Our recent blogs introduced the work we have been doing with the Scottish Government, WW100 Scotland and operated by Mercat Tours International. The project took 72 pupils, representing each local authority in Scotland, on a five-day trip to Belgium and France to commemorate the Battle of Arras. One of those students, Holly Mouat from Anderson High School Shetland, recently shared her thoughts on the experience
On 11 April 1917, the Battle of Arras began. Arras is described as “The Scottish Battle”. Of the four years the Great War raged on, the largest Scottish loss was at the Battle of Arras.
To mark the centenary of the battle, the Scottish Government organised a trip for two school children aged 14-15 (secondary three) from every local authority in Scotland to commemorate the lives of those lost. Carys and I were fortunate to be chosen to represent Shetland. I have a keen interest in history and am particularly interested in World War One. I’m so grateful to the Scottish government for the opportunity, and to Mr Sandison especially for accompanying us and looking after us.
My great-great grandfather, Andrew Duncan Arthur, died in the first world war. My great-great uncle Stanley Anderson also lost his life in the same conflict. I felt that I was chosen to represent Shetland and represent them. It meant a lot to me to know that Andrew and Stanley, amongst many other soldiers, should not be forgotten.
Following a flight from Sumburgh to Edinburgh on Thursday 6 April, an overnight stay at a hotel, a coach trip to Kingston upon Hull and an overnight trip on a ferry, we arrived in Zeebrugge, Belgium on Saturday 8 April. It was my first trip abroad and I must say that it was a great deal warmer than Shetland!
On the day we arrived in Belgium, we headed straight for France and saw the first cemeteries. The cemetery that stood out to me was one where a father and son lay side by side, killed on the same day. Also, the grave of the oldest soldier killed in the Great War, aged 67, and the grave of a young New Zealander who was court martialled and shot for cowardice. These were only a few people laid to rest in a small roadside cemetery, which really just shows how every soldier has a story, sung or unsung.
We also visited Lochnagar Crater and the landscape surrounding it was beautiful; its beauty magnified by the sun shining on it. It is hard to think that 100 years ago, the allies were fighting for that crater and that 15,000 German and Allied soldiers’ bodies fell into it. That is the thing about the Great War; it was brutal and we have a responsibility to remember those who fought for us. Every town in Scotland was affected by the Battle of Arras and the whole world was affected by the entire war.
We continued onto Newfoundland Park and literally followed in our ancestors’ footsteps; we walked through trenches, on paths around shell craters and got to see the only tree that survived the Great War. I was fortunate to be given a piece of shrapnel from a shell; a small but harsh symbol of war. The area was filled with our Scottish counterparts and Canadian visitors who were there to commemorate Vimy Ridge. We met a few Canadians and they were very friendly. I got along with everyone on Coach C and made some lifelong friends including Cara, Courtney, Kat, Polina, Erin and of course Carys! However sombre a trip is, you always find lovely people and make good friends. The sun was incredibly bright and with it being 26 degrees and having pale skin, I burned and got somewhat more than a ‘rosy glow’ even using suncream! Does a “tomato glow” exist? I had one of those! We also visited Thiepval, a massive memorial to the missing.It is truly huge! We visited other memorials and cemeteries throughout the day. Towards the end of the day, we travelled to our hotel in Diksmuide, Belgium.
On Sunday 9 April, we had a very early start and set off on the bus to Arras. As we drove along, we saw the mist settled over Flanders fields, the flat landscape stretching over the horizon. Although it was early morning, it really was not as cold as expected. The serene landscape stretched on until we again reached France’s borders. We saw the trees and fields, and the fields that were empty as the poppies would only bloom in May. The sheer quantity of cemeteries that we passed, each one seemingly bigger than the last, was a painful and sombre reminder of the loss of life and the agony of families who lived on knowing that they had lost loved ones and would probably never visit their resting place. It was also a stark reminder of those who had no grave, unknown soldiers lost to war.
We travelled on towards Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery, where the representative service was taking place. At this cemetery, Carys, along with a French student and the mayor of Arras, laid commemorative wreaths in honour of those lost. The ceremony was lovely and a fitting tribute to the soldiers. Following the ceremony, we visited the graves alongside where the ceremony had taken place. We had the opportunity to place a small wooden cross on a chosen grave.
