Really early on Saturday morning, 73 members of Wellingborough District Scouts gathered at our District headquarters. We were excited to be on our way to visit the World War One Cemeteries.
First, we had a long coach journey to the Channel Tunnel. We passed the time by eating our breakfast, and our lunch as well as lots of sweets.
On the way to the tunnel, we picked up Jo and John, our battlefield guides. They proved to be really important to help us understand what we were seeing. As we travelled through France they told us about how the war had started and given us an idea of what Belgium had been like before the war. Many of the soldiers at the beginning of the war thought that the war would be over quickly. The armies were full of professional soldiers and those who joined up for adventure. Later both sides conscripted young men into their armies, as the war dragged on.
Our first stop was Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. The cemetery is on the site of a Casualty Clearing station. This meant that most of the men buried here are known by their names. The cemetery was very peaceful and well kept with lots of plants and flowers. We learned that an organisation named the Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the cemetery.
There are a few French graves, but most are Commonwealth soldiers. All of the gravestones are the same shape, showing that every man was equal. Every stone has the name and date of death of the soldier buried there.
Jo and John pointed out some of the graves. We found Nellie Spindler a nurse killed while she was caring for soldiers, and the only woman buried here. One gravestone was all on its own. John told us that it used to be surrounded by other graves, but that at the end of the war the other soldiers buried there had been moved back to America.
Next stop was Ypres, where we would be staying the night. We visited the In Flanders Fields Museum. The museum is very interactive and here we learned about the life of a soldier and the experiences of the people of the local town. Ypres was held by the British army throughout the war, but at a cost. All of the buildings in the town were destroyed and had to be rebuilt after the war by the local people.
After a quick stop at our hotel to make our beds we were off for dinner, which turned out to be ½ a chicken and chips.
Then it was the time for the main reason for our trip. Every evening at 8.00p.m the roads around the Menin Gate are closed to traffic. People gather for a daily act of Remembrance. We had to get there early and wait because there were lots of people waiting to see the ceremony.
At 8.00p.m five buglers from the Ypres Fire Brigade sounded the Last post and we stood still for the two minutes silence. Mrs Jewell was lucky enough to be able to lay a wreath on behalf of the Scouts. It was a very emotional experience.
Covering the walls of the Menin Gate are the names of 53000 men who are known to have been killed, but who have no known grave. We learned that the gate was too small for all of the names needed, so 33000 names are recorded at Tyne Cot cemetery. These were just the men killed in this small area of Belgium. This is more than the entire population of Wellingborough.
We were back on the coach early on Sunday morning, we had another very busy day.
John told us about the Germans. He explained that for much of the war there was little movement and that the armies were in trenches facing each other.
We went to Langemark German Cemetery. Here 44000 German soldiers are buried. The cemetery had a very different feel to Lijssenthoek where we had visited the day before.
All of the grave markers were black and laid flat in the grass. John explained that the German cemeteries are looked after by volunteers. There are no plants or flowers.
Beneath a large statue, there is an area of ground surrounded by large grey plaques. Underneath there are the remains of 25000 German soldiers. After the war ended the local German cemeteries were cleared and all the German burials were placed in one area. The Cemetery is known as the student’s cemetery as many of the early soldiers who were buried here were from universities.
In World War Two, Hitler visited Langemark and it was changed to encourage the German people and turn them against Britain. This made a lot of us feel very uncomfortable.
We laid a wreath at the stone of Remembrance to remember that even though these men were our enemies, they were doing what they were told. They were still someone’s son, father or brother.
A short drive away we came to Tyne Cot Cemetery. This is the largest cemetery in the area. Here most of the graves are for unknown soldiers. Again all are marked with a simple headstone.
We had all prepared a Remembrance cross and we went into the cemetery to place our cross on a grave. Some people found their own surname on the walls surrounding the cemetery. We wondered whether they were related?
Jo told us about the battle of Passchendaele which took place here. She described in great detail the awful conditions that the soldiers had to deal with. It is really hard to imagine the horror of what they went through. It took eight men to carry one stretcher through the mud, which was up to their waist. It was nearly impossible for casualties to be carried to safety.
We laid our final wreath to remember all those without a known grave.
Our last stop was Hooge Crater Museum. This was a fascinating museum located behind what was the German frontline. We saw the weapons and the stretchers used in the battles. In a field close by a trench system has been recreated. We went down into the trench and our guides described the conditions we would have to live in. we were able to hold shells, hand grenades and guns.
It helped us to understand, just a little bit what these soldiers had gone through.
We then made the long journey home. We were all very tired but were pleased that we had been able to make this trip to pay our respects, one hundred years since the war ended.