Thursday morning dawned & I was up bright & early for breakfast, I was picking up the coach at Maidstone services and was about to embark on a History school trip to the Western Front with the addition of a visit to the Christmas Markets in Lille. I was guiding a school group from the south of England & had driven down the day before & overnighted there.
The coach arrived right on time & I renewed old friendships with staff which whom I had travelled with before. It was also the first time with a new coach driver who soon turned out to be both competent & good company.
En-route to Dover, I went through the safety procedures aswell as exchange rate, timings etc.
On the outskirts of Dover there are a few things to point out, such as the observers posts dating from 1938 and the castle with its six layers of tunnels & earth & the ground upon which Louis Bleriot landed in 1909. As an example of warfare being a stimulus for technological change, it was only ten years later that Alcock & Brown flew the Atlantic Ocean. Shortly after that we were on board the ferry & crossing a calm Channel.
Upon arrival in Calais there was the view of the new fencing & the Jungle settlement which has featured so heavily in the news recently. This was also an ideal opportunity to go over a bit of revision with the students about what Europe was like immediately before the outbreak of the Great War & then it's causes & what happended during the first few weeks of the Great War.
The first stop we made was at Essex Farm cemetery in Ypres in Belgium. Here I pointed out the grave of Henry Houghton who lived before the war on the same street that I live on now. We then went to see the grave of Valentine Joseph Strudwick and the students were very shocked to see that the age recorded on the headstone was that he died at 15 years of age. This provoked thoughts of underage soldiers and that Strudwick was not the youngest buried in the Salient. We also saw the layout of cemeteries, the Great Cross, War Stone & rows of white headstones, a Jewish headstone & also that of Terrace Barrett VC.
We moved from the cemetery to the McCrae Memorial, and the story of the poem In Flanders Fields, before looking into the dugouts.
The next stop was at Langemark German Cemetery, pausing to look at the signpost showing subsequent uses of poison gas. In the entrance to the cemetery I was able to relate the story of Hemann Koupman, one of the soldiers whose name is recorded in oak panelling on the wall, including his last letter home. We looked at the newly refurbished cemetery, whilst also observing the very different feel from the CWGC cemeteries.
As it was now getting dark, we headed into Ypres to our accommodation at The Poppies. We later dined at Ganzeke Restaurant & then went chocolate shopping before returning to the hostel.
Next morning, we headed south of the border to France to visit Vimy Ridge. We first stopped to admire the magnificent Canadian memorial before moving to the tunnels and trenches.Heading north again, we dined in the Pacific Eiland restaurant before visiting the award winning In Flanders Fields museum in the Cloth Hall. The last visit of the day was to Tyne Cot, the largest CWGC cemetery in the world where we looked at the headstones, the memorial wall and observed a minutes silence after the Exhortation.
Returning to Ypres, we gathered under the Menin Gate Memorial for the Last Post Cemetery. The three students selected to lay a wreath on behalf of the school were nervous, but not half as nervous as me as their Guide when invited to recite the Exhortation in front of a crowd of over 500.
We returned to the hostel, tired but having enjoyed a good day.
The last day saw us load up the coach and head south again to just outside Lille to an artisan bakery where we all baked a St. Nicholas bread dough and made and ate a healthy lunch. From there it was on to the Lille Christmas market, a meal at Cite d'Europe at Calais and then to the port.
The wind had been picking up all day and although we were there in plenty of time for our ferry we were likely to face a delay. The students, staff & I decided that we had gone off Storm Desmond. However a DVD of Warhorse saw off some of the time on the dockside before most of us had a sleep. We safely returned to the school in the early hours of the morning after an enjoyable and educational visit to the Western Front.