"An educational experience of a lifetime" - that's what students wanted and that's what they got in March when 45 students took part in the WW1 Battlefields Tour to France and Belgium with the History Department.
For three days at the end of March, students embarked on a special journey to the front lines of the First World War in Europe, 100 years since the infamous Battle of the Somme took place there. The visit was organised by History teachers Miss Tickell and Mr Lomas, to support students' understanding of one of the most famous conflicts in recent history. The visit was led by Gesta School Tours and its guide, Steve Jolly, a retired History teacher himself. In three days, students gained a deeper understanding of the war, its effects and consequences and how best it should be remembered 100 years on. The tour had three core themes at its heart; Remembrance, Significance and Personal. All three were explored during the visit and students were left deeply moved by the stories they heard and the sites they saw. This is their story...
DAY 1 - The Somme
Students left Stafford early on the Friday to meet their ferry at Dover for midday and travelled to Calais, where after disembarking, we headed straight for the heart of the Somme in France.
Our first visit was to the Arras Memorial in the Pas de Calais region of France. Here, Steve, our guide, told us the story of Rifleman Reginald Stanley Spencer of the Queen Victoria's Rifles London Regiment. He had been born in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire in 1892 and had lived in Bramhall near Manchester before the outbreak of war, working as an insurance clerk. He enlisted early on in October 1914 training at Crowborough in Sussex and landing in France in March 1915. On April 1st he was wounded and suffered from shell shock. However he soon recovered and returned to the trenches for the Battle of Loos in September 1915. During the battle he had a narrow escape as his trench was blown up and he was buried under debris until a rescue party saved him. He was shipped back to London where he eventually regained consciousness, but suffered loss of memory and shell shock. Nevertheless by October 1915 he was returned to his regiment and by February 1916 was back in France on the front line. Later that year he was wounded again, suffered shell shock in September 1916 and was re-admitted to hospital and convalescence in France until March 1917. He was now the only survivor in his platoon. He returned to a new platoon for a push in April 1917 and this is where he was reported missing on 14th April. The rest of his platoon was wiped out, either reported missing, injured or dead. He was killed in the Arras area of France on 14th April 1917, aged 25. He has no known grave and was one of 35,000 Commonwealth servicemen to be killed between the Spring of 1916 and 7th August 1917.
This story was a moving one, made more poignant by the fact that his name was inscribed on the very memorial we were standing in and the fact Rifleman Spencer was Mr Lomas's great-granduncle.
After Arras, we visited another British cemetery where each of us had a soldier we had to try and locate. Once we had found our soldier and returned to Steve we discovered that each soldier we focused on died on 1st July 1916, the first day of the bloody Battle of the Somme, a 5-month long battle which claimed the lives of nearly a million men.
After a busy day we arrived at our hotel in Albert and no sooner had we settled in than we were back out for dinner at a local French restaurant where steak and fries was on the menu.
DAY 2 - THE YPRES SALIENT & THE MENIN GATE
Day 2 was a jam-packed day. We began by a visit to Hill 60, the site of German trenches and pillboxes overlooking the town of Ypres in Belgium. Here we saw the effect of war on the landscape and learned a little more about what it would have been like for soldier on the front line. Just next door was a large crater, the remains of an explosion of mines which blew up the German trenches during the war. See Chris Austin’s report of his visit to Hill 60 on KEVI TV soon.
From Ypres we travelled to Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood Museum where we were able to walk through a surviving British trench and learn a little more about trench life and warfare. Here we experienced the true horror of war through stories and hands-on activities. After lunch we visited the re-discovered Yorkshire Trench where we were lucky enough to bump into the Head Archaeologist (of a group called “The Diggers”), Patrick Van Wanzeele, who had discovered the site and was responsible for its excavation. He was able to show us original photographs of the site, which is now slap-bang in the middle of a vast industrial estate.
Probably the most significant part of the visit was our trip to the Tyne Cot Cemetery on the site of the infamous Battle of Passchendaele. It is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world and commemorates nearly 35,000 fallen soldiers from the Great War. It was here we discovered some very personal stories. Two former pupils of King Edward VI High School are remembered here; firstly Trooper Harold Miles Averill of the Household Battalion, a former student of King Edward VI Grammar School (our predecessor), who died on 12th October 1917 and had lived in Middle Friars in Stafford. Also remembered was Private J E T Lloyd of the Lincolnshire Regiment who was killed on 26th September 1917, aged just 37, son of Joseph and Sarah Lloyd, of Stafford. Oscar Harte laid a poppy cross on behalf of the school in their memory.
In another part of the cemetery was another personal story for one of our students, Eve Mace, who has recently completed a family history project on relatives who fought in war. After weeks of research, she was able to find out more about her ancestor, Ernest Pickering, one of three brothers killed in World War One. Ernest William Pickering of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was killed in action in 1917 and he is remembered on the wall at Tyne Cot, his body (like so many soldiers), never being found.
