The nation falls silent

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Friday 1st July 2016

IMG_1287Today is the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

At 7.28 this morning the nation fell silent, commemorating the moment on July 1 1916 when British and Commonwealth soldiers were ordered to go over the top. It was the start of the bloodiest day in British military history and the beginning of a campaign that would claim one million casualties over four months.

As I observed the two-minute silence I thought back to one of the most affecting trips I’ve ever made as a journalist. I joined pupils from secondary schools across the Midlands as they visited the battlefields on the Western Front where the 1914-1918 war was fought.

The visit was part of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, funded by the government and run by the Institute of Education and school tour operator Equity. Here is some of what I wrote two years ago:

The programme aims to help teachers and pupils from every state funded secondary school in England develop a deeper understanding of the First World War. Over the next five years two pupils and one teacher from 4,000 schools will visit the battlefields of northern France and Belgium. They’ll be encouraged to think about the social, economic and political consequences of the Great War. They’ll walk through trenches, cross No Man’s Land and get the chance to handle wartime artefacts, from pieces of shrapnel to the small brass boxes sent by Princess Mary to every British soldier serving overseas on Christmas Day 1914.

The trip had a huge impact on me. It’s not until you see the numbers of cemeteries and the rows and rows of white Portland stone graves, all immaculately kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, that you truly realise the scale of the war and the millions of lives lost.

The moment that will always stay with me was at Belgium’s Tyne Cot Cemetery, where nearly 12,000 First World War soldiers are buried. It’s the largest British and Commonwealth war cemetery in the world and also commemorates a further 35,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found.

As our group gazed at the graves of men who sacrificed their lives during the Great War, we all fell silent.

“Imagine a person standing by each and every one of them,” murmured one of the battlefield guides. “What a multitude that would be.”

It was a powerful message and as I visualised a man standing next to every single grave the terrible human cost of war came home to me in a far more powerful way than simply studying it in history textbooks would have. As a teacher said afterwards: “I can teach my students about the First World War in class and show them videos and photographs, but being here really brings it home to them. On a day like today, when it’s cold and grey, it makes them think about what the life of a soldier was really like, when they were far away from home and in a strange land.”

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