School Visits to the Battlefields, Then and Now

The value or otherwise of taking schoolchildren to visit European battlefields has been much discussed of late, notably in connection with the government's plans to sponsor two pupils from each state school to make a visit in conjunction with the forthcoming Great War centenary. I have organised and guided an annual tour to the battlefields of Western Europe for pupils of my school since October 1994. I took as my inspiration the visits to the battlefields I had made in the 1980s, particularly the wonderful WFA tours led by Terry Cave with the late, great Tony Spagnoly and John Terraine. Over the years it has evolved from a trip aimed specifically at Year 9 pupils contemplating their choice of GCSE subjects into one open to boys of all ages in the school. Places are normally sold out within a day or so of letters being issued. Many boys come on more than one tour and we have a growing number of five and six tour 'veterans'. The current record by a single pupil is seven; a boy who also came on the additional tour we ran to attend the 90th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of the Somme in the Summer of 2006.

Combined Cadet Force Colour party
at the chapel of the
American Great War Cemetery at Bony

Each of our tours is different, with themes based on particular battles or campaigns or aspects of warfare. Emphasis is laid on visiting sites connected with old boys of the school, relatives of people on the tour and local regiments, particularly the Lancashire Fusiliers (now Royal Regiment of Fusiliers), with whom the school has always enjoyed close links. Over the years we have visited the battlefields of Ypres, the Somme, Loos, Aubers Ridge, Cambrai, the Kaiser's Battle, the Final Advance of 1918, Agincourt, Dunkirk, Normandy and Arnhem, amongst others. In the process we have paid our respects at the graves or places of commemoration of many of the 144 old boys of the school known to have died in the two World Wars. Our most popular destination has been Ypres; members of our Combined Cadet Force have taken part on eleven occasions in the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate and on our 2004 Tenth Anniversary Tour we dedicated a plaque to the old boys of the school in a special service at St. George's Memorial Church.

The first school party to venture
down the 'Glory Hole' at La Boisselle
October, 2011

Some people question the value of school tours and point to the poor behaviour or lack of interest shown by groups of young people whom they have encountered on their own visits. I realise that I am lucky in being able to take a group of self-selecting volunteers with the older 'veteran' boys passing on the ethos of the tour to their younger brethren. However, I know that there are many excellent tours run by enthusiastic staff and professional guides which have inspired generations of youngsters and helped to ensure that remembrance of the Great War will be carried on well beyond the forthcoming centenary commemoration.

When I started the tours in 1994 there were, of course, already other schools visiting the battlefields, although the numbers have increased dramatically in the twenty years since. Correspondence with fellow Great War enthusiasts has revealed the existence of school battlefields tours going back well before this. The late Graham Maddocks certainly ran trips from Liverpool schools in the 1980s if not before and well-known writer and tour guide Paul Reed was inspired as a pupil by battlefields tours to Ypres and later the Somme run by Les Coates and the late Roger Bastable, starting around 1979, from Holy Trinity School in Crawley. West Sussex. Les Coates's slim educational volumes on Ypres and the Somme, which refer to the tours, are familiar to generations of teachers and are still to be found on the shelves of my library at school. They were a key source in my early teaching on the First World War and in planning my first tours. Paul Reed has also mentioned to me that Bill Caudwell, who taught history at Collier's School in Horsham was running tours to the battlefields in the 1970s. It would be interesting to find out if there were any earlier examples. I myself visited the Arromanches Museum in Normandy in 1972 with a party from Tudor Grange Grammar School in Solihull and saw the remains of the Mulberry Harbours offshore, but this was part of a general French trip and there was no other battlefields' content.

Bury Grammar School at Thiepval, 2011

Despite all this evidence of earlier battlefields visits made by other schools, I confidently assumed, with a mixture of naiveté and hubris, that I must be the first person to have organized such tours from Bury Grammar School. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across the following intriguing snippet from the December 1939 issue of the school magazine, 'The Clavian', in the midst of accounts of digging trenches on the school playing fields and building air raid shelters:

'A party of boys enjoyed an excellent holiday in Belgium in August, under the leadership of Mr. and Mrs. Ince. The weather was as gloriously hot as anyone could wish, and all thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Especially interesting were excursions to the battlefields of the 1914-18 War, where the history of those years were made very vivid to us as we walked in the trenches and noted the rebuilt villages and towns and gazed in reverent awe at the beautifully tended military cemeteries. It was indeed a strange irony that brought us face to face with another war but a few days after our return'.

