France 2018 – Diary Of The Trip

This week a group of our pupils have been in France with staff members Mr Ellis, Miss Morrison and Mr Lewis. Miss Morrison has very kindly been sending updates each day to the school along with some stunning photos of the places visited. Here she tells us day-by-day of their amazing trip…

Days 1 & 2: Travel from UK & WWI Battlefields

Today we finally arrived in Belgium and as our route to the hotel passed through the WWI battlefields, Miss Morrison planned for us to break up the trip by visiting five sites of significance to Scotland in WWI. We first visited Dud Corner Cemetery and the Loos Memorial. This cemetery is located near to where the Battle of Loos occurred in September 1915. Members of every Scottish regiment were involved in this battle, and of the 21,000 British casualties, a third were Scottish. We were able to climb the memorial’s tower and look over the cemetery and across where the battle would have occurred. This battle was infamous as it was the first use of poison gas by the British, however the plan backfired and many of the British were gassed by their own weapon when the wind changed direction. The Loos Memorial runs around the cemetery walls and bears the names of around 13,000 men killed in the area who have no known grave, including Rudyard Kipling’s son John Kipling, and Wick men Albert Baikie; Robert Bain; William Bremner; Gerald Cowper; David Duchart; Alexander Henderson; John Innes; John Johnson and John Leith. Many others also fought here, with many being wounded and later returning to fight such as David Davidson who was gassed, or later passing away in field hospitals, such as Kenneth Sutherland. Despite the horrors that took place here, we found the cemetery very peaceful and we’re glad that it was bright and well maintained – a respectful way to remember these brave men.

Next we drove to the Vimy Ridge Memorial. While this is Canada’s largest internationally located national memorial to war dead, many Scots’ names are inscribed on it. This is because of the large number of Scots who migrated to Canada in the late 1800s and chose to serve with the Canadian armed forces. This includes Wick men Alexander Swanson and David McLeod.

Our third stop was the Lochnagar Crater. This was the site of a huge mine explosion which was detonated on the morning of 1st July 1916, signifying the start of the Battle of the Somme. The massive crater was later used to roll dead bodies into, many of which were later reburied in Commonwealth cemeteries. However many more are still believed to remain in the area. We were astounded by the size of the crater which was caused by a mine planted under the German lines by British tunnellers. While there we were lucky enough to meet a Friend of Lochnagar volunteer, who spoke at length with us about the crater and the experience of men there, which was enriched by sharing shrapnel and damaged helmets which were recovered from the area. We were gobsmacked by the small ball bearings which were found in some shells, and which exploded above the trenches. These shot out up to 400 searing hot metal balls upon explosion and caused huge numbers of wounds and fatalities.

Our fourth stop was the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Some 72,000 Commonwealth men are commemorated here but who lost their lives but who have no known grave. Many Wick men have their names listed here: John Duncan Bremner; Arthur H Clyne; Alexander Cormack; George Dunbar; Alexander Dunnet; John Gunn; Fred Lyall; Robert Mackay; John Malcolm; David More and David Sutherland. The sheer size of the monument was astounding, and helped us put into perspective just how many men gave their lives in this horrific war.

However, most importantly for us was that we had found out shortly before arriving that one of the men in our new book, They Never Returned, was in fact Kerry and Alan’s great great great uncle, David Davidson of the 7th Seaforth Highlanders – who we had earlier learned was gassed at Loos. We found his name on the memorial, and laid a small cross with a message of remembrance on behalf of the people from Wick. Miss Morrison read out his story from the book, and it was an incredibly emotional moment for all of us to think that this man was just an ordinary Wicker, and yet he gave his life for his country. Kerry and Alan were particularly saddened to think of their relatives dealing with the loss of this brave man, and that they weren’t much younger than many of those who gave their lives.

Our final stop was the nearby Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel. This is a Canadian park and is notable for its preserved trenches. After the war, many soldiers could not face returning home and so instead remained to look after the battlefield and turn it into a memorial park. As a result, we were able to walk through the actual trenches that Canadian and Scottish men fought in. Many of us have learned about the Battle of the Somme in National History, and walking where these men walked and being able to connect the dots between what we’ve been taught on paper and these real life places was incredible. This was our favourite site overall, not only for the trenches but also the memorial to the 51st Scottish Division who were instrumental in defeating the Germans here in the Battle of the Ancre in November 1916 in the final push of the Somme. Four men from Wick also died in this battle: Robert Blank; George Davidson; John MacPherson and John Miller. There were also two interesting cemeteries here, which were mass graves. Miss Morrison had told us earlier that if headstones were touching, it meant there was a shared grave. We felt the way they had set up the Hunter’s Cemetery near the Division memorial had been particularly respectfully constructed, as it didn’t feel like the place of horror it would have been when many Scots were buried here due to lack of time and necessity in the easiest place soldiers could find – a large shell hole. We finished our time here by climbing to see the bellowing caribou statue, which overlooks the park and is bellowing towards the enemy trenches. From here we could see across the battlefield and the many snaking trench lines.

