With so many of our groups choosing to organise a school trip to the WW1 Battlefields during the Centenary years (2014-18), we decided to send a group of Halsbury staff on a tour of Ypres. Following in the footsteps of our groups, they visited the various museums featuring fascinating historical artefacts; the sights where significant battles took place and the resting places of the many soldiers who never returned home.
Read all about their experiences in their tour diary:
It’s an early start as we set off from Halsbury Travel HQ in Nottingham at 05:30 and head towards Folkestone for our Eurotunnel crossing to Calais.
At around 14:00 we arrive at the first stop on our itinerary the Passchendaele Museum. We made our way through the various sections of the museum; the first of which gives an overview of The Battle of Passchendaele fought in 1917 through photographs, videos and historical artefacts. We then descended into, what is perhaps the most impressive part of the museum, a replica dugout tunnel with bunks, communication post, work stations and an operating theatre demonstrating what life was like for the soldiers living underground. The third section is a series of exhibitions that tell the story of the different nations involved in the Battle of 1917: including the Tommy’s, Digger’s, Kiwi’s and Canuck’s. The museum then lead us out to a network of reconstructed British and German trenches complete with original shelters demonstrating how life in the trenches evolved during the war years.
After a quick bite to eat we headed towards our second visit of the day, Tyne Cot Cemetery. As you make your way along the path to the visitor centre a voice, played over a loud speaker, recites the names and ages of the soldiers buried in the cemetery, which immediately sets the tone of your visit. We then made our way to the entrance of the cemetery and it was at this moment that the scale of the loss of life was put into stark reality; we were confronted by row upon row of graves. 11,956 soldiers are buried here and the names of 34,857 British and New Zealand soldiers who were never found, are engraved on the rear memorial wall of the cemetery.
After an early start and what had been a very hot day (30+ degrees!) we were glad to arrive at our hotel for the night, Hotel Munchenhof. This hotel is very popular with our groups and we could see why! It has been recently renovated and includes fantastic facilities such as a bowling alley, pool tables, and even an outdoor sports area.
As we sat down to enjoy our first taste of traditional Belgian food we were slightly confused when we first heard what was on the menu ‘pitta and mashed potatoes with peas?!’ When our meal arrived we were relieved to find that the mystery dish was in fact a sort of pork casserole with a creamy sauce, and it was delicious!
After an enjoyable meal and interesting first day in Ypres we decided on an early night to wake up refreshed for what was going to be a busy second day on our tour.
After a good breakfast, our first visit on day 2 is Langemark Cemetery, one of only four German military cemeteries in Belgium, which provides a stark contrast to Tyne Cot, with its sombre black crosses.
Hill 62 Museum/Sanctuary Wood is next on our itinerary. The stand out attraction of this visit is a network of preserved trenches giving you some insight into the experiences of soldiers in the trenches, which is otherwise difficult to imagine.
A short drive away is Hooge Crater Museum, which is one of the less well known museums on the Ypres Battlefields circuit. We were surprised to find such a fascinating and extensive collection of war memorabilia, including a fully functioning 1916 Ford Model T Ambulance! The exhibitions take you through the war year by year and there is a short film and map of the Ypres Salient demonstrating the small land gains made during the 4 years of war. At the end of our visit we were all in agreement that we would definitely be recommending this visit to our future groups. (Guides are available to take you around the museum and explain the exhibits and they also provide worksheets for school groups to fill out during their visit.)
We then drove into Ypres to the In Flanders Fields Museum located in the main square in the Cloth Hall. This museum really confronted us with the futility of war by telling the personal stories of ‘ordinary people’. We were each given a poppy bracelet containing a microchip which we could scan at various points around the museum and there were a series of interactive multimedia installations and video projections throughout the exhibits that told the personal stories and experiences of real people during the war. The emphasis on the stories of ‘ordinary people’ enabled us to identify with their characters bringing the consequences of war into reality. As you leave the museum there are a series of flags hanging from the ceiling with the names and dates of every war that has taken place since ‘The War to End all Wars’.
After stopping for lunch in the square we made our way to Leonidas Chocolate Shop, run by Hans and his wife Stephanie, the 3rd generation owners of this 100 year old shop. This is always a very popular visit with our schools, providing a bit of light relief from what, can at times, be an intense trip. Hans talked us through the history of the shop, explained how the chocolates are made and gave us a goody bag full of chocolates and biscuits to take home with us to the office (much to the staff’s delight!).
Tonight we’re staying at Ypres Lodge, another popular hotel with our groups, on the edge of the city centre after getting our keys, we set off on the 30 minute walk to the square where we’re having dinner and to see the Last Post Ceremony at The Menin Gate an experience not to be missed on any tour of the battlefields.
We make a slight change to our itinerary this morning and decide to visit Essex Farm dressing station the location that inspired the famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written by Canadian doctor John MacRae. The cemetery next to the dressing station contains the grave of V.J. Strudwick who died aged 15, one of the youngest known British casualties of the war, which is of great significance for students of a similar age visiting the cemetery.
After a short visit to the Yorkshire Trench we make our way to Talbot House the ‘Every Man’s Club’ which became a ‘home away from home’ for many soldiers. The museum exhibit displays photographs, diary extracts and letters to the loved ones of soldiers that had stayed there during the war. As we wandered around the main house and tranquil gardens it was clear to see how Talbot House and the surroundings provided an oasis of calm for the many soldiers that passed through.
We’ve now come to the end of our tour to Ypres and the Belgian Battlefields and make our way home full of insights, experiences and ideas to pass on to our group leaders.
(Six staff travelled on the trip; Itinerary Managers Alex, Leonor and James; Finance and Hotel Reservations Assistant Kate; Head of Marketing Katie and Head of History Tours, Niall.)
There could be no better way to commemorate The Great War than by taking your students on a WW1 battlefield tour, to join in the special events and provide your group with a once in a lifetime, unforgettable experience.
Availability for 2014 is already extremely limited so start planning early and contact us today to request a quote. We are already taking bookings for 2015 and check our offers page for details on our special offers for groups travelling during the Centenary Years.