Year 9 Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School visit to Ypres, Belgium

Take 2 – 117 pupils (a record number) and 11 staff boarded coaches with more than the usual sense of anticipation last week for the annual visit to the 1st World War battlefields at Ypres in Belgium. The trip had been scheduled for early March and it did get as far as Asda in Rawtenstall when the organiser Mr Grehan was phoned with news of heavy snow in Kent, chaos in the Channel Tunnel due to a broken down train and blocked motorways. The trip, much to everyone’s disappointment, had to be postponed. A loud, and perhaps slightly ironic, cheer went up as the coaches made it onto the M66. The trip was on!

A 7 hour journey to Folkestone followed – some pupils managed to avoid – unwisely – any sleep at all, seemingly determined to view this trip as some kind of endurance test! We finally got on the early morning channel train crossing – some of the more gullible pupils chose to believe the teachers when they told them to look out for fishes and sharks through the windows!! We then met our guides for the day who began by telling the story of the horrors of trench warfare, focusing on the 3 battles of Ypres, including the notorious 3rd battle in 1917, better known as Passchendaele where a combination of the worst rainfall in decades, a high water table and smashed drainage systems, led to thick, clogging mud which led to many men literally drowning. Ypres, once a beautiful Medieval town, was the scene of bitter fighting throughout the war between German and British troops and was left after the war without a single building standing – it has now been beautifully restored.

After an hour’s drive from Calais, we reached Ypres and began a very poignant series of visits which humbled all who came. Firstly was Langemark, the German cemetery – a very gloomy and grim place, most notably with a mass grave under a flower bed containing the remains of some 23,000 German dead. The Belgian Government, perhaps understandably, did not want to give their enemy Germany much land in their country. The dank, wet weather only added to the sombre atmosphere.

Next we visited a most unique place – Sanctuary Wood museum – apart from some horrific images of war injuries on the walls, this place is best known for the preserved trenches outside – the children, Wellingtons on, clambered into the wet and muddy trenches, crept through dark and dingy tunnels and avoided the deep, water filled shell holes – a unique
experience for all.

We then visited the awesome Menin Gate – which contains the names of some 65,000 missing British soldiers, some from the local Lancashire regiments – this really brought home to all the students and staff the scale of the sacrifice, loss and tragedy of a whole generation nearly 90 years ago.

We then all met up for a much needed hot lunch and a chance to dry off and discuss what we had seen so far. We also had the chance to visit our favourite Belgian chocolate shop – it resembled a feeding frenzy at the zoo as happy youngsters emerged with bags full – hopefully some were presents for expectant family members back home.

Then it was back to the serious part of the trip – and for many the highlight – a visit to Tyne Cot cemetery – the largest British military cemetery in the world. Set out to resemble an English country garden, the sight of row after row of gleaming white headstones was simply breathtaking. Pupils laid a wreath and Emma Harden and Jake Cosgrove read the poem Percy Horsfield of Booth before there was an impeccably kept minute’s silence which gave all pupils a chance to reflect on the debt owed to these brave men who gave their lives for their country. This very moving ceremony ended with Katie Meacher playing the haunting Last Post. Pupils then had the opportunity to look at the headstones and time for some private reflection.

Tired but hopefully changed a little by what they had witnessed and heard, we made the long journey home – sleep finally conquered all and we arrived back in the valley to be met by wet snow!! The behaviour of all the pupils was exemplary and hopefully they will have memories that will be with them for the rest of their lives.

Read about, and see photos from last year's Belgium trip in 2004! -The weather was certainly different!