Posted on 21/11/2016

Trip to WWI sites in Belgium

On the 10th November 2016, 35 boys were given the opportunity to visit where some of the most infamous battles of WWI had taken place in the beautiful country of Belgium. At 6:30am on the dot they climbed aboard a coach which would give them the tour. After about 3 hours they arrived at Dover from where they took the ferry to Calais. As they got out of customs they drove past the remains of what had been until recently the refugee camp The Jungle – an hour and a half later they finally passed the border into Belgium at which point a huge cheer went up.

They first visited Essex Farm where famously Dr. John McCrae wrote his poem “In Flanders Fields”. Essex Farm also contains a grave of a young warrior named Valentine Strudwick who was killed in battle on the 14th January 1916 at the age of 15. The boys all signed the cemetery log and all felt that it was a huge waste of lives and that it could have all been prevented if politicians had not argued and miscalculated things so badly.

After this rather solemn experience they then proceeded to their next destination – Langemark Cemetery – where it is estimated that over 44,000 German soldiers are buried. The boys were astonished by the sheer number of soldiers buried in the mass graves, all of which had up to 7000 soldiers each. The boys also found that instead of being on a cross or tombstone they had a lawn grave with multiple soldiers names on them.

They then visited Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery, where over 12,000 Allied soldiers are buried. Its impressive structure and individual sections full of what were great men really gave the boys an idea of the immense sacrifice. The wall surrounding the cemetery was also very impressive.

After a full days travelling and work they finally checked into their home for three days called Peace Village – rumoured to be in the vicinity of where the famous Christmas truce and football match took place. The boys shared rooms of up to 4 people with an upstairs (if you were lucky), several beds, bathroom and showers. As night fell and free time began they unwound and relived the emotions of the day with an impromptu game of football in the dark.

The following day after not much sleep the boys hauled themselves out of bed, got dressed and headed out to the main building for breakfast. As the boys sat down there was chatter about the fun they had last night; what it would be like tonight and what they doing today.

They first began by going to Vimy Ridge which 98 years ago was one of the Germans’ most secure strongholds. It took the Allies seven months to finally recapture Vimy: over 160,000 troops perished trying to take it between late 1915 and early 1916.In the few hours that it took them to take over Vimy the Canadians suffered a loss of 11,000 men which amounted to 50% of their army positioned in Belgium/France.

The boys then took a hike to their next destination about 1 kilometre away.As the boys were walking, Neil (the guide and driver) pointed out that the French gave the land of Vimy Ridge to the Canadians for capturing it with such a huge cost of life. The Canadians have preserved the exact landscape and you can still see where the creeping barrage hit and where so many people fell.

They then went on to what I call the highlight of the trip – the Somme. They got of the coach and went up a muddy farm lane to a woodland and Neil told us to get into a ditch where he then told the boys that they are standing where hundreds of thousands of people died. They were standing right in the frontline trench. A silence came over the boys as they looked around imagining their friends and family being struck down by heavy machine guns.

Some time later they arrived at Thiepval Cemetery and Memorial. The huge memorial towered over the boys. In the Memorial 73,000 soldiers’ names who either died, went missing, were never found or those who cannot be accounted for are inscribed. Thiepval was another of Germany’s mega strongholds, this one being in a decimated village. The Germans used the remains of buildings and cellars for cover and machine gun positions.

About forty minutes later they headed off back to Peace Village for supper and then got prepared to watch the impressive ceremony in Ypres. There was a buzz in the air as the boys crowded themselves under the Menin Gate. Inscribed on the walls are the names of 54,896 warriors who have no known grave. As the ceremony got under way the bands played war songs such as “Pack up your Troubles in your old Kitbag”and “It’s a long way to Tipperary”. It was then time to lay the wreaths. We were very proud to have our very own Owen and Allen (representing Fulham Boys) laying a wreath

The next day was all about trenches. They started off by visiting Hill 62. In WWI (and WWII) they named hills by how high they were above sea level. This one was 62 meters. They started off in the Museum by looking at all the objects that were found in the trench. They also had a peek through some periscopes which showed war pictures of fighting men, dead men and trenches. Then they went on into the trenches themselves. The trenches had a flimsy tin barrier to stop the banks from caving in and had several tunnel networks. The boys also enjoyed going into the underground tunnels and running through it singing songs. The tunnels were about 10-100 metres long and 1 metre wide.

Afterwards they headed to Ypres for some Belgian waffles. The waffles were delicious! They were crusty but not so that it broke in half when held but at the same time not too soft for it to be undercooked. It melted in your mouth like butter on a hot day. It was piping hot but that still didn’t put the boys off. The majority of boys had Nutella on theirs – I had ice cream on mine!
The next thing we visited was “The Trench of Death”. The boys had great fun running around and scaring each other as well as pretending to be a soldier or even James Bond. It had been raining the previous night so there was lots of very big puddles so the boys had to find a way around it either by shimmying across wedging their feet into the concrete sandbags or doing a leap of faith.

My favourite part of the trip and what I believe the highlight was when we visited the Battle of the Somme’s first day where 57,470 soldiers were either severely wounded or killed.
The four highlights were the Somme, the Trench of Death, Hill 62 and of course the waffle/chocolate shop. It was great fun and I would recommend going on the trip!

Max Livingstone

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