Revisiting the battlefields of WWI and WWII

College historians embarked on an enthralling but poignant tour of Belgium and Northern France in March, to retrace the steps of those who fought in the first and second world wars. Respect, admiration, sadness, reverence, grief and reflection were among the reactions and emotions experienced by the 19 pupils and three teachers who undertook the tour.

After an early start for Northern France, everyone met their guide for the onward journey to the Caen area of Normandy with its rich collage of history and conflict.

World War II was the focus of day two, beginning at Pegasus Bridge, the scene of the first actions of D-Day, where Airborne troops stormed the position from gliders and held on until the linkup with ground forces from Sword Beach was made. Pupils saw where the gliders landed, the Gondrée Café – arguably the first house liberated on D-Day – and visited the Memorial Pegasus Museum where the original bridge is located.

In Ranville, pupils visited the Airborne graves and considered some of the fallen, including two brothers killed three months apart, a sixteen year old believed to be the youngest British soldier to die in the war and the grave of Glen, the only ‘war dog’.

It was then on to the British landing beaches: Sword Beach, Juno Beach and Gold Beach, where some of the heaviest casualties were suffered by British troops storming the tough defences at Asnelles. The day ended at Arromanches where the Mulberry Harbour was constructed, much of which is still visible out to sea. Returning to the hotel, everyone took time to consider how the German ‘mourn’, the British ‘remember’ and the American’s ‘celebrate’ their war dead.

For day three, the focus shifted to the Great War, travelling to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing which commemorates more than 72,000 missing soldiers on the Somme. Pupils observed the parts of the battle field itself before analysis turned to the weapons and strategies of the conflict as well as remembering pupils’ relatives who fought in the Somme.  Next it was onwards to Tyne Cot, the largest British war cemetery in the world with its many grave stones marking British and Common Wealth known dead and memorials to those missing in action. At Langemarck, the German Cemetery, pupils saw how Germany commemorated her dead and heard the story of ‘Fritz’ on the other side of No Man’s Land. The day ended in Ypres, by attending the moving Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial.

On the final day, pupils visited Poperinge and its town hall with the authentic execution pole in the inner courtyard and death cell – a painful reminder of the fate which awaited deserters, many of whom were suffering from shell shock. The final stop was Lijssenthoek, a war grave cemetery located adjacent to a number of casualty clearing stations during the Great War and situated on the communication line between the Allied military bases and the Ypres battlefield.  Here, the injuries inflicted as well as the medical care of the time and the rapid advances in field surgery were explored as well as life and conditions in the trenches under the canopy of German bombardment. Departing for Calais and the sail to Dover, everyone had much to reflect on.