Taking a backwards step, both personally and in time, I felt it would be a good idea to expand upon why I chose to study a History degree in the first place. Whilst my basic passion for History has always been there (a cliché, I know), much to the annoyance of my year seven History teacher when I spent far too long in an arrowslit at Skipton Castle, undoubtedly it has been the excursions I was lucky enough to go on that have furthered that passion.
For this post, I’ll be focusing on a school trip to France I went on in year 10 as part of my World War One GCSE studies. There’s no arguing that being confronted with the sheer human cost of such a conflict triggered something in me; this being that I was determined to learn more about this and play my part in keeping the memories of those who died alive. From simply standing in one of the largest graveyards I’d ever seen, to being confronted with the devastating impact the artillery had upon the landscape that still exists, the extent of the First World War was inescapable.
Below are some photographs I took during the trip, to which I have included a paragraph further explaining the pictures content and the impact that such scenes and objects had upon me.
I can say with absolute certainty this is the war grave that will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. Valentine Joe Strudwick was only fifteen when he was killed in the line of duty, the same age I was upon visiting his grave. Being confronted with the grave of someone my own age, who had died fighting for what he believed in, generated within me a wave of great sorrow, which I’m sure most readers of this will also be experiencing. Further to this, the coins clearly visible on the headstone resonated with me, as it showed that even in the twenty-first century, nearly a hundred years after the First World War, people were still commemorating those who died and keeping their memory alive. This still stays with me today, encouraging me to learn about the human aspects of war, to ensure the memories of those who fight on our behalf are not forgotten.
The above images highlight the impact that artillery, such as mines and shells, had upon the landscape which is still visible today. This deepened my understanding of the conditions endured by those fighting in the war; the idea of existing (their standard of living could hardly be called living) in the cold and damp conditions of the trenches, listening to the likely invisible shells striking the ground, and hoping that those firing could not find your position. In other words, being surrounded by disease and poor conditions, waiting to die by the hand of an enemy you could not see. Perhaps what is even more terrifying, is that within the French countryside in areas such as this, there are still unexploded mines that have not yet been found.
Whilst I cannot say exactly what these medals were awarded for, they still remain in my memory for one distinct reason; they have a sentimental value to them that gives these objects a deeper meaning. Perhaps it is the not knowing that makes them interesting to me, that I can imagine the acts of bravery that may have been committed for this medal to be awarded to someone, or that these could very well have been awarded to a dead man. Either way, they represent one of the many ways we continue to preserve the memory and achievements of those who fought in the war, and may we always continue to do this.
Whilst this image does not seem particularly poignant, at the time and reflecting now this preserved trench instilled one of the greatest senses of terror I have experienced. The idea that the ground of this trench was once laden with water, with soldiers adorning every spare area of space and barbed wire decorating the top like a parody of a crown, created a fear in me that still affects me now whilst writing this. Furthermore, considering I stand at a very small 5″3, the inability to see beyond the walls was an incredibly trapping feeling.
I feel it best to end this blog post with the above images, highlighting just some of the graves I saw at the small number of cemeteries I visited as part of the trip. The stark white headstone or the simple wooden cross are perhaps the most thought of image when thinking about the First World War, and perhaps for good reason should we ever begin to forget the great human cost of the war. The thought of so many people dying far too young in such a small space of time, and those who still suffered for many years following the war with varying physical and mental health conditions, continues to motivate me to further my education of the subject so that I may attempt to continue to keep the memories of those who fought alive.
I shall therefore end this post asking you, as the reader, to do what you can to retain the memory of those who fought, lest we forget.