On the Tuesday we were up for breakfast at 8.00am. This was the day we were going to Ypres . The first stop was the Flanders Field Museum . As we walked around the museum, there was a soundtrack playing – voices of people talking, songs, soldiers' letters being read aloud and two poems being recited: Dulce et Decorum Est and In Flanders Fields. For the first time the mood changed. Everyone was more sombre and thoughtful. On one wall was written “I died in Hell – they called it Passchendaele.” This was what was written on Siegfried Sassoon's memorial tablet. There were glass cases displaying medals, and scenes set up of the Christmas Truce.
The museum was eye-opening – but nothing compared to what was to come. From there we went to the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate was built as a memorial to the 54,896 British soldiers who were killed in Ypres and whose bodies were never recovered. To stand there, and look at the neverending lists of names on the walls, it is hard to get your head around this tremendous sense of loss.
The mood was lightened somewhat when we went to visit a traditional Belgian Chocolate Shop. There is only one word – yum! We all bought loads of chocolate – some as presents and some for ourselves. They came in quite useful in Paris ; the food in the hotel wasn't the best.
We split up for lunch. The sun was splitting the skies and it was roasting! When we all met back up, I managed to get in the necessary jibe, telling Mr Ramsay that he had his “wee baldy patch” was sunburned. He was not impressed!
After lunch we were back on the bus and travelling to Hill '62 Museum. Hill '62 is the highest point in a very flat area; and not very high at that. The British soldiers stood there looking down to Ypres to see the German soldiers marching towards them. You will never know until you have stood there, where they stood, how haunting it is. It was very silent, a soft breeze blowing just enough to stir the grass and the leaves on the trees. The silence is very noticeable, very melancholy, but clam; not pressing down on you like silence can. It is as though after the last gun fired, the last shell exploded, there would never be noise again. I imagined the German soldiers coming up that hill towards me, how it would have felt. Or I tried to; such feelings are probably beyond imagination. All I could think was that, 90 years ago, there were men fighting and dying on this spot where I stood.
We moved from there to inside the museum. Here there were pictures and artefacts from the war. A uniform with a bullet hole in the chest, still bloodstained; guns; paintings torn by bullets. Along one wall was a glass cabinet full of soldiers' possessions. There were a lot of photos; one that is still imprinted on my memory. I don't know why, out of all the pictures I saw, this is the one I remember. It shows a soldier in uniform holding a puppy. He is smiling, laughing maybe. I wondered what happened to him, what his story was. When you see the faces of the people in the stories and poems, the faces to the names on the Menin Gate, that's when the full horror hits you. These people who had lives and loves and children and pets – who died in such agony and for so futile a reason.
The other thing that caught my eye was a jar with a card propped up against it. The card read “An Old Soldier's Wish” This man had fought in the trenches, just a few feet from where I stood. He had survived the war and died an old man in 1983. He had wanted his ashes scattered out there in Sanctuary Wood. I thought of him wanting to rejoin his comrades in death; to lie where they lie.
We went outside to the trenches and walked through them. I was struck that there were still shell-holes, where they had been for almost 100 years; still bullet holes in the trees. I was standing in a trench, walking over ground where those soldiers had walked, where so many had died.
We walked back into the museum and Sophie pointed out a single boot – a soldier's boot. If you're going this trip, make sure you take your sunglasses to hide your tears and stick close to Mrs Stables because she carries the hankies!
From Sanctuary Wood it was a short drive to Tyne Cot Cemetery . Tyne Cot is the largest British war cemetery anywhere in the world and is on the slope leading up to Passchendaele. There are 11,856 graves. All the tomb-stones are white, reflecting the sun. There was a wreath laying ceremony and everyone was given an individual cross with a poppy on it to put at any grave we chose. I put mine at the grave of Private F Rodgers, a Canadian who was only 19 when he died. Sophie put hers at the grave of an unknown soldier – “Known Unto God”. I knew there would be unknown soldiers; I just didn't know there would be so many.
We left Tyne Cot and went to the German Cemetery at Langemarke. The contrast between langemarke and Tyne Cot was huge. Langemarke is dark, shaded by trees and cold. The black tomb-stones lie flat and there are three or four soldiers to a grave and there is a mass grave in the middle holding 24,834. Sophie and I laid down the wreathe. At the back of the cemetery are four black statues of men mourning.
By Amy Bromley (S6 2007)