We left school bright and early last Thursday in good spirits, not least because our driver Dennis seemed very pleasant! A nice bus driver makes all the difference, and so it proved. After a quick stop for breakfast en route, we were on the tunnel in no time at all, the M25 was nice to us.
After arriving in Belgium the first stop on our tour was Lijssenthoek Cemetery, which is the second largest British and Commonwealth cemetery in the Ypres Salient due to it being a casualty clearing station during the war. Here students were
able to explore graves of all nationalities, rank and regiment, including Nellie Spindler, a nurse who died as a result of her bravery to treat patients closer to the front in order to save lives. We then drove beside the old railway line the 14km to the front line trenches, where students were able to visualise what the war was like thanks to the many artefacts at Hooge Crater museum.
In the evening the students took part in the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, a nightly tradition for the missing British Empire soldiers going back to 1927.Students were then rewarded for their efforts during the first day with a visit
to a local chocolate shop.
The hotel accommodation was like a modern dormitory with plenty of space for luggage on the floors with beds that were far more comfortable than they
appeared. The place was ideal with a pool table and bowling alley, both of which proved very popular with the students. The staff had never witnessed such comical and indeed lengthy games of pool!
On Friday morning students were up for an early start in order to cross the border into France. Our first stop was to visit the largest French military cemetery, Notre Dame de Lorette. The feedback from students as they stood amongst the 40,057 French soldiers buried here was how they were struggling to comprehend the sheer number of crosses.
The French students were dropped in the town of Lens and we made our way to the train station taking special note of road signs and shop windows, working out meanings and giving the students a real life context to what they have learnt in the classroom. At the station, amongst lots of nervous giggling, all students managed to order their train tickets and even work out the platform and time of the next train to Arras. We had 30 minutes in Lens and some of us were lucky enough to go to a café where the larger than life owner had
made crepes for ‘La Chandeleur’ (pancake day) and we were fortunate enough to be offered one each.
The History students then travelled down to Vimy Ridge where we were given a tour
of a British tunnel, which was used to bring soldiers and supplies to the frontlines. Out of the tunnel we explored the preserved battlefield for the Canadian divisions who took the area in 1917. Students were impressed by the spectacular memorial to the missing and explored the tunnels and trenches with great respect and curiosity. We were then back on the coach and moving south to the Somme where we visited Newfoundland Park. The site brought by the
Newfoundland government with the help of donations from wives and mothers contains the best preserved battlefield of the Somme offensive in 1916, along with memorials and cemeteries to the fallen. Here students stood by the death tree and listened to an account of a soldier from the Newfoundland division who described the harrowing experiences of soldiers trying to make it through the only gap in the barb wire. It was interesting to hear students ask and debate
as we walked across no-mans land towards the German trenches about where the memorials and cemeteries were for the German soldiers and whether more effort should be made to remember their story here. We finished our tour of France with a visit to the incredible Thiepval Memorial to the 72,000 British Empire soldiers missing at the Somme. This was a special moment for Tamsin Mittoo who was able to find her relative on the memorial.
Meanwhile, the French students arrived in Arras after a short walk to the ‘Place des Héros’ where they were tasked with attempting a range of challenges to engage them in the language. Students managed to order food and drink, find out their equivalent shoe size, take photos to prove what they’d found and generally absorb the surroundings of a beautiful French town. The weather was mixed, beautiful sunshine, a rainbow then heavy rain but the students spirits were good and they came back full of stories. We caught the train back to Arras to meet the History students coming back from the Somme.
On the final day, we visited Langemark, one of only four German cemeteries in the Flanders region, and students were immediately struck by the sombre contrast to the allied cemeteries. We then visited Tyne Cot, the largest British and Commonwealth cemetery in the world and students were able to look down across the wet, ploughed fields and imagine why the Battle of Passchendaele was such a failure. We were again impressed with the students interest to wander through the 12,000 graves and read the diverse and personal stories the grave stones reveal. We all gathered under the cross of sacrifice to watch Ella Rodgers and Ines Belmonte lay our USH wreath and listen to Katie May and Preet Singh read
the Ode of Remembrance. We then shared a minute silence to reflect on what we had seen during our trip and to pay our respects on behalf of the school and the community.
This was the first time we combined the Battlefields and French trip and the feedback from students was that they didn’t want to come home and they’d have quite happily spent more time in France! The students have been buzzing about the visit and parents have been in touch to say how their sons and daughters have not stopped talking about their experiences.
Mr Perry and I would like to thank the students who were fantastic throughout the whole trip and made this a really enjoyable experience for all. We would also like to thank Mrs Anderson and Mrs Ahmed for their enthusiasm and support on the trip and also the colleagues back at USH who made sure everything ran smoothly back in school.
MrFarley and Mr Perry