Prevent doomed youth by blowing their minds

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Julie Greenhough teaches English in a London secondary school

"How long would we have to wait, Miss, to see it explode?"

We're standing in a muddy field of the Somme gazing at sheep, several hundred of which get blown to bits each year by unexploded bombs. The eager look on the pupils' faces is worrying. Ah, the joy of school trips.

Migraine-inducing, paperwork-laden, health and safety nightmares. I had already had a minor seizure, brought on by seeing Francis and George wandering off looking for souvenirs. I couldn't remember if I'd ticked the box about missing limbs or not.

The tension began on the ferryboat over to France, when no safety announcements were made. I began to question whether making such a trip was a sensible idea. Still, the pupils weren't worried - they were absorbed blowing up aliens on giant computer games simulating war.

Later, on the actual battlefields of the Somme, war took on a new and bloody reality. Standing in the sunshine, the pain and suffering of the fallen was almost palpable. The veil of time seemed to lift and you could feel the tension of 1916, taste the terror in the mouth, hear the shrill echo of the officers' whistle and Wlfred Owen's "rifles' rapid rattle" and the "shrill, demented choir of wailing shells".

We stood in trenches and looked across flat fields, no place to hide, and only certain death waiting. Still those soldiers got up and marched forward. I am not sure I could have done likewise. The pupils were visibly moved. I silently issued tissues as unexpected tears fell.

At the Thiepval memorial to the missing we paused, listening to Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth". At the back of my mind was a promise made to our head of sport to lay a memento at the grave of any Royal Marine. I had not yet had an opportunity to do that, and now was the only remaining chance.

As I raised my eyes, I saw the inscription: "A Greenhough". My great-great uncle. Out of 60,000 names, there he was. The pupils helped me to look up his details in the roll of names. He fell on July 1, 1916, aged 17. A Royal Marine. He was the same age as some of the pupils. The coincidence was too much for us.

My father only wished for one thing in life for me: that I would never have to witness war at first hand. I wish that for every pupil, although I know it may be futile. More realistically, I wish that every pupil could go on such a life-changing trip and stand and see the graves so numerous that the eye cannot see where they end.

It should be every child's right. Then, when they find themselves in government or politics, they might remember what we saw and make decisions based on peace, not war. Damn paperwork, tick-boxes and the expense. Open the government coffers and fund this trip. Isn't this what education is all about? But just watch out for those exploding sheep.

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