History Trip to the Western Front
At the beginning of the Autumn half-term, 62 Fifth Formers and our teachers visited the battlefields and monuments of the former Western Front.
It was a hugely moving and emotional trip, where we were given a personal and physical understanding of the horrors, bravery and sacrifice of the First World War. Though we had learned about this war, the Battle of the Somme, and read the poems and letters of the soldiers throughout our time at school – nothing compares, for me, to the feeling of awe and respect as we stood beneath the huge Thiepval monument, a towering dedication to the 72,195 men, missing in the Battle of the Somme, but never found. Being able to walk around there, and hold two minutes of silence was so special. For myself and others, this was the first chance to truly appreciate the scale and suffering that this battle caused to so, so many families.
Another experience, which was especially interesting to me, was having the chance to visit a German cemetery, at St Vaast. So often overlooked, the thousands of men who died on the opposing side in World War One were surely equally loved and missed by their families, yet from an British perspective are so often left out of commemorations. We all agreed, walking amongst the sombre black crosses, that it is so important that both sides of any war are remembered, because war kills indiscriminately; each man lost will have been loved equally and will have fought just as bravely.
Vimy Ridge, which we visited later that day, was an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the soldiers, through reconstructed trenches; and the beautiful memorial we visited, with its pristine white stone towering above us. The figure of ‘mother Canada’, weeping for the loss of her young nation’s sons, was simply breath-taking.
Later that day was a chance to visit a brand new, breath-taking, and especially moving memorial, ‘The Ring of Remembrance’, a huge circle of over half a million names – every man, of any nationality, killed in that area of France. There were hundreds of panels filled with names; whole boards dedicated to ‘Smith’, ‘Brown’ or ‘Müller’. It is so important, I think, for us to see all of the men who died, no matter what side, as both brave and loved, and to commemorate them equally. Every person who was able to come on this trip will have been, I’m sure, struck by the scale and injustice of every death in the First World War. Next to it was the simply vast ‘Notre Dame de Lorette’ cemetery, the French military cemetery and largest in the world. The scale of the graves stretching off into the horizon was simply incredible to see.
That night, we moved to Ypres, in Belgium and were able to take part in the Menin Gate service, an amazing ceremony which has taken place every night since 1928, excluding the years when France was under Nazi control. Lottie Sims, Hermione Jewitt, James Morris and I laid a wreath on behalf of the school, and a chance to pay respects to some 75,000 men, amongst whom were four old Dauntseians, was a real honour.
Finally, on the last day of our trip, we visited Tyne Cot, the largest British Military cemetery in the world. We each had a chance to place our own cross, and seeing the rows of men, from New Zealand, Britain, Australia, Canada and elsewhere meant that this simple act made by each of us was a special way to pay our respects to the men of all countries who lost their lives.
On our way back to England, we were able to stop at the small Belgian town of Poperinge. Though our time there was short, we were able to visit the town’s cells – a place where British men were killed by their own side, for ‘cowardice’. After the trip, seeing the monuments, understanding the scale of the suffering this war caused, I don’t think it could be said that trying to escape it was in any way wrong.
Our final act together was to hold a short service of Remembrance. As the names of Old Dauntseians and prayers were read, it was a perfect chance to think upon how much we owe to the men who died for our freedom and happiness today.
I would really like to thank all the teachers who made this great trip possible, BHS, SBMG, RSM, TWB, the Rev, and our guides, brothers Steve and Nigel Williams.
Eliot Johnson, Fifth Form
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