Trenches Trip 2010
Mr Cowan counted forty three. I counted forty three. All present and correct. The time was 08.30, Sunday 20th of June 2010 and the order was given for departure. The Kilmarnock Academy Expeditionary Group was on its way to Flanders. The bus driver, Alex, started the engine. The party roared in anticipation of the journey ahead. Happy shouts from the students; joyous waves from the parents, as the wheels of the bus slowly turned and the trip was under way.The initial route taken was through the Irvine Valley to pick Mr & Mrs Stables up at Strathaven along with Mr Campbell. The journey south had begun in earnest. Seven hours later, after a couple of stops, we arrived in the port of Hull. Once aboard the P&O Ferry, the cabins having been allocated, the group had dinner- excellent choices- and settled down to life on the sea. All went to plan apart from the first casualties of the campaign who succumbed to sea sickness. Although only a few, they adopted the stiff upper lip and dealt with the situation in a typical Killie way: they went to bed and wept.(I have since been informed that this is the response that Kilmarnock FC supporters employ when they experience defeat. A lot of wet pillows last season?) They survived to tell the tale. After breakfast next morning -excellent choices- we arrived at the Belgian town of Zeebrugge.
We disembarked and proceeded to the medieval city of Brugge. This is a United Nations World Heritage Site. The students were given a couple of hours to explore the sites and get lunch. Many were familiar with the city as they had watched the film ' In Bruges' starring Colin Farrel. The Belfry, in the beautiful town centre or Markt in Flemish, was a major attraction - you will need to watch the film to see why. The wonderful canal network, lace shops and chocolate outlets proved popular. For lunch many tried chips with mayo, traditional Belgian cuisine. Very well received. Mussels with frits for the more cultured. At 14.00 we returned to the bus and made our way to Blankenberge on the Belgian Coast, our base for the duration of the trip.
The Hotel Sabat d' Or in the Belgian resort of Blankenberge is a wonderful establishment: good rooms, great food, well run with excellent staff. Students were given their rooms for the three nights we were to be stationed there; had a lovely three course dinner and then were taken on a tour of the town. The promenade on the sea front is memorable to say the least. The pier is very impressive: built in the 1930s and at 350 metres long, it is well worth taking a stroll along. ( visit the webcam to see) To walk along in perfect sunshine was a joy. Many of the students commented on how much they were impressed with the town. It was clean, welcoming and on the whole prices were good. Students were back at the hotel by 22.00 and in rooms an hour later.The first day in Flanders was a success.
Tuesday was the big day. Departing the hotel at 08.30, after a smashing breakfast, we made our way to the town of Ypres. This area of Belgium was the site of four battles during the First World War. The British and Commonwealth soldiers and support staff paid a great price, as did the German Army, attacking and defending their trenches in most horrific conditions. A visit to Flanders Field Museum is always a memorable experience and the hour or so spent there allowed the students a deeper insight and understanding of the conflict. This was followed by a walk to the Menin Gate. The names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers whose remains were never found are written on the monument. These were soldiers who fought in Ypres Salient over a four year period. After a talk and some discussion the group made their way to the De Groote's Chocolate Shop ( a branch of Leonadis) in the centre of Ypres. Mr De Groote gave a talk on the importance of chocolate to the economy of the town and students were given time to purchase any of the products on sale. If ever in the town visit the shop. You'll be made very welcome.
After chocolate heaven we made our way to the Hill 62 Museum, a totally different experience to the museum in Ypres. It is situated at what became known as Sanctuary Wood because wounded Allied soldiers were taken there as the German Army offensive gained momentum in September 1914. The exhibits are originals from the war: guns, cannon, barbed wire, shells, grenades and uniforms. A look through the old fashioned viewfinders shows original pictures from the war; some of them horrific images of the carnage and destruction that was all too common in the conflict. The best of all is the original trench system. A group of adventurous volunteers, led by Misters Campbell, Cowan and Stables braved the tunnels. Mrs Stables counted them in. I counted them out. They were all given a campaign medal to commemorate their indefatigability in the face of such adversity. The ones who didn't go under were given a pat on the back for showing common sense. I include myself in that group. We had a wonderful packed lunch, prepared by our hotel kitchen, at the tables outside the museum. It was a beautiful day with birds singing in the trees, flowers in full bloom and lambs in the fields. It was hard to imagine that hundreds of thousands of men and women had died in this very area; others suffering horrendous injury, both physical and psychological, less than a century before. We departed for our visit to the cemetries.
Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetry is the biggest of its kind in Belgium. It contains 11,954 individual graves ( four Germans) and the names of 34,984 men whose remains were never recovered. (These could not be included on the Menin Gate because of lack of space.) Well maintained with lovely gardens, it is a peaceful place. The group laid a wreath at the Cross of Sacrifice in the centre of the cemetry. Our students conducted themselves admirably. John Brown was given the honour of laying the wreath as he is a member of the Cadets in Kilmarnock. A minute silence was observed for all the victims of war. I cannot let this opportunity pass without mentioning the conduct, for the second year in succession, of a group of Dutch students in the cemetry. They climbed up on the monuments, shouted at one another and showed no respect whatever. The Netherlands remained neutral during the conflict. After that incident we all agreed to support any team playing the Dutch in the World Cup. Well done Spain! Our next place to visit was the German Cemetry at Langermark.
