In March 2018, two pupils and a teacher from Glenwood School joined representatives from several other schools from S-E England on a four-day tour of WW1’s Western Front. We were one of approximately 4000 secondary schools to have participated in this programme over four years to help young people more fully understand the scale of WW1 along the Western Front, raise awareness of The Great War and how it should be remembered 100 years on. In addition, each day we had a focus question.
Sunday 4th March
The coach arrived at Glenwood School, the pick-up point for Portsmouth and Havant schools, at 8am to collect the first group of pupils and teachers before travelling to Ashford, Kent via other pick-up points, arriving at Kingswood Activity Centre where we were shown to our rooms, met the rest of the group and had some team building activities.
Later, we learnt about what we would be doing during the tour and then looked at weaponry and artefacts from WW1. What started as a war with basic weapons, including horses and cavalry charges with swords, became a war of attrition and mass slaughter as it developed into the world’s first mechanised war with machine guns, tanks, planes and battleships.
On the Western Front, barbed wire and machine guns helped ensure that advances were measured in yards rather than miles and always at huge cost in lives on both sides often with the same piece of land being fought over several times. To illustrate that the front line did not move significantly during WW1, the first British soldier to be killed, John Parr (died 21st August 1914), and the last British soldier to be killed, George Edwin Ellison (died 11th November 1918) are buried in the same cemetery near Mons on the France / Belgium border; after four years of fighting and hundreds of thousands of deaths on the Western Front, neither side had made significant gains, ending the war virtually in the same place they had started.
Hell is not fire…Hell is mud
Le Bochofage, a French newspaper, wrote in March 1916 that “Hell is not fire … Hell is mud.”
The shelling completely destroyed the drainage system in Flanders, a very flat area, so the water eventually turned the whole battlefield into a filthy, rat-infested swamp. In addition, in 1917 Ypres had the wettest autumn for 75 years, and the Battle of Passchendaele (31st July – 10th November 1917) is remembered for the mud with thousands of soldiers and horses drowning in water filled craters.
Soon after the start of the war, trenches began to appear as the only way to protect the soldiers from shelling and machine guns; in total, some 25,000 miles of trenches were dug along the Western Front, enough to circle our planet. Separating the warring sides was barbed wire, originally invented in the USA for herding cattle but here used as a weapon of war. In total some 3,000,000 miles of barbed wire was used, the distance to the Moon and back six times.
During the visit, we could see that from the point of view of the Germans, they thought the Western Front to be their new border so they prepared excellent, almost permanent, defences often on higher, usually drier ground which was easier to defend, as they thought they would need to defend their new ‘border’ for many years. However, the British strategy was about attacking and pushing the Germans back to Germany and so their trenches were more temporary and less well made. Because the Germans arrived first, they had picked the best land so the British were left to dig their trenches in the lower, poorly drained, wetter, muddier, harder to defend areas and as the war dragged on, mud became as much the enemy as the Germans.
We also learnt to use the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website to locate fallen soldiers from Emsworth. We located Second Lieutenant R.G.W. Gillham who lived in Southleigh Road, Emsworth and he has an inscription on a wall, along with 44,000 other names of those with no known grave, at Tyne Cot, near Passchendaele.
Monday 5th March:
FOCUS QUESTION: How did the First World war affect ordinary people?
An early start saw us heading through the Channel Tunnel and to Lijssenthoek Cemetery where we learnt about this huge, 4000 bed field hospital. It took approximately one day for a soldier wounded in the trenches to get to the hospital which was located here due to the vicinity of the railway line. We learnt from a RAF helicopter pilot about the ‘Golden Hour’ in modern warfare; the time taken to get a casualty from the battlefield to hospital to improve the chance of survival. Unusually for a war cemetery, almost every grave has a name as most soldiers who came here had some identification so if they died, the grave could be marked.
Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery contains 10,785 graves of which just 35 are unnamed.
We learnt about Fabian Ware, a foresighted British officer who saw the need to ensure the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of service personnel was suitably recorded and, if possible, the bodies identified and buried with their fallen comrades. This monumental task led to the creation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which now has responsibility for remembering 1.7 million men and women who have died in the service of Britain and the Commonwealth in 23,000 locations in 150 countries around the world.