We then visited the Notre Dame de Lorette and the Ring of Remembrance. The sheer number of graves, over 40,000, was simply astonishing. The Ring of Remembrance has over 753,000 names inscribed on it and I found my Uncle Stanley’s name, which was very special and thought-provoking. We walked around the ring and the cemetery, walked inside the beautiful chapel and the heart breaking ossuary, then moved onto Dud Corner cemetery in Loos. Each cemetery shook me to the bone; every grave was a person, a life lost, a story to tell. It broke my heart to see, “aged 19, aged 20, aged 21, aged 20, aged 19, aged 22, aged 23,” on the headstones. So many of the fallen were young men who died too young. Our tour guide, Graham, was very informative and helpful, telling us many stories regarding the various cemeteries that we visited.
After Dud Corner, we moved onto Neuville St. Vaast, a German graveyard. The black metal crosses stretched so far you could not see the end of them, and under each cross lay four German soldiers. It was heartbreaking. I find it hard to describe how I felt witnessing such a sight, to know that amount of people were laid before me. Forty five thousand soldiers were laid to rest beneath my feet. Beautiful trees were dotted around and it truly was peaceful. However melancholy the graves were, the entire graveyard was in an eternal, peaceful slumber. For me, it was probably the most emotional of our destinations because of the vast loss of human life.
We moved onto the Wellington Carriere Tunnels and were given a guided tour. It was amazing to think of the soldiers that hid down there, waiting for orders to run out to battle at the Battle of Arras, exactly 100 years previously. We heard stories of those who tunnelled, those who hid in 1917 and briefly of those who had to hide there again in the Second World War. After our tunnel tour, we made our way to the Place d’Heroes to witness the Beating Retreat to further commemorate those who died. As we waited for the ceremony to commence, all of the Scottish school children burst into song and sung old British World War One songs to the French public. After our little sing along, Nicola Sturgeon came to meet us. She shook my hand and spoke to me. She actually hugged me as well and it is not every day that you get a hug from the First Minister of Scotland! We were then seated and watched the retreat. The music was very Scottish; lots of bagpipes! A lady sang the Canadian, British and French national anthems. Her voice was so moving and beautiful; lovely choice of singer. When the ceremony concluded, we met Nicola Sturgeon again and we all took photos with her. She was so nice and she was very kind to make time for us. She hugged me again, it was amazing! I also met the mayor of Arras and spoke some French with him! Soon afterwards, I also got the opportunity to chat with the singer, who was lovely.As the evening progressed, we returned to the coach and chatted happily amongst ourselves, sang Flower of Scotland as well as other songs and got to know one another a little better.
I woke up on Monday 10 April and realised that it was our last day together in Belgium. We visited Essex Farm, where John McCrae wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields. I read out the poem in the very place where he wrote it! It was a special memory and I felt honoured. We visited the grave of the youngest known soldier who died. He was 15 years old – my age. It is staggering to even think he would have been allowed to join up. It is unfair how the underage soldiers were allowed in, but they fought as bravely and valiantly as the soldiers of age.
Our next stop was Poelkapelle cemetery, where 7,500 soldiers were buried and over 6,200 of those soldiers were unknown. It is impossible to imagine that their families never knew where their loved ones had passed. We each chose a headstone and that unknown soldier was our soldier to remember. I imagined that my unknown soldier was my great-great grandad, as he has no known grave. We left Poelkapelle and went to Crest Farm, Passchendaele and Tyne Cot. Tyne Cot was truly astonishing; the rows upon rows of names and graves took me aback. These men died for their country and our freedom. In the end, all soldiers on both sides are people, fighting for freedom and the cause they believed in. They were all incredibly brave and we should not let these fallen men be forgotten – or any other people affected by the conflict, including the nurses who tried to help the soldiers.
We returned to Poelkapelle and held our own mini ceremony to honour the dead, the lost, and their families whose war never truly ended.
We boarded the coach once more and began our drive to Ypres for free time. On our way, we visited the Menin Gate, and I was truly shocked by its size and the quantity of names listed on it. It made me sad because who knows where those people truly lie? I also thought about the people responsible for taking care of the war graves, and numerous memorials, and how important and special it is to maintain the memory of those lost.
In Ypres I bought various souvenirs and Belgian chocolates to share with my family back home and had a good time hanging out with Carys, Courtney and Cara. Soon, it was time to begin the journey home that so many soldiers never had the chance to do.
Arriving back in England felt weird; the signs were in English! We listened to a variety playlist, featuring Madonna, Simple Minds, AC/DC and Queen to name but a few. The coach was noisy with music during our trip and I also enjoyed the wa time songs that were played. As we crossed the Scottish border, we played Flower of Scotland and sung along to it! The goodbyes were emotional and before I knew it, I was on the plane back home. The trip was truly life changing and I will never forget it as long as I live. Even today, mines from the Great War are causing deaths. We should never forget what those men fought and died for us. We cannot forget that they died for what they believed in. Lest we forget.