I’ve been organising battlefields trips with Mercat Tours for 7 years, and when I bump into young people who went on these trips the conversations always quickly turn to how much they enjoyed their experiences and the impact they had on them.
And quite right, too.
Mercat vow that their Battlefields Experience will change the pupils. At various parent’s information evenings over the years Des Brogan has promised captivated audiences of parents that the Battlefields Experience will forever change their sons and daughters and they’ve laughed, some all too optimistically, but with an air of scepticism. They need not have doubted, for the transformation I’ve witnessed in the now over 170 pupils who’ve been part of Our Lady’s High School Pals Battalions has been remarkable in every way.
Pupils experience almost every emotion possible in the few days away; they gain perspective, they grow up, they realise there’s a world away from their school, they learn a huge amount about the Great War but even more importantly they learn even more about themselves. Developing social skills, self-respect, respect for others, resilience, the ability to form relationships – the list could go on and on. It would be a convenient cliché if it wasn’t so true.
The memories are unforgettable: from solemn moments when pupils have placed poppies on gravestones of ancestors representing their families there for the first time, to standing ankle-deep in muddy trenches, from laughing hysterically at failed attempts to sing Sister Suzie as fast as possible, to the pupils conducting their own remembrance ceremonies on summer nights in a foreign field proud as punch to be wearing their school uniforms and saying what they want to say as a group.
Mercat staff are fantastic, both before and during the trip. The pupils form a powerful bond with the tour guides by making every effort to get to know the pupils and staff as individuals, and tailoring the arrangements to suit as much as possible.
The attitude of the pupils to the soldiers’ songs, which contribute so much to the atmosphere and camaraderie of the entire experience, sums up the change in the pupils.
I recall that on the first trip in 2009, we left Motherwell early one Sunday morning. The murmurs of discontent in the ranks had started before we reached Abington Services.
“Sir, gonnae tell her to turn down those songs. We’re no singing along. We just want to go to sleep.”
Fast forward 1 day.
“Sir, tell her to turn the music up! In fact, Kat, can we get Fritzy Boy?!”
Fast forward 4 days and the roof is almost coming off the bus as we arrive back at the school. And it’s been the same on each of four trips since.
Fast forward 7 years and I’m still as excited about this June when Our Lady’s 5th Pals Battalion heads off to the Western Front for a life-changing experience.