Fabian Ware, whose work helped ensure that the soldiers who gave their lives would never be forgotten. (© Commonwealth War Graves Commission)
Prior to WW1 British soldiers killed abroad e.g. at the Battle of Waterloo were usually buried in mass graves or cremated on huge fires, mainly to stop the spread of disease, and then often forgotten. Those that were buried in a proper grave were frequently dug up by locals once the British army had left, to rob the graves and remove all traces of ‘the enemy’. During WW1, Fabian Ware and his small team working in dreadful conditions, removing bodies and parts of bodies from battlefields, sometimes under fire, changed the way the British people and the Government remembered the fallen.
Proswe Point cemetery is the only cemetery to be named after a soldier, Major Charles Prowse, who was killed on the first day of the Battle of The Somme. There are four CWGC cemeteries in this small area of just a few fields where hundreds of soldiers on both sides died. Listen to the birds singing and contrast this to the terrible conditions 100 years ago.
Planning for cemeteries was well advanced by the end of the war with staff from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew visiting the Western Front to decide on suitable plants which would grow in the soil and climate but also, where possible represent the nations where the dead soldiers came from. For example, at Tyne Cot, thousands of English roses have been planted so wherever the sun shines, the shadow of an English rose will fall across every English soldiers’ grave.
An aspect of the war cemeteries of both sides is that they survived largely intact during the horrors of WW2. Whilst there are few German cemeteries, there are dozens of CWGC cemeteries in this area The German High Command issued a directive to its troops ordering them not to damage British cemeteries so apart from some relatively minor damage to The Menin Gate from rifle fire and shell damage and damage to some other cemeteries, the fighting of WW2 largely by-passed them.
Click here to find out more about Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website
We then moved onto Passchendaele Memorial Museum.
In the evening we went to the Menin Gate inscribed with the names of 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave. This memorial was built after the war ended, marking the road to the front line through which most of the soldiers destined for the trenches near Ieper (Ypres) passed. Every night at 8pm the local fire brigade play the Last Post in memory of the fallen. Ieper was of major importance in the war and five major battles were fought nearby, including Passchendaele.
Afterwards we went to a shop selling Belgium chocolate!
Click here to find out more about The Menin Gate at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website
The inscription above The Menin Gate reads
“AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIUM – HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN THE YPRES SALIENT, BUT TO WHOM THE FORTUNE OF WAR DENIED THE KNOWN AND HONOURED BURIAL GIVEN TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH.”
The Latin phrase means ‘To the greater glory of God’.
Returning to our focus question: How did the war affect ordinary people?, it appears to be highly likely that no community in the British Isles was left untouched by the war. In 1914, Emsworth was a small town with a population of approximately 2,500. Assuming the average family size at this time was between 5-6 i.e. two parents and 3-4 children* then this equates to approximately 450 families living in Emsworth, several of whom would be closely related and given 135 residents of Emsworth were killed in the fighting during WW1, then approximately one third of the families lost a family member. In addition, given how close knit communities were 100 years ago, most families, if not every family would have been affected many times by the loss of a family member be it a son, father, uncle, cousin or nephew or the loss of neighbours, friends or work colleagues during the duration of the war.
There are over 77,000 war memorials in the United Kingdom (Imperial War Museum’s register of war memorials) and they are now an established feature of our villages, towns and cities.
*A Century of Change in Trends in UK Statistics since 1900, House of Commons Research Paper, 1999
Tuesday 6th March:
FOCUS QUESTION: Was the Battle of The Somme in 1916 really a disaster for the British Army?
Today we travelled to France to learn about the Battle of The Somme, the first day of which was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army with 57,940 casualties including 19,240 killed, most of whom died in the first hour. The British Army did not want to have the battle so early but due to the high probability of the destruction of the French Army at Verdun, it was decided that the Battle of The Somme was brought forward to draw German troops away from Verdun and in doing so, helped save what was left of the French Army in that area and ensure that France did not fall.
Our first stop was Beaumont-Hamel, a preserved battlefield where we learnt about the tactics used by the British and Commonwealth armies. Following a two-week barrage of millions of shells on the German lines, the British and Commonwealth commanders mistakenly believed the German defenses had been destroyed. However, by the time of the Battle of The Somme in 1916 the German Army had already occupied this land for two years; plenty of time to know how best to defend it and also build extremely effective concrete machine gun posts and concrete bunkers, many up to 15 metres underground, which were largely untouched by the shelling. In addition, the shelling did not cut the barbed wire, but possibly worse, made it even more tangled. The British commanders did not know they were sending their troops to almost certain death and because of poor communication and limited intelligence from the battlefield they were unable to adapt their battleplan and so wave after wave of soldiers were sent to their deaths.
