Aaron and Stacey had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the significance of the First World War, by experiencing the battlefields and participating in remembrance ceremonies in France and Belgium.
A national programme, funded by the government, offered the opportunity for two pupils and one teacher to take part in the four day trip from 27th May -30th May 2019. This fitted in well with the year 10 History syllabus as pupils learn about the First World War, including trench warfare and the role of Irish soldiers in the 36th Ulster Division, the 10th Irish Division and the 16th Irish Division.
I was not expecting to win this once in a lifetime opportunity, but when I received the news I was extremely excited but also a bit scared.
I found it easy enough getting up at 3am on Monday morning, getting to the airport and waiting on the other students to come. I can’t really remember the plane journey as I slept through it all. The bus journey from London to Belgium took a very long time but I was able to see a wider range of scenery, from the houses and building of London to the flat fields and old red brick cottages of Belgium I really learnt a lot.
The first day is probably the most rememberable day for me because I was picked to take part in a remembrance ceremony, I laid a wreath for our group to show our respect for the soldiers who died for us, the ceremony took place at the Menin Gate in France, I was so nervous as there were huge crowds all around but I’m so proud of myself that I did it and I will remember it for the rest of my life.
The next day was probably one of the best days as we got to see grave memorials and go into Ypres. We saw the German graves, they really stood out to me because the were very different from the British/French etc graves, the best way I can explain them is, there was a black square shaped stone with the soldiers name and details whereas the British/French ones were white head stones with a cross on each one and if the soldier was known there details were on them as well. After we saw the grave memorials we went into the town to buy souvenirs if we wanted them or to just look about. This was a great opportunity because not only were we able to see the town, but it was a great opportunity to spend more time with the other pupils. I bought a few souvenirs from the shops and I even tried a new flavour of Fanta (it was disgusting).
One of the other things that I will always remember is seeing the trenches, it really did make you understand what terrible conditions these men had to go through. We learnt about lots of different soldiers but the one that I will always remember is the story of John Condon, he was a 14 year old boy who went to war because an old woman made him feel guilty by handing him a white feather to represent him as a coward, he unfortunately died in the war.
I will always remember this trip, I have made lots of friends and memories that will stay with me forever.
Many of the unsung heroes from the First World War lie in the enormous graves through Belgium and France. Many men, 101 years later, are still missing. They are remembered in memorials and cemeteries such as the Menin Gate.
The Menin Gate is a magnificent piece of architecture. The names of the soldiers are engraved onto the walls around the many panels of the stone memorial. Every night there is a short service at the Menin Gate and wreaths are laid to remember all those that are missing. It was incredible to see the dedication that those attending and organising the service have every night to remember their war heroes. When in the classroom we had been taught about the vast numbers of men who died or were casualties during the war, but to see the colossal number of men recorded as missing was really overwhelming and just shows how many people made the ultimate sacrifice during the war.
One of the most famous memorials is the Thiepval Memorial. The Thiepval Memorial sits tall looking over the valley with phenomenal views over the land where the Battle of the Somme took place. All those soldiers whose bodies have never been recovered and whose families do not have the pleasure of a military grave, are still commemorated here by having their names engraved around the many pillars in the memorial. The Cemetery is laid with little crosses to replace the more traditional headstones of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission which was a different way of remembering the dead.
Thiepval Wood is owned by the Somme Association. This group has recovered some of the original trenches and rebuilt them so people 101 years on get to see the trenches that the un-sung heroes called their home. Although small, seeing the trenches gave a real sense of what life in a trench would have been like, including their tactics against the Germans. There is still live ammunition being found on these battle sites today as the shells that never exploded are still sitting active in the ground. The most peculiar thing is that they can recover possessions of the soldiers as they were able to show us a spoon and a polishing cover which is extraordinary to think that the soldier’s property is still well and good to this day. We were also told about a soldier’s body that was recently recovered from the edge of the road during roadworks. This body was then placed into the Connaught Rangers graveyard beside.
Most of the cemeteries used the same stone except two we visited. There was a Scottish grave which was a trial grave made with a red stone which helps it stand out today as there were not many of them made. The one that stood out best for me was the German graveyard which was a little bit eerie as it was very different to the other cemeteries we visited. It has been suggested that one of the reasons it was so different was because the Belgium natives felt that the Germans were not worthy enough to have their gravestones upright, so they are all lying flat on the ground, although this may not be reliable. The other cemeteries were neatly kept and had very little or no trees, whereas the German cemetery was the complete opposite. Unfortunately, it was not as well-kept, and the place was laden in trees making it dark and gloomy. This helps show the fantastic work that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does in keeping Commonwealth cemeteries in fantastic condition.
To this day there are still many soldiers who have not been found and their stories are yet to be told. Every day we learn about the huge sacrifice these people made, for example Private McFadzean was awarded the Victoria Cross for throwing himself on a box of grenades in a trench in Thiepval Wood to stop them killing his close friends. From his sacrifice (and many others) I have learnt of the courage these men had in the scary trenches. It is very important to remember the words from the poem ‘For the Fallen’ by Robert Binyon September 1914:
“They shall not grow old as we that are left shall grow old,
Age shall not weary them or the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them“.