A few kilometres along the road, the contrast between the Commonwealth memorials is marked: dark and very gothic, surrounded by oak trees and with the grave stones constructed of dark stone, it is eerie and disturbing. Four ghostly figures stand guard at the back, heads bowed in sadness for the loss of their comrades. Langemark contains the remains of 35,000 German soldiers. A mass burial site - The Comrades' Grave - contains the bodies of 25,000. A wreath was laid by Casey McDaid on behalf of the group. A minute silence was observed. Adolf Hitler fought in this area during the First World War. He visited the cemetry in 1940 after the German victory over France that year. He refused to look at the graves, but instead went to the pill box at the far end of the site and laid a wreath there. Why? Too many Jewish names on the memorials and graves? It made some of the students reflect on the conflicts of the last century and the suffering of innocent people in war. After the visit we made our way back to our hotel and dinner. It had been an emotional experience for many, adults as well as students. We looked forward to Wednesday and the trip to Brussels.
Next morning we made our way to the Atomium. This impressive structure was built in 1958. Based on an iron atom it was to be taken down after the Expo Exhibition of that year. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it was preserved and the rest, as they say, is history. Inside the students experienced what was once the fastest elevator in Europe. A fantastic view of Brussels from the top was a highlight. A display based on immigration in Europe was very informative. Throughout history the movement of peoples has been on the whole a positive experience. A discussion that developed amongst some of the group focused on how dull our culture would be if not for the influences of those who took the decision to seek a new life in our community. Just think: mince and tatties, haggis and killie pies for dinner if not for the Italians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Irish and all the rest who came to our shores. On that note we returned to the bus to visit the European Parliament.
The journey into the centre of Brussels witnessed the first setback of the trip. Road works, diversions and street closures made it almost impossible to maneouvre a bus in the busy traffic. Alex, the bus driver, tried his best, but we failed to get there on time. We had to abort the visit. We made our way back to Blankenberge. The students made the best of their time to go on the beach or do some shopping. All is well that ends well they say. An unexpected visit the next day would make up for the dissapointment of missing the tour of the Parliament.
Thursday we checked out of the hotel. The manageress commented on how well the group had impressed her: good manners at breakfast and dinner, well turned out and a happy bunch of teenagers. Well done to the Killie Kids! An incident that's worth mentioning at this point involves the issue of something being lost in translation. A member of the party, who shall remain nameless, visited the very good kebab shop at the corner of the street that our hotel was situated. Having purchased frits, he then asked for vinegar. But when even the English speaking world can have difficulty with the Ayrshire accent how do you think it would sound to a Belgian? I am informed that request sounded like, 'vnnnnggggrrr'. A puzzled look sprung from the faces of the shop staff along with a shrugging of shoulders. When all communication broke down the asking for a packet of 'chuggy' added to the confusion. Just as well Mr Campbell was there to retrieve the situation. We would make our way to Arras in France where Mrs Stables and the students could use their language skills without having to worry about what language the people speak - Flemish or French.
Arras is a beautiful town in Northern France. It also has a wonderful belfry in the centre and a combination of modern and traditional shopping. The site of bloody battles in both world wars it has witnessed its fair share of destruction and death. We spent a couple of hours there. Some of the group had snails for lunch. Well done them! Once the group was all present and correct we made our way for an unexpected visit to a memorable site: the Canadian Monument at Vimy Ridge. This impressive structure commemorates the sacrifice shown by four Canadian Divisions in taking the ridge from the Germans in 1917. The names of 11,169 men from Canada are inscribed on the monument: the total number that died in that one battle. It is said that Canada's national identity was born out of the battle. Completed in 1936 its opening was attended by the then king Edward VIII, famous for giving up his throne for love and being a Nazi sympathiser. A more important guest was Mrs.C.S.Woods. She was from Canada and had lost eight sons ( yes 8) in the war. Her loss makes the premise of the story of Saving Private Ryan pale by comparison. France gave this site to the Canadian people in perpetuity, as recognition for the sacrifice shown in liberating that part of France from the invader. So that means the group had visited Belgium, France and Canada. Not bad for a six day trip. After the visit we made our way to Zeebrugge and the ferry back to Britain.
The trip back to Kilmarnock went to plan. We arrived almost on time on Friday the 25th June. It had been a great trip. The students had done Scotland, Kilmarnock, the school and most importantly themselves proud. Well done you all! A big thanks to Alex the bus driver for getting there and back safe and to Mr Stables who stepped into the breach when asked. Mr Campbell and Mr Cowan, both veterans of the camapaign can walk with their heads held high: you did us proud lads. Mrs Stables was again invaluable, not only for her excellent language skills but for her calming influence and sympathetic ear when required. Finally, thanks to IBT Travel for all their help in organising the trip, especially Angela. Ta!
That is it for another year folks.
Jaque van Beefenburger ( my Flemish name)