Click here to find out more about Beaumont-Hamel Cemetery at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website.
We also visited Sunken Lane, made famous by a news reporter, Geoffery Mallins, who photographed the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers preparing to ‘go over the top’. Here we walked in their footsteps and saw how quickly they were killed by German machine guns about 1000m away. The bombardment of the German lines stopped at 07:20. The Germans knew then that an attack was likely, came out of their deeply buried concrete bunkers and set up their machine guns so when, at 07:30 the order for the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers to attack was given, the machine gunners opened fire killing most of the British soldiers in seconds. The Lancashire Fusiliers are buried in this field.
We then moved onto Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, one of dozens of WW1 cemeteries in this area of France. Here we studied the headstones to help understand how a battle was able to continue, initially using troops from different parts of Britain followed by troops from different parts of the Commonwealth. It was from here that a New Zealand solider was exhumed and laid to rest in Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, at the National War Memorial, Wellington, New Zealand.
Click here to find out more about Caterpillar Valley cemetery from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website
Our visit to The Battle of The Somme concluded with a visit to the huge Thiepval Memorial, built on a site which saw particularly fierce fighting and has inscribed the names of 72,194 soldiers of British and South African forces who have no known grave.
Click here to find out more about the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of The Somme at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website
In the evening we learnt about equipment, rations and clothing worn by troops during WW1 and today’s troops. The long coat worn by British soldiers was quite impractical for wet weather as it soaked up the water and became very heavy to wear.
We also talked about our focus question: Was the Battle of The Somme in 1916 really a disaster for the British Army? There were different opinions about the Battle of The Somme, particularly the first day. We need to remember that the Battle of The Somme was never meant to start when it did; the attack was brought forward to assist the French Army which was under incredible pressure at Verdun and if Verdun fell then there was a danger that France would fall as well.
By starting the Battle of The Somme early, German forces had to leave Verdun and move to The Somme and so the French Army was then better able to defend the city and possibly save France. Also, the commanders of the British and Commonwealth troops did not really know what they were up against as this was a battle on a scale that up until then was beyond the experience of the commanders and, with limited information from the battlefield they were unable to adapt their battle plan to cope with changing circumstances. The commanders learnt important lessons from the Battle of The Somme that eventually helped defeat the Germans.
Wednesday 6th March:
FOCUS QUESTION: Is remembrance more or less important 100 years on?
The first part of the day was spent at the Coming World Remember Me workshop. The workshop is part of a commemoration art programme similar to the Tower of London Poppies project. Every pupil from the four thousand schools from England that have taken part in these visits created a pottery figure which will form part of a memorial to the 600,000 killed in Flanders in WW1.
We then moved onto Langemark Cemetery, a WW1 German cemetery. There is a total of 44,294 bodies buried here, about half of which are unidentified.
Our final visit was to the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world, Tyne Cot, also called the Silent City due to the huge numbers commemorated here, with 11,954 graves of which about 7,000 are unknown and simply say ‘ A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God’. In addition, there are over 34,000 names on the Memorial to the Missing carved onto a stone panel 150 metres in length. The stone panel has the following inscription:
1914 – HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE ARMIES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE WHO FELL IN YPRES SALIENT, BUT TO WHOM THE FORTUNE OF WAR DENIED THE KNOWN AND HONOURED BURIAL GIVEN TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH – 1918
Once this area was captured the largest blockhouse / pillbox became a field dressing station and when injured soldiers died they were buried here. After the war ended, soldiers buried in the surrounding area were exhumed and reburied here, eventually making this the CWGC’s largest cemetery in the world. The cemetery includes several more blockhouses which are still in remarkably good condition, an indication of just how well constructed were the Germans defences and the huge sacrifice necessary to capture them.
The Great Cross of Sacrifice was built over a German blockhouse after a suggestion by King George V during a visit in 1922. We located Second Lieutenant R.G.W. Gillham’s inscription at Tyne Cot. Previously, he lived in Southleigh Road, Emsworth. His name is also on the War Memorial in Emsworth.
Every one of the 4000 schools of this programme has been able to find the name of a local soldier killed during WW1 at Tyne Cot, showing that no part of the country was untouched by the war.
