The Perse School

Year 9 students pay their respects at First World War battlefields

20 Apr 2017

Head of History Peter Anderson recounts a moving trip to the First World War battlefields in France and Belgium

At the beginning of the Easter holiday the History Department took 47 year 9 pupils to Belgium and France to visit some of the key sites on the Ypres Salient and at the Somme. The first and third days were spent around the northern Belgian city of Ypres, which was held mainly by the British army between 1914 and 1918. Visits to Essex Farm Cemetery, Sanctuary Wood and Langemark German Cemetery gave pupils further insight into the horrendous loss of life and the conditions on the front lines. At the end of the first day, the group attended the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, in which pupils heard a visiting band and witnessed a parade with Standards and military personnel. The sounding of the ‘Last Post’ and the ‘Réveille’ was, as always, extremely powerful and moving.

Trips to the superb Passchendaele Memorial Museum and Tyne Cot Cemetery enabled pupils to understand the topography and the tragedy of the major British offensive on the Ypres Salient in 1917, in which both sides lost over 250,000 casualties.

On the second day we travelled down to the Somme in northern France, the site of a major Anglo-French offensive against the Germans in 1916. Pupils have been studying the battle in class and have focused on the culpability of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and the British High Command for the events of 1 July 1916, the worst day in British military history. Visits to Newfoundland Memorial Park, Thiepval Memorial, Ulster Tower and Thiepval Wood allowed pupils to envisage exactly what went wrong for the British and how the more experienced Germans, who had been in the Somme region since 1914, were able to use the terrain and the chalk ridges to their advantage.

At the end of our day at the Somme, we visited Regina Trench Cemetery to visit the grave of Old Persean Peter Mason. The walk to and from the cemetery made the visit even more poignant. Lieutenant Mason was Head Boy, Captain of South House, rugby captain and Vice-President of the Debating Society when he was at The Perse. He left school in the summer of 1915 and in June 1916, he received a commission in the 6th battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps. By August he had crossed to France, joining the 1st battalion and taking part in the attack of Beaumont Hamel. He was killed during an attack on German trenches at Miraumont on 17th February 1917. Mason was only 21 years old.

To finish the trip we travelled to the town of Poperinge, which is located roughly 8 miles to the west of Ypres and served as a base for the British army on the Ypres Salient. Following a harrowing visit to the death cells and Shooting Post where some British soldiers were shot at dawn, the tour ended with a trip to Talbot House, an amazing place in the heart of Poperinge where army chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip “Tubby” Clayton opened a club in December 1915, providing soldiers, regardless of their rank, a place to rest and recuperate. To hear our pupils play the same piano and sing the same songs as the soldiers would have done a hundred years ago was very special indeed.

One of the most memorable parts of the tour for pupils is the opportunity to commemorate a fallen relative at one of the cemeteries or memorials. Six pupils were able to do this on the tour and this also enabled the group to pay its respects to two Old Perseans who are commemorated at the Arras Memorial, a site we have never visited before.

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