Battlefields Tour of Flanders and the Somme 2nd May – 3rd June
A group of 48 S3 pupils led by Mr. Quigley, accompanied by Mr. MacDonald, Mrs. Fielding-South, Miss MacDonald & Mr. South, set off early in the morning heading to Belgium for the History Dept. tour of World War One battlefields.
Arriving in Belgium on the first day of touring the group headed to Tyne Cot cemetery. Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth gravesite in the world containing nearly 12,000 graves, one of which is the final resting place of Private Farquar Macrae Mackenzie of the Seaforth Highlanders, a former pupil of Inverness Royal Academy, whose name is also listed on the school’s own war memorial. Many pupils found this visit very emotional seeing the overwhelming volume of lives lost.
The emotion of the first visit almost turned to disbelief as the group moved on to Langemark, a German wargrave site, where a mass grave containing nearly 25,000 fallen German soldiers is situated. From here we went to Hill 62 Sanctuary Wood with its preserved trenches.
In the afternoon, the group moved on to Ypres – a city that was all but wiped off the map during WWI and has subsequently been rebuilt – where we visited the In Flanders Field Museum, housed in the city’s Cloth Hall, rebuilt to its former Gothic glory. Here the story of World War One is told through exhibits featuring artefacts and first-hand testimonies of those who experienced the conflict.
Leaving Ypres we stopped briefly at the Essex Farm cemetery; Essex Farm was the site of a medical facility during WWI where John MacCrae – the Canadian physician & poet – wrote “In Flanders Field”, one of the most widely known poems of WWI.
After a long first day of touring, the group chilled out with a game of Ten-pin bowling before returning to our hotel in Diksmuide for a well-deserved good night’s sleep.
Day 2 of touring saw us head to Bruges, a medieval city famed for its architecture, canals, chocolate, lace, a certain film featuring Colin Farrell and did we mention chocolate? Following a relaxing morning of sight-seeing, we then visited the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917; a fascinating museum which features recreations of Dug-outs and trench systems. The group then visited The Scottish Memorial in Flanders where we laid a wreath on behalf of the school.
In the evening we returned to Ypres for the Last Post at the Menin Gate – a ceremony conducted by buglers from the Ypres Fire Service that has taken place since the memorial was opened in 1927. During the centenary of WWI the story of one of the soldiers listed on this memorial to the missing is told. On the evening we visited the ceremony also included a piper and a welsh choir.
An early start on Day 3 for a long day of touring as we left Belgium for France. Our first stop was the cemetery at Bailleul where Mr. Quigley laid a wreath at the grave of his great-great-grandfather, Private John McCluskey of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, killed on the 28th December 1916. We then travelled on to Vimy Ridge and the magnificent Canadian National Monument overlooking the site where the four Canadian Divisions fought together for the first time.
We arrived at Newfoundland Park at Beaumont-Hamel early in the afternoon, where the weather turned cold & windy with drizzling rain creating a sombre atmosphere for a visit where the true tragedy of WWI is told. Beaumont-Hamel is the site where on July 1st 1916 – the first day of The Battle of the Somme – the Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out in the space of half an hour; of the 800 men sent out onto this particular battlefield only 68 survived. At the end of our visit to Newfoundland Park we laid a wreath on behalf of the school at the Memorial to the 51st Highland Division; this moment was accompanied by Katie Rhynas playing “The Flowers of the Forest” on the bagpipes.
We moved on to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which lists the names of some 72,195 men with no known grave killed during the Battle of the Somme, and then to the Lochnagar Crater, a bomb crater almost 300ft in diameter and 70ft deep, created by a munitions mine exploded to signal the start of the Battle of the Somme.
Our last stop of the day was the cemetery of Warloy-Ballion, where Mrs. Fielding-South laid a wreath at the grave of her great-great uncle Private James MacNeil of the Seaforth Highlanders killed on 8th December 1916.
The journey back was a long haul to Ostend, where we stopped to visit the Atlantic Wall Museum – a beach front open air museum featuring the defence systems put in place by the German army during WWII. From the various observation posts here we could see the swell forming on the North Sea and with the high winds we could tell that the ferry crossing that night would be a rocky one.
What was predicted to be a force 7 gale only turned out to be force 5, which was of little comfort to the queasy travellers in our group, but everyone arrived safe & well & back on dry land the next morning for the long journey back to Inverness.
A moving & illuminating journey where the true human tragedy of war really hits home; the pupils were genuinely moved by their experiences and were a credit to the school throughout the tour.