The four years of the First World War witnessed a conflict which touched every family in Britain.
Many of them lost family members on the battlefield, others had loved ones who came home but were forever changed by their experience in the trenches. More than eight million men served in the army alone, and it was a citizen’s war: a conflict in which ordinary men and women experienced extraordinary things. And a century later it continues to fascinate thousands who visit the battlefields of the Western Front each year.
What do these battlefields have to tell us, a century later? There are so many voices of WW1; from the war poets to memoirs written by ordinary soldiers. To read these is one thing, but to travel the ground where these events took place brings history to life. The landscape has recovered from the ravages of war, but in the company of a specialist Battlefield Guide you can find the traces of old trenches, see the concrete bunkers where the fighting was often at its fiercest, and visualise the huge cost of the war in the military cemeteries from many nations. The almost impossible casualty figures of WW1 suddenly become imaginable when you are standing among thousands and thousands of graves.
For students travelling to the battlefields, it offers a unique experience to extend the classroom into the outside world, where they can research, discover and connect to a subject which might at times seem remote to them. On the ground they can look at trench systems, observe the zig-zag shapes and research the reasons behind why the battlefield looked as it did. They can discover the impact of war, the cost of conflict, and even talk to locals in Belgium and France whilst practising language skills, asking what the war means to them. Visiting a cemetery near Arras, a school group I was with was stopped by a local couple. Some of the best French speakers in the group spoke to them and translated for all the students: the couple thanked them all for the sacrifice made for France, and they were so pleased to see young people paying their respects. The students were amazed at this and spoke about it for hours afterwards.
And among the white stone of the soldier’s cemeteries, they can connect with the war when they discover the graves of young boys who died aged 15 and 16, so close to their own ages. Suddenly the war isn’t so remote, suddenly it’s personal. Many students kneel at the grave of Valentine Strudwick, at Essex Farm near Ypres, and weep when they read his age: killed in 1916 just one month short of his sixteenth birthday. It engages them to think of themselves in that situation: how would they have coped, how could someone so young be there, what was life as a teenager like a century ago? History becomes real, they can begin to see it through their own eyes and it changes them forever.
Being on the battlefields of the First World War with a student group is a remarkable experience. They arrive seeing history as the dusty pages of a book, and return feeling that the past is vivid, real, and that the echoes from it mean as much to them as generations past. What they see, what they hear, and what they experience in the fields of Flanders never leaves them. It is an experience as important as a gap year, and it proves to the students that history matters, and the price paid for us to be free is something worth remembering.
Paul Reed is a leading military historian who is the author of nine books on WW1 and WW2. He is Head Battlefield Guide for Leger Holidays and has also appeared in many TV programmes about the battlefields from ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ to BBC Timewatch, and Channel 4’s Secret History.
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