Before our venture into Ypres itself we had just enough time to visit Langemarck German Cemetery, a very different experience from our previous cemetery. Whilst the British & Commonwealth cemeteries were grand and imperial, the German cemetery was much more simple and smaller, yet it is the resting place for 44,000 German soldiers, 24,917 buried in a mass grave. Over a tenth of the German soldiers who fought in the Battle of Langemarck were students and schoolboys.
In the evening, after celebrating Mr Malone’s birthday over dinner (and the obligatory trip to the Belgian chocolate shop) it was time for us to take part in the focal point of our visit, the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in the centre of the town of Ypres. This vast memorial arch has hosted a remembrance service each evening since 1928 (except during World War Two). Three of our students; Sophie, Freya and Annie, were privileged enough to lay a wreath during the service on behalf of King Edward VI High School. Sophie said, “It was a very moving experience, made more significant by the fact that we had learned about the war, seen the sites and heard the personal stories of the soldiers who lost their lives. I was very honoured to be able to lay a wreath on behalf our soldiers from Stafford who died”.
DAY 3 - THIEPVAL AND PALS BATTALIONS
On the final day we visited the Somme Museum in Albert and then to the Sheffield Memorial Park and Serre Road Cemetery where we learned about the PALS Battalions; groups of friends who signed up together and fought and died together. From here, our last visit on the itinerary was to the famous Thiepval Memorial, a huge towering memorial in France, dedicated to the memory of the missing soldiers of the Somme; men who have no known grave. Here again was a personal connection for one of our group, Freya Mills, whose ancestor, Private Alfred Holder, of the South Staffordshire Regiment, is remembered. He was killed on 29th September 1916 and his body was also never found.
Tour Organisers Miss Tickell and Mr Lomas said, “The whole experience was a very moving one. The students learned so much about the conflict, its impact and its significance. Due to this year’s success and the impeccable behaviour of our students on this visit, we hope to run it again next year for more students. Well done to all students involved and a big thank you to Steve for such an excellent, engaging and moving educational experience."
"THE STUDENTS WERE OUTSTANDING"
"I can say without any doubt that it has been a privilege to work with your students. Quite simply they were outstanding. Their attitude, behaviour, engagement and curiosity were by far and away the best I have seen."
Tour Guide, Steve Jolly, said in a letter to Headteacher, Mr Christey, “As you will hopefully be aware by now the trip with GESTA was a success and one in which your students gained a great deal both academically and emotionally. As a teacher, albeit one now retired, I can say without any doubt that it has been a privilege to work with your students. Quite simply they were outstanding. Their attitude, behaviour, engagement and curiosity were by far and away the best I have seen. Having worked with schools across the country from a range of backgrounds, King Edward VI High School will take a lot of beating. From the moment we met on Friday morning until we departed late on Sunday night your students were incredible. Both myself and the coach driver thoroughly enjoyed the weekend. At no point did any student ever stop wanting to learn. These are attributes that the school, parents and carers should take pride in. There were many moments that stood out; the three proud students laying wreath at the Menin Gate and young Chris Austin proudly carrying out his reports for KEVI TV are but two. I have no doubt there are some very tired students in school today who will for days ahead, and hopefully weeks, speak enthusiastically of their experience. They will tell of the moment they realised that many men from North Staffordshire were all killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, they will speak about their exploration of Hill 60 and the moment they followed in the footsteps of soldiers through the trenches at Sanctuary Wood. I very much look forward to seeing the photographs and reports on KEVI TV.
Once again many thanks. You have indeed some very talented young people: a credit to the teenage generation, a credit to their school, a credit to their town and a credit to their parents and carers.”
Headteacher, Mr Christey, said “It is very pleasing to see that our students gained so much from this experience and it makes me very proud to receive such praise from the Tour Guide, Steve Jolly, of our students. He confirms what I, the staff and parents/carers already know, that we have a very talented, dedicated, creative and mature group of students at this school and I am very proud of each one of them for their conduct and their commitment on this visit. Well done to all students and staff involved, especially to Mr Lomas, Miss Tickell and Mr Malone for leading this special visit.”
Students will be publishing their photos, videos and memories of the tour on the forthcoming KEVI TV (our new school TV channel) and hosting a special event in the Summer term where they will share their experiences with parents and the community and pass on what they have learned as part of the government’s Legacy 110 project.
You have indeed some very talented young people: a credit to the teenage generation, a credit to their school, a credit to their town and a credit to their parents and carers.”
Look out for "Private Chris"'s news report and the official WW1 Battlefields Tour 2016 video on KEVI TV - coming soon!