After some excitement with temperamental showers, we had breakfast and set off to Essex Farm, the site of a field hospital that has become famous because the Canadian surgeon and poet John McCrae worked. He famously wrote the poem In Flanders Field that has become emblematic of the early part of the First World War. Importantly for us at Royds, Essex Farm is the site of the the memorial to the West Rising Regiment, many of whom came from Huddersfield and the surrounding area.
We then travelled on to the German cemetery at Langemark, one of the most solemn places we visited. Sheltered under trees, the dark grave markers rest on the ground, some named, many unnamed. At the rear of the cemetery, sculptures of four soldiers pay respect to their fallen colleagues. It was here that Charlotte and Victoria laid a wreath as we all stood in silence to think about soldiers who died fighting in the enemy trenches.
Just down the road was the Colne Valley Cemetery, which we like to visit as it has a name that is so close to home for people at Royds Hall. The cemetery is named after a trench that stood where the cemetery now stands, beautifully kept. Soldiers who fought in the area named all the trenches after places that they were familiar with.
It was time for a break and so we called into Ypres to have lunch and do a bit of shopping. Lots of chocolates and a wide variety of trinkets were purchased in the city but we were all impressed by the beauty of the place that was rebuilt after the destruction of the war.
After the walk in Ypres, we travelled to the huge Commonwealth cemetery at Tyne Cot. The huge rows of gravestones were overwhelming as we read name after name of the young names that lost their lives in the battle of the Somme. At the back of the cemetery, there are walls of even more names where Xara managed to find one of her relatives. Once more we paused to lay another wreath on behalf of the school. Hassan and Naveed placed the wreath on the stone of remembrance as we contemplated the soldiers buried in the cemetery as well as those who were treated at the hospital at Royds Hall.
After a quick meal back at the hotel, we went into Ypres to attend the Last Post at the Menin Gate. Ryan and Claudia were able to lay the school’s wreath as a guards’ band played and thousands watched. It was the 29714th Last Post and was a poignant end to the day.
After a good night’s sleep, we set off back into France to the South African memorial and museum at Delville Woods. The place was beautiful and tranquil and it was once again hard to imagine all the horrors of the First Worle War taking place where there are now quiet woodlands and avenues. One solitary tree remains from the original wood and it stands behind the museum that tracks the contribution of South African Forces in the war.
Next was the amazing sight of Lochnagar Crater which is 91 metres in diameter and 21 meters deep. It was created when explosives placed by miners underneath the German trenches were detonated on 1st July 1915, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
After the crater, we traveled to the stunning memorial at Thiepval that stands as testament to the losses on the Somme. Designed by Edwin Lutyens, who designed many of the most famous buildings in London including the Cenotaph, the Thiepval memorial contains an every growing list of names of people known to have died in the Battle of the Somme but whose bodies have not been found. There are over 72,000 names and many of us were able to find the names of people who shared our names or those of people we know.
Next we set off to Beaumont Hamel, where the Canadians, particularly New Foundlanders, battled the German forces. Dominated by the statue of a huge caribou, we could see the trench networks walking distance from each other. At the visitors centre it gave a picture of what a New Foundlanders life would have been like before the war – so alien to what their lives were like on the battlefields.
The last visit of the day was to Railway Hollow, the site of the memorial to the Accrington and Barnsley Pals who signed up together and died together on the Somme. We kneeled in the trenches where the soldiers would have waited for the command to attack and it was a very haunting experience. We went down to the cemetery where Miss Luness played us a song about the dead of the First Wold War. After this we wrote a message on the back of a cross with a poppy on it to one of the soldiers buried in the cemetery. It was a chance to think about what the soldiers might have been thinking about or even what they would have made of today’s world.
It seems like days ago since we left Royds Hall at 10pm but it was only yesterday. We had a smooth journey down to Dover and then sailed to Dunkirk accompanied by leprechauns, gangsters, the main characters from Back To The Future and a chain gang – all part of a charity rally down to Switzerland.
Once on the continent, we headed to our first place, the French national military cemetery at Notre Dame De Lorette. It is an enormous site with a church and a lighthouse in the centre. The lighthouse is situated above the resting place of 22 thousand soldiers who could not be identified. A guide called Jean Paul told us about the cemetery and also showed us where both Muslim and Jewish soldiers were buried. We were beginning to see the scale of loss that occurred during the First World War.
Next we travelled close by to the German cemetery at Neuville St. Vaste which was a huge contrast with the French white grave markers we had previously seen. Here simple dark crosses marked the site of the dead, where Christian and Jewish soldiers lie next to each other – so very different from what was to come in the Second World War.
Our last visit of the day was to Vimy Ridge, the scene of an intense battle between Canadian soldiers and German forces. We had the chance to explore a reconstructed part of the trench systems and imagine what it must have been like to fight in such a situation.
We then went up to the huge memorial to the Canadian soldiers that towers over the countryside of Arras. It was breathtaking, huge expanses of white stone reaching up into the skies, symbolising the sacrifice the soldiers made in the war.
After that it was off to the hotel for a meal and a walk around the town of Lo-Reninge, seeing a windmill and a bat. And now off for some sleep – hopefully!