We have arrived safely at our hotel, The Oude Abdij, after a long but pleasant journey today. We’re all fed, watered and reasonably rested, but ready for our beds.
We had smooth and quiet leg of the journey this morning, stopping for breakfast at the services, before heading to Dover for our crossing.
The crossing (or ‘cruise’ as one pupil called it earlier) was rather like we had chartered our own personal ferry, with a smattering of cars and lorries on deck, plus us. The pupils enjoyed the run of the place, while having something to eat and drink and the opportunity to sit around tables to chat and relax.
Once we arrived in France, Mr Franks started the tour in earnest with an impressive potted version of the events that led up to the start of First World War in August 1914. The context is important, since our journey (albeit in luxury, comparatively) very much mirrored the troops’ approach to Flanders and, in particular, Ypres over 100 years ago.
Our first and only stop today was at Essex Farm Cemetery. This is not only a Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground where 1,204 dead are commemorated, but was a military dressing station at the front line and has several interesting features. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea was stationed here and the site is now part of a memorial to him. It was here in 1915 that he penned the now famous poem In Flanders Field. Mr Cox read to the poem in front of the dressing station, while pupils were then able to explore the remains of what once served as a medical centre for wounded soldiers.
Since this was our first Cemetery, Mr Franks then explained the layout of the British cemeteries on the Western Front and showed us two important grave stones: The first was Valentine Strudwick, who at 15 years old is the youngest known British soldier to die during the First World War. The other was Thomas Barratt who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917. While on scout patrol, he showed significant bravery when stalking and killing two enemy snipers, only to be killed moments later, at the age 22.
Our students then showed compassion and reverence in their movements around the cemetery, before boarding the coach for our last coach journey today – to our hotel.
At the hotel, pupils had some free time to relax together after a long day – even enjoying the novelty of a television in their rooms (“yes, we get BBC1!”).
This evening, we dine together at 7pm, with lights out at 10:30, sharp. We’re up early tomorrow for a busy day: a tour of Ypres, around the salient, followed by our presence at the Menin Gate ceremony tomorrow evening.