The breaking dawn of Friday, 5th July saw 35 students and 3 members of staff assemble to make the journey to Ypres in Belgium. The students were from Years 8, 9 and 12. The channel was crossed in good weather and we very soon found ourselves at our first stop, Bayernwald.
This small section of the German front line from 1915 has been excavated and carefully reconstructed to give visitors an idea of trench life. Our guide, Major Martin Freemantle, himself a soldier for 30 years, guided students through the reasons for and problems of trench warfare. The sunlight dappled through the leaves, and butterflies flitted between the trenches. Though it was a world away from the battles of 1915, Major Martin was able to bring back some of the reality.
From here we drove to Hill 60. Not actually a hill but the spoil from a railway cutting. This was an important landmark in the flat Flanders landscape. Here Major Martin took us through the problems of mines; tunneling beneath the enemy lines to lay huge explosives. Here too was the sight of the first use of gas on the Western Front. Two examples of modern technology being used in war.
The students then proceeded to the Passchendaele Military Museum for lunch. Major Martin selected a student as the most likely recruit, and dressed and equipped him as a solider of 1914. He then loaded him with more and more equipment as the War progressed so by 1918 he was feeling the burden. Four other students then felt this burden as Major Martin made them demonstrate the problems of evacuating wounded soldiers from the battlefield. An important lesson for those students who will go on to study this very topic at GCSE.
We then proceeded to Ypres itself via the Menin Gate. This huge entrance into the town contains the names of 54602 soldiers from Britain and the Empire who were killed in the Ypres salient and recorded as missing. They have no known grave. Despite its awe inspiring size, 35059 names are recorded on a separate memorial nearby.
The mood then lightened as the students had some free time in the Market Place. Some admired the architecture of rebuilt Medieval Cloth Hall, others admired the new ring of bells installed to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice in St George’s Church. The church itself was Casualty Clearing Station during the war. Most indulged themselves buying Belgian Chocolates. Most Belgian Chocolates did not survive the trip home!
We ended the day at Lijssenhoek Cemetery, a sobering contrast to the bustle of Ypres Market Place. Here reality hit home for the students and staff alike. This was the sight of a large Casualty Clearing Station, and students were surprised that headstone after headstone contained the same date, with ages only slightly above their own. For staff, the personal family inscription recorded at the base of some headstones were heartbreaking. Particularly for Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler, one of only two women killed at the front during the war, and the only female grave in 10000 in the cemetery.
Major Martin took students through the evacuation chain for moving wounded soldiers from the battlefield. We then assembled by the Cross of Sacrifice and held a two minute silence. Jack Nelson then laid a wreath on behalf of Cecil Jones Academy. Cecil Jones himself returned from the war and was moved to do good deeds for Southend. We could only speculate on how many good deeds were left undone by the fallen.
That sobering note saw us depart toward the setting sun and home. A one day trip is always physically exhausting, but this was emotionally draining as well. The maturity and respect shown by our students was, as ever truly exceptional.