Last week History students from Reigate School in Surrey headed across the Channel to bring the history of Ypres and the Somme to life. With the centenary of the Battle of the Somme being commemorated this year, the trip would prove all the more poignant.
Historian and author Richard Broadhead who accompanied the group as their History Tour Guide, has jotted down his account of the trip.
Day 1 – Lives left behind
After an early start, we arrived in France to dull grey weather. Thankfully this didn’t dampen students’ spirits and we travelled to Newfoundland Park on the Somme watching the film Private Peaceful en route.
Newfoundland Park tells the story of the men of Newfoundland, the lives they left behind and the communities that lost them. Although the park was quite busy we managed to visit the 29th Div. memorial and then onto the Newfoundland Memorial which we were lucky enough to have all to ourselves. Here the group learnt about two of the men on the memorial who were killed on July 1st 1916. We visited the cemeteries within the park, Y Ravine, the 51st Highland Division Memorial and the danger tree. The group were also lucky enough to spot a rare red squirrel.
As we travelled across the Some Battlefield from Bapaume we saw Warlencourt Cemetery and the Butte de Warlencourt. We stopped at the Windmill at Pozieres and viewed the Tank memorial, then travelled past Thiepval – the former German strongpoint, which is now the site of the memorial to missing – and the Ulster Tower, which is the national war memorial for Northern Ireland.
We left Newfoundland Park and visited the sunken lane which was where the other end of the 29th Div. attacked and were told about the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers and the 16th Middlesex Regiment and watched a clip from the Film the Somme showing the men in the Sunken Lane, the explosion at Hawthorn Redoubt and the attack while facing the actual place where the action took place.
If I were to identify the best moment of our tour it would be…
“…seeing the students open up and begin to ask questions of the guide – this showed that they were feeling confident comfortable, engaged and interested.”
Mrs Lorna Singleton, History Teacher
After this we travelled to Lochnagar Crater (the largest crater ever made by man) and with the aid of maps were shown where the British front line was and where the tunnel had been dug and the methods of mining and for attacking craters. Steeped in historical significance, this was the perfect opportunity for quiet reflection.
We travelled on to Mametz Wood and the Welsh Memorial which we were lucky to have to ourselves and heard the stories of the 38th Welsh Division who attacked the Wood on the 7th July 1916 and of a German Soldier found by archaeologists in 2016.
Travelling on we went to the Devonshire Cemetery again luckily to have the whole cemetery to ourselves and heard the stories of Duncan Martin and William Noel Hodgeson and the men of the 9th Devons. One of the Students read William Noel Hodgeaon’s, Before Action poem, which was very moving.
After leaving the Devonshires Cemetery we took a detour to Hem Moncau near the River Somme to visit and Commemorate Gunner, Henry Webb, who was a relative of one of the students.
Back on track we travelled to through Montauban to Longueval and Delville Wood. We made our way into the wood and commemorated Walter George Challis, another relative of a student. Although he is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial he was reported missing in the left side of the wood.
We then went to Delville Wood Cemetery where the students did an excellent job of locating Reigate School History Teacher, Mrs Singleton’s, relative George Chamberlain among the 5,000 Graves.
I had managed to find a news article and picture of George and Mrs Singleton read out his story. The rain was by now getting quite heavy and we retreated to Poppies at Albert followed by our evening meal.
Day 2 – Stories of fallen soldiers
Our first stop was Thiepval Memorial to the missing where all the students and teachers were given an A4 card with a picture of a missing man and on the reverse his story. The students then found the missing men on the memorial, many of whom were from Redhill, Reigate and Surrey and we came together where the students and teachers told the stories of their fallen soldier. Mrs Ruth’s card was that of David Westcott Brown and she read “Two Voices” one of his poems.
We then left the Somme travelling to Arras and Wellington Quarry and a trip to the Tunnels which had been inhabited by 25,000 troops during the Great War.
The next stop was Vimy Ridge – home to a Canadian memorial with tunnels, trenches and cemeteries. The mist had closed in as we walked down through the wood making the visit to the first German and British lines all the more eerie. All the students enjoyed walking through the reconstructed trenches and then on to the visitor Centre before returning to the coach.
A detour was then made to the Canadian Cemetery No2 Neuville St. Vaast where we commemorated twenty year old Charles Milligan who was shot and drawn and Mrs Ruth’s relative, Patrick Joseph Ruth. On to Vimy Memorial still shrouded in mist, however as we walked to the memorial the mist cleared.
At the memorial the students divided into two groups and searched for William Aling and Herbert Bookham. When they had been found I gave them 2 A4 cards with their stories and a copy of their attestation records. The surprise was both of these men appear on Reigate War Memorial.
We left the memorial and travelled to Belgium soon after crossing the border stopping at Ploegsteert Memoial to the missing where the group were informed about the Ypres Salient, Messine Ridge and the Battle of Messine. Then on to Ypres and Poppies 2 Hotel after dinner at the Sword Restaurant.
After our meal we went to the Menin Gate for the evening Ceremony, where Reigate were the only school laying a wreath that evening.
Day 3 – Much to experience before returning home!
We started the day with a visit to Essex Farm where the group learnt about Joe Strudwick and his comrades who lie next to him and John Macrae. One of the Students read out his poem “In Flanders Fields” and finally visiting the memorial to the 49th West Riding Division.
We stopped off at the new Welsh National Memorial Park to see the memorial and Mrs Singleton informed us of Ellis Humphrey Evans (“Hedd Wyn”).
Then onto Langemark German Cemetery, which is just one of four First World War German cemeteries in the Flanders region, containing the bodies of 44,000 soldiers. Here we compared the German Remembrance with the British and Commonwealth.
Next on to the Passchendaele memorial museum to experience the mud and blood of the trenches as well as learning about uniforms, mining, bunkers, artillery, trenches and remembrance.
Finally on to Tyne Cot Memorial, the largest Commonwealth cemetery on the Western Front, where the group learnt about the Cemetery and commemorated another of Mrs Ruth’s relatives and a soldier from Reigate.
After a fulfilling whistle stop tour of Ypres and the Somme, we then returned to the Eurotunnel for our onward journey home.