WWI Battlefields Trip Report
Friday 22nd June 2018
Over the May Half-Term, 41 girls and 4 staff embarked with our two guides Julian and John on our trip to Belgium and Northern France to visit Battlefield sites, memorials, cemeteries and museums in the Ypres Salient and the area around Arras in Northern France.
On our first full day, we visited our first site – the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Lijssenthoek – this was a casualty clearing station some five kilometres behind the front line and contains the graves of 11,500 soldiers who died of their wounds – both allied and German. This was a very moving place to start our trip, and certainly set the tone for our other visits to cemeteries, the girls certainly came away with the impression that these places were designed to be reminiscent of an English country garden. The flowers, lawns and white marble or sandstone headstones together with the cross of remembrance succeeded in creating a calm, dignified and very pleasant atmosphere.
“I thought the trip was amazing but my favourite part was seeing the craters made by the bombs set off underground. I also thought the trip included the perfect balance of educational things and down time. The tour guides made the trip interesting and fun” – Amelia
This was in stark contrast to our next visit which was to Bayernwald , a preserved section of German trenches, and superbly demonstrated the way in which German trenches were differently constructed to British ones and the advantage the Germans had in occupying the high ground (such as it is around Ypres). To be able to see where the British would have advanced uphill towards these trenches provided a moment of sober contemplation for the girls as they imagined the machinegun and rifle fire as well as the artillery shells, which would have rained down on this area 100 years ago. We went continued to Hill 60 (so-called, as it is a massive 60m above sea level!). Here we saw the effect of artillery fire in the preserved ground as well as in the use of underground mines, which were dug under enemy lines and then exploded. The one here was 85m across, 35m deep and used 35,000kg of high explosive! Despite the fact it is now full of water, it remains deeply impressive.
“The Battlefields trip was a once in a lifetime experience which I would 100% recommend to others! The trip guides made sure everyone was prepared for the day and understood what they explained so no one was concerned or worried. They have such great characteristics which definitely lightened the mood at times when people were very tired after the long ferry ride. Every single cemetery, museum, monument etc. was incredibly beautiful and so informative, so I learnt a great deal of very useful facts in preparation for my GCSE’s next year.” – Camille
Our day ended in Ypres where much chocolate was bought and we then had dinner followed by the very moving and emotional Menin Gate Ceremony where members of the local fire brigade play the Last Post every night of the year and have done so since 1928 (with a brief interlude for WW2). Three girls laid a wreath to remember the Fallen – Charlotte, Grace and Lea; many of the girls were visibly moved by this and I am sure it will remain long in their memories.
Day two began with a visit to the smallest CWGC cemetery in the world at Railway Wood. This is a monument to miners who died underground in 1915 and again we were all struck by the fact that British troops were always having to attack uphill as this position again gave uninterrupted views of Ypres from the high, German ground. From here we walked behind the ‘Lines’ to the Hooge crater museum where Lance Corporal Lauren donned a WW1 British uniform – she certainly looked the part but complained of the heat as the uniform was wool and it was a very warm morning! The girls also enjoyed the recreated British trench and the opportunity to dry-fire (no ammunition!) a Short Magazine Lee Enfield MkIII .303 rifle – standard issue for British and Empire soldiers of the Great War. We then had a very enjoyable look around the museum before moving onto our next visit – Langemarck German cemetery.
“The trip to the battlefields was really interesting and we had two great tour guides, Julian and John. We really enjoyed learning about the trench life and the difference between the British and German cemeteries. Out friend Lauren got to try on the soldier uniform and experience how hard it would have been to fight. We even got time to buy Belgian chocolate for our families and go to the ‘Men in Gates ceremony’ where we laid our own wreath.” – Freya
Again, this provided a stark contrast to the CWGC cemeteries. Surrounded by tall German oak trees, the national tree of Germany and a symbol of mourning, these induced a very sombre and imposing feel to the cemeteries. The mass graves of more than 40,000 German soldiers, the lay-out of the cemetery in general and the use of granite for the headstones was the perfect setting for a discussion on the nature of defeat, the ‘Slaughter of the innocents’, the causes of WW2 and Hitler’s visit to the same place in 1940. It was very thought provoking.
“Overall I really enjoyed the trip and I thought it was very interesting. I also thought our accommodation was really nice and the food was delicious! My favourite part was the last post ceremony – it was amazing to see all the names on the walls and was very emotional. I liked the chocolate shopping too!” – Ellen
From there we went to Vancouver Corner which was the site of the first use of poison gas in 1915. The girls were lucky enough to be able to try on the various types of gas-mask developed during the war and we enjoyed a very knowledgeable talk from our guides Julian and John on the subject. We were also able to admire the very impressive monument to Canadian soldiers called ‘the Brooding Soldier’ which towers over Vancouver Corner. This won second prize in a Canadian competition for a National monument for Vimy Ridge.
Our last visit of day 2 was to Tyne Cot – the largest CWGC cemetery in the world which marks the furthest advance of allied soldiers in the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in late 1917. Here are the graves of 12,000 men and plaques commemorating another 35,000 who have no known grave. Again, it is reminiscent of an English country garden but the scale of it and the fact that it contains five German pill-boxes (the central one is now covered by the Cross of Remembrance) provided a sober reminder of the scale of this war.
After this we had some light relief in the form of Bowling in Ypres and then returned to our Hotel, weary but happy.
“Our guides enthusiastic nature and eagerness to answer questions demonstrated their passion for the topic. With every cemetery we visited, they had a new story to share or new artefacts to show us. One part of the trip that stands out for me was visiting the German cemeteries. There was a stark contrast between the huge mass graves and grey stone slabs with the fresh flowers and marble headstones of the Allied cemeteries.” – Annie
Our final day saw us Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery near arras. This stands on a hill overlooking Arras and has 45,00 graves and several very large ossuaries containing the bones of many thousands more French soldiers. This site also has the awe inspiring ‘ring of remembrance’ – a new international memorial commemorating 579,606 men of all nationalities who fell in Nord-Pas-de-Calais during the Great War which opened on 11th November 2014. Again, these two sites brought home the sheer scale of the ‘war to end all wars’.
“The trip to the battlefields was really enjoyable and interesting. I found that going to the memorials and cemeteries was very touching. The number of soldiers that lost their lives was a huge amount more than I had realised. My favourite day was the last day when we went to the underground tunnels and saw all the drawings scratched into the rocks and all the old tins. We then went on to see the Ring of Remembrance and Notre dame de Lorette French Military Cemetery and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, which was very touching. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip and it was an amazing experience.” – Chloe
Next we had an opportunity to visit the underground tunnels in Arras which housed allied troops in the war and in particular 1917 when New Zealand and Canadian troops used them to dig mines under the German positions and also tunnels from which to launch their assault on Vimy Ridge. This was our final port of call and the scale of the victory here became apparent from the view the ridge afforded over arras and the Douai Plain. Here the whole ridge is preserved and is owned by the Canadian Government. The shell holes are still frighteningly visible and the closeness of some opposing trenches (less than 10m in places) was terrifying. The ridge also has the winner of the aforementioned competition – a vast memorial overlooking the plain and commemorating the loss of more than 11,000 Canadian soldiers. It was here that Canada emerged as a nation in its own right.
“I enjoyed learning about the numerous artefacts, especially the development of gas masks. I also enjoyed waking through the preserved trenches. I found the contrast between the English and German cemeteries particularly moving. I found also the standard the food and hotel was good, particularly the dinners. I also enjoyed going to the chocolate shop in Ypres.” – Holly
After this we climbed back onto the coach for our return journey to the UK. We arrived home safely, on time and with great memories of a fantastic trip.