Honouring old boys who gave their lives

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Mariella Wilson's Year 9 and 10 learned about sacrifice on a trip to Northern France and Belgium

At the back of the Isleworth and Syon School hall is an ornately carved and beautifully preserved Roll of Honour that commemorates the lives of 81 "Old Isleworthians" who died during the First World War while serving in the armed forces. Today this memorial remains a stark reminder to students of the sacrifices made by young men little older than themselves.

So in the year that so many schools are opting to take school parties to Normandy and commemorate the D-Day landings it felt somehow closer to home to pay homage to some of the former students of our school and organise a First World War trip to Belgium and Northern France.

The trip was initially offered to Year 10 GCSE historians as part of the AQA Modern World syllabus where Britain's role in the First World War is a study option, but the idea proved very popular among Year 9 students, who also look at the war in greater breadth within the context of the European empires. All students on the trip had studied the experiences of soldiers from both "sides" and the GCSE student had considered the impact of war on people at home in Britain.

While head of history at the school, I aimed to take an annual trip across the Channel to Northern France to help history students understand the enormity of the First World War and the toll it took on so many countries.

However, it was on holiday in Belgium and France that I felt that any future trips should include the immensely poignant and moving Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. I also realised that thanks to the work that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has done in transferring its records to an electronic roll of honour, I could attempt to trace the graves of some of the alumni of the school.

The painstaking task of copying down the 81 names, regiments and rank held paled into insignificance when I was entering names into the "search" facility on the CWGC's roll of honour and finally was able to locate a small number of graves in Belgium and Northern France. The travel company Galina International School Tours helped our school design a two-day schedule that fitted in three cemetery visits, the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, the award-winning interactive In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres and Vimy Ridge in France.

We decided against worksheets but, aside from the educational opportunity provided by the In Flanders Fields Museum, we placed a heavy emphasis on talking about what was seen and heard on the trip in relation to the students' prior knowledge and understanding. Teachers read out extracts from the superb Forgotten Voices; for example at Pilkem Ridge in Belgium the group listened to an extract of the experiences of soldiers who had witnessed the first use of gas in 1915 by the Germans.

Laying crosses at the three graves of the school's "old boys" was accompanied by a presentation on that person and his family details, and the last stop at Etaples Military Cemetery near Le Touquet was marked by reading war poems.

History has to be made alive if we are to sustain interest and enthusiasm, and the spate of popular history television series is testament to that, but a sensitive and personal approach can also bring the past alive. Video footage from the trip is a resource for Remembrance Day assemblies and for more research. As Isleworth and Syon's headteacher Euan Ferguson says, such trips are an invaluable learning experience that provides a tangible link between the past and present lives of the school.

* Commonwealth War Graves Commission, including the new education site Remember Me www.cwgc.org

* The National Archives' new website for history teachers, called The Great War www.learningcurve.gov.ukgreatwar

* Galina International School Tours www.schooltours.co.uk

* Forgotten Voices of the Great War: A New History of WWI in the Words of the Men and Women Who Were There Compiled by Max Arthur Ebury Press, Pounds 7.99

Mariella Wilson was formerly head of history at Isleworth and Syon School for Boys, Hounslow and is now assistant head at Feltham Community College, Middlesex

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