“Every grave had a story to tell and as I stood at the top of the cemetery, it was difficult to get my head around all that these men had seen and experienced.”
This is a quote from Oliver Hawkhead, a Tadcaster Grammar School student, who was afforded a life-changing opportunity to visit the World War One Battlefields and it was an experience he will “never forget” and “cherish” for the rest of his life.
Ollie and fellow Year 9 student Sophie Shooter, together with their History teacher Louise Bland, took advantage of a special programme offered by the Department of Education. As part of the Centenary commemorations of World War One, every state school across the country was given the opportunity for one staff member to accompany two students between the age of 12 to 14 years on a visit to the Battlefields, which was fully funded by the Department.
The visit was designed to promote greater understanding and knowledge of the First World War, with a local emphasis, as well as a focus question for each day. The Centenary team encouraged some research into particular names before setting off, knowing there would be a connection to a site during the visit.
“We were especially fortunate to be given a copy of ‘E.E. Iredale, The Great War Diary of a Tadcaster Man’ only the day before we undertook our visit,” said Mrs Bland. “This diary has been published by the family to coincide with the centenary of his death, as Edward Iredale died during the Battle of the Somme on August 29, 1916 when he was just 19 years of age. The three of us were able to read the diary during the visit and were then able to lay a commemorative cross at his headstone,” she added.
“A large part of the focus of the visit is to bring the message home that behind every headstone is an individual and this certainly proved a moving experience for us all. We were also able to locate the names of a number of other men mentioned in the diaries, including Fred Terry, Edward’s cousin, who is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.”
Following the visit each school is encouraged to undertake the Legacy 110 project. The idea is that once you return from the visit you share the experience with at least 110 people and therefore the commemoration will reach as many people as died during the war (a bit like Paul Cummins’ poppies).
In response to a request from the television programme Newsround, students from TGS and those from schools in Leeds, Sheffield and Durham were followed around on their Battlefields visit and interviewed by the Newsround team. Apparently this programme will be shown sometime between the week of Monday 27 June to Saturday 2 July.
“The First World War Centenary Battlefields Tour was a really worthwhile and moving experience for myself and the students and I would encourage all schools to get involved when the opportunity arises,” said Mrs Bland. “The visit really brought home the experiences of the frontline soldiers and the importance of remembrance, with the tour actually providing a soldier to accompany the students. Ours was a member of the territorials and, not only did he speak to us on the battlefields, but brought his uniform and equipment with him. The tour was made even more poignant through the Tadcaster connection with E.E. Iredale.”
‘E.E. Iredale, The Great War Diary of a Tadcaster Man’ was produced by Mark and Jeremy Swinden, who were keen to preserve the diary and make Edward’s story known, particularly at the 100th anniversary of the Somme. “We are very pleased that Ollie and Sophie were able to take the diary with them on their visit and we are touched that they were able to leave a cross at his grave,” said Mark Swinden.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the diary, books are available from the Reception desk at Tadcaster Grammar School priced £8 each, or by contacting Mark Swinden at email@example.com. They are also available from the Chocolate Box on Kirkgate and the Post Office on Stutton Road, both in Tadcaster. All proceeds will be donated to Martin House Children’s Hospice in Boston Spa.
In their own words Ollie and Sophie give their account of this Battlefields visit:
Ollie – “The key experiences for me were the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot Cemetery. Laying a wreath after the Last Post had played was an experience never to forget and I will cherish that moment for the rest of my life. It was special; a sense of the ultimate sacrifice the men gave was present and you could tell everyone else there could feel it too. It made me feel proud to be part of this great nation and a reminder that we need to remember those who gave that sacrifice. If we don’t, it feels as if we have let those men and women down; like they gave up their lives for nothing. Tyne Cot was hard to take in. Just the scale of how many graves there were sent shivers down my spine. A real reminder of how no one escaped the hands of this tragic accident. Every grave had a story to tell and as I stood at the top of the cemetery, it was difficult to get my head around all that these men had seen and experienced. I hope the long term effects will be that whenever I do anything associated with World War One again, I can now empathise with the soldiers as I have seen what they saw and experienced the stories they longed to tell their loved ones if they returned. I also hope that I will be able to look inside the text book and make the words come to life. I won’t need any imagination. All I need are my memories of this visit. I hope that I will be able to tell others and they too can carry on a legacy that should never end.”
Sophie – “I would say that one of the best experiences was being able to attend the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, as not only is the Gate huge and literally covered in names, but the Ceremony was a special moment to really take everything in and just remember. Being able to stand on the battlefields and in the trenches where soldiers had once stood was another incredible experience. In particular, we participated in an exercise where we stood where the trenches had been and were told to walk at a steady pace across what would have been No Man’s Land. One by one, our schools were called out and we were told to stop. The majority of us were barely ten meters away from the trenches and it was revealed to us that most of the men there were just sprayed down by machine guns before they could make it much further. I think that experience made me realise what a waste of human life the first day of the Somme was, because those men, who at this part of the line were pals battalions, were killed before they could get anywhere near their goal. The sheer amount of lives lost became strongly evident at Tyne Cot and Lijssenthoek. However, it was the realisation that every headstone really did tell a story that had a big impact. It was honestly heartbreaking to hear the stories of families coming to visit their brothers, sons and fathers. We were told the story of a mother having her ashes sent to be buried near her son, which was particularly harrowing. You can analyse the numbers and look at a text book, but until you stand there and look at what effectively was a waste of a generation, you don’t quite understand how petty and tragic war is. In the end, a life is a life and there is no way to justify that kind of butchery. One of the topics they had us think about over the weekend was ‘If remembrance gets more or less important as time goes on’. I would like to think that by having this experience and sharing it with as many people as possible, especially through the Legacy 110 project, we will be able to maintain the importance of remembrance because, no matter how long ago it was, those man laid down their lives for us. We are the next generation to have power in this world and we have a duty to make sure that nothing like the World Wars ever happen again!”