Three Days on the Western Front: A student’s experience of a school trip to the First World War battlefields

23/02/2016

Written and offered to ForcesWatch by Joe Brydon, who was in Year 13 at an academy school in Bristol at the time of the trip.

An account of a school trip in 2015 to the First World War battlefields by Joe Brydon, who was in Year 13 at the time, which raises various important questions about some of the ways that school students are being encouraged to remember war.


An account of a school trip in 2015 to the First World War battlefields by Joe Brydon, who was in Year 13 at the time. It raises various important questions about some of the ways that school students are being encouraged to remember war.

Monday 29th June 2015

Our first meeting with the tour guide, an ex-police officer, summarised fairly well the tone of my school’s trip in June 2015 to some of the First World War battlefields. “Remember,” she instructed us, “every time we take a photo we want smiles because they died so we could have freedom.” Nothing about capital and empire for the moment, but that would be too historically accurate, as she explained; by focussing on individuals, it becomes “less of a history lesson and more interesting really.”

The particular individual on the DVD we were shown was a man called Horace, whom she claimed “serves his country today, just as he did all those years ago by fighting and dying for it,” before immediately contradicting herself with the afterthought “all we really hope for is peace.” Horace, we heard, always wanted to be in the army. An actor explains: “when war was declared in 1914, it was just what I was waiting for.” We heard nothing about the 750,000 who marched in Germany alone against the war. Obviously, the conscientious objector remained well and truly silenced. We can assume that the average man was eager to fight the German worker, not their boss, or their government, or – in the case of British colonies – their imperial rulers, as was more often the case. Instead we are reminded that we are here to “honour all those who’ve lain down their lives for the Commonwealth.”

An hour late, we made it to Lijssenhoek Military Cemetery, where we were told that the war happened because “the Germans wanted a bigger empire than us,” not because we wanted to maintain a bigger empire than the Germans. The fact that between 1876 and 1900, Africa went from 10% colonised to 90% colonised, largely by British hands, obviously went unmentioned, as did the 150% increase in British military spending in the twenty-five years leading up to 1914.[1]

Our reason for being at this particular cemetery was to see the grave of Nellie Spindler. “It wasn’t just the brave tommies who died”, we were told, automatically perpetuating the assumption that the soldiers were braver than those who risked their lives  for conscientious objection – some of who died because of the terrible treatment they endured.

A brief detour down the suffragettes’ route had me hoping for a mention of their opposition to war, since they saw the real enemy as Westminster, not Berlin, but instead we were simply told to “always use your vote, no matter what you think of the parties, because people died for that right.” More guilt tripping of the anarchists among us. I received a derisive glare from those sat near me. Many of our group knew that I’d spoilt my ballot in the last election; very few knew the reasons why. I don’t like it when people try to bring the suffragettes into the argument to convince us that we are obliged to vote; Sylvia Pankhurst never used her vote.

One of the students mentioned that he was in the cadets. “You’re in the cadets?” She responded, “I like you!” I wondered what her response would be if I showed her my CND membership card.

Despite this bombardment of propaganda, I was relieved to see some more original thought breaking through as we made our way back to the coach. Reflecting on the sheer scale of the cemetery, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I totally understand your point of view now Joe, the futility of it all, what was it for?”

On Passing the New Menin Gate – Siegfried Sassoon

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,

the unheroic dead who fed the guns?

Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-

Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.

Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;

Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,

The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

 

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride

‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.

Was ever an immolation so belied

as these intolerably nameless names?

Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime

Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

Tuesday 30th June 2015

The archaeologist, historian, and member of the No Glory In War campaign, Neil Faulkner writes:

A world divided into rival nation-states and empires meant a world of barriers to trade – protective tariffs, closed colonial markets, and competition from foreign corporations. Here was the most deep-rooted cause of the First World War: the growth of giant monopolies and the fusing of industrial, bank and state capital had created a dangerous world of competing nationalisms. 

The explosion of empire-building in the last quarter of the 19th Century had provided a safety-valve (though at the expense of the hundreds of millions who were killed, subjugated, and exploited by European colonists). But when the carve-up of the world seemed complete, the rivalry rebounded into Europe. The competitive empire-building of the great powers morphed into a European arms race.’

Thus, with nobody else on whom to turn their guns, in the name of greed and imperialism, the great powers turned them on themselves, at the cost of 15 million lives.

I first heard about the strike action at Calais over breakfast. Information was hard to come by, but from what I could glean, they were paralysing the system by refusing to comply with its demands. Obviously, that is how strikes work, so why is it relevant to mention this? Well, it was by similar direct action that the war ended; French mutiny as conscripts laid down their arms, German mutiny at Kiel, the Russian Revolution. With nobody left to fire the guns, the leaders were left with no choice but to negotiate as broken a peace as they could achieve.  This was not however the view we were given; it was those who fought who won the war, apparently, not those who resisted. Perhaps this was why I was the only one on the bus not badmouthing the strikers. So long as they remained nonviolent, I was impressed by their efforts, and was keen to learn more about their strategy.

We were given a range of explanations for the war’s end, none mentioning resistance. One “expert” at Lochagar Crater blamed the German use of iron bullets rather than brass. “The damage these did to the inside of the rifles was a definite factor in Germany losing the war.” He didn’t even feel the need to substantiate this claim with anything other than his own word.

Our tour guide had the most straightforward approach that “by the end of the war, our lads had become an efficient fighting force, and we won… basically.” If, by “we”, she was referring to the general British public, then she was wrong – our struggles continued, for housing, for health, for a living wage (see J. Young-Mason, “Casting a Cold Eye on Reality: Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier,” Clinical Nurse Specialist CNS 13, no. 3 (1999): 123–24).  If anyone won, it was the strikers and mutineers. The result was not from us being an efficient fighting force either, because –quite simply – we weren’t. (see Donald A. Yerxa and William James Philpott, “Bloody Victory at the Somme: An Interview with William Philpott,” Historically Speaking 11, no. 4 (2010): 31–32)

A lot hangs on pronouns and adverbs. “Unfortunately,” it is always unfortunately, “we were unable to push them back to Germany from whence they came.” What if they, the dastardly they, happened to push us back to Somerset, Essex and Yorkshire, from whence we came? Gesturing to the Somme, we were told “the Germans believed this should be part of their empire.” In a similar way, we British believed a fifth of the world’s surface to be ours.

I realised that “us” and “them” wasn’t Britain and Germany, but that “them” was simply a one-size-fits-all label for all the evil in the world that wasn’t “us.”

After a reading of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” and an inaccurate biography of the author at Thiepval, we were asked “does anyone know why we all wear a red poppy on Remembrance Day?” She forgot that not all of us do. I guessed that “because of media pressure to acknowledge war as a necessity” or “nationalistic agenda” were not the answers she was seeking. Instead it was “to honour the sacrifice that Commonwealth soldiers made for our freedom.” It wasn’t for our freedom though, was it? Haven’t we already seen that it was a war fought for economic reasons?  And why can we not remember the non-Commonwealth soldiers who died for greed and ignorance, or the civilians who have been killed in all our pointless wars?

Thiepval itself was introduced to us with the immortal words “we’ve seen a German stronghold that was blown to bits; now we’re going to see one that unfortunately wasn’t blown to bits.”

A lot of people seemed keen to keep checking I was okay. It may seem brutal to say it, but everything I saw made perfect sense. It was the unquestioning ones who were really struggling to comprehend the slaughter and the scale of it all. Perhaps it’s because I hadn’t yet spoken out and they were expecting it. If it could be said that I had one act of protest during the trip, it was that night at the Menin Gate in Ypres.

After what I found to be an excruciatingly laborious daily act of remembrance, we regrouped for a poem to be read. I had both volunteered for this task and selected the poem. I think my choice of Sassoon’s “On Passing the New Menin Gate” left our tour guide less than impressed, judging by her facial response, but otherwise it was well received. It must also be noted that I count it a great honour to have read my favourite war poem at the site about which it was written.

‘Conscientious objection is not a total repudiation of force; it is a refusal to surrender moral responsibility for one’s actions.’ – Quaker educationalist Kenneth C Barnes, 1987

Wednesday 1st July 2015

A word on the cemeteries; I was not shocked so much by the scale of them as by the regularity with which one encountered them. With each death an individual tragedy, every field could be seen as an entire library of death. “My great uncle was killed in that field,” the tour guide reminded us with a smile, pointing over a hilltop. There were plenty enough war dead for each village to have a plethora of plain white headstones in a little enclosure by the side of the road. It was both the first war in which the majority of deaths were from direct combat rather than disease, and the last European war in which civilian casualties were in a minority. There were military cemeteries at every corner.

Tyne Cot was the largest cemetery we saw, with soil “beautiful to grow crops in, but dreadful to fight in,” but I am yet to work out how this marks it apart from any other soil. For the act of remembrance, we were told that she would be “picking on volunteers.” Maybe I was wrong, but this immediately set me thinking about conscription. Interestingly, the poems read were all written by 21st Century school children heaping honour and glory on those who had been killed, not by those who were actually present in the trenches. We were told that “more up to date poems reach home better.” They also condone historic revisionism, romanticism and a distancing from the realities of war. It was all about winning the glorious and highly sanitised victory.

That’s what we were told at Hooge Crater; “This is why we are all here today. We won. That’s why we have freedom. Freedom is very important. We can go and do what we want and say what we want, and we have the soldiers to thank.” There is no escaping the fact that, even in the last forty years, more freedom has been won non-violently than has ever been achieved through war.  My liberty is the liberty to object and defy, and there is never a need to kill for this freedom. (Mohandas K. Ghandi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navjivan, 1925) 

Our last stop was a preserved trench at Hill 62. Thus, it was introduced, “Sanctuary Wood was originally a quiet part of the British reserve line, hence the name, but then the Germans decided to change all that.” Evidently, there is more to it than that. We took away the peacefulness when we dug our trenches there. A forest filled with guns and soldiers, no matter to whom they belong, cannot be considered peaceful by any definition of the word.

With industrial action continuing at Calais, I was rather impressed by the disruption, yet we made it to the Eurotunnel. (I gather they had blocked the port by parking a ferry in its entrance, a very smart move.) As we waited in the Duty Free, I sat with the guide and we talked about our personal lives, her previous employment, and then my work. She asked me a lot about my politics, and we discussed many of the things that I’ve already mentioned here. I explained the failure of the 1905 Russian Revolution the moment violence crept in, the nonviolent resistance to the Nazis and the success thereof, the vast potential of civilian-based defence, if only it were considered seriously. She listened, and conceded that I made some good points. She expressed particular outrage at the insanity of our arms trade, and after I recommended some further reading, she concluded that “talking to you, I realise that the future of Britain is in good hands.” And that is what I’ve taken from this trip; the First World War was a catastrophe, from which we still have not learned, but there is still a chance, and there is always hope for the future.

“To kill one man is to be guilty  of a capital crime, to kill ten men is to increase the guilt ten-fold, to kill a hundred men is to increase it a hundred-fold. This the rulers of the earth all recognise and yet when it comes to the greatest crime – waging war on another state – they praise it!

It is clear that they do not know it is wrong, for they record such deeds to be handed down to posterity; if they knew they were wrong, why should they wish to record them and have them handed down to posterity?” – Mozi, China, c.470-391 BC  

[1] Neil Faulkner, No Glory: The Real History of the First World War (Stop the War Coalition, 2013)

Monday 29th June 2015

M


See everything on: WWI commemorations, education

Also see:

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