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SAHETI WWI centenary tour

| March 29, 2019 | 0 Comments


A little over 100 years ago, on 11 November 1918 at 11am, bugles sounded and bells pealed in Paris, France, to announce the end of WWI.
One hundred years later, on 11 November 2018, 10 SAHETI High School Grade 8 learners, together with their two history teachers, Clare Paterson and Evan Coconas, were in Paris to experience the WWI centenary commemorations.
Inevitably, one is moved by the description of the loss of life in John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”:1
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below…

In 1915, 22-year- old Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed by a direct hit from a German shell in the gun positions near the town of Ypres.2 What body parts could be found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial. In the absence of the chaplain, his friend John McCrae, the brigade doctor and artillery commander major,3 was asked to conduct the burial service. The grave has since been lost and Lieutenant Helmer is now commemorated on Panel 10 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres. He is one of the
54 896 soldiers who have no known grave in the battlefields of the Ypres Salient.
It is believed that McCrae began the draft for his now-famous poem “In Flanders Fields” while looking at Helmer’s supposed death-site and the red poppies that were springing up among the graves in the burial ground. The blood-red poppy has become the iconic symbol of the tragedy of WWI.
The South African national curriculum and policy statement (CAPS) document for Grade 8 history includes a study of WWI, which was the inspiration for participating in the 2018 centenary commemoration by visiting various battlefields. The criteria used to select the learners for this life-changing tour were based on academic merit, and no learner was disadvantaged due to financial constraints.

On 5 November 2018, the tour group embarked on a six-day adventure to northern France and Belgium – an adventure we would never forget. We were about to take WWI out of the classroom and relive it in the battlefields of West Flanders and the Somme.

The Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate
It is unfathomable that at the imposing Menin Gate Memorial (the memorial is located at the eastern exit of Ypres and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the frontline), the “Last Post” – the bugle call or trumpet call that commemorates those who have been killed in war – has been sounded daily at 20:00 hours since 1928. Only during the German occupation of France during WWII was this ceremony interrupted. A week before the 2018 commemoration of Armistice Day 1918, we took part in this “Last Post” ceremony. The buglers’ rendition was powerful and memorable as it resounded inside the walls of this impressive memorial. A few of our learners were given the opportunity to lay a wreath of poppies during the ceremony, and we located the name of Lieutenant Alexis Helmer on Panel 10: remembered simply as “a soldier of the Great War”.

“ComingWorldRememberMe” land art installation
Six hundred thousand small clay statues and 600 000 names cover three hectares forming a map of the world, in “No Man’s Land” and “The Bluff ” on the Ypres Salient (a salient is a battlefield feature that projects into an opponent’s territory), one of the most heavily fought-over locations. This amazing art installation is the work of artist Koen Vanmechelen.5 The statues represent those who fought and died in WWI in Belgium, and were made by tens of thousands of people from Flanders and all around the world. Our budding historians were fascinated by the metal identification tags on each statue, each engraved with the name of a WWI soldier and the statue maker. Every tag connects the past with the present.

These small clay figures are in a braced position, as if preparing for a challenge. They have a pronounced backbone, which emphasises the ability to rise again. The future of the coming world is depicted by a giant egg that is on the point of hatching, as a precursor to the birth of a new world. With permission from the tour guide, visitors were able to take away one of these clay statues. What a privilege!
We celebrated the joys of being alive in West Flanders by enjoying homemade “double poppy” burgers and real solid Belgian chocolate (dark, white and pink) from Ledoux Chocolaterie Langemark.

The Somme battlefields
Peter Jackson’s recent WWI centenary film, They Shall Not Grow Old7, successfully depicts the countless casualties that defined this tragic war. Like those involved in the production of this epic film, our learners were able to walk in the frontline trenches at Beaumont-Hamel and imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers in these trenches, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), when the whistle blew to go “over the top” (leaving the safety of their tranches and attacking the enemy), resulted in a total of over 50 000 casualties, with nearly 20 000 killed on that day alone. “An experience of a lifetime” and “history relived” typified the response from our captivated learners. We will never forget the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel that sombrely memorialises the dead while preserving the battlefield as it was. (This is one of the best preserved sections of the Somme, and the extensive grounds and its iconic baying elk make it one of the best memorials of the war. The central focus of the memorial is a bronze elk calling in the direction that soldiers went to attack.)

“On 11 November 2018 in Paris, we were present as over 60 heads of state attended the memorial service at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

The Wellington quarries
The underground war was no less incredible, brave and sacrificial. As we explored the Wellington Quarries under the city of Arras, we found it hard to believe that nearly 500 Maori New Zealand miners, helped by Yorkshire miners, dug 25 km of huge passages in six months. These underground barracks hid 24 000 Allied troops near the enemy frontlines in readiness for a surprise new offensive on the Arras front. As we reached the sloping passages that led up to the light, the learners were imagining the unfolding drama as the soldiers prepared to attack. The tour guide pointed out that whilst we often pray for life and strength, many of the young soldiers were recorded as praying “Dear God, help me to die” just before they exited the tunnels to launch the attack.

Delville Wood
Another highlight of our trip was visiting the memorial to the brave South Africans of all races who sacrificed their lives for freedom in the Allied effort in northern France and at Delville Wood.
Not only were the autumn oaks colour- rich, so too was our South African flag, flying proudly alongside the French flag at the very impressive Delville Wood Memorial. Our learners were visibly moved by the courage of our soldiers, as we walked in the trenches of Delville Wood, contemplated the grave of soldier Nyweba Beleza in the Delville Wood museum courtyard, and read the hundreds of South African names on the memorial walls.
Armistice Day
On 11 November 2018 in Paris, we were present as over 60 heads of state attended the memorial service at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. South African Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, was present. French president, Emmanuel Macron, warned of the dangers of contemporary aggressive nationalism, while world leaders including German chancellor, Angela Merkel, joined hands in a symbolic gesture of peace.
We returned to South Africa richer in knowledge and understanding about this defining world event. As teachers, we clearly observed how the most necessary 21st century skill – historical empathy – was nurtured in the group through this trip.

The rows of crosses and poppy fields remain ingrained in our minds as an appreciation of humanity and the fragility of life and peace. May Koen Vanmechelen’s inspiring land art vision ring true for the world.

Clare Paterson is head of the SAHETI School history department. SAHETI School is in Senderwood, Johannesburg, Gauteng.

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Category: Autumn 2019

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