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Kilkeel High School, Knockchree Avenue, Kilkeel

Education Authority Shared Education visit to the Somme Battlefields

23rd May 2017

16-19th May 2017

Earlier this year some of our Year 10 students worked with Mrs Annett and the Schomberg Society on a project about the experience of Mourne men in the First World War. From this group two students were randomly selected to accompany Miss Campbell on the EA provided tour to Ypres and the Somme. The tour party consisted of seventeen schools, each with two students and one teacher; the Somme Centre in Newtownards supplied an experienced guide.

Our first visit in France was to Vimy Ridge, where 4,000 men - mostly of the Canadian Corps - lost their lives in the Battle of Arras in 1917. The limestone pillars dominate the skyline, the statues with their heads bowed in reflection. Young Canadian volunteers welcomed us to the cemetery, answering questions about weapon army, individual soldiers and losses.

The following day we started early for Lochnagar Crater near to Albert where, on the 1st July 1916, a massive bomb shattered the earth - its echo is said to have reached London. One of Wright large mines exploded under German positions, it was supposed to have shattered the last vestiges of German resistance following the week long artillery barrage. So often the case in the war, the large weapons failed to do an adequate job, leaving Commonwealth soldiers at the mercy of German machine guns. As they advanced in waves across No Man's Land, the soldiers in 'sausage' and 'mash' valleys were mown down by German machine guns.

One such soldier was Private Henry Parker of the Yorkshire Regiment, who on 26th September 1916, fell in the advance on the German lines. He was three days short of his 23rd birthday. His body lay I recovered until 2014, when a French farmer unearthed his remains. DNA testing and research led to his identification and the connection to family. It was out privilege to attend his funeral at Warlencourt Cemetery, where Private Parker was interred with full military honors, by the men of the Yorkshire regiment - the 'Green Howards'. It was a poignant moment and not one many people have the opportunity to witness.

From there we made the short journey to the Ulster Tower, where on 1st July 1916 the men of the 36th Ulster Division attacked the Schwaben Redoubt. The history books record that they were the only division to achieve their objective that day, having disobeyed orders and commenced their attack early - running rather than walking across the battlefield. Despite their tenacity, the men found themselves surrounded and by the close of battle had lost 5,000 men - killed, wounded and captured.

The final day of touring took us to smaller cemeteries where young men or men is Ulster were buried; the famous Willie McBride and the bunkers where John McCrae penned the line of 'In Flanders Fields'. The final two cemeteries serve as a stark reminder that history is written by the victors. At Langemark some 44,000 German soldiers lie - 25,000 in a mass grave. In contrast to the Commonwealth sites, Langemark is unkempt and dismal. Some of the students expressed sorrow and even anger at the dishonour of the flat gravestones, seeking to understand the nature of humanity in the aftermath of so great an event. A short time later, the lesson was impressed upon us by the visit to the Tyne Cot, where the names of the missing are honoured and the precise rows bear testimony to the efforts of the CWGC. Here, the names are ready aloud in a small museum to the battles nearby - a gentle call to reflection on the loss of innocence and youth.

The evening took us to the Menin Gate and the daily act of remembrance. Several hundred gathered this night as six of our students laid wreaths on behalf of the group.

On the tour, each one of us had the chance to reflect as individuals and as a group on our own remembrance of the men who fell in the First World War. Hannah and James spoke with intelligence and emotion about their experiences and their understanding of the human cost of war. We wish to thank the Somme Heritage Centre and the Education Authority for organising the visit and for sharing their expert at the various sites.