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 consider how it should be remembered 100 years on. 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.
To illustrate the change in tactics, ideas and equipment, the war in 1914 was similar to how the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, also in Belgium, was fought. By the end of the war in 1918, particularly the final 100 days developments such as machine guns, tanks, planes – the RAF was created during WW1, flamethrowers, gas, aerial reconnaissance, the creeping barrage, buried listening equipment to accurately identify where German artillery was coming from so it could be destroyed and detailed planning all helped to finally defeat the Germans and much more quickly than thought possible, setting the scene for warfare in the 20th century.
The British in 1918 did not have a word for this rapid, successful, overwhelming method of fighting seen in the final 100 days. However, 21 years later in 1939, the Germans having learnt from their defeat in WW1, particularly during the final 100 days, used the highly effective Blitzkrieg (lightning war) to race through Europe in World War 2. General Heinz Guderian, who developed Blitzkrieg, said his ideas were based on the Allied attack on Amiens, France and the final 100 days.
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 passed them by.
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, it is reasonable to assume that most families would have been affected several 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.
Emsworth was to some extent unusual in that approximately 45% of those who went to war were killed, whereas the national average was 15% of those who left their town or village never returned. This was because many of those from Emsworth fought at sea, such as the Battle of Jutland, where there were usually few if any survivors if a Royal Navy warship was sunk.
*A Century of Change in Trends in UK Statistics since 1900, House of Commons Research Paper, 1999
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.
Apart from the traditional type of memorial such as the memorial at Chilham Church, above, there are many reminders of WW1 around the country, some quite unusual. One example is an original WW1 tank given to the town of Ashford, Kent at the end of the War.
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 Battle of the Somme lasted 141 days and was fought over across just 18 miles of countryside.
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.
|Behind the cafe is a WW1 trench which we explored.|
In one area of the battlefield, a German soldier described the initial attack. His description shows just how much the British commanders underestimated the quality of the German defences and the ineffectiveness of days of bombardment and the tactics chosen.
When the English started advancing, we were very worried; they looked as though they must overrun our trenches. We were very surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before. I could see them everywhere; there were hundreds. The officers were in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down int their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. If only they had run they would have defeated us. (Musketier Karl Blenker, German soldier).
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.
To win the War, the Allies had to destroy a bigger, stronger defensive line. On the France / Belgium border was the 400 mile Hindenburg Line, built by the Germans to mark the new border of a greater Germany and the last line of defense, making it the strongest defensive, supposedly impregnable (impossible to capture), line in the world and in order to win the war quickly, the Hindenburg Line had to be destroyed.
The commanders learnt important lessons from the Battle of The Somme that eventually helped the Allies destroy the Hindenburg Line and finally 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
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
(John McCrae, May 1915)
John McCrae wrote this poem after burying one of his friends during the Second Battle of Ypres but then threw it away. Had it not been picked up by another soldier it would have been lost forever. John McCrae died on 28th January 1918 and was buried in northern France. This poem later helped make the poppy the symbol of remembrance.
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)
A Soldier’s story
For young people today, WW1 seems like a very long time ago but the last surviving soldier of WW1, Harry Patch, died only a few years ago in 2009. So, whilst all veterans such as Harry have now passed away, their children and grandchildren can retell some of the stories learnt first hand from these brave people.
The little boy, William, is the grandfather of the teacher who participated in this trip; he is five years old. William was born in Belfast, Ireland. William was the mascot of this shooting team. His father is the soldier standing on the right, the team’s instructor. Soldiers who were good shots were paid extra. Notice most soldiers have a moustache; up until 1916 it was Army regulations that soldiers had to have a moustache but this was later dropped as unimportant and also because it got in the way of making sure the gas mask fitted properly.
Whilst governments across the world looked on in horror as Europe began the descent into total war, the civilian populations, particularly in Germany, France and Britain, celebrated and men rushed to enlist. William was one such example. In 1914, 10 years after the photo above was taken, aged just 15, William lied about his age, enlisted in the Army and was sent to the Western Front. A pupil recently brought in a photo of his great-great grandfather who was just 14 when he went to war. These are just two of the 250,000 boys who joined up, of whom almost half were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. During our visit, we went to the grave of Donald Snaddon, aged just 15 when he was killed.
William, a skilled horseman, fought on the Western Front, riding into battle in the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. Here he was wounded by a bayonet and returned to England to recover. In 1915 he was sent to Mesopotamia, now called Iraq, to fight the Ottoman Empire which was on Germany’s side. William has badly injured by a horse and evacuated; had he not been injured and evacuated he would have been captured at the Siege of Kut, along with thousands of British and Indian soldiers shortly afterwards and probably died in the forced march through the desert or killed, the fate of most of these captured troops. At the end of WW1, William, now aged 19, was back in the trenches at Ypres, where he first started four years earlier.
William survived WW1 but never spoke of time as a boy soldier. He was one of the lucky ones; his brother, Henry Cecil Pratley was killed in August 1915, aged 20 and is remembered on the Menin Gate. William also lost 5 cousins. One such cousin is Daniel Martin, killed on the Somme. Along with tens of thousands of his comrades, Daniel’s body was never found.
During WW1, many people in Ireland thought men who joined the British army to be traitors. Daniel enlisted in one of the many Irish regiments, the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers. He is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme but sadly there is no memorial to him in Ireland due to hostility at the time to these men who supported the British army so helped maintain British rule in Ireland.
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 working in Belgium caring for wounded British and Allied soldiers and occasionally German soldiers. She was executed by a German firing squad in 1915 for helping injured British soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. At the end of the War her coffin was exhumed to be returned to Britain. When the grave was opened the remains of a German soldier were found on top of her coffin. It is thought that this soldier was part of the firing squad but he refused to shoot Nurse Cavell and was subsequently executed as well. 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
Below is a short clip of our tour
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.
Want to know more?
For further information about World War 1 visit the Remembrance Centre, Portsmouth. The museum is located near Hilsea railway station in one of the fortifications built approximately 1860 and collectively known locally as the Hilsea Lines. Entry is free to individuals but there is a small charge to school groups. Please check the Centre is open before your visit.
You may also like to visit the Historic Dockyard for a detailed display of the Battle of Jutland, during which many Emsworth sailors died, and Fort Nelson where you can see the world’s largest surviving military gun, the 200 tonne Railway Howitzer.