March 6, 2019

Somme 2019

43 boys in Year 7 and Year 8 and five teachers spent five days in France and Belgium, staying at two hotels, one near Le Touquet and the other in Ypres. On the way back in the coach from Belgium last Friday all the boys agreed to write their thoughts about the trip in a tour diary. Here are a sample of them:

‘I felt proud to have an ancestor that fought for my country with courage’; ‘learning about our carbon footprint put things into perspective’; ‘It was interesting how they mould the shape of the chocolate’; ‘I went shopping and bought presents for my family’; ‘I enjoyed playing in the sand dunes because I have never done something like that before’; ‘I had never seen sharks, jellyfish and sea lions before’; ‘I spoke French, ordered crêpes and enjoyed shopping and playing football’; ‘I learned that chocolate comes from trees’; ‘I got a penguin called Jeff’.

They spent Tuesday walking around the beautiful walled town of Montreuil and visiting a chocolate factory. It was then that one of the boys discovered his ancestor’s grave in a hospital cemetery near the hotel. On Wednesday they visited Boulogne’s celebrated aquarium NAUSICAA and afterwards scaled the ramparts of the old town centre. Thursday was WWI day with a guided tour around the Somme battlefield that saw the country’s worst casualty rate in one day: 60,000 Commonwealth soldiers were either killed or wounded. The boys then travelled in the coach to Ypres in Belgium to take part in the 8.00pm service of remembrance under the Menin Gate. On the last day (Friday), before travelling through the Eurotunnel, they paid their respects to the dead relations of three fellow passengers in Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres.

Judging by some of the comments above, the morning in blazing sunshine in Montreuil was their favourite day. They all had a go asking for pain au chocolat or ordering a drink in a café in their five groups. Some had never before spoken French and were amazed when the shopkeeper or waiter understood them. Several loved the sand dunes around the hotel near Le Touquet where they could play crazy golf, kick a football and have a go sliding down a dune on a toboggan. The amazing and massive thick window 20m by 5m in the new part of the aquarium allowed the boys to stare in disbelief at the 4m manta ray and several large reef sharks gliding by.

Probably what impressed the boys most was the historical tour of the Somme battlefield on Thursday and a visit to the Menin Gate ceremony in Ypres. With some of them commenting:

‘They fought for our freedom and all around the world we respect them whether they were enemies or people who fought for us’; ‘it was cool when we went down the tunnel seeing all the guns and gear’; ‘my most valued experience was when I saw my relative on the Thiepval memorial’; ‘mine was the memorial in Belgium and knowing that they do it every day’; ‘mine was seeing people find their relatives’; ‘it put into perspective how lucky we are and how strangers sacrificed their lives for us to have a better future’.

The French tour guide Flora took the group to the memorial of the Tyneside Scottish and Irish brigades composed entirely of men from the North East, who were decimated on the first day of the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. The two brigades totalling 8,000 men suffered 50% casualties in just one day, and have the greatest number of soldiers reported missing that day of any formation, some 2,931 men. Today their names can be found on the Thiepval Memorial. The boys then visited the Lochnagar crater, big enough to fit the Senior School in, followed by the Ovillers cemetery where they all had a soldier’s grave to find. They did not expect to find a grenade at the entrance! The tour moved onto the Thiepval Memorial inscribed with 72,000 names of missing Commonwealth soldiers, including the ancestor of one of the boys on the trip.  The tour finished with a brief stop at the Ulster Tower and a walk through the Canadian trenches of Beaumont Hamel.

The final leg of the journey was a sprint to the second hotel in Ypres in time to attend the short service of remembrance at the Menin Gate, This ceremony happens every night at 8.00pm and has done so since the end of the first World War. Angus S and Alexander C had the honour of laying a wreath during the service donated by the Royal Fusiliers based in Newcastle.

Thanks to our wonderful driver Gordon, three more boys found their relations on the last day. Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest Commonwealth war grave in the world and is located just to the north of Ypres. This was a personal favourite moment for Mr Drax, standing next to one of the descendants of a missing soldier, surrounded by 37,000 names on wall panels and white gravestones, trying to understand what had happened here over a hundred years ago and repeating together those famous lines of poetry which end ‘we will remember them’.

A huge thank you to JH Coaches and to their driver Gordon whose trademark motto ‘Not a problem’ inspired everyone. Another big ‘merci’ to the five teachers who accompanied and cared for the boys – Mrs Bateman, Mr and Mrs Black, Mr Drax and Mr Tucker. And one final thank you to all 43 ‘tourists’ who were a pleasure to be with and who behaved with great respect to those who now lie in the Somme and in Flanders fields.