Year nine students Antonio Romei and Emma Laffargue recall their visit to the site of First World War battlefields.
We awoke at dawn, tired and sleepy yet still in great anticipation of the day that lay before us. At 6:00am, 49 of us made our way on to the brand new coach for the 45 minute journey to Dover. We caught the 8:00am ferry and enjoyed an air conditioned route across the Channel to Dunkirk, whereupon our guide, Bob informed us of all the sights to be seen from the road. We finally arrived in Belgium and as our guide told us stories and events from the First World War, we took in the beautiful landscape of the country as well as its great historical monuments.
Our first stop was a small outdoor memorial area where soldiers who were convicted of desertion or other crimes were shot by their own side. The guide then began to recount a moving story of his time in the Falklands and how the soldiers of the First World War were court-martialed if they showed cowardice, murdered or abandoned the battlefield. He said 4000 were sentenced to death, however less than 400 sentences were carried out.
We then travelled to the Passchendaele museum. This was a lovely spot for lunch, so we stopped and filled our stomachs. After lunch we then proceeded to tour the fantastic exhibits- detailing everything about life in the trenches. The weight of the equipment, the clothing they had to wear, the rats they had to cope with and the conditions they had to sleep in where just a few examples of what made the museum such a success.
The museum had recreated an underground dug-out and a trench system which gave us all a sense of the cramped and dingy conditions the soldiers had to live with every day. By this time the sun has been beating down on our coach for about 3 hours, so the journey to go to the Tyne Cot cemetery was very hot.
Thankfully the journey was a short one, and we were soon gazing at an immense expanse of white, engraved headstones which lay row upon row. We laid down our poppy wreath and payed our respects to the 12,000 dead buried there. It suddenly became apparent to all of us just bad the war was and how the facts we’d learnt in school where much more than just statistics.
After leaving the Tyne Cot cemetery we then continued on our journey and stopped off to visit some real trenches which had been preserved for almost 100 years. The squelching, wet mud, the broad shell holes and the jagged barbed wire gave everyone there a glimpse of what it was like for the soldiers living in those awful conditions. Old, 3D, gruesome photographs of the war were on show, again providing a sobering experience for us.
Next we made our way to the German cemetery. Dark and grim, the polar opposite to the Allies' one. Oak trees obscured out any light to be cast on the headstones. In the centre was a mass burial. In all 44,000 soldiers are buried or commemorated there. Although the cemetery was going through a refurbishment stage it still managed to shock us how contrasting it was to the Tyne Cot cemetery.
Finally, we made our way to the chocolate store. As we made our way through the town we could appreciate the mesmerising Belgian architecture, we’d seen some great buildings on our journey but nothing quite like the Menin gate where the names of 55,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found are carved. We continued on through the crowds until we reached the chocolate store where we were offered a chocolate deal. Although the deal didn’t quite make sense, the chocolate was still absolutely brilliant and getting a taste of the town’s culture was a good experience for everyone!
Bleary eyed, we travelled back on the ferry. Tired though we were, none of us would have missed it for the world.
A big thank you to Ms Stivarius, Mr Bettany and Mr Baker, without whom we would not have been able to experience such an incredible, eye-opening day.