Our time in Europe is over and I can’t truly put into words how much this whole experience has challenged and changed my perspective on life, and mostly how I view the Great War and the Second World War.
Starting at the Start, London, before we had even reached the battlefields and the cemeteries, it was already an emotional experience. The bomber command memorial, the Royal Artillery memorial and the Australian Memorial all hit hard. In particular the Aussie Memorial as it had the names of the dead on it and the sear number was over whelming at the time. The rest of our time in London was also great, all the history, ever where you looked there was something, and the different culture was just wonderful to experience.
Then onto Ypres, which I have completely fallen in love with, my time there has been some of the best in my life and I will remember it till the day I die, which is hopefully a long time, and I just can’t put it into words properly. The city its self was awe inspiring and just stunning, all the old and beautiful buildings which looked like they dated back hundreds of years, but where all made post 1918 as they were destroyed during the three major battles that took place in the Ypres region. The city was also quiet, not nearly as busy as Melbourne, Paris or London, and it’s wonderful. The people at Ypres were all so nice as well. While there I attended the Menin Gate ceremony all three nights and it was emotional, I had thought the Australian Memorial in London had had a lot of names on, Menin Gate dwarfed it completely, and the laying of the wreath was a proud moment. In Ypres we also visited many of the cemeteries, battlefields and museums, they have changed how I see the First World War, but I’ll get to that later. And while at Ypres we also meet Klaas, our bus driver for a long time, who soon became part of the group, he could talk 5 or 6 different languages, and his laughter echoed around the bus.
At Ypres we also went to the ANZAC café where we meet Johan, who is an amazing person, who just knows so much about the First World War. An engineer at first, Johan followed his passion for digging up Great War artefacts and has now become an expert in the field, he then discovered the bodies of five soldiers from the war. One of those soldiers was an Australian buried by his brother facing Australia and almost mummified his body being well preserved, Johan has now taken it upon himself to create a memorial in remembrance of them. He also walked us through polygon wood and showed us the scars left over from the war on the landscape, which was a surreal experience.
Then in France we visited more cemeteries, battlefields and museums, including the Wellington tunnels which was amazing walking through all the old tunnels imaging all the troops waiting in the dark and echoey halls of old mines seeing where they stayed. We were also lucky enough to see original trench net works from the war, as well as recreations. France was also the country where I felt the difference in street safety the most, as I had mentioned in an earlier post in London we saw police with machine guns. But in France we saw the army, at the Christmas markets, on the streets of Paris, and oddest was just outside Disney Land. While I understand the reasons for the armed presence, particular with the riots going on [which sadly we didn’t witness], it still felt weird seeing squads of 8 or so walking in the streets with assault rifles, helmets and full combat kits. It was a strange experience and always put me on edge, but it has made me so grateful that Melbourne at the moment doesn’t need that sort of military activity.
Visiting all the cemeteries and battlefields has been a wonderful eye-opening experience, being a bit of a history nerd, I had read a lot about the Great War before, particularly because it’s my favourite time period in history, and all the numbers, figures and statistics don’t mean much. But, seeing those numbers made up of individual items, be they names or graves, was hard to handle, Menin Gate is a great example, as I walked into it looking around and was completely taken a back by it, I then realised that there were names in the passages and on the outside and the number of them was deeply upsetting. Tyne Cot was another place that hit really really hard, it’s so hard to word which is why I’m grateful for this experience, there were so many graves it was so moving, the German cemetery we went to was also a powerful place, many of the were buried on top of each other on the same headstone place on the ground. The cemetery had a total of over 44,000 people buried there, but because of how their buried, some had 20 to a headstone, it all fit into an area no larger than an oval, and I often try and picture how loud and crowded the place would be if everyone buried there was there now, and at the cemetery the thought of that was horrible. Then there were the soldiers’ eulogies which everyone read, they were all moving, everyone had put effort into this and I think thus had connected in some way to the soldier who eulogy they read. In my experience it has probably been the thing on this trip that has had the biggest impact, to go to a cemetery and to just focus on one person whose life you know and whose background you share, once again I’m just not skilled enough to put it in words, but it’s massively changing. Now after reading something concerning the lose of life in the wars I find that I start to tear up, it really changes how you view it.
This trip truly has been an amazing time, and I have changed as a person. What I have mentioned here is just some of the stuff that I found stuck out the most and had the largest impact for me, to mention everything would take thousands of words. But before I finish I would like to thank some people who helped make this such a great experience.
Firstly, my fellow students, mostly for putting up with waiting for me to get out of each museum as I tended to try and read everything and thus took a while. For putting up with my childish giddiness over anything to with history, or the riots, often with me jumping up and down in excitement. But mostly for just coming along and having fun, I have made some great friendships on this trip and I would like to thank all of you for that.
Secondly, Bill, he has put a huge amount of work into ensuring that the website this is hosted on is up and running. Checking our grammar and spelling in posts, as well as fixing formats and putting images into the posts properly. This website has been so helpful, my parents can see that I’m still alive through the posts as my messenger record isn’t the best, and it allowed us to put our thoughts and experience on paper so to say. And that has helped me process everything a bit better and understand things in deeper depth. So again, a massive thanks to Bill for running the website for us.
A huge thanks to Miss McKerin for keeping us alive. Throughout the trip Miss McKerin has done so much to look after all of us, when people felt unwell she was quickly able to get them back on their feet to enjoy the trip again, and while travelling she did a lot to try and ensure no one was forgotten and we weren’t the most annoying tourist group. And I’m sure the 15 teenage girls are very thankful for her helping them with their problem throughout the trip. So a humongous thanks for everything MissKerin.
And finally, Mr Dennis, I can not say thank you enough for this trip. This whole experience has been an entirely life changing experience, I’ll try not to repeat myself but, I have a whole new respect for everything, from the little things like how great our pedestrian crossing buttons are, to the more important things like our freedoms and privileges and how lucky we our not to have the military walking the streets. You have done so much to get this trip organised and going and without you it almost certainly wouldn’t be happening, the amount of stress trying to get 17 kids organized to go overseas, and them organizing us overseas must have been a gigantic effort. But truly and whole heartedly thank you so so much.
I just saw the word count so I’m going finish it there, but thanks to everyone who helped in the slightest, I have come back I changed person and feel massively luck to have had an experience like it.