Mr. Arthur Ince was a long-serving teacher at the school. I have been in touch with his son but sadly he can neither recall the visit nor find any pictures of it amongst his parents' possessions. None of the old boys I know from the time appear to have gone on the trip - in fact one was under the impression that it had been cancelled at the last minute! It was the last foreign holiday enjoyed by boys from the school for seven years. Enquiries on the internet Great War Forum have revealed some evidence of trips made by other schools to the battlefields at around the same time. It is known that nearby Burnley Grammar School visited Ypres earlier in 1939 and one contributor found mention in the Derby Daily Telegraph of a battlefields tour by Derby Rover Scouts in 1927 and an excursion by pupils from Bemrose School, Derby while visiting Paris in March 1931. It is sobering to think that the participants in these tours found themselves embroiled in the next global conflict only a few years or indeed months later. I am still hopeful of finding out further information about the Bury pre-war tour but in the meantime the previous edition of 'The Clavian', July 1939, contains a marvellous article written by a Sixth Former, J.A.C. Brown entitled 'Memorial in France' This clearly describes a visit to the Vimy Ridge Memorial and preserved trenches. The Memorial had been unveiled as recently as 1936 in what I believe was the only major overseas engagement of King Edward VIII's short reign. It is not clear whether the visit described by Brown took place as part of an organised school trip. In the same issue there is an account of a school visit to Paris in June 1939. However, this makes no mention of excursions outside the city and 'Memorial in France' refers to the visit to Vimy taking part in early spring which would indicate possibly the Easter holidays rather than June. In any case, I think that it is a very interesting and moving piece, written under the looming shadow of the Second World War. It was read out at Vimy by one of our then Sixth Formers on our annual school battlefields tour seventy years later.

Memorial in France

The French countryside lay wide and open on either side of the road as we walked. It was clear day, and the varying shades of brown showed up definitely in the ploughed fields, for it was still early Spring. Here and there were dotted clumps of trees and farm buildings, and occasional large, concrete water towers gleamed white in the sun. The whole scene gave the impression of being something not foreign, but just another, if different, part of England.

And then, at the bottom of one of the trees that bordered the road, we saw two old shells; rusty, iron cylinders about a foot long that some farm labourer had ploughed up and thrown at the side of the field, and we realised suddenly, not only that this was not England, but that these peaceful fields covered the actual battlefields of the last war. The brown sea of ploughed fields had slowly flowed over the old trench lines and shell holes until only those two rusted shells remained as witness to what had been twenty years before; but even as these thoughts were going through our minds , we noticed that all along the edge of the fields was one long line of cartridges, broken bayonets and rifles, and bits of leather and metal of all kinds. We walked on, alert now for any new secret this strange countryside might be concealing from us.

After a while, we turned off the straight main road and went up a winding country lane which led towards a hill until it lost itself in a small wood at the bottom of the rise. The fields on either side of the lane were rough and uncultivated and presently we noticed that there was a pattern in the roughness, the zigzag pattern of old and overgrown trenches. But for that pattern, one could not have told it from English moorland. So were we gradually prepared in our minds and imagination for the scene that was to come.

A sixth former reads 'Memorial in France' at a rain lashed Vimy Memorial on our October 2008 tour. The weather is very different to that described in his predecessor J. Brown's article, written seventy years before.

Further on, as we passed through the wood, and ascended the hill, the trenches were preserved as they had been during the war, in memory of those who had lived and died there. Ten or twelve feet deep, and lined with concrete "sandbags", they were complete in every detail, even to rusty trench mortars and tin hats lying carelessly about as though left by some forgetful soldier. Nearby, on the top of the hill, was a memorial, a mighty erection of white stone, with two towers, rising in bold outline against the sky, and facing east...facing East, we thought, across the great plain that lay below, further than we could see, to Germany; and from the past our thoughts went immediately to the future. What secrets of the future were concealed side by side with those of the past in that scene? With what feelings would the next invading army, if ever one reached that place again, halt and look at that memorial, as it stood, grand and impassive in their path. Perhaps there would be some in that army who had been there twenty years before in those very trenches at the foot of the memorial. Would they remember the futility of those years of fighting for the hill?

And as we thought, there occurred to us another possibility. Would the two opposing armies, after the first shock of meeting and manoeuvring for position, settle down once more in those trenches on the hill, forgetful, in the old human way, of all the lessons of history? And on the battlefield, would the great memorial be but another feature to be considered in the strategy of the two armies, until it crumbled under the fire of guns, and until there was nothing to remind men of those who died in the war to end war?

It was suddenly cold, and shivering we looked up to see that the sun, which had been shining brightly in a clear sky, had vanished behind a grey cloud'

J.A.C.B (VI)

For an email link to the author of this article, click here to email Mark Hone

Copyright © Mark Hone, January 2014

Return to the Hellfire Corner Contents Section