This month I’m very pleased to be joined by Seb Neal, a History Teacher who’s led many guided school trips to the Western Front, A brave man indeed! So it’s over to you Seb with a fantastic feature on some of his experiences & why these trips are so important for young people. Trust me you’ll learn something new and he may just change your point of view for next time that you see that coach load of pesky kids show up!
A history teacher for longer than I care to remember, I was introduced to the battlefields by my first head of department from whom I learnt much about battlefield trips, not the least of which was the hazards of being the first off the coach to check the girls into the hostel, only to find the girls were expected to share a mixed dorm! I’ve been leading school battlefields trips to the Western Front and elsewhere since the 1990s, and have guided friends, family, colleagues, and adult groups. Pupils’ names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
School First World War Battlefield Trips: Switching on the Light
It was a scene that will be familiar to any teacher who has ever taken a school trip to the battlefields of the Western Front. After a brief talk at the Thiepval Memorial, I sent my students off to explore the panels for themselves, encouraging them to search for particular names, perhaps their own surname. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, they headed off, a few lads suspecting that rather than a fun school trip this was just a history lesson in disguise. Before long a small group of these sceptics rushed back, its leader breathlessly saying that he’d found a panel bearing line after line of his own surname among the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. I asked him if he had any connection with that part of the world. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘my dad comes from there.’ ‘Well, Brendan, some of those names may well be your relatives.’ That was it: Brendan’s lightbulb moment, when he realised that all this history that I’d been banging on about was his history.
This happened in the 1990s, when there was no CWGC website on which names could be looked up ahead of a trip; but, whilst the passing from an analogue to a digital age might have made such epiphanies rarer, they still happen, and they remain for me a prime reason for taking my school groups to the battlefields. Much about these trips has changed since I started going on them about thirty years ago, but what has emphatically not changed is their core purpose: to bridge the generations, to connect today’s young people with history – to catch the torch, as it were, and ‘pass it on’. Like all those for whom the battlefields are a second spiritual home, I have spent the past ten months dreaming of a return. Part coping mechanism, part solace, as a teacher there is also the constant inner drive to ‘pass it on’. Naturally, I was disappointed not to visit the battlefields myself last summer, but it was nothing to waking up on the first morning of the October half term and not having a school trip to go on. For the first time in seventeen years there was no getting up at silly o’clock, after a night of fitful sleep fearful that I would oversleep. No checking my mobile phone for last-minute messages. No triple checking that I’d remembered poppy wreaths, paperwork, passport. Instead, cold turkey for the school battlefield trip addict.
School trips always begin at an ungodly hour. The parental handover at the school gate is always the same. Foil-wrapped sandwiches are thrust into reluctant teenage hands, a parent pushes forward their reluctant offspring who tells you that she has been looking into her great-great uncle’s history and he is buried in a cemetery somewhere in France or Belgium that may or may not be close to where you are going. You say you will squeeze in a visit if possible but can’t promise and secretly curse that you were not told this months ago – when you asked. Still, as parents can contact their children (and you) by smart phone at any time during trips these days, you tell yourself that you should be grateful to have this much notice. You make further checks that there are the right numbers of pupils – and teachers – and then, after making sure that the driver(s) – on whom the success of the trip can depend – is within earshot, you warn the pupils for the umpteenth time that anyone found with chewing gum on the coach will suffer Field Punishment No.1. As the coach heads towards France, excitement builds – a little too quickly for seasoned colleagues who try to doze off, knowing that sleep is about to be rationed. Just as they do, the driver announces that a service-station stop looms. Teachers are ‘on’, reassuring pupils that they don’t need Euros to buy things as they’re still in the UK and subbing those who have ‘forgotten’ to bring pounds and pence. Returning to the coach, and without so much as a morsel of hot food making it across the threshold (which earns an approving nod from the driver), we’re all aboard once more and heading for the port. Going over the Dartford Crossing, the coach driver joshes with the pupils that we’re about to enter France, a joke which in the light of recent events might be too close to the bone. As border control officers check passports on the coach, teachers’ hearts beat ten to the dozen in case one of our charges departs from the script to make an inappropriate ‘joke’. After this, the Channel crossing is, in every sense, a breeze. No one is sea-sick and, even more importantly, no one gets anything illicit past the hard-as-nails teacher posted by the duty-free check-out.
Once on French soil, the mood changes. Maybe it’s tiredness, but I like to think instead it’s a deeper connection with those who went before. At any rate, the strange seriousness which becalms the group is probably entirely in keeping with the feelings of so many soldiers, nurses and the rest who arrived in France during the Great War. Such a transformation is encouraged by a cemetery visit. As day one’s timings are always changeable, dependent on everything from the weather to a ferry-loader’s whim, cemeteries make an ideal opener to a trip because no fixed arrival time is necessary and most of them don’t close. The only constraint is daylight, although, armed with torches as if on night patrol, we have visited in the dark before now. For me, choosing a cemetery or memorial to visit on day one comes down to answering three questions. Is there a former pupil there? Have any of the pupils on the trip visited before? Is there a story to tell? As hundreds of former pupils from my school fought in the Great War and nearly sixty didn’t return, I’m sadly spoilt for choice, and there is almost always somewhere to visit that even return trippers have not been to before. As for their stories, I have learnt more over the years. They are the gateways to unlocking a wider history and are always a principal focus for my school trips. Of course, we visit cemeteries and memorials with no known connection to the school. Yet when there is that connection it is especially poignant. It is a powerful thing to say to a pupil, ‘He once wore the school uniform you do’ and to show a photograph of the man wearing it when he was a boy, or that ‘He lived in your village. Have you seen his name on the local memorial?
