It’s getting close to that time of year when we, like so many other schools, take a group of Year 9 students to the battlefields of the First World War.
Every year we go to the Somme and Arras because these are sites that have a connection to our local area. The Cambridgeshire pals battalion was the 11th Suffolks who had the misfortune to be at the first day of the Somme and at the first day of the Battle of Arras.
In this post I wanted to explain some of the things I take with me and how I deploy them on the trip. This is not an exhaustive list of the things we see, do and talk about but might give some ideas to those who are planning similar visits.
Setting Off: Fall-In by Harold Begbie or Who’s For the Game by Jessie Pope
As the coach pulls out of the school drive, it seems appropriate to start the trip by reading a poem from the start of the war. One of those jingoistic ones that the English department make Year 9 compare to Dulce Et Decorum Est. England, like the kids, was full of excitement for a foreign adventure.
This sets the tone because the poem will be familiar to them. The students should know that they already have most of the mental framework they need to contextualise the things they see but also that seeing the sites of real tragedy should help them contextualise their school experience; it should reinforce the idea the things we teach them are not strange abstractions but things that actually shaped people’s actual lives in the actual world.
“What will you lack, sonny, what will you lack?” asks Harold Begbie of young boys who have not yet volunteered to go off to France.
The Motorway: Rendezvous With Death by AJ Peacock
This is a book about men from South Cambridgeshire who fought in the First World War. It is constructed around the letters of Oliver Hopkin, a “perfectly ordinary young man” from the small village of Wilburton, just up the road from our school. However, it book also contains interviews conducted with veterans in the 1970s. Because the transcripts are verbatim, you can hear the idioms and rhythms of proper Cambridgeshire accents. These aren’t just stories, these are the well-rehearsed tales of good little old boys.
Some of the great stories include: the tale of the man who joined up because he had, in a fit of temper, painted the farm foreman with whitewash, the men who deserted the same day they enlisted because they wanted to go to the pub (they re-joined the next day) and the man who skilfully avoided promotion because being an NCO would interfere with his bookmaking activities.
We will use some of the stories about joining up when we are setting out. As we are leaving the Fen Edge, we will tell stories of men who did the same thing a century before
Eurotunnel: Tipperary / Pack Up Your Troubles / Hanging On the Old Barbed Wire
A ukulele is useful weapon on a school trip. If you can get kids to sing you have to spend less time overhearing conversations that make you realise the that you stand firmly on the other side of the generation gap.
Calais: Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
Many students will have read this excellent children’s novel about the First World War. Reading the extract about Tommo and Charlie’s Channel crossing reminds students of the naiveté of many of the young men travelled to France in the Great War. It also reminds them that history can be the subject of some good books as well.
Gordon Dump Cemetery: The Soldier by Rupert Brooke, For A Mother by Maggie Johnson
That line about ‘a foreign field’ is interesting in a classroom. It is moving when you are stood in a foreign field looking at flowers that grow from the earth of a grave of a boy who lived up by the church in the village you teach in.
However, that’s not the point where I struggle to hold it together. We are blessed to have brilliant TAs at our school and Maggie Johnson, one of our High-level Specialist TAs, plays a pivotal role in this trip. One of the bits that is ‘her bit’, is telling the story of a local family who lost two sons on the first day of the Somme. It is because of these brothers that we go to this otherwise obscure cemetery. Maggie wrote a poem about the duty she felt, not to the fallen soldier whose grave we deliberately seek out, but to his mother: she cannot lay flowers for her boy and so Maggie sees it as her duty, one mother to another, to fulfil that role.
This is the point where I go pretend to be interested in something in the hedge in corner of the cemetery until I can confidently talk again.
Thiepval: Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth by John Garth
Personally, Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit and the rest of Middle Earth holds little interest for me. However, the fact that one of JRR Tolkein’s best mates was an officer in the 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment deeply interests me. John Garth’s description of the death of Captain Rob Gilson, juxtaposed with a description of his father, a head master, presiding over a school sports day, interspersed with quotations from eye-witnesses and Gilson’s own letters is heart-breaking.
Reading this either at Thiepval, Lochnagar Crater or Gordon Dump Cemetery, it is Gilson’s description of his men as a ‘dear, stupid, agricultural platoon’ that catches in my throat. Gilson was a university man and aspiring writer; he wouldn’t have chosen to lead these men. Yet here he is, little more than a boy with a sense of noblesse oblige, expressing an honest affection for men whose fates are intertwined with his own even though their lives are worlds distant.
Lochnagar: Extracts from http://www.curme.co.uk/, The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook, the Battalion Diary of the 11th Suffolks
Over the years, I have been able to cobble together a fairly coherent account of what the 11th Suffolks, the Cambridgeshire Pals Battalion, did on 1st July 1916. This information has largely come from the brilliant collection of resources assembled and curate by Phil Curme on his website (link above). I have contextualised this using Middlebrook’s brilliant account of the first day of the battle and, over the years, found quotations, vignettes and stories from other sources including the battalion diary.
This is the time – when you can point to the jump-off point at Bécourt Wood, and you can see Sausage Valley, when you can point to the Suffolk Redoubt – this is the time to tell the story of this part of the battle, this part of the line. The part of history made by men from the same villages as the kids on our trip.
(In Case of Emergencies: Major and Mrs Holt’s Pocket Battlefield Guide, Major and Mrs Holt’s Battle Map of the Somme, The Battles of World War I: Everything You Need to Know by Christopher Catherwood
The Holt’s guides were given to me by the coach company who organise our tour. It’s a great little guide book and usefully pocket-sized. Useful to have if you are in need of quick reference about the sites and memorials. The map is also useful for final planning and last-minute adjustments to the itinerary negotiated with the coach driver on the day.
The Catherwood is one of those books that you might pick up in a garden centre. I think the claim that it contains ‘Everything You Need to Know’ may be a little ambitious, it is very useful for very quick reference to refresh my memory of context or to help answer students’ questions about the wider war.)
The Morning of the Second Day When We Head Off to Arras: The General by Siegfried Sassoon
“Good morning! Good morning!” I like the mercilessness of starting the day with more poetry. It sets the tone. Also, a poem about slogging up to Arras is appropriate when you are about to slog up to Arras. Most importantly, it’s so short I can do it from memory.
Arras Memorial: For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon
The Arras Memorial is often the place where students find the graves of and memorials to family members. It is often here that we ask them how we should mark this. Often they want to lay a wreath. Once I have explained its background, the often they let me have someone read this.
The Bus Home: War Exalts by Harold Begbie
An English-teacher colleague introduced me to both of the Begbie poems. It acts as a beautiful counterpoint to the first. By the time Begbie wrote this he had a much better understanding of what the war actually meant. I hope that it’s not too crass to say that by this point in the trip the students do too.
Like I said above, this is not an exhaustive list of the things that we do, tell and ask but it cover much. I would also recommend the brilliant tours done by the folks at Ulster Tower and the excellent new museum at Wellington Quarry. I would also recommend a good coach company. We have used Galloway in Suffolk for years, mostly because their drivers know the area so well and are able to share in the guiding, know about timings and are able to adjust their plans to suit our needs. The experience they bring is invaluable. Finally, if you are thinking of how to put more thinking into a school trip, you could do worse than read Andrew Wrenn’s article from Teaching History about sites as interpretations.