Pietra Sorze and Martha Linck represented The Mount School on the York ISSP battlefields tour. This tour was part of the Centenary Battlefields Programme, organised by the Institute of Education and funded to enable students and teachers from every school across the country to visit the Western Front during the 2014-18 centenary period. Here in the City of York we decided to co-ordinate for all York ISSP schools to take part on the same trip. Early on the Friday morning we all met and set off from The Mount School to our first destination near Folkstone. The students began with team-building activities and the staff had training about how to teach the First World War well. Then we all gathered together to research individual men from York who we would follow on our tour.
We made an early start on the Saturday morning and our first stop was Lijssenhoek Military Cemetery. Our enquiry question for the day was ‘how did the war affect ordinary people?’ and immediately we were in a cemetery with people from so many parts of the world, including Nellie Spindler, a nurse from Wakefield. In the cemetery we also learnt about the casualty evacuation system that was used to try to save the wounded. Our next stop was the Poperinge Town Hall Square, where we focused on army discipline, on the site where the British army shot some men at dawn. There was much to see in Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres before we prepared for the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate. Two of our party laid a wreath during the ceremony of remembrance that takes place every night.
Having traced the first part of the war in the Ypres Salient, we travelled to the Somme area on Sunday. In glorious sunshine we learnt about this terrible battle and considered whether or not it was a total failure for the British army. At the Ulster Tower our enthusiastic guide told us stories of how the archaeology taking place is revealing more about the men who fought in the summer of 1916. We then moved onto the Serre Road. It has particular resonance for people from Yorkshire, and we stood in the trenches and heard about how the Yorkshire Pals prepared in the final few minutes before going over the top on 1st July. It was a few weeks later that another sportsman was to win a VC and die shortly afterwards. Our tour guide took us next to his grave. Donald Bell was a teacher and professional footballer who went to school in Harrogate, and at his graveside we learnt his story. And from there we went onto the huge Thiepval Memorial to the missing. Some students had people to remember there, and we were all moved by the vast monument covered in so many names of the missing from the Somme battlefields.
On our final day we thought more deeply about why and how we remember. Having improved our knowledge of the detail of the Ypres Salient battles at the wonderful Passendale Museum, we went to Tyne Cot cemetery. At the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the world we found the names and graves of men from York. We also read a powerful anti-war message from a mother who had inscribed on her son’s grave: ‘sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war.’ We laid a wreath of red and white poppies and held a few minutes silence after the dedication. This was repeated at our next stop, Langemark German Cemetery. Much more familiar to Martha, this cemetery moved us all, and some of us reflected that the terrible cost to so many people, regardless of nationality, or any other sort of identity, is why we remember.
Part of the reason for co-ordinating all York schools to travel together, was to enable students from all our city’s schools to learn and have fun together. It was also a chance for York’s teachers to share ideas and resources and to learn from each other. Thoughts arising from the discussions and connections made will last far beyond the trip itself. York Minster will provide a good place for us all to mark what the trip has meant to us. We will also be sharing our thoughts and our learning by putting together an exhibition for the Castle Museum’s 1914-18 exhibition community room in 2016.