< back |

SCHOOL VISITS


At Thiepval, asked what the benefits of a trip to the memorial were, the teacher said that his pupils would get better marks in their exams. So that is the value of all these dead? ‘Yes’ he said.

There are many reasons for schools deciding to take some of their pupils to the ‘battlefields’ and war cemeteries. There are also many different ways of explaining to pupils what these wars were about. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that the quality of information given to pupils is often poor and there is virtually no effort made to question the dominant view that the millions of men (predominantly from WW1) in the cemeteries or still unfound have ‘not died in vain’.

  An early school visit to the cemeteries in 1923.

These are not easy issues but the way young people are taught about war is crucial to our future. Reports of visits and descriptions by visitors are liberally sprinkled with the words emotion, moved, sad and pity. This is not surprising since these are words many of us might use to describe the experience but often there is something ‘pre-prepared’ about these descriptions and it is hard to tell the difference between genuine feeling and recitation of stock phrases.

Just as the reading of For the Fallen written in 1914 before hardly anyone had ‘fallen’ (often read by a pupil in a ‘moving’ ceremony in a cemetery) so too many of the messages expressing feelings and sympathy left by schools in pre-prepared heat sealed plastic covers on monuments suggest that the ‘emotion’ and ‘sympathy’ came before the experience. The script for our experience has been written well in advance.

A pupil: The second day saw the group travel to the Somme with a visit to the Somme Museum at Peronne and the battlefield. This included visits to Delville Wood, the Thiepval monument and Newfoundland Park, where the entire party staged a re-enactment of the Somme 'charge'.

A teacher: The final event of the day is the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate. It is Sunday, and a priest directs our thoughts to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Those who know the words join in the Lord’s Prayer. After two days on the battlefields, our emotions are easily stirred.

The Royal British Legion ‘helps to organise trips to war graves, memorials and battlefields across the globe as part of its commitment to keeping the torch of Remembrance alive’. It has organised 257 school trips to war cemeteries in 2005.

If all these visits are to means anything it should not be the pity for the war dead. Rather we should be driven to ask of ourselves what can we do in our circumstances that can match their efforts to bring peace and love and justice to our world. Can we give as much for peace as they gave for war?