Moving 4th Form Trip to Flanders
At the crack of dawn on Wednesday 5th July a bleary band of Fourth Form ‘battlefielders’ boarded their coaches and set off to see the World War One trenches in Flanders. As part of the trip we knew we would be paying our respects to a number of Old Stortfordian pupils and staff buried in the Ypres Salient after the great battles of 1915 and 1917. It is always quite special for the pupils and staff to be able to lay a wreath (this year to E.A. Knight at Tyne Cot cemetery), which comes as part of the wider trench experience, which seeks to place all the work we have done this year on WW1 in a wider geographical, historical but also emotional context.
The pupils were, as ever, sensational on this trip and the staff are always very moved by the depth of their reactions and insights, which not only show a high degree of emotional maturity, but also a very real sense of engagement. This year we focused very much on the 3rd Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendale, infamous for the horror inflicted on the men as they fought in mud-soaked craters. We learnt about the importance of elevation at Hills 60 and 62 and learnt that the British soldiers named these ‘hills’ using their height in metres above sea level. We visited preserved battlefields at both these sites and saw the shell-ravaged ground as it was left when the war ended in 1918, as well as visiting the site of Caterpillar Mine (known to the Tommies as the ‘Berlin Sap’ as it seemed so long it must extend all the way to Berlin). The Caterpillar, a huge crater caused by the explosion of 70,000 lbs of ammonal in 1917, was testament to the brutality of war; our thoughts also went out to the 600 German soldiers whose lives were instantly ended milliseconds after that fateful explosion. We finished off the day paying our respects to the dead of both sides through the memorials at Tyne Cot (British) and Langemarck (German) and one pupil’s, respectful, sotto voce reaction, on first being confronted by the enormity of Tyne Cot (the largest British and Commonwealth war cemetery in the world) was “wow…”. Another pupil when asked how he felt, thought for several seconds and then said “I cannot actually describe it, it is too powerful an emotion to put into words.”
As always this trip is just a wonderful mixture of fun and friendship mixed with moments of real pathos and scholarship too. All who went, both staff and pupils, had a superb time together and, once again, I am sure all were united in feeling honoured to be able to remember the fallen once more.