It being the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme, I was eager to take a party of my year 9 and 10 pupils on a memorable journey to the battlefields. I was determined that our field trip would be individual, unique, memorable and meaningful for my pupils, especially so as it was to be the last battlefield tour I would lead as a full-time history teacher, because I was due to retire at the end of the year. I planned it well in advance and at the end of May, during the school half term holiday, took my wife on a four-day trip to the province of Picardy in Northern France in order to reconnoitre the walking routes. We stayed in the picturesque village of Heilly and enjoyed the local gastronomy and countryside as much as the battlefield visits. It was the wettest May and early June in France for many a year and my belief that it never rains all day was proved to be ill-founded. However, I am a great believer in persisting with one’s plans to walk the Western Front despite the weather, as I think we should sometimes be made to feel uncomfortable in order to feel a bit more more empathy for the soldiers who served in those conditions during the Great War. The following images were taken during that preliminary visit.
Grandcourt Road Cemetery, the resting place of William Holmes and another soldier from Lee Road in Hoylake – William Price of the 10th Cheshires
We left our school on the penultimate Friday of term and returned the following Tuesday. Peronne, a small, friendly and picturesque town at the eastern end of the battlefields, was our base. By now, the weather was hot, dry and sunny. It felt like the south of France rather than the north. One day, our charming hostess in L’Auberge Des Ramparts confessed to feeling like sitting in the fridge all day! Again, we were required to be stoical and resilient as we sampled the other extreme of soldierly discomfort.
During each of our three full days in France we walked up to ten miles, following in the footsteps of certain units and/or individuals. My students rose very well to the challenge and gradually began to understand what the trip was all about – the amount of gum being chewed, selfies being taken and headphones applied declined as the days went by. By the morning of the third day’s walking, at the northern end of the Somme, in the Queen’s Cemetery near Serre, following an account of the death of a Yorkshire cricketer which was read out by my colleague Heather, total silence descended upon the group and nobody moved for perhaps 15 to 20 minutes. It was the most moving 15 to 20 minutes I have ever spent in a Great War cemetery and is testament to the degree to which the young people had been touched by the stories and and biographies to which they had been exposed.
Thanks to the preparations I made well in advance of this trip, to the help I received from Melissa Patrick back at school and from Dick Forsyth, Christina Watson and Heather Wilson who accompanied me, I believe that this was a very successful trip which achieved all that I had in mind for it. The young people responded extremely well and were kind enough to thank me for it at the end. Some of them wrote comments about their experiences. One of the nicest goes like this:-
‘I really enjoyed the trip, especially on a very special occasion as the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Very sunny, great time to come. Mr Roberts definitely knows his facts and figures. He is a very respectable historian and I wish him all the best. Thanks for a great 3 years sir. I will leave you with this:
“Men may die,
Sacrifice for the great,
But we live day by day,
They will never be forgotten
Because we will never forget.”‘
Thanks for reading this post. I hope to hear from you soon.