As well as similarities, the differences between them and us can be an equally important way of understanding their lives and reflecting on our own. Their backgrounds were wide and various and, while there are the sons of architects and accountants, there are also those of stationmasters and railway engineers, drapers and decorators, brick manufacturers and coal merchants. Some had started out on similar paths before the war, others went ‘from classroom to battlefield’. They speak of a different age, as do those who had left Britain before the war to start their lives abroad. These men’s stories offer a way in to discussing the role of Empire forces. Pupils are often puzzled when we pause in Tyne Cot Cemetery at a grave bearing a New Zealand fern. Surely, this man cannot have gone to our school. But, of course, he did. By the time of his death his parents had moved to Burley in Yorkshire. So in a sense, as Alan Bennett might say, he didn’t come ‘From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth’; he came from Leeds. Remembrance is universal and, for comparison and contrast, most school itineraries also feature other nations’ cemeteries. Our itineraries are no different. Over the years we have visited, among others, French, Belgian, American (an old boy lies at Meuse-Argonne – another reminder of the adopted nationality of many soldiers) and, importantly, German cemeteries, Langemark being a particular favourite.
How different nations chose to commemorate their dead after the war tells us much about them just as today’s multi-national Ring of Remembrance, which lists names arranged purely alphabetically and without rank, nationality, gender, or religion, says much about our own time. Here too there have been several lightbulb moments as pupils find their surname and begin their own personal journeys into the past.
Important as remembrance is, it also essential to contextualise the circumstances in which men ended up as names on a memorial or a headstone. They are called battlefield trips for a reason. Narrowing the focus to a particular battle or action through the prism of an old boy or his unit helps pupils to understand the wider picture. Sometimes this can be done from the cemetery or memorial itself, for example at Tyne Cot, the New Zealand Memorial at Messines, or St Mary’s ADS or Dud Corner at Loos. But pupils, like us, usually want to walk the ground if they can and need opportunities to do so. Whilst increased footfall has put a stop to wandering freely at Newfoundland Park or Hill 60, such visits are still of enormous value for understanding the nature of conflict in the Great War. Where better than Sheffield Memorial Park to tell the moving story of the Pals’ Battalions, ‘two years in the making, ten minutes in the destroying’? Or to survey Mametz Wood from the natural amphitheatre behind the defiant Welsh dragon and mentally follow the advance of the 38th (Welsh) Division, among their number one former pupil whose life ended there?
Visits to battlefields and to trench systems such as Sanctuary Wood, Bayernwald or the Trenches of Death, or to mine craters such as Spanbroekmolen, Lochnagar and Hawthorn, or to tunnel systems such as those in Arras or at Vimy Ridge, help pupils visualise what they are learning about and, even more than that, they build lasting memories in pupils’ minds. Often, they want to return with their families. Museums, coming in many forms these days from the traditional ‘dioramas-and-detritus’ type to the bells-and-whistles virtual experience and everything in between, also contextualise what pupils see. Viewing the photographs on the what-the-butler-saw machines at Sanctuary Wood or the Otto Dix prints, Der Krieg, at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne, pupils are exposed to a grim, unsanitized version of the war on which school textbooks seldom dwell. This is also true of the medical treatment of the wounded. For the instruments used by medical teams, artificial limbs and photographs of pioneering cosmetic surgery, again the Historial is a good bet as is the Mémorial ‘14-18 Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.
Just as those caught up in the war often responded creatively to what they experienced, so too do pupils: sometimes writing prose or poetry, drawing or photographing, even film making. All this is welcome, as is pupil participation during the trips themselves so that trips are not simply done to them but things that they are part of. Reciting a poem at a graveside, laying a poppy cross or wreath, or participating in the Last Post ceremony all help to achieve this. And, like any school trips, battlefields trips provide those bonding and socialising opportunities that provide balance and relief – visits to the chocolate shop, for example, from which pupils (and teachers, let’s be honest) emerge with armfuls of pralines, games of pool and ‘chilling’ in the hostel. Everyone needs to unwind a little at the end of the day and, at the end of the trip, there is no better place for this than Toc H (Talbot House) in Poperinge (or Pops). For soldiers in the war a sanctuary from its horrors, today it performs a similar function for battlefield tourists and pilgrims. Seeing the pupils gathered around the piano, cups of tea in hand, taking it in turns to play and the bravest ones singing solo, is a great and most appropriate way to end a trip. As a fellow visitor said to me on our last visit: it’s exactly what it’s all about.
Many things make up a good school history trip, and I make no claim to always get things right. Clearly, I don’t. After speaking to one group at Bourlon Wood in France, I was asked by a pupil in which direction France is. With another group at Vimy Ridge, I was asked where the ridge is. And at the Brooding Soldier I’ve been asked why he’s brooding. (Sites associated with the Canadians seem to be jinxed for me.) Such facepalm moments stop me from taking myself too seriously and I resolve to do better next time. And really the point of this blog post is to express the hope that there is a next time, and as soon as possible. In such dark times as these, school trips to the battlefields are not a priority, I know. But, while there is no denying that there are more important things in life – if nothing else, the pandemic has reminded us of this – it has also, I believe, confirmed the truth of Danton’s dictum that ‘After bread, education is the first need of the people’. For now, then, though school battlefields trips are not possible, I will return to planning my next one, hoping that at some point during it another Brendan will experience his lightbulb moment.
Editors Notes: An incredible insight into school trips with its many challenges but with so much hope & inspiration for our future generations to continue to remember when us older buggers are gone. We certainly should all give more respect & admiration to not only the pupils we see on these trips but of all the hardworking teachers as well. The article was written before the government published it’s roadmap out of Covid restrictions so let’s hope we can all return soon! Many Thanks Seb and if you’d like to give Seb a follow on twitter he can be found @snealspace . Don’t forget any feedback is always welcome to hear whether you’ve enjoyed it or it share your own experiences