We began our day this morning with breakfast at the hotel before heading out to the town of Poperinghe. Poperinghe was unoccupied during WW1 and so is another town that the British never surrendered during the First World War. Today though, much like Ypres, it is a busy market town with lots of shops, restaurants and bars.
Our first stop was to see the death cells and an authentic execution pole, located in the inner courtyard of the town hall, which serve as a painful reminder of the fate which awaited many so-called ‘deserters’ during the Great War.
From here, we walked to Talbot House for what was a unique and wonderful experience for many reasons. Talbot House was founded in 1915 by Reverend Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton and served as a rest and recreation centre where soldiers were welcomed, regardless of rank.
Today, we were greeted by Simon, dressed as a Tommy who guided us in character around Talbot House, taking us to the third floor which acted as the chapel. From the early days of its creation the chapel in ‘the Upper Room’ offered a peaceful haven for hundreds of soldiers taking a brief respite from the trenches. Even today, the affect on us all was moving and strangely calming.
Below, on the ground floor, we enjoyed cups of tea and coffee and pupils gathered around the piano, just as the troops would have done, for a good old sing song.
After some free time to explore the town and the market, we boarded the coach to tour the Ypres Salient, starting with Hill 60. Known because of its level above sea level, Hill 60 was captured by the Germans in 1914 and there are still pill boxes that remain there today – here’s George Turton in one and Hal and Joe on top of one.
We then walked on to see the Caterpillar Crater, just next to Hill 60. This crater was caused when British troops tunnelled underneath the German stronghold and blew it up, using mines. When the mines were detonated in June 1917, 450,000 kg of explosives went off under the German positions, demolishing a large part of Hill 60 and killing around 10,000 German soldiers. Mr Peach explained that when the explosion went off, it was felt in Downing Street where it rattled their tea cups. This was eye-opening for many of our pupils.
After some lunch, we headed on to Hill 62, which is usually referred to as ‘Sanctuary Wood’. The museum here houses a huge collection of WW1 items, including weapons, uniforms, bombs and still boasts real trenches and tunnels. Our pupils enjoyed going through these with torches and exploring the trenches.
Along the way to Vancouver Corner, which is the site of the St Julian Canadian memorial of the ‘Brooding Soldier’, Mr Franks explained the ins and outs of chemical warfare during WW1 and specifically the chlorine gas attacks that took place. At the site, Mr Cox read Wilfrid Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est.
Our penultimate stop was Tyne Cot which is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war. It is on a scale that needs to be experienced to be believed. There are around 12,000 burials at Tyne Cot, over 8,000 of which are unnamed. Here, Beth Dengate was able to find a family relative on the wall of the missing, making her the first in over a century to have made the visit to find his name inscribed on the wall.
Our last stop of this busy day was at a German cemetery. Having visited a number of British cemeteries now, our pupils are used to the English country garden feel of them, but at Langemark, the whole atmosphere is extremely different. The gravestones are flat and the whole area is enclosed by large, imposing oak trees. At its heart, there is a mass grave that houses over 12,500 German fallen. There was a tangible sense of shock at the needless loss of life here from our Y11s.
After dinner, we packed and got ready for bed and another early start tomorrow, as we make our way back home in the morning.
We anticipate being back at St Mary’s by 5:30-6:00, but that is an estimate at this time and so we will update the blog and website tomorrow when we have a more accurate ETA.