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First World War centenary: Reporter heads off on battlefields trip

PUBLISHED: 08:00 07 February 2015

A British soldier paying his respects at the grave of a comrade. Picture: PA

A British soldier paying his respects at the grave of a comrade. Picture: PA

PA Wire/Press Association Images

Sixteen million deaths, 20 million wounded, six million missing. These are the cold, stark facts of the Great War, the world’s first truly modern conflict.

British soldiers negotiating a shell-cratered, winter landscape along the River Somme in late 1916 after the close of the Allied offensive. [Picture: PA] British soldiers negotiating a shell-cratered, winter landscape along the River Somme in late 1916 after the close of the Allied offensive. [Picture: PA]

More than 100 years ago, thousands of soldiers of all classes and nationalities marched off into death, with many more returning home with life-changing injuries – both physical and mental.

The figures convey the huge scale of the war, but cannot invoke the horrors experienced by all those involved, whether it be the dehumanisation of trench warfare, or the numbness the soldiers felt after seeing so many of their comrades mutilated.

But the battlefields which saw so much bloodshed can still tell these most harrowing and powerful stories, as I am to experience first-hand.

Today, I will be embarking upon a three-day tour of Ypres and the Somme, taking in cemeteries, museums and even death cells which housed British deserters before they were shot at dawn.

Undated file photo of British infantrymen marching towards the front lines in the River Somme valley. [Picture: PA] Undated file photo of British infantrymen marching towards the front lines in the River Somme valley. [Picture: PA]

I have joined a group taking part in the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, provided by the UCL Institute for Education and school tour operator Equity, part of Inspiring Learning.

The programme, funded by the government, is offering two pupils and one teacher from all state-funded secondary schools in England the chance to see the battlefields for themselves, until March 2019.

Yesterday I met with students and teachers from 14 London schools, who I will be accompanying on the trip.

They include Sean Webber and his pupils Rithik Sharma and Ghazi Raja, both 15, from Oaks Park High School, in Oaks Lane, Newbury Park.

During a half-day of activities, we handled artefacts such as a rifle and bayonet and discovered how to find soldiers on databases such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Over the next three days, the students will consider key questions and, after the programme has concluded, they will be encouraged to share the knowledge they have gleaned through initiative Legacy 110.

The scheme will see the young people undertake community projects and deliver them to at least 110 other people.

If every pupil does this, 888, 246 people will have been reached – the number of British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the First World War.

For updates on the trip, see our website each morning.

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