Corners of foreign fields: ideas for making meaning and memory on a Battlefields Trips

Thanks to Hugh Richards, Head of History at Huntington School in York and leader of the HA’s Subject Leader Development Programme, for this blogpost. Hugh is a leading thinker about how to make history memorable and meaningful for young people, and he has a lot of experience in organising Battlefields Trips. Hopefully you will be inspired to get (back) to the Battlefields.

This blog explains some things we do as a department to make our Battlefields Trip a memorable and meaningful experience. There are so many ways to achieve this, I’m sure there are great ideas we’ve never used. There is a link to a folder of resources at the bottom. Anything mentioned will be in there. I am very happy to be contacted with questions, and I can recommend reaching out to Simon Bendry, (@WW1_education on Twitter) who really knows his stuff!

My biggest single tip is to spread the load: I do the teaching and research side, my amazing second-in-department is Trip Leader – booking ferries and hotels, sorting risk assessments and tapping her watch to keep us on time. This leads to a well-balanced trip with enough brain-power to keep track of it all. Speaking of balance…

Getting several balances right: setting up a trip that works

Balance 1: length of trip

Whilst some schools are close enough to do a day trip, for most it’s a residential trip. We do three nights, to see one site on the first travel day and then one day on the Somme and one around Ypres. Be warned – it is possible to overdo it. In my opinion, much longer than 2-3 days and the students start to glaze over a little. Fatigue sets in and meaning starts to be lost. Take into account age, engagement with history etc, but aim for a balance.

Balance 2: light and shade

The trip does need to be fun, in between solemn and reflective site visits. Therefore, give the students chance to lighten up on the bus between sites, and the longer journeys. Resist too much teaching on the coach. Visits to chocolate shops, free time in Ypres for lunch, quizzes and singing on the coach home – they all have their place. Trying to maintain a sombre, reflective or respectful atmosphere all the time is counter-productive. Instead expect and enforce this at the memorials, cemeteries, battlefields and museums.

Balance 3: types of site

ABC syndrome – ‘another bloody cemetery’ – can set in when they have seen too much of the same thing. Overwhelm, and meaning is lost. Get a balanced mixture of museums, cemeteries, memorials and battlefields. Some of my favourites:

  • Memorial Museum Passchendaele (tons of original objects)
  • Sir John Monash centre (brand new, immersive 3D experience, interactive phone app)
  • Battlefields at Sheffield Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval Wood to contrast first day of the Somme experiences.
  • Cemeteries: Lijssenthoek, Sanctuary Wood, Railway Hollow.
  • There are some genuinely different places to visit, like Wellington Quarry in Arras and Lochnagar Crater.
  • See below for more on the Thiepval and Menin Gate memorials.
  • And if you can in any way visit St Symphorien Cemetery, do it. An almost impossible collection of burials, and stories to tell, in a totally beautiful setting.

Do remember when you’re planning an itinerary that toilet stops need to be regular enough – you might need to compromise your teaching plan based on this alone.

Balance 4: direction vs exploration

Finally, balance led or ‘taught’ activities on the sites, (often called ‘spiels’) with chances for students to explore museums or ‘walk’ cemeteries at their own pace. Consider carefully if you want to do common activities such as ‘finding a series of graves’ in a cemetery – I have seen this turn into some sort of orienteering/treasure hunt game. Students saying “Found it, Yesss!” and then shouting “Dan, it’s over here!” is perhaps not what we are looking for. Our alternative is to give each student a wooden cross, stake or other religious symbol with a poppy on, available from the Royal British Legion, and encourage them to choose a name or grave to place it at. For many this is a clear memory, and they make it for themselves.

Making meaning

Tell stories: Tell big stories across the whole trip and individual stories at particular places. Make links where you can. Beaumont-Hamel, to Thiepval Wood, to Thiepval Memorial, to Australian Memorial and Sir John Monash Centre tells the story of change from the intransigent 1916 Somme campaign to the convincing victory of 1918. Within these sites, soldiers’ stories reveal the human side of the fighting. Gareth Hughes’ book (details below) is full of good stories to tell.

Teach them enough: Early in the trip, sketch out the story of the war on the Western Front, as well as how to ‘read’ a headstone and a memorial wall. Teach them about the remarkable history and work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This will equip them to understand more of what is going on. You’re going for broad brush strokes at this point – give a framework. Sometimes we do this for about 20 minutes of the first evening in the hotel.

