View from the trenches

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Anne Nicholls explores ways to bring history alive amid the silence of a battlefield

Maybe it's the popularity of Band of Brothers. Or perhaps the imminent 60th anniversary of the D-day landings, or even the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. And no doubt the recent Iraq conflict has brought the reality of war much closer to home. Whatever the reason, there is a burgeoning interest in battlefield tours.

Many teachers regard the direct experience of walking through the trenches, standing on the Normandy beaches and visiting the cemeteries and memorials as an important way of bringing history to life.

Jonny Taylor, head of history at Merchant Taylors', an independent boys'

school in Northwood, Middlesex, has been taking boys on tours of the First World War battlefields and Berlin for more than 10 years.

In 2002, he took 76 boys to Flanders and the Somme. They stand in the trenches and listen to teachers reading extracts from regimental diaries such as Tommy Goes to War by Malcolm Brown, or listen to the poems of Wilfred Owen.

"What this does is bring history to life, giving the boys a different perspective," says Mr Taylor. "At the time, you think they're not appreciating it, but the experience does stick with them."

Mark Bamping, now in his final year at Merchant Taylors, still remembers vividly doing the same trip to Flanders five years ago, when he was 14.

"The trenches had hardly been touched so I could imagine what it might have been like," he says. "Young men going over the top into wide open spaces, facing machine guns - lads just a few years older than me. That really hit home. I had thought that history was pretty boring stuff and never expected the trip to affect me the way that it did."

Shona Soutar, head of history at The Boswells school, a mixed comprehensive in Chelmsford, Essex, recalls similar experiences. A year ago, she escorted a Year 10 group on a three-day tour of Flanders and the Somme, taking in Dunkirk on the return journey.

Her pupils leafed through cemetery registers to find records of their surname and then locate the grave or memorial inscription.

Ms Soutar was struck by their reaction. Reading through their diaries of the trip, there were two experiences they found particularly moving. One was the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate at Ypres; the other was the cemetery at Tyne Cot in Flanders.

"Seeing grave after grave of young men, barely older than themselves, brought the reality of war much closer. We were worried that some pupils might misbehave, but their behaviour was impeccable. A year later, they are still talking about the trip."

The experience of the Menin Gate is mentioned by many pupils as a highlight. Every evening, at 8pm, a 15-minute ceremony takes place, an event that has happened with regimental regularity since 1928 (only interrupted during the Second World War). The names of selected soldiers who died that week are read out, then wreaths are placed on the memorial and, finally, buglers play the last post.

Those escorting tours should not expect a theme-park experience. I have been to the American Civil War battlefields and Battle on the 1066 tour.

This is different - more immediate and more personal. One particularly moving experience was standing in a sunken lane near Beamont Hamel on the Somme, hearing the story of the Lancashire Fusiliers. On July 1, 1916 - the first day of the Battle there - they went over the top. Within minutes, almost the entire regiment of 450 young men had been wiped out.

Reading about history in books is one thing. Being there and hearing the stories brings it into another dimension altogether.

School trips to Normandy and invitations to D-Day ceremonies aboard HMS Belfast in London and Portsmouth are among the prizes on offer on the website launched to celebrate the D-Day anniversaries. Useful websites


Prepare pupils for the trip by covering it in lessons first, but try to prepare them for the emotional experience as well.

Do lots of research. Include personal stories about the people that fought there . Don't just talk about military strategy and tactics. Link history and literature. Getting pupils to read Sebastian Faulks's novel 'Birdsong'

or John McCrae's poem 'In Flanders Field' helps to bring the experience to life.

Encourage pupils to try and find out family connections before they go. The Commonwealth War Graves website* is a useful resource.

Take a wreath from the school to lay at a cemetery or memorial.

Be prepared for surprises. Sometimes the naughtiest youngsters are the ones that are the ones most overcome with emotion.* www.cwgc.orgcwgcinternetsearch.aspx

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