On Saturday 8th September at 23:00 our adventure to France began. We all took our seats preparing for the 10 hour coach ride ahead of us. We arrived at Dover the next morning ready to board the ferry to Calais. After arriving in France we made our way to Notre Dame De Lorette which is the largest French Military Cemetery in the world. When we pulled up beside the cemetery, the reason we signed up for the battlefields trip really hit us. The horizon seemed to be made up of nothing but the 20,000 white crosses standing proudly in the sunshine, many of us weren't prepared for the numbers that we were looking at. Opposite the cemetery stands 500 tall steel plaques arranged in a circle with the names of 600,000 soldiers in alphabetical order that fell in WW1, this is known as the 'Ring of Remembrance.' Later that day we travelled to Vimy Ridge Canadian Memorial, on the road leading to the memorial we noticed the craters dominating the roadside, these have been preserved from WW1. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is a memorial to all Canadians who served their country in battle during the War, 60,000 Canadians were killed. Over 11,000 of those killed died in France but they have no known grave. The memorial holds the names of 11,168 missing Canadians, killed in action in France but whose bodies have not been found or identified. As the monument stands it is two eye wateringly bright white pillars with big carvings which stand at the top. Afterwards we visited Loos Memorial, the memorial lists 20,610 names of British and Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave who were killed in the area during and after the Battle of Loos. After a very busy day we headed to the Chateau in Ebblinghem to spend the first of four nights.
After waking up and spending a short amount of time in the Chateau we started to make our way over the border to Belgium to visit the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, most of those buried in the cemetery are war casualties who had been wounded near Ypres and later died in the casualty clearing stations located in this area. We visited this cemetery to commemorate one person in particular, Nellie Spindler. The only woman out of the 10,120 men to lay in the cemetery, Nellie was a nurse who was killed 20 minutes after a shell hit her nurse hut and gave her shrapnel wounds, Nellie died at age 26. The next stop of our trip was to the cells and shooting post in Poperinge. Altogether, there were over 300 British Servicemen shot during WW1. It is not known exactly how many were guilty of their crimes. The shooting post has a distinct odour about it which makes it that little more grim. When we entered the cell where the 'criminal' would be held for the few hours they had left, we saw the last few thoughts each prisoner had before they were sent to their deaths with the graffiti they had carved into the walls. We then moved on to The Menin Gate Memorial which is a huge attraction in Ypres that has over 56,000 names of soldiers who died and have no known grave. This memorial is outstanding and so beautifully constructed. We ate lunch on the ramparts with a view over the canal.
From the memorial we walked to the “In Flanders Fields” museum which was an amazing interactive museum where we learnt all about the war. One story that stood out for most of us was the war at Christmas, this was where Christmas in the trenches was told from each perspective of the different soldiers fighting and how they called a truce and spent Christmas day together, the British and the Germans. They exchanged gifts and songs and took pictures together. Afterwards we got on board the bus and travelled to Essex Farm Cemetery where Mr Dillon read “ In Flanders Fields.” Milly also laid a cross on behalf of the school on a grave belonging to a boy named Valentine Strudwick who fought at age 14 and died at age 16. We got to see where doctors and surgeons helped soldiers back to health. These rooms were dark, small and very unsanitary and dug into the sides of the bankings. We then laid a poppy on a grave of our choice to show respect to the fallen soldiers. It was here after speaking to Miss Stuart and Mr Dillon that I learnt that the graves which stood grouped together had bodies in them which had been hit by shells and the body parts were indistinguishable, so they were all buried together. After a long hard-hitting day we travelled back to the chateau.
The following day was just as busy as the day before. Firstly we visited the Somme where we walked around real life trenches and realised just what life was like in the trenches. We visited the famous Lochnagar crater which is a crater created by the British after putting loads of ammunition under the German lines and letting it explode. This created a hole in the earth 100M wide and 30M deep and it is believed that there are still hundreds of undiscovered bodies under the crater. We then drove to the Hearts FC memorial which commemorates the famous footballers who died in the war. We then took a short drive to one of the most famous memorials in France, Thiepval Memorial. This is dedicated to the missing of the Somme it holds 72,195 missing British and Commonwealth men who died. Mr Munro had kindly sourced documents of people with the same last name engraved in the memorial for us so that we could find them in the thousands of names. This memorial was one of a kind and was truly breathtaking. As you can imagine it was huge, to be able to hold the thousands of names. We then went to Newfoundland Canadian Memorial Park, where we walked around Canadian trenches and the German trenches. It was surreal to realise how close these frontlines were to each other and how narrow ‘no man’s land’ actually was. Afterwards we retreated home to the chateau and had dinner then set off again to go bowling in St Omer. It was nice to relax after seeing what terrors were introduced in the war.
On our final day we visited Sanctuary Wood where again we walked around real life trenches only this time they were that little bit more real with thick mud to trudge through. These trenches felt more lifelike as we ran through pitch black tunnels that felt miles long (fair to say I don’t think soldiers had IPhone torches to help them see.) Passchendaele museum was next on the list where we got to see life and the activities that took place in trenches far away from the frontline like cooking, sleeping (if there was a chance), repairing weapons and offices. We also visited German graves, this cemetery had a completely different atmosphere. It was dark and dreich with no flowers growing. The graves were small and black, sunken into the ground with 8 or more buried in each grave, in one grave 100s of Germans were buried, this was a completely different experience to the other cemeteries we had visited through the week. We then went to Ypres where we had an hour of free time to shop around and experience the town. We then had dinner in a restaurant together before attending the Menin Gate Ceremony. Once we had finished we walked down to the memorial and watched as Scott, Michael, Ella, Maddy and Mr Munro laid a poppy wreath on behalf of the school. This ceremony is highly respected in Belgium and happens every night, the roads are all closed and silence sits through the streets.
The next day our adventure was almost over. We had the 14 hour bus journey home to look forward to! We took the ferry back over to Dover and made our way back to Dumfries (a climate we were not used to.) As we got off the bus we were greeted by our families who were happy to see us.
On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Mr Munro, Miss Stuart, Mr Dillon and both of the Mrs Hallidays were amazing with us and so informative. I would recommend this trip to anyone.
A week I will truly never forget.