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First World War centenary: Battlefields trip day one

08:00 09 February 2015

The British ambassador to Belgium, Alison Rose (centre), with the soldiers and pupils at the Menin Gate before the ceremony. Picture: Erica Spurrier/Equity

The British ambassador to Belgium, Alison Rose (centre), with the soldiers and pupils at the Menin Gate before the ceremony. Picture: Erica Spurrier/Equity

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The fate of British deserters and the stories which lie behind every war grave were among topics considered by the students yesterday.

The memorial at Poperinge, where at least four British soldiers were shot for desertion during the First World War. Picture: Erica Spurrier/EquityThe memorial at Poperinge, where at least four British soldiers were shot for desertion during the First World War. Picture: Erica Spurrier/Equity

We set off bright and early in the morning for the Eurotunnel and made our way to our first destination of the tour – Ypres.

A highlight of any battlefields trip, Ypres is home to dozens of Commonwealth cemeteries.

It was razed to the ground during the First World War and was painstakingly rebuilt over the years following the conflict.

Our first stop was the Flanders Field Museum, situated in the city’s Cloth Hall – a medieval building which was reconstructed following the destruction wreaked by the war.

(Left to right): Maj Chris Ormond-King TD HAC, Dana Bell, 15, from Islington’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College, WO2 Mick Sharman-Davies RLC, Leon Cresto-Dina, 15, from Highgate’s St Aloysius’ College and Cpl John Morley-Clarke RLC at the Menin Gate prior to the ceremony. Picture: Erica Spurrier/Equity(Left to right): Maj Chris Ormond-King TD HAC, Dana Bell, 15, from Islington’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College, WO2 Mick Sharman-Davies RLC, Leon Cresto-Dina, 15, from Highgate’s St Aloysius’ College and Cpl John Morley-Clarke RLC at the Menin Gate prior to the ceremony. Picture: Erica Spurrier/Equity

The attraction features artefacts such as machine guns, soldiers’ uniforms and pieces of shrapnel discovered in the earth a few decades ago.

Our next site was more sombre. The town of Poperinge was one of the locations the British Army used to discipline soldiers who had broken military law.

During the war, 304 British soldiers were executed by the Army and four of them are confirmed as being killed at Poperinge.

Today, an inscripted memorial stands at the site and visitors can take a look inside one of the death cells where doomed soldiers spent the night before being shot at dawn.

Graves at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. Picture: Erica Spurrier/EquityGraves at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. Picture: Erica Spurrier/Equity

Our final stops were the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery and the Menin Gate.

The cemetery contains 9,901 Commonwealth burials and 883 of other nationalities, including German and French.

From June 1915, the site was used by casualty clearing stations.

During our visit, the students listened to talks about three of the soldiers buried there, including an Australian major who won the Victoria Cross, and had time to reflect on what they had seen.

The Menin Gate in Ypres. Picture: Erica Spurrier/EquityThe Menin Gate in Ypres. Picture: Erica Spurrier/Equity

We were also joined by Alison Rose, the British ambassador to Belgium, who read the exhortation that evening at the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate.

The memorial commemorates 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed, but have unknown graves.

The inscription reads: “Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”

Since 1928, the Last Post has been played at the memorial every evening. On July 9 this year, the ceremony will take place for the 30,000th time.

Students Leon Cresto-Dina, 15, from Highgate’s St Aloysius’ College, and Dana Bell, 15, from Islington’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College, represented our group at the wreath laying.

Serving soldiers Maj Chris Ormond-King TD HAC, WO2 Mick Sharman-Davies RLC and Cpl John Morley-Clarke RLC also took part in the poignant commemoration.

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