Seventy-six Year 9 students and six teachers from Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School gathered at 10pm on Thursday night for the start of a 24-hour journey to the 1st World War Battlefields at Ypres in Belgium. After a long coach and ferry journey, the group, tired but excited, arrived at the site of 3 major battles of the 1st world war, the beautiful medieval town of Ypres, after which not a single building was left standing. The 3rd battle at Ypres in 1917, infamously known as the Battle of Passchendaele, was especially horrific and epitomised the barbarity and waste of trench warfare.
With specialist guides the visit began at Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest British military cemetery in the world. Over 12000 British and Commonwealth troops are buried there, many unidentified because of their appalling injuries. Added poignancy came when 2 BRGS students (Katie Robertshaw and Jonathan Haworth) laid a wreath at the name of an old boy of BRGS Percy Horsfield who died aged 23. Having been sent out to a listening post during the Battle of Passchendaele, a high explosive shell hit the trench and Percy, along with the trench's other occupants, was buried. Percy was the uncle of Miss M. Whittaker of Waterfoot who has kindly supplied the photograph of Percy. The photograph was found in a matchbox holder, which it is thought Percy may have sent to his family or to a sweetheart whilst on active service. Two other pupils (Jenny Amatt and Sophie Royle) read the poem, 'Percy Horsfield of Booth' which, for generations, has been read each year at BRGS' Remembrance Service.
Tyne Cot is a most beautiful cemetery, designed as an English country garden with a serenity and beauty, which allowed the pupils to reflect on the sacrifice of young men, some not much older than themselves. One other old boy of BRGS is commemorated on the Tyne Cot memorial, Arthur Taylor of Newchurch. Seven further old boys were killed in the Ypres area: Albert Aspden of Constablelee, Alan Booth of Lumb, James Collinge of Stacksteads, Michael Heys of Bacup, James Arthur Ray of Stacksteads, Albert Titterington of Waterfoot and James Winterbottom of Lumb. (Much of the above information comes from the extensive researches of Mr. P.L. Clark).
Next, we visited the very different Langemark German Cemetery. Over 40,000 German soldiers are buried there. However, unlike the individual graves at Tyne Cot, Langemark contains a mass grave containing nearly 25,000 bodies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Belgian Government refused to allow more space for the burial of the German war dead - their country had been invaded by Germany in 1914. Langemark is a far more gloomy and depressing place, epitomised by a statue of 4 mournful figures.
The students next got first hand experience of the trenches at Sanctuary Wood museum - here the original trenches are still in place and with wellies prepared, the pupils got into the trenches, went through the tunnels and caught a unique glimpse of what life may have been like for the soldiers during the Great War. After a delicious lunch of chicken and chips at a restaurant next to the famous reconstructed Medieval Cloth Hall and Cathedral, we visited the famous Menin Gate, which contains the names of 65000 British soldiers who died but whose remains have never been identified. Another old boy of BRGS, Ronald Andrew of Burnley Road, Waterfoot, aged 19, is also remembered here. Each night at 8pm, traffic is stopped whilst the Last Post is sounded under the memorial's arches.
On a lighter note, the day ended with our visit to a traditional Belgian chocolate shop. The pupils' (and teachers') eyes lit up as the owners' shouted out special deals and a frenetic trade ensued - hopefully for presents for family as well as for the pupils themselves!!
A long journey back to Rossendale then followed - many pupils finally succumbed to sleep - and we arrived back just after midnight. Mr Grehan, the Head of Year 9, who organised the trip, commented, 'The behaviour and attitude of all the pupils was exemplary. They are currently working on Trench Warfare at school and hopefully this trip has added a unique richness to this topic for them. They really listened to the guides and asked thoughtful and reflective questions throughout. Hopefully, this is a trip that they will remember for a long time to come.