Family & Education

Stars of David on the headstones, shrapnel on the ground - how a generation came face to face with WWI


The wind is unrelenting as we march into the Bailleul Road East Cemetery in northern France.

We pass rows upon rows of headstones emblazoned with the names of soldiers who once stood side by side, but now rest grave to grave.

Scanning the cemetery - just one of the many that are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to memorialise the fallen soldiers of the First World War - we spot Stars of David among stones inscribed