We finally departed the Somme for our accommodation in Paris. While it was a long and busy day, we all found the sites incredibly interesting, and will remember these places for many years to come! It was particularly significant in that we were able to visit these sites in the centenary year of the end of the war. One thing in particular we would like to do having visited these places, is to contribute to the fund to maintain the Lochnagar Crater by sponsoring a plaque for each of the Wick men who were killed on the same day the mine detonated – the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This way, the sacrifices of the men from Wick will forever be preserved at a site where Wickers can visit and see that we too played our part.

We’re all excited for the rest of our trip now, and ready for a good sleep before another busy day tomorrow!

Au revoir,

Wickers en Paris, 2018

Day 3

Today we had an early start (which not all of us were happy about!). Our first stop was the Eiffel Tower, where we caught elevators to the summit and were able to capture magnificent views of Paris. We spent about and hour here before descending – some even used the stairs! On our way back to the bus, many of us purchased some of the many Eiffel Tower keyrings being hawked by street vendors (though we were very careful to watch for pick pockets!)
Next we hopped back on the bus for about 90 minutes before we reached Rouen to visit Monet’s Garden. This was the Garden he built in order to paint more water lilies towards the end of his career. We were taken aback by the sheer size of the gardens and the beauty of them. We were particularly impressed with the water garden where he painted his famous lilies. Some of us also ventured into his home, where we saw some of his original works! We finally stopped by the gift store to get some unique mementos before returning to the bus.
After most of us had a nap on the bus, we had a quick stop at a large shopping centre to get some snacks before returning to the accommodation for dinner. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing in our rooms, getting ready for Parc Asterix tomorrow!

Day 4 – Parc Asterix

Today we had a full day out at Parc Asterix! This theme park is based on the famous French comics, Asterix, and has several themed historical eras making up its park. We arrived about 10am, and as soon as we had decided on an agreed meeting place, we headed out in groups of three to ride as many of the attractions as we could (despite the long lines for some attractions)

These included the Grande Splach water ride – some of us took Mr Lewis on the ride with us, and we all had a good scream when we dropped into the final part of the ride! Another was Obelisk’s Disc, which was a large disc that spun around while also being propelled between two large ramps!
We also rode some pretty exciting (and terrifying) rollercoasters. One had SEVEN loops, and another had us strapped into harnesses and flipped us upside down at several points in the ride, which was voted the favourite of the day. Miss Morrison even braved it, having never ridden a proper rollercoaster before. As you can see, she had a great time.
We met back at the meeting place at 2, before splitting up again to get lunch and return to the rides. We also got to see some dolphin shows – although having watched Blackfish in English and at home, we felt that it was quite sad for them to be in captivity, and definitely didn’t enjoy this as much as the other attractions.
Exhausted, we got back on the bus and had a late dinner. We then had some free time – some of us played some basketball in the cool evening, and others joined Miss Morrison for some nail painting and pampering, before promptly returning to bed and collapsing, ready for our final day in France tomorrow.

Day 5

Today we had a busy day visiting some more important sites in Paris. Our first stop was the Jardin des Tuileries which we wandered through on our way to the Musee de Orsay. We bought some really fancy ice cream and enjoyed the peaceful garden on our walk. We then crossed over the River Seine on the “Love lock” bridge where couples write their initials on padlocks and then lock them to the bridge.

We reached the Musee de Orsay where we were given a challenge by Mr Ellis to find the names of key artworks and the artists who made them. We explored the museum’s many galleries and saw fantastic artwork by Monet, Renoir, Van Gough and many others. Mr Ellis and Miss Morrison were very happy!

Next we caught a boat down the River Seine where we were able to relax in the sunshine and cool breeze while taking in the famous sights of Paris from a different perspective.

Following this we rushed to reach our appointment to climb the Arc du Triomphe. Our courageous bus driver, Nadine, battled with the chaotic roundabout it is in the centre of in order to get us parked – if you thought Wick traffic was bad at 3.30pm, this was nightmarish! We finally managed to arrive and climbed many many many stairs to reach the top, from where we got a birds eye view of the centre of Paris, including the famous Champs-Elysee.

After our descent, Mr Lewis very kindly organised an extra treat for us – to go shopping down the Champs-Elysee! We walked the whole length of the street, shopping at stores like Sephora and Nike before boarding the bus to return to the accommodation.

After dinner we got ourselves packed and ready for the journey home. Paris has been fantastic!

Day 6

Today we travelled from Paris to Ypres as we prepared for the final leg home. Ypres was a key part of the battles of WWI and was almost completely destroyed by shelling. We visited the Menin Gate memorial which bears 56,000 names of men who died in the battlefields of Belgium but who have no known grave.

We then explored the town – Miss Morrison got us some pretty great deals with two of the chocolate shops, so we stocked up on plenty! Some of us also went to the In Flanders Fields museum in the towns old cloth hall. This was an excellent  exhibition and some of us even climbed the bell tower for a panoramic view of the town.

We enjoyed some Belgian waffles and fries, and explored the WWI stores full of bullets and shrapnel that have been dug up in the “Iron Harvest” where every year 3 tonnes of metal from the two world wars are recovered from French and Belgian battlefields. We enjoyed the sunshine and had a relaxing afternoon.

We finally departed for the ferry, ready to enjoy a peaceful trip home before the long bus journey tomorrow. We have all had a wonderful time and made memories we will keep forever!