On Friday 9th February, a coach filled with budding historians set off from school just after 6:30am to begin our exploration of the First World War via a visit to the Battlefields of Belgium. A short coach journey later and we were checking in to the ferry terminal at Dover, with many of us endeavouring to discover our sea-legs, some more successfully than others.

Upon our arrival in Calais, we were back on the coach and heading straight to the Passchendaele Memorial Museum. This mock-chateau style building was a recreation of the original stately home that had previously occupied the site, but, as we were to discover, with some rather brilliant additions. Within the museum we got to see an array of artefacts and displays relating to all nations involved in the conflict before descending to a recreation of an underground dugout system. Students very much enjoyed exploring this subterranean environment and witnessing how life in reserve trenches could be. After which we were able to explore a trench system and see the contrasting shelters, innovations and technologies that made these muddy fortifications a little more practical. On our drive to the hostel we were also able to visit Essex Farm cemetery, the resting place of the war poet and army surgeon John McCrae, and location of some preserved forward dressing station bunkers, where casualties would have been triaged.

Our second day saw us heading to the In Flanders Field Museum in central Ypres, exploring the exhibits and following the stories of various individuals throughout the conflict. A range of artefacts and audio-visual displays really helped to support the understanding of the events. After a brief pause for lunch and a little local market exploration we headed briefly to St George’s chapel, looking at this Anglican church in the centre of a Belgium town. The chapel is decorated in the assorted regalia and standards of regiments associated with the conflict and this gave an opportunity for a moment of quiet solemnity.

Following from this we met our guides, who via our coach took us to the Yorkshire Trench, a preserved trench system that was uncovered by a group of enthusiasts in the 1990s and has since been a site of research (however the dugouts below the trench system is preserved through flooding, and thus cannot be explored). After this we moved on to Langemark, one of only four major burial sites for German soldiers containing 44,000 graves. This experience and veneration was certainly distinct from Commonwealth War Graves, indeed the central point being a mass grave of 20,000 soldiers, but students listened intently to our guides’ explanations. A final stop was made to Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest British site of the First World War. For a somewhat sombre afternoon, students really reflected on their surroundings.

Late afternoon and evening were filled with visits to a local chocolate shop (who did some very good business out of Quest) a hefty dinner of roast chicken and chips and evening of entertainment in the games room at our excellent hostel.

Final day, we packed up, loaded the coach and were then able to explore a bit more of historic Ypres. Students were able to look at the Menin Gate (named after the area next to the Ypres salient, where many lives were lost to ‘straighten the line’), the memorial to the Indian soldiers of the First World War, and the historic fortifications and moat surrounding the town. After this we jumped on the coach ready to head to the beach and Dunkirk.

In no way just looking for an opportunity for an hour or so at a sandy beach, and entirely due to the deep historical significance of Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of British and French soldiers in 1940, during the Second World War, we arrived in Dunkirk with curiosity in the air. As we ventured deeper into the town, we encountered an array of vividly dressed individuals, in neon clothing, costumes and umbrellas. We had unwittingly come to Dunkirk on the main day of its carnival celebration which date back to the early 17th century. Fisherman would go away for many months to fish for cod near Newfoundland and their departure was an opportunity for a meal and a big party, a tradition that has continued to this day, albeit in a far quirkier fashion.

After our pit stop and lunch on the beach, we had a chance for a bit of duty-free shopping (duty free LEGO a surprisingly popular choice!) before the ferry and drive back to school. A good time was had by all, students were a credit to the school and we very much look forward to a similar trip in the coming years and the opportunities of another trip soon too!

Mr Boundy