The next event of our second day in France was, for all of us, the most powerful and emotive part of the trip. Unaware of the change in schedule before our arrival in France we were not expecting to attend the funeral of a soldier who fell in the Battle of the Somme over 100 years ago. The recently discovered remains of Private Henry Parker, 5th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, were laid to rest in the Warlencourt British Cemetery and we were each given a personal invitation by the Ministry of Defence to witness his burial. Private Parker was born in Weaverthorpe in North Yorkshire on 29 September 1893. The greater part of his service in the war was in holding the line in the Ypres Salient however in August 1916 his battalion was redeployed at the Somme. It was there that he met his death just 3 days short of his 23rd birthday. His funeral with full military honours took place on a very sunny Wednesday morning so many years after he was killed in action. We felt humbled yet honoured to have observed such a special event.
Later in the day we visited the Ulster Tower, dedicated to the men of the 36th (Ulster) division and erected on the site of their famous advance on the morning of 1 July 1916. Here we were given a very interesting account of their exploits on the first day of the Somme and the significant gains that they made on one of history’s great days of tragedy. A short walk took us to Connaught Cemetery and then into the heart of Thiepval Wood where we viewed the preserved trenches and learned of what life was like for the soldiers who fought there. We then crossed the Ancre River and made our way to the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Park, with its beautiful memorials, dedicated to the Newfoundlanders who, 2500 miles from home, fought on the same date. The last two stops of the day were to Martinsart Cemetery, where 14 men from the Royal Irish Rifles were buried in a mass grave and then to Authuille Cemetery, where we visited the grave of the well-known William McBride.
On 18 May our first visit was to the Island of Ireland Peace Park ‘dedicated to the memory of all those from the Island of Ireland who fought and died in the First World War’. Following this we visited Wytschaete Cemetery, Spanbroekmolen Crater and Lone Tree Cemetery before moving to Essex Farm Cemetery, where John McCrae wrote his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. Following a visit to Langemark German Military Cemetery we visited the grave of Private J. Condon in Poelcapelle British Cemetery who was killed at the age of 14. Following this we made a visit to Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world and the final resting place for nearly 12,000 servicemen.
In the evening we attended the daily sounding of the ‘Last Post’ at Menin Gate in Ypres. The impressive monument bears the names of 54,395 servicemen who were killed in the Ypres Salient and every evening at 20.00 hours buglers sound the ‘Last Post’ underneath its enormous arches. Apart from a time of relocation due to German occupation during World War 2 this ceremony has continued uninterrupted since 1928. Both our pupils had the honour of laying wreaths during the course of the ceremony.