On 9th October 58 excited students departed Holsworthy Community College, to travel to France and Belgium for the annual Battlefields’ trip. The first visit was Vimy Ridge, a Canadian memorial and preserved battlefield site. At this site there is an interesting visitors’ centre. Our guide took us down into the original tunnels used in the battle, which have been preserved. It was hard to imagine how cramped it must have been with the thousands of soldiers down there, for up to 36 hours at a time, with very little light and heat. We also visited the preserved trenches, which are one of the closest to each other in the war, only feet apart. We then walked up to the huge Vimy Ridge Memorial. We were overwhelmed with the size of it and the sheer scale of the number of missing men who gave their lives in that battle. The Memorial symbolised justice, hope, peace and mourning, and was very powerful and moving. Later we visited Albert Cathedral with the famous statue of the golden Madonna. The statue has been hanging off the edge of the Cathedral since it was shelled early on in the war.
The next day, we travelled to the Somme Battlefield, in particular the site where the Devonshire Regiment fought on 1st July 1916. By their cemetery, there is a stone with the epitaph “The Devonshires held this trench, The Devonshires hold it still.” The cemetery was the most personal to us as some of the men who lay there were from Holsworthy and never returned home. Also, all of the graves have the same date, July 1st 1916, which is the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. Three of our students, Ryan, Livvy and Rebecca, read out the moving poem ‘Before Action’ by the grave of William Noel Hodgson, an officer of the Devonshires who died on that day. It was very special for us to honour his memory and sacrifice. We also visited Newfoundland Park, a preserved Canadian battlefield site that also records what happened on July 1st, 1916, this time to the Newfoundland Regiment. This regiment had the second largest casualty rate in the battle, losing around ¾ of its strength on the first day of the battle. It was referred to as “The blackest day of the British Army”. A caribou sculpture, which is the regimental logo, stands mourning the men that had died on the battlefield, 100 years ago.
We also paid our respects at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, which is the largest Commonwealth War Memorial in the world. There are 72,000 names carved into the white, Portland stone. It was quite emotional to think that so many men had given their lives for their country. Jessica Cawsey read her war poem here, which was incredibly moving and really showed the sacrifice men made when they signed up to go to war.
On Thursday, we visited Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery in the world. Here many of us laid our poems on a family member’s grave or chose a soldier to honour. This was a very memorable moment for some. The overwhelming number of graves and missing men really got to some of the students; it was very thought provoking and emotional. The other cemeteries were also just as moving, but Tyne Cot was especially poignant due to the sheer size of it. There were so many missing soldiers “Known unto God” where their bodies were sadly unidentifiable after their death. It was overwhelming how many there actually were. We left the cemetery feeling very grateful for the lives that were given for us today.
A special visit was made to Hooge Crater Cemetery where Livvy Hillsdon Rogers made a moving and special pilgrimage to two of her relatives and laid her poem at the site. The next stop was Essex Farm Dressing Station, where there was a hospital for wounded soldiers; many died there of their horrific injuries. This was also where John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” and it was also the site of the first gas attack in history. The final part of the day saw Holsworthy College take part in the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. Jessie Cawsey, Chris Farmer and Mr Baldwin were given the honour of laying a wreath during this moving ceremony.
Overall, it was an incredibly moving trip where we learnt and experienced a huge amount, paid our respects to our fallen soldiers and had a memorable time. It was very emotional and thought-provoking and we are all incredibly grateful for the lives that were given by our brave soldiers.
Ryan Walters, Rebecca Woolsey, Livvy Hillsdon-Rogers