The Battlefields of Belgium

Ninety three students gathered in the dark at Hedingham School at 5.30am on Friday 10 October to set off for a 2 day trip to explore the battlefields of Belgium and understand more about the ultimate sacrifice that so many young men made for their country.  As this is the centenary year of the start of World War 1, the trip had particular significance.
The first stop was at Hyde Park cemetery.  Students wandered around the beautifully kept graves in the bright autumn sunshine and were moved to see the grave of one of the youngest soldiers to die during the war – only 16 years old and therefore only a couple of years older than the students themselves.  Daniel Sing, aged 14 years  from Great Yeldham commented, ‘When I found out about the 16 year old soldier I was shocked,  not only by his age, but by what he had achieved and his last words which were ‘I don’t want to die … I have so much to live for.’  I was saddened to hear that but I gained a lot of pride and respect for him and the other soldiers by listening to their stories.  Their bravery will not be forgotten and they did not die in vain.’
Students also spent time looking at a memorial to commemorate 11,000 men who had no known grave and saw the graves of identical twin brothers laid to rest next to each other after being killed in action on the same day as each other. As 13 year old Abi Duncan said, ’Seeing all the graves made me feel very sad, but it helped me to know I need to remember the soldiers and what they did forever.’
At other grave yards several students were able to find the graves of relatives who had died in the war.  They had researched this for homework in History lessons and were able to put poppy crosses on the graves in remembrance.  Tilly Wigan from Great Maplestead managed to find the grave of her cousin 3 times removed who died during the war aged only 20 years old.  She said, ‘I am so glad I got to visit him since it has been a long while since anyone went to his grave.  I wish I could go back and meet him.’ Students also visited a cemetery for the German soldiers who died on Belgium soil during the war and could see the different way that these soldiers had their graves marked in comparison to the ‘English garden feel’ of the British cemeteries. 
 One of the highlights of the trip was to stand and hear the Last Post played at the Menin Gate in Ypres.  Hundreds of people stood silently as the traffic in the street was stopped and buglers played the haunting melody under the arch where 55,000 names of soldiers who died without a known grave were engraved.  It was amazing to be part of this ritual and know that it has taken place every single night since 1929 apart from the Second World War years.
Students were fascinated to hear from Mr John Raynor, who led the Battelfields trip, about a day in the life of a soldier at The Front – from filling sand bags to removing lice from their uniforms with a lighted candle.  Due to the glutinous mud in the trenches the soldiers had to apply whale oil to their feet to try to stop trench foot developing and often struggled to stay awake when ‘on watch’ because they were so tired.  Going to sleep in this situation could result in them being shot for dereliction of duty.
Visits to several museums which recreated the trenches and dug outs really helped students to understand what it must have been like to live and fight in such difficult conditions.  Kitted up in wellies the students waded through the mud and experienced how claustrophobic the trenches could be. Thirteen year old Alicia Tunwell from Halstead found the experience very emotional and said, ‘As I went through the muddy trenches I found it hard to catch my breath!   It was claustrophobic and horrible and I found it hard to believe that so many soldiers had to live in those dreadful conditions. I was only in the trenches for 20 minutes and I wouldn’t be able to stay in there an hour let alone 10 weeks like the soldiers did.’  
On the way home 13 year old student Imogen  Halley from Braintree commented that  she had had ‘the best ferry trip’ ever because her and her friends had met some German students and chatted to them, giving them a chance to practise the German they had learnt at school.  It was heartening to think that 100 years on from the start of the First World War, there were such positive relationships between the young people of Great Britain and Germany.