Two pupils and a member of staff from Victoria College were recently privileged to participate in a visit to the Battlefields of the Somme. The ‘Battlefields Project’ allowed a group of Year 10 pupils, from a number of schools in Northern Ireland, to go on a four day visit to some of the significant sites of the First World War in France and Belgium. It was a trip that will not easily be forgotten by both pupils and staff.
The first visit on 16 May was to Vimy Ridge, a memorial dedicated to the fallen members of the Canadian forces who served during the Great War. The capture of Vimy Ridge was a defining moment in the nation’s history and the powerful two-pylon memorial stands as a testimony to ‘the valour of their countrymen’. In the memorial park we were able to walk through the preserved trenches and view the surrounding land, permanently scarred with the marks of battle, but now characterised by a serenity that clearly contrasts with the time of conflict it witnessed in the past.
On 17 May a visit was made, firstly, to Loghnagar Crater, the largest crater ever made by man in anger. Its enormity cannot fail to leave a lasting impression on the minds of all who look into it. Following this visit we made our way to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. This massive monument was raised in honour of 72,246 unaccounted for soldiers who died during the Somme battles ‘to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death’. The scale and architecture of the memorial is impressive, with the name of each fallen hero inscribed carefully on the huge panels of Portland stone.
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.
On our final day, 19 May, we made an early stop at Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French Cemetery in the world and the burial ground for over 40,000 casualties. Particularly impressive was the ‘Ring of Remembrance’, an elliptical memorial bearing the names of nearly 600,000 soldiers who fell in the North of France during the war. A walk across a field of rusted artillery and muddy trenches completed the visit and our pilgrimage to the Battlefields of the Somme.
A special note of thanks must be made to our guide, Tom, from the Somme Association. He imparted to us a wealth of knowledge and in a clear and passionate way placed each site within its historical context. Both our Year 10 pupils, Beatrice Tinsley and Lauren Carville represented their school and country impeccably throughout the trip and found it to be extremely enlightening to their understanding of what took place during the course of the Great War. All who attended the trip felt privileged to have done so and the memories made will be etched on our minds for a very long time.
‘When you go home tell them of us and say, For their tomorrow, we gave our today’
‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13)