On the 14th October, year 10 students, Harriet Short and Ange Boli, along with Urmston Grammar’s Poetry by Heart organiser, Mrs Sandys, set off on a Centenary Battlefields tour, run in partnership with the Department for Education and UCL. The tour was different from other tours, because it was designed in partnership with Julie Blake and Tim Shortis from Poetry by Heart. This meant that, as well as looking at some of the battlefields and cemeteries of Belgium and France, guided by WW1 history experts, the tour also focused more specifically on poetry written during or about the war. It was Harriet’s success in the 2017 Poetry by Heart national competition that secured the students’ reward of partaking in this unique experience. Poetry by Heart is a nationwide competition for secondary school pupils in which students recite classic poems, literally by heart. Harriet, in fact, came sixth in the national competition and was named a Star Reciter for her rendition of ‘Picnic’ by Rose Macaulay.
Throughout the trip, the party was able to benefit from the expertise of Dr Connie Ruzich of Robert Morris University, Pittsburgh, who is a specialist in the lost and faded poetry of the First World War. She introduced them to the poetry of unknown writers, including ‘Home is Where the Pie Is’ and ‘Elegy on the Death of Bingo our Trench Dog’, as well as talking about the fact that poetry was a much more prominent part of life then: everyone learnt poetry at school, so many turned to this medium to express the horrors they saw in the trenches.
On the first day of the trip, the party went to Lijisenthok Cemetery where they learnt about the role of women, and then how the feeling of being manipulated and cheated was conveyed in their work. In addition to this, time was spent thinking about the class divisions of Edwardian society and how these divisions translated into the army, with specific roles falling to personnel relative to their social status. Also, extracts were read from R.C Sheriff’s ‘Journeys’ which depicts the realities of trench life and how the class hierarchies manifested themselves amongst a group of officers in a dugout. On the same day, those on tour visited the Notre Dame de Lorette Cemetery where, very fittingly, they listened to the work of some French poets at the largest French military cemetery in the world. Many French writers were involved in the surrealist movement, so they created much more experimental poetry than the British. At this site there was also a modern installation called the Circle of Remembrance that looks like a huge open book. On its pages are the names of half a million people who died in Northern France during the war. They are arranged regardless of class or nationality. Harriet found a whole panel on which were written the names of people who shared her surname; and many others found late relatives commemorated on these walls.
On the second day, the party visited the Neuve Chapelle where they learnt about the role of an undivided India on the Western Front. At the memorial, time was taken to discuss and think about whether it was right to have made these men fight so far away from home for a cause they were told little about. At Sunken Lane, they looked at pictures taken from the original film of the Battle of the Somme. Those on the trip were able to see where the men were taken and then what happened to them. The photographs were taken just before soldiers went over the top to be brutally cut down by German machine gunfire. The travelling party also went to a performance of ‘Journeys End’ which was written by a survivor of the First World War based on his experience of time on the frontline. He aimed to show how war affects people and to demonstrate their different attempts to cope.
On the final day, the party visited Langemark German Cemetery which was a poignant reminder that there were casualties on both sides. It was moving to see the different ways of commemorating the dead. Unlike British cemeteries, there are no flowers but instead lots of oak trees, because that is just more natural and homely for them. They went on to see the ‘Coming World Remember Me’ installation that was made by members of the public to commemorate all those that died on Flanders soil. A huge clay egg is meant to represent the fragility of life.
“Our tour was extremely insightful and very moving,” says Harriet.
Report by Harriet Short. Photos: Ange Boli