Each year, thousands of British teenagers visit First World War battlefields in France and Belgium to try to understand what happened there a century ago. Edgar Tate, a 15-year-old pupil at Ermysted’s Grammar School in Skipton, gives his personal impressions after taking part in one of these trips.
Every year, Ermysteds’ history department leads a trip with 30 to 40 boys on a tour round the WW1 landmarks in Belgium. Naturally, the graves of men often appallingly close to the age of these boys are always a potent sight, but with the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the war rapidly approaching it is perhaps the best time to look back, as the Great War begins to finally slip out of living memory and into the pages of history.
Strangely enough, the trip began with a trip to Langemark, one of the thirteen Belgian German WW1 graveyards. This small number is astonishing, when it is taken into account that there are two hundred and forty three British military graveyards on the Somme alone, despite the fact that far more Germans died on the Western Front. The graveyard is a strange place, very unlike the triumphant resting places of the allied fallen. Rather than the white Portland stone from which other headstones are carved, instead it was decided to use a black stone for the small panels which cover the ground there. There are no triumphant monuments, instead they simply have a row of short rectangular pillars carved with names, and the slightly larger than life statues of four mourning soldiers, set at the far end of the graveyard.
In stark contrast to this was the cemetery at Tyne Cot, the largest commonwealth cemetery in the world, containing 35,000 known and unknown soldiers. Here we see a different view of the war, from a victor’s perspective. If one searches for long enough one can find two graves engraved with the image of the Victoria Cross, and too many messages from family members to count. One that stands out, however, is from the grave of second lieutenant Arthur Conway Young. The words read “Sacrificed to the fallacy/ that war that can end war.” Only a hundred years on can we really appreciate just how tragic that hope is.
Another notable aspect of how the war is seen a hundred years on that we happened across was sanctuary wood, and the hill 62 museum. This was the site of an incredibly well-preserved trench, even sporting authentic shell craters on either side of it. However, the main feature of this small museum is how amateurishly it has been constructed. Rather than the meticulously placed and labelled exhibits on display at the “In Flanders’ Fields” museum in Ypres, we instead have objects (Many not even relating to the first, or even second world wars) placed higgledy-piggledy around a small house, crammed together behind plastic screens with only the viewer’s best guesses to determine the history of each relic- although I couldn’t find anyone who really understood the stuffed pheasants atop a broken piano.
On the second day of the expedition, we departed our hotel for the Somme, where we intended to spend our entire day. Unfortunately, the good weather that was being enjoyed in Britain during that week, had not materialised in Belgium, and so instead we were sampling some more traditional weather for World War One, meaning some of our visits had to be cut slightly shorter, as the pouring rain made conditions difficult. However, we still managed to visit all of the intended locations, and so the day was a success, even if a few members of the party didn’t get quite as much time as they would have liked to search for shrapnel and bullet casings.
One of the first places we stopped was the tank memorial at Pozières, which commemorates the first ever use of tanks. Despite what you may believe however, they were not particularly effective here, as the muddy conditions and uneven terrain at the Somme made it nigh impossible for them to gain any major advantage. Because of this, many believe that Sir Douglas Haig was at fault for rushing them onto the field of battle too soon, before they were more mechanically effective, and there were greater numbers of them. Only 24 were deployed of the planned 50, as the rest malfunctioned before even reaching the front. When taken into account that there were 420,000 British casualties over the Somme, it comes into perspective just how incredibly small this number is.
Each year, over a hundred tonnes of guns, bullets and unexploded shells are found on the fields of the Somme. The Iron harvest, as it is known, is one of the major scars left on the landscape by the fighting. But another wound that is clear to see is Lochnagar crater, the 300ft wide and 90ft deep crater left by the detonation of two charges of ammonal placed beneath the German trench, one of 24,000lb and one of 30,000lb. It blew rubble 4, 000ft into the air and is recognised as the largest man-made non-nuclear explosion in history.
It was a truly meaningful experience to walk in the footsteps of those who had gone before us, and the sheer magnitude of the cemeteries and monuments we visited was truly something to behold, as it truly made clear just how much was done by so many.