WW1 Battlefield Experience
By Emily & Rhiannon
As a result of the First World War, sixteen million soldiers and civilians lost their lives. This is twice the size of the modern day population of London. August 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the First World War. But why should we remember? Why stop and think about events that took place so long ago? As the horrors of the Great War slip callously beyond living memory, it is of paramount importance that we do not forget. As George Santayana, the famous philosopher said- ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
The First World War Centenary Battlefield Tour Programme is a joint government initiative on behalf of the Department of Education, the Department for Communities and Local Government to deepen understanding of the Great War, enabling students to develop a personal connection to the war and to create an enduring legacy.
Our tour began, in Ypres on the 28th February. During the First World War, Ypres was the centre of large scale offensives. The majority of the town’s buildings were badly damaged due to being destroyed by heavy artillery, throughout the course of the conflict. Our time in Ypres allowed us to deepen our understanding of World War One, the first of our objectives given to us by the centenary programme. This was especially apparent when we were given the opportunity to visit and later compare a Commonwealth cemetery with a German cemetery. At Lijssenthoek, the layout is typical of a Commonwealth cemetery- including identical gravestones in order to symbolise equality among all who lost their lives, regardless of ranks or races. Each soldier has an individual grave, emphasising that behind each name is a unique story. However, at Langemark- a German cemetery, the deceased are buried together in mass graves, the largest of which is the Kameraden grab. This is to symbolise the companionship and solidarity between comrades. Instead of the picturesque gardens typical of a Commonwealth cemetery it features large oak trees which are representative of the strength and endurance of the German Military.
Another of the key objectives was to develop personal connections with the Great War. We did this in several ways. One way was by researching soldiers connected with our local area. Another way we achieved this was by finding out about our relatives who died in WW1. I was able to discover that my Great, Great Uncle- Richard Terrick Stainforth died during World War One. He was buried in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, which was not far from where we were staying. I managed to arrange an unscheduled stop at the cemetery with our Tour Guide so I could visit my relative’s grave. This was definitely the highlight of the trip for me, as I was able to personalise the huge and tragic loss that so many families were put through. As well as being my relative he was also born and lived in Cheltenham, in fact he attended school at Cheltenham Boys College.
Our last objective and quite possibly the most important of the three, is to create a lasting legacy and to commemorate our war dead. We were able to do this in various ways whilst on the tour and intend to continue this now that we are back. Two of Ypres most influential War memorials are the Menin Gate memorial to the missing and Tyne Cot Cemetery. When visiting the Menin Gate we were fortunate enough to be able to watch the Last Post ceremony. We were especially surprised that this unique ceremony takes place every night, even if no one turns up to watch though this doesn’t happen now as it is a major tourist attraction. Rhiannon was chosen to take part in the Last Post and laid a wreath with a senior army officer and the British Ambassador to Belgium.
Tyne Cot is the largest cemetery that commemorates the Great War is the resting place of 11,954 soldiers. This was the last cemetery that we visited and it was here that we had our final reflection. During this time, a member of our group laid a wreath and we were given the opportunity to take in the scale of the cemetery and consider the importance of remembering our war dead even one hundred years later. Our experiences on the tour have inspired us to create a memorial here at All Saints’. This will be a place to honour the dead and allow students to reflect upon the sacrificed made by all those who took part in the Great War from 1914 to 1918.