Thousands watched in silence as the pupils from secondary schools across the Midlands stepped forward to lay their poppy wreaths at Belgium’s Menin Gate. “We’re here to honour you all, lest we forget,” said the handwritten note on one wreath, a tribute from pupils at The Avon Valley School in Rugby.
The Last Post ceremony takes place at the Menin Gate in the city of Ypres at 8pm every evening, honouring the memory of the soldiers of the former British Empire who died in the Ypres Salient during the First World War.
The Midlands teenagers were there as part of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, which is funded by the government and run by the Institute of Education (IoE) and school tour operator Equity. The £5.3 million programme is designed to help teachers and pupils from every state-funded secondary school in England develop a deeper understanding of the First World War.
Over the next five years, two pupils and one teacher from 4,000 schools will get the chance to visit the battlefields on the Western Front where the 1914 to 1918 war was fought. Each tour is free and lasts four days, with students being encouraged to focus on a specific question each day – such as “how did the First World War affect ordinary people?” and “is remembrance more or less important 100 years on?”
Youngsters also research the lives of First World War soldiers from their own areas and are asked to think about the social, economic and political consequences of the war. They walk through trenches, cross No Man’s Land and handle wartime artefacts, from shrapnel to a small brass box sent by Princess Mary to every British soldier serving overseas on Christmas Day in 1914.
So far, 350 schools have taken part in the programme and last month I joined a group of 44 schools from the Midlands on their tour. The 90 pupils on the trip, mostly aged between 12 and 16, had applied for their places in a variety of ways – from writing essays and letters to designing posters and making videos.
Two enterprising year 8 girls from Hodge Hill Girls’ School in Birmingham, Tasleema Syeda and Sidrah Awan, had baked a trench cake, just like the cakes wrapped in brown paper parcels sent to loved ones fighting in the trenches.
The teachers were hugely enthusiastic about the programme, which is a key part of the government’s First World War centenary commemorations. Many were history teachers, keen to develop their teaching practice and gain new ideas, but the group also included assistant heads, English teachers, SEN specialists, a head of PE, and a school chaplain.
Craig Boardman, assistant head at Colmers School in Birmingham, said he felt “evangelical” about the programme and thought that more non-specialists should take part. “I feel very strongly that it shouldn’t just be history teachers,” he said. “Remembrance isn’t just the history – it’s the respect and the honour that we owe.”
All the teachers we spoke to agreed that visiting the landscape of Belgium and northern France made it easier for pupils to visualise the scale of the war and the millions of lives lost. “I can teach my students about the war in class and show them videos and photographs, but being here really brings it home to them,” said Susan Wood, head of history at Waseley Hills High School in Birmingham, who was accompanying Hannah Banks and Naomi Steadman, both 13, on the trip.
“On a day like today, when it’s cold and grey, it makes them think about what the life of a soldier was really like, when they were far away from home and in a strange land. The personal stories are the hook and then they can look at the wider impact of the war.”
Many of the teachers had linked the trip to their own schools and communities. Paul Hughes, head of design and technology at Queen Mary’s Grammar School in Walsall, had created plaques covered with black and white photographs of former pupils who died during the war.
At the Thiepval Memorial, on the old Somme battlefield, he and his pupils – year 10 Kodi Beveridge-Smith and year 11 Alex Blundell – laid a plaque in memory of 11 Queen Mary’s old boys who were killed in France in 1916 and 1917. The largest British war memorial in the world, Thiepval honours more than 73,000 missing British and South African men who died on the Somme and have no known grave.
“Looking at these photographs reminds us that these aren’t just names carved on to a piece of stone,” Kodi said. “These were real people.”
Alex continued: “In England you run the risk of being a bit detached from it because you’ve got the physical barrier of the Channel and you don’t see as many physical reminders of what happened as you do in Belgium and France.”
At Lijssenthoek Cemetery near Poperinge in Belgium, Molly Mabe, a year 11 pupil at The Marches School in Shropshire, and Tom Shelton, who is in year 10, laid a cross at the grave of a private whose house was a few minutes’ walk from their school.
Tom also talked about his great great grandfather, who survived a gas attack during the First World War. Later that day, as the group toured the Memorial Museum at Passchendaele, the teenager was able to smell some mustard gas for himself.
“I think there is a lack of appreciation among young people about what happened during the First World War,” said Helena Griffiths, Molly and Tom’s history teacher. “Not intentionally, but they don’t understand how lucky they are to have the freedom they have today. Bringing them here helps them to realise the impact the war had on people at the time – civilians as well as soldiers.”
Meanwhile, two year 9 students from King Edward VI Handsworth School in Birmingham had found the grave of Private John Benbow, who died in October 1916 at the age of 18. Sophia Badhan and Elizabeth Townend listened in silence as Jane Glendenning, the school’s head of English, read aloud the moving words of condolence written to Private Benbow’s mother by an army chaplain after his death.
“He seemed so young and so small to die, but he had the heart and courage of the bravest of men.”
At each battlefield, memorial, cemetery and museum, guides from the Guild of Battlefield Guides and serving soldiers were on hand to answer students’ questions – everything from the fact that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the cemeteries and memorials to the fact that the epitaph “Known unto God” on the graves of unknown soldiers was written by Rudyard Kipling, who lost his own son during the war.
“It’s so important that this age group visits the battlefields,” said Tony Smith, Guild secretary, who was accompanying one group. ”It’s part of our history, it’s part of our culture and it’s highly likely that their families were all affected in some way by this war. I hope that it will nurture an interest and that they will want to find out more about these men who buckled on their belts, picked up their packs, said goodbye and never came back.”
The most powerful moments of the tour came when the pupils and teachers visited cemeteries like Tyne Cot in Belgium, where nearly 12,000 First World War soldiers are buried (a memorial to the missing commemorates a further 35,000 whose bodies were never found).
Each grave is marked by a simple headstone made from white Portland stone and as the youngsters stood and read their inscriptions, Mr Smith told them: “Imagine a person standing by each and every one of them. What a multitude that would be.”
Later on, Simon Bendry, national education co-ordinator for the programme, gathered the group together in the autumn sunshine for a moment of quiet reflection. Then he read Laurence Binyon’s famous words from For the Fallen.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.”
The emphasis throughout each tour is on creating a lasting legacy. Organisers hope that teachers and their pupils will go back to school, talk about the places they have visited and perhaps launch commemorative projects of their own. The programme is having other benefits too – teachers are sharing ideas, collaborating and setting up networks to work together.
“It has been a brilliant trip,” said Sophie Bartlett, a year 7 teacher at Oscott Manor School, a secondary special school for pupils with autism in Birmingham. “It has shown us as professionals that we perhaps shelter them a bit too much.”
On the coach home teachers were already planning events arising from the trip – including assemblies, talks to local primary schools, videos and blogs. Helena Griffiths was busy working on a whole-school event to mark Remembrance Day on November 11, complete with actors dressed up as First World War characters, cooking from rations, creating poppies (which will be waterproofed, made into wreaths and laid at the town memorial and in front of the school), and writing fiction inspired by the Great War.
Meanwhile, Tasleema and Sidrah from Hodge Hill Girls’ School had started writing a blog for their school website: “After experiencing the battlefields tour we think that we should remember the First World War for many reasons,” they wrote.
“Sites such as Tyne Cot and Neuve Chapelle helped us to understand that the First World War was a global war affecting many countries and millions of lives. Soldiers from the Commonwealth ... all joined to fight in the European political power struggles of 1914. The people that fought were not only from major cities but from our local area and the outcome of the war went on to structure our society.
“Millions of people were affected by this global event that went on to have an enormous impact for years to come. They sacrificed their tomorrow for our today.”
Not surprisingly, the IoE is delighted by the impact that the programme is having on teachers and students.
“We are very proud of it,” programme director Jerome Freeman told SecEd. “Teachers are telling us that they have the time and the space not just to work with the pupils but to learn themselves too. We have seen the pupils grow in confidence and a lot of them are using this as their starting point and going back to their schools and saying ‘this is what I have seen and this is why it is important’.”
Mr Bendry, a former history teacher who first visited the battlefields as a teenager himself, added: “If we are inspiring one teacher in every secondary school to develop a centenary project and dive that little bit deeper that is great. So many teachers have said ‘I thought I knew about the First World War, but I’ve learned so much that’s going to change the way I do things in the classroom’. And that’s where the true legacy is.”
Further informationTo register your school for the Battlefield Tours Programme, visit www.centenarybattlefieldtours.org
Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.
CAPTIONS: (From top) Alice Waterfield from Myton School and Sophie Crane from Avon Valley School at the Menin Gate; Alex Blundell and Kodi Beveridge-Smith from Queen Marys Grammar School at the Thiepval Memorial in France; Thomas Shelton and Molly Mabe from The Marches School at the Lijssenthoek Cemetery in Belgium; students inside a trench at Memorial Museum Passchendaele in Belgium; Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium (Photography: Caron Porritt, Equity)