Click here to find out more about Tyne Cot Memorial from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website
Click here to find out more about Tyne Cot Cemetery from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website
Before we left for our coaches and the return to the UK, Bob read the following:
There is something sacred about a battlefield. Often it is a place where history has changed course, like the point on a long march, where the compass needle is consulted and a new bearing set. But greater than historical significance is the human element. It is the place where men have died – for it has been mostly men – en masse and in the prime of their youth and strength.
Soldiers don’t fight for history, rarely for country and certainly not for governments. they fight because their regiment places them in harm’s way and their regiment is family. They fight for their mates. In the last stand, they fight for their lives. It is the individual stories of courage that touch us and sanctify the spot.
A battlefield is sacred because it is the point in time and space where soldiers confronted the most intimate of demons and angels. It is the place where, however frightened, they mustered all that they were and faced death.
Major Nigel Price (Falklands veteran)
7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles
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.
(Laurence Binyon, September 1914)
The Unknown Warrior “They buried him among the Kings”
At the end of the war many families wanted their dead relatives returned to Britain but only the very wealthy could afford to do this. The Government believed that all the fallen should be treated the same regardless of rank or family wealth and buried near where they fell alongside their comrades. It would also be almost impossible to return all the bodies as there would be thousands of dead soldiers returning for many years, requiring special ships and trains, with local cemeteries likely to run out of space as well as being bad for morale in post-war Britain with, what would seem to be, a never ending number of funerals.
However, this did not help the families as they had no grave in their local cemetery to visit, assuming the body had been found and identified. The question was, how could people mourn their loss? The Reverend David Railton had the idea of one UNKNOWN soldier representing ALL the dead when he saw a simple wooden cross on a battlefield saying “An Unknown British Soldier”.
To choose an UNKNOWN British soldier, teams of soldiers, who did not know why they were were doing this very unpleasant task, were sent to the major battlefields to exhume (dig up) the remains of four unknown British soldiers. The battlefields chosen were the Somme, Ypres (includes Passchendaele), Arras and the Aisne. The bones of these soldiers were placed in sacks and taken to a French church. This was all done in the strictest secrecy and no paper records were kept.
Once in the church, the sacks were laid on separate tables. A British officer, Brigadier-General Wyatt, who was blindfolded, placed his hand on one of the sacks; this soldier was to be the Unknown Warrior. The remaining three sets of bones were taken away and buried nearby.
The bones of the selected soldier were placed in a coffin made from an oak tree from Hampton Court Palace. The coffin was then taken to a railway carriage, known as the Edith Cavell* van, and guarded by French soldiers. A Union Flag covered the coffin. On the coffin were the words;
A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country.
*Edith Cavell was a British nurse executed by the Germans in 1915 for helping injured British soldiers escape from the German-occupied parts of Belgium. As a nurse, she treated not just wounded British and French soldiers, but also wounded German soldiers. The carriage that brought her body back to Britain was named the Edith Cavell van.
The train carrying the Unknown Warrior travelled through Northern France to the French port of Boulogne where it went on a horse drawn carriage accompanied by thousands of French people, a band of the French cavarly and a division of French soldiers to the British warship HMS Verdun. Crossing the English Channel, HMS Verdun was accompanied by six destroyers to Dover. The coffin then went by train to to London. Throughout the journey, both in France and Britain, the stations and docks were lined by many thousands of people paying their respects.
The grave is filled with 100 barrels of soil from the Western Front and the black marble tablet came from Belgium.
Because there was no record of where this soldier was found or any other identifying feature, for those families for whom there is no grave on the Western Front, there is the possibility that the Unknown Warrior may be their father, husband or son.
In 1921, the Unknown Warrior was given the United States of America’s highest military medal, the Medal of Honour.
As is customary, in Royal weddings, the bridal bouquet is placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, buried in Westminster Abbey among Kings and Queens, is one of the most famous tombs in the world.
Beneath this stone rests the body
Apart from a whole-school assembly and a photographic display of the trip, our project was to visit the War Memorial in Emsworth, which listed those who have died in the service of our country from WW1 to the present day to find out the addresses of where the WW1 soldiers once lived and write to the present occupants to say that a fallen soldier of WW1 once lived at their address.
To see a complete list of all those who have sacrificed their lives and are remembered on the Emsworth War Memorial’s ‘ Roll of Honour’, please click the link below.