World War 1 - Belgium Battlefields
The First World War Battlefield Memorial Tour of Belgium and France with the Equity organisation was quite extraordinary. A chance to experience and appreciate the sheer scale and the heroic sacrifice of so many soldiers, was truly a chance of a lifetime. The programme itself is designed to educate, connect and inspire young minds within the ranges of Key Stages 3, 4 and 5.
Our first stop was at Grosvenor Hall, where we worked as a team to ascend the Jacob's ladder, followed by the exhilarating leap of faith. As a group, we were allowed to handle intriguing WW1 artefacts and then congregate in the hall with hot chocolate, music and great company.
On the Saturday was the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, a hospital site containing 10,800 graves, including N.Spindler who was one of two nurses to die in Belgium.
One of the most prominent memories that we have is the experience of the Menin Gate, where there are the names of those with no known graves, referred to as the 'Memorial of the Missing'. It was astonishing to see the 54,000 names that were written on the walls. At this historic memorial, the last post service has taken place every day since 1928 and we were able to partake in this tradition. The acoustics of the gate allowed the sound of the bugle to soar over the crowd and touch everyone there. The atmosphere of Belgium was amazing with the Museum lit and all the other unique and enticing shops; obviously we took the opportunity to get some Belgian chocolate.
Sunday focused on the Battle of the Somme. The loss of life was immense, as 43,000 Britons, 200,000 French and 500,000 Germans died in the battle - the fields of which we visited. There is a memorial at Thiepval where there are 72,000 names of those who fell in this great battle and have no known graves. When we stood in the grandeur of the memorial, the feelings of awe, sorrow and curiosity, coupled with vast number of names was completely incomprehensible. It was interesting to find soldiers with our last names and each school was given a specific name amongst the thousands to find. Our soldier was William Ernest Powell who lived in Loughborough, giving us a sense of pride and connection.
On our last day of an amazing trip we began by visiting a pottery workshop, where we made sculptures of a huddled figure with a strong spine signifying that you can always recover after horrors such as war and death. Their aim is to create 600,000 figures to remember all the soldiers that died in Belgium. It was an enjoyable and symbolic activity, and it was privileging to know that our names were being twinned with a soldier's.
Amongst this, it is also important to visit a German War cemetery. With the Commonwealth graves there is a sense of pride and curiosity for the lives of the soldiers and a passionate respect for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Whereas, the German cemetery had a more sombre and internally quiet demeanour, which is thought provoking in a different way.
In the whole cemetery there were 44,000 soldiers, with a crypt containing 25,000 soldiers. Amongst the ordered plaques, there were oak trees which are traditionally German, enforcing the theme of respect.
Our final stop was Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest commonwealth cemetery, with 12,000 graves and 35,000 names to commemorate those with unknown graves. It was another concentration cemetery; it was shocking to see that around 70% of the graves were labelled only a soldier of the Great War.
Without doubt, standing together at the Tyne Cot memorial for our final commemorative remembrance service, was one of the most memorable moments that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. "It was as informative as it was moving... It really put life into perspective and what our commonwealth soldiers along with soldiers at home did for our country." ~ Sean Holmes, a Year 12 History student who attended the tour.
Together, we travelled from battlefield to cemetery; from sensational historical towns to infamous museums. One of the most awe-inspiring, educational and epic journeys of remembrance that we have had the pleasure to experience.
By Rosalie Benjamin, Sean Holmes, Megan Quail and Miss Ronayne.