Earlier this year, 31 students and four members of staff took part in Millthorpe’s annual trip to France and Belgium to visit some of the World War One Battlefields, museums and memorials. The group took in Essex Farm Cemetery, Passchendaele Museum, Langemark, Tyne Cot, Sanctuary Wood, Menin Gate, the Somme, Thiepval Memorial and Vimy Ridge.
One of our students, Callum W summed up the trip perfectly: “It has been incredibly humbling and has put everything in to perspective. For example, the things that people prioritise and stress over today, the people whose graves we’ve seen would have had none of that on their minds. I wish we had the chance to personally thank every single person who took part in this bloody war instead of them being countless names on slabs of white marble. They became greatly significant…they are all people with families and back stories that leave a lasting effect on everyone’s mind”.
On a surprisingly sunny March afternoon, 31 students and four members of staff bundled all their bags on to the bus and set off on their trip to France and Belgium to visit some of the World War One Battlefields, museums and memorials. We spent the first night on the ferry, with its ‘eat all you can’ buffet, a firm favourite of Mr Baybutt’s, especially the unlimited cheese board.
Saturday saw us rising early to get to our first stop – Essex Farm Cemetery and the first aid dressing station dugouts where John Macrae, the famous war poet, was stationed as brigade doctor. It was here that students visited the grave of the youngest British war casualty, Valentine Strudwick, who was only 15 years old when he was killed. As this was a year younger than half of the students on the trip, we found this very moving. We don’t often associate Britain with the use of child soldiers and even though these children will have lied about their age to get into the army, it is likely that the recruiting officer will have turned a blind eye to this as they were desperate for men to fight. We placed a cross of remembrance on his grave.
Our next stop was Passchendaele Museum which covers the war through different periods – walking through the rooms students saw artefacts and film footage from World War One and its impact on this area with the Battle of Passchendaele. The lower floor of the building had been turned in to a reconstruction of the tunnels system used by the British. The low ceilings made of planks of wood, lit by dim lights and musty smells reminded us of the school quad at the height of the building works last year! Outside in the bright sunlight the reconstructed trenches gave students an idea of how trenches were designed to give maximum protection against enemy fire. We sat in the sunshine and ate our pack ups before moving on to Langemark, the German War Cemetery.
In contrast to the Commonwealth War Cemeteries, with their white Portland Stone headstones set in grounds that replicate an English country garden, the cemetery at Langemark was dark and sombre. There are 44,294 people buried here. The graves lay amongst many trees that have been planted since the war and it was interesting to find out that this style of graveyard was chosen by the Germans because it reflected their love of spending family time walking in the woods. In the same way that the British wanted their soldiers to lie in graves that looked like they were in England, the Germans wanted their soldiers to be surrounded by the forests that surrounded the places where they lived back home. Jake Bycroft and Mary Hogg laid a wreath on behalf of Millthorpe School, in remembrance of those that died.
Before going on the trip, we encouraged parents and students to do some research to find out if any of their relatives had fought in World War One so that we could build their stories into our visit. Mr Baybutt had done his own research about a Blackburn Rovers player called Eddie Latheron. Latheron was born in the village of Brotton, North Yorkshire on 22 December 1887 and died in Belgium on 14 October 1917. He was an England international and two-time league champion, playing more than 300 games in 11 years at Blackburn Rovers and scoring 120 goals. During the First World War, Latheron served as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery and lost his life in the Third Battle of Ypres. Blackburn Rovers had sent us a scarf to place on his grave, along with the wreath that Mr Baybutt laid in his memory. A photo and short article about our visit made its way into the Blackburn Rovers next match programme.
At Tyne Cot, the scale of the devastation and loss endured by people on all sides was really brought home to us. As the biggest British War Cemetery in the world, Tyne Cot contains the graves or over 12,000 soldiers, 8,000 of whom are ‘known unto God’. One of those whose name appears on the Wall of remembrance is Sergeant Joseph George Francis Richards, who died in April 1918. His great, great grandson Sam was on the trip with us and was able to pay his respects.
In the afternoon students were able to let off a little steam in the preserved trenches of Sanctuary Wood followed by a hot chocolate before heading off to Ypres and the Menin Gate.
After the obligatory ‘chicken or omelette and chips’ in a local restaurant and a trip to a famous chocolate shop to stock up on gifts for the folks back home, we headed off to the Menin Gate for the Last Post ceremony. This memorial to the missing commemorates 54,000 British Commonwealth Soldiers who have no known grave. Every night since 1928 at 8pm, except for a period during the Second World War, the last post is sounded. Annabel Benton and Theo Steele, accompanied by Mr Baybutt, laid a wreath at the ceremony in remembrance of those who died.
Sunday’s destination was the Somme in France. We’d travelled there late on Saturday evening and fallen into our beds worn out by the long day. The morning arrived bright and clear and buoyed up by a hearty breakfast we set out to the Somme. Serre Road is the place where many of the Pals regiment fought and died together including groups from Bradford and Sheffield. After reading a poignant true story about two brothers who fought in this area, Mr Ferguson led us over the top in a re-enactment of that disastrous first morning on 1 July 1916.
Our next stop was an unplanned visit to a remote graveyard that looked like it didn’t receive regular visitors. One of our students, Aleisha Harrison, had received information that morning that she had a relative somewhere on the Somme with the name of the graveyard. With the amazing navigation skills of Mr Baybutt and the skilful driving of Neil our bus driver, we were able to get within walking distance of the graveyard, which was in the middle of a farmer’s field. Alisha found the grave and was able to skype her grandma so that she too could be part of the moving event. Whilst Aleisha was laying a cross on the grave of Private J Quigly who died on 27 September 1917, other students were looking in the cemetery register and spreading out around the cemetery to pay their respects to other soldiers who had died in this war. They made it their mission to visit as many graves as possible and it made the staff very proud of them, to see how important it was to them that these men, in this remote spot, were remembered.
At Thiepval Memorial to the missing, where the names of 72,195 men with no known grave are remembered. Amongst the names were relatives of both Lewis Tyldesley and Mrs Bowland. Lewis laid a cross at the grave of Francis Topping in Mill Road Cemetery near Theipval. He had died at the age of 19 in the Battle of the Somme. A second relative of Lewis’s – Lance Corporal George Topping – had died at the Somme on 8 October 1916 and is remembered on the memorial along with Mrs Bowland’s great-great uncle, Company Sergeant Major Evan Thomas Webb, died at the age of 32 on 22 July 1916.