The trip to the WW1 battlefields is a yearly highlight for Form 3. Focusing on the Battle of the Somme, the trip involves a walk through preserved trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, visits to the extraordinary memorials at Thiepval and Vimy Ridge, and a brief service of remembrance for Jack Dewar, an Old Oakhamian buried in one of the area’s many beautiful war cemeteries. The strengths and weaknesses of British military strategy are also discussed from the commanding heights of the Newfoundland Memorial.
The visiting pupils have been divided into two groups. Group 1 leaves Oakham on 10 February and returns on 12 February, while Group 2 leaves Oakham on12 February and returns on 14 February. Below are updates from the groups:
To see more photos of the trip view the photogallery.
Group 2 Day 2:
Our first stop of the day was to Lochmagar crater. This crater was created by a massive explosion right at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The combined weight of explosive was equivalent to the weight of both of the coaches. Pupils had a chance to walk around the crater and see where the front lines on the 1st July were.
We then visited Beaumont Hammel, where some of the heaviest fighting in the Somme campaign took place. Pupils learnt about how the 90% of the newfoundland regiment were either killed or wounded on the first day alone. We walked from the British reserve trenches, through the front line and no man's land and then finally to the German trenches and the Y ravine. The mist that was present in the morning began to clear and we got a stunning view of the battlefield up by the caribou monument.
Our next stop was the sunken Lane and hawthorn ridge. It was here where a giant mine was exploded to signal the start of the attack on July 1st 1916. Men camped in the sunken lane awaiting the order to go over the top. Pupils walked down the lane and around the crater.
We also visited Theipval memorial and Ancre cemetery. The Theipval memorial is the largest British memorial in the world and contains the names of all those missing on the Somme. Pupils walked around the memorial, looking at the thousands of names and seeing the differences between British and French headstones. Pupils were very excited to visit the shop and several toy tanks were purchased!
At the Ancre cemetery, we started by discussing OOs who fought and died in the war and then made our way in to see the grave of Jack Dewar, OO. We all gathered around for a memorial where a poppy wreath was layed in remembrance.
Our final stop of the day saw us visit The Devonshire Cemetery where on the 1st July, a whole battalion was virtually wiped out. Pupils were charged with finding the graves of two soldiers: Captain D. L. Martin and war poet Lieutenant William Hodgson.
Group 2 Day 1:
Our first stop once we arrived in France was Dud Corner and the Loos Memorial. At the Battle of Loos, five Oakhamians were killed in the same day. Pupils had a chance to explore the cemetery as well as laying a wreath beneath the panel where the Oakhamians are named and pausing for a minutes silence.
Our second visit of the day was to Wellington Quarry where the pupils explored quarries and tunnels dug during the war by the British and New Zealand troops. With our protective head gear on, we descended 20 meters into the ground and saw where the soldiers lived, washed and dug.
After a long day we made ourself at home in the hotel and headed over for dinner. On the menu was cheese soufflé, chicken and pasta and a chocolate pudding for dessert. Then to finish off the evening the pupils did a spot of bowling, having a nice time to unwind before tomorrow. The weather today has been great and not too cold or wet for visiting the sites.
Group 1 Day 3:
The first visit of the day was the German Military cemetery in Neuville-St-Vaast. Form 3 were asked to walk amongst the graves and compare them to the graves they saw in the British cemeteries. The adjectives they used to describe the German cemetery were “sad, gloomy, and dark”. The cemetery was indeed larger than any of the British ones that we had visited: over 4,000 crosses for 40,000 bodies. The pupils noticed that 4 names were carved on both sides of each black cross. No regiment badge ornated the crosses, no mention of “Known unto God” like the Commonwealth graves. The atmosphere was completely different from that of British cemeteries which were made to look like English gardens.
The last visit of the trip was Vimy Ridge. There, an attack was launched by the Canadian troops in Easter 1917. The Germans had occupied the ridge for three years and taking it back had been deemed impossible. However, the Canadians dug tunnels which arrived only 30-35m away from the German line. They kept the element of surprise and the attack was a success. On a mild and bright day, the pupils walked in the trenches and some of them tried to picture the reality of muddy and soaked trenches. They also had to imagine the bare field, as trees were planted as part of the memorial. The pupils were reminded that an Old Oakhamian had died at the battle of Vimy Ridge, having survived three years in the war: Malcolm Neilson.
The pupils then went into the visitor centre and explored the exhibition. They watched explanatory videos of the attack, learned about the gas mask, the tools and kit that soldiers had, the role of women making shells or working as nurses. Finally they walked to the Vimy Ridge Memorial, two pylons representing France and Canada united. They were told of the meaning of all the figures around the memorial: a woman and a man representing mothers and fathers who had lost a son, a figure of Lady Canada in mourning and, high on the pylons, figures of Peace, Honesty, Justice and of a woman passing a torch.
Group 1 Day 2:
During today’s coach journey Form 3 watched scenes from the documentary The Somme. The first stop of the day was the Lochnagar Mine Crater. The pupils used their battlefield tour booklets to locate themselves on the front line. Underneath their positions, the British had dug tunnels to reach the German line.18 tons of explosive were stored in the mine, which was set off on the 1st July 1916. The pupils walked around the resulting crater, 80m wide, and could picture the French villages occupied by the Germans, no man’s land and the British and German front lines.
Then coach A and coach B followed different itineraries. Coach A’s next visit was the Newfoundland Memorial Park. On a cold but rather sunny day, the pupils walked in the British line, saw the trenches and could see the advantages of the German position. Then they reached the German line and a natural ravine where the German soldiers were sheltered from the bombardment. They were also shown shallow trenches in no man’s land dating from another attack in November 1916.
Next we stopped at Sunken Lane. Equipped with hiking boots or Wellies, the pupils walked where the British launched their attack at 07.30 on 1st July 1916. They crossed a muddy field to visit Hawthorn Ridge cemetery, a small and secluded cemetery situated in the middle of the battlefields, where soldiers fell.
After lunch, they visited the Memorial of Thiepval. They were asked to find the names of 6 Old Oakhamians carved on the memorial amongst more than 70,000 other names: George Holbrook Eric Vidler, John Norman Pickering-Clarke, Basil Vaughan Wood, Alfred Cecil English, William Horace Lantsberry Dewhirst and John Paul Bromhead. The pupils really engaged with the task and most of them mentioned the Thiepval Memorial as their favourite visit of the day.
Form 3 took part in a Remembrance Service at the Ancre Cemetery, in memory of the Old Oakhamian Lancelot John Austen “Jack” Dewar and the 70 Old Oakhamians who fell during the war. They placed a wreath on Dewar’s grave. Jack Dewar was an “all-rounder”: he was captain of the Cricket 1st XI, played in the Rugby 1st XV, took part in the Debating Society, was School Prefect and Head Prefect on his last year at Oakham School in 1914-1915. He died in 1916 aged 20 on the Somme. The pupils then walked in the small cemetery and asked a lot of questions about the graves, Old Oakhamians and the battles.
Our last visit was at the Devonshire Cemetery in Mametz. They walked amongst the graves in the small cemetery hidden by trees. Back in the coach they watched scenes from They Shall Not Grow Old, especially the coloured footage of the Sunken Lane attack where they had been in the morning.
The evening ended with a quiz, where the pupils had to answer general knowledge questions and WW1 questions. Everyone got very competitive!
Group 1 Day 1:
During the coach journey, Form 3 watched the film My Boy Jack. This is the story of Rudyard Kipling’s son, Jack, who enrolled in the Irish Guards and led a platoon. He died shortly after his 18th birthday at the battle of Loos. His body was discovered in 1992. Jack’s story is similar to that of a lot of young soldiers who fought and fell in France during the WW1.
The group’s first stop was at the Dud Corner Cemetery at Loos-en-Gohelle. In the wind, Form 3 walked amongst 1,800 tombs, of which only 650 bear names. They were surrounded by stones carved with 20,000 names of missing soldiers. They realised the sacrifice of the Commonwealth soldiers.
They placed a wreath on the memorial, beneath the names of three Old Oakhamians whose names are remembered in Loos: Edward Langdale, a master at Oakham School, Basil Mogridge and Edward Franks. The pupils were reminded that privates and officers had the same tombs. They were asked to find the only different tomb, that of a soldier who had received the Victoria Cross. Remembering the film My Boy Jack, they also found Jack Kipling’s name, carved in the memorial.
Our next stop was at the Wellington Quarry/The Battle of Arras Memorial. The pupils were divided into three groups. The last group started their visit with an explanatory video on the Battle of Arras, showing war footage and maps of the Western Front. Then, they visited an exhibition where they saw letters, uniforms and board games found in the quarry. The last part of the visit was a tour of the underground galleries. During WW1, tunnels were dug by the New Zealand troops under no man’s land to access either the front or the Allies’ trenches. The students were shown soldiers’ drawings on the walls, a reconstruction of a bed, glass bottles and tin cans. They stood where Easter Mass had been celebrated one hundred years ago. As the students walked along the passages, seeing the graffiti and photographs, as well as listening to the background noises, they were immersed into the everyday life of a WW1 soldier.
On their first evening in France, Form 3 enjoyed a three-course supper in a French bistrot. The evening ended in a relaxed atmosphere with a game of bowling, where everyone showed some great moves!