if I had been born just over a century earlier, that this could have been me.

The next cemetery we went to - Langemark Cemetery - was very different to all the prior ones we had been to, as it was the only German cemetery we visited. Unlike the other cemeteries, this one was shaded, and the tombs were made of a black stone, with each one holding a range of two to 16 soldiers. The graves were arranged in straight neat rows, where from every angle it looked like a battalion of people, united even in death. This is because they had to buy the land for the cemetery of the Belgian government unlike the other nations, so they had little money to build it with, especially after the Treaty of Versailles. It was a more sombre place and seemed like a place of mourning more than celebration of their life than the other cemeteries. It also had a mass grave in the middle of it, containing 40,000 bodies, something you didn’t find at the other cemeteries. It was a shaded cemetery too, as they planted acorn trees in it, symbolic of new life, as when acorns drop it could start a new tree.

Next, we visited the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world - Tyne Cot, at Passchendaele. It was a very large cemetery and featured a museum on site as well. Following this, we got back on the coach and drove to the In Flanders Field Museum. The Museum was a very interesting place to visit, and the designers were very creative with the way they laid it out, and the way that we could explore our own interests by scanning a bracelet. It featured a 3D map with moving projections on it that clearly showed the advancements and retreats of the forces in the battles, which was probably my favourite part of it.

After this we went to my most memorable place of the trip, as it was the cemetery where I had a relative that I had died - Brandhoek Military Cemetery. My ancestor, Evan Charles Price was 23 when he died on the 19th of July 1916. We found his grave and I was able to spend some time there to think and get a photo next to it, as I was the first member of his family that went to visit him. I have never been more grateful for the sacrifice these people made than when I stood next to his grave, nor have I felt more contempt towards what happened in the First World War. One of my history teachers, Mr. Brown, who took me there to see him, was able to infer how he died, that it was probably at a Casualty Clearing Station, meaning he died of his injuries from fighting in the Battle of The Somme. Next, we went to see Poperinge and then the Death Cells. The Death Cells were where people were kept before they were shot by firing squad for things like repeated desertion or repeated falling asleep on duty.

After this we returned to the hotel to have our tea and some time for ourselves before then leaving again to attend The Last Post in Menin Gate, Ypres. Amazingly, I was given the opportunity to be part of this ceremony, carrying a wreath from our school to lay in remembrance of all the soldiers who died in WWI, along with three of my classmates. It was an incredibly moving ceremony and meant so much more to me in that moment after the experiences and understanding I had gained over the previous couple of days of the horror of WWI and the bravery and valour of the soldiers who fought there. Then we returned to the hotel once the ceremony had finished to go pack and get into bed.

On the last day we visited one final cemetery, the Dunkirk Memorial. It was much like the others we had visited except it had one Polish and Czech graves in it amongst all the Commonwealth Forces. This showed that everyone respected these men as much as the British forces. After this, we returned to the coach, drove back to Calais, had a smooth journey back across the Channel, and arrived back at school at approximately 19:30, meaning we could all be well rested for a refreshing day at school tomorrow!

All that is left for me to say is a huge thank you to:

Our bus driver Mark who got us to all these interesting sites and places

Our hosts at Hotel Pax, who kept us extremely comfortable, well fed, and happy

All of our teachers who gave up their weekend to make this trip possible, they are:

Mrs Rogers
Mrs Wittke
Mrs Embling
Mrs Pullen
Mr Brown

A special thank you must also be given to Mr Brown for helping me find my relative and giving me such useful insights into his death and how it came to be. It would not have been possible to do this trip without everyone on this list, so thank you on behalf of everyone who went, I’m sure we all had a great time!

By Reuben Landon