My Trip to the Belgian Battlefields

It was 7am on a frosty Friday morning. The sun had barely begun to peek over campus west, students were still asleep in their beds, and I was legging it through Wentworth – suitcase dragging behind me – late to catch a coach to Belgium. By some miracle I made the coach in time for the long, arduous journey down south, through the channel tunnel, all the way to Ypres in Belgium.

This was a trip I’d been looking forward to since I first found out that a group of English and History trainee teachers, of this year’s PGCE cohort, were being taken to the WW1 battlefields (for free, I might add!). I have always wanted to go to Belgium and have their legendary waffles!

This trip wasn’t a holiday though (and I never did go for waffles!). This was a training experience, designed to both model how to run a school trip, and develop our subject knowledge of WW1 and WW1 Literature. Over three days we followed the Western Front from the Ypres Salient in Belgium, down through the Somme, all the way to the Armistice Clearing in France. On our way we saw Tyne Cot, Thiepval, the Menin Gate, and many many many cemeteries. Each memorial or cemetery we visited, I was blown away by the sheer number of graves and names – particularly the names of the tens of thousands of men who went missing and have never been found.

The Armistice Clearing. Photo by Helen Snelson.

When I embarked on this trip, I won’t lie, my thoughts were focused mostly on chocolate and waffles and a free holiday to Belgium, but as soon as I stepped into the cemetery at Tyne Cot, I realised just how important it was to see these places; to read the names on each memorial; to hear the poems atop the very cold, windy hills that inspired the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

As a student who spends most of my time away on placements, this trip was also an invaluable opportunity to bond with fellow trainee teachers and grow closer as a group. I won’t divulge the details of our Saturday evening free time in the hostel bar, but for many of us it was the first time we had hung out in an informal setting and it was one of the best nights I’ve had in a while (us teachers don’t get out much!).

This trip absolutely exceeded every expectation I had. It’s given me a new appreciation for WW1 literature; a genre that hasn’t always been my favourite. Visiting the battlefields was an enlightening and inspiring journey that I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced. There is no better way to experience war poetry and it is a trip that I sincerely hope I have the opportunity to share with the students I teach someday.

Featured image by Helen Snelson