Personalise it: For me this is the big one. Ask students (it needs to be months before) if they have relatives who fought or died in the war. Ask them to talk to grandparents. Get names, soldier numbers, anything at all. You’ll be surprised at what comes out of attics. Then…

  1. I use Ancestry (the department subscribes for a couple months) and FindMyPast. It’s easy to search using name and date of death to figure out some of a soldier’s pre-war story: 1901 and 1911 censuses are particularly useful. (It’s always a moment when the house is still there on Street View.) Military records are worth checking, although only about 1/3 of the soldiers’ attestation papers survive. If you do get lucky these reveal a lot.  
  2. Next, Google the unit – at regiment or battalion level. This gives you a sense of what they did and photos of the kinds of fighting/role/equipment used are always helpful. Focus on the period you think the soldier was with the unit. Websites like the Long, Long Trail are very helpful to get an overview.
  3. Finally, to trace their movements in the days and hours before they died, as well as what was happening when they died, there is nothing better than the Battalion War Diaries hosted by the National Archives. They vary in quality but sometimes you get remarkable details.
  4. It is powerful, if rare, to find mothers, widows or family members travelling across the channel after the war to visit graves and memorials – you can check the shipping records to trace these.
  5. The records are patchy in different places, but they can often give powerful moments of humanity. We once had a solder relative who was a dairyman before the war, and was buried at ‘La Laiterie’ Cemetery – which is, even now, surrounded by the sounds and smells of a working dairy farm.
  6. Our most remarkable thread was about a man called Stanley Gething, a member of the Artists’ Rifles, who’s story is available in the resources folder below.  
  7. What you can find will vary, but telling the student what you can piece together, while you stand next to the soldier’s memorial name or headstone is remarkably powerful. Bringing one name to three-dimensional life also adds meaning to the expanse of a memorial wall: uniform in death, but unique in life. See the resources for some examples.

Make local connections

If you aren’t already aware of these, then local libraries and local history groups are fantastic places to start. There was a great deal of work done during the centenary and you can often find materials on their websites. They would be delighted to talk to you too. Get in touch!

Broaden the picture
Consider ways to include the stories of the Empires at war. You don’t have to go off the beaten track to do this (although you can):

  • Langemarck is crucial – recognising the loss Germany suffered and eliminating ideas of ‘goodies and baddies.’
  • The story of the French Algerian soldiers and the first gas attack can also be told at Langemarck – I tell this story next to the black signpost that indicates other uses of chemical weapons since.  The attack itself happened almost exactly where the cemetery now is.
  • The Indian soldiers on the Menin Gate – see the David Olusoga book mentioned below.
  • Newfoundland soldiers at Beaumont Hamel.
  • Chinese Labour Corps graves at Lijessenthoek.
  • Extra stop, if you have a longer tour, could include the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chappelle.

For loads of great ideas, I would again direct you to Gareth Hughes’ book, detailed below.

Facilitate their final reflections
This year we gathered at Sanctuary Wood, on the bench behind the Cross of Sacrifice, at the end of the trip. We posed questions:

  • “What has surprised you?”
  • “What is your overriding reflection/main takeaway from your time here?”
  • “When people ask ‘how was it?’ What will you say?”

It was an impromptu stop but a wonderful moment. It was so lovely to hear what they have to say, and what has stood out to them. You might be surprised by the depth of their reflections.

Making memories

In general, I don’t try to make the trip overly emotional. My aim is not to make students cry. I want to study the history, and understand the situations in the war, as well as the stories of the solders. There are, however, two moments where I do want the magnitude of the loss to land with the students. I use the Thiepval and Menin Gate memorials for this.

The ‘Thiepval Reflection:’

After any individual stories and the students have had a chance to explore, I bring them back together to form a square around the Stone of Remembrance. They stand along straight lines of paving slabs and face outward into the French countryside. They have, at different points so far, heard what a trench whistle sounds like, in preparation for its use here.

The Menin Gate:

We attend the ceremony on our last night. The Last Post Association website gives a schedule for each night, so you can tell students which choirs, bands or pipers are contributing. You can book a space for your students to lay a wreath as part of the ceremony.

After the Menin Gate ceremony I gather all the students in the stairwell beside Panel 33. We then have a final moment of reflection. As with the ‘Thiepval Reflection,’ this is written on the fly each year as it refers to some of the things we have done on the trip and some of the stories we have told. This is the one from 2023.

So that was a massive blog. Please do get in touch if you think I can help at all. Bon Voyage!

Further CPD: a very selective reading list!

If you buy one book, buy this one: Gareth Hughes’ Visiting the Somme and Ypres Battlefields Made Easy by Gareth Hughes (@thehistoryman on Twitter) (Pen & Sword, 2014)

Download this: First World War Centenary Battlefields Tour Project Student booklet – this was from the brilliant CPD programme from the centenary. The mastermind himself, Simon Bendry (@WW1_education), is well worth a follow on Twitter. The booklet is in the resources folder.

The best ones are the ‘aerial maps’ like the one of the Somme pictured here. There is a good one of Ypres too. They are for sale in gift shops across the two battlefields.

Subject Knowledge:
A Storm in Flanders, Winston Groom (Grove Press, 2003)
Somme by Lyn Macdonald (Penguin, 2003)
The World’s War: forgotten soldiers of Empire, David Olusoga (Apollo, 2019)
Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield (Headline Review, 2002)

In the resources folder:

  • Full versions of the ‘Thiepval Reflection’ and ‘Home from the Menin Gate’
  • Some of the soldier stories I’ve researched – Stanley Gething amongst them.
  • An electronic copy of the student book for the First World War Centenary Battlefields Tours (shared with permission)
  • A trip itinerary for where we go – this changes each year depending on the relatives stories we are wanting to tell, but has a core of regular places.
  • An example of an activity that can be undertaken at a site to teach in a starkly memorable way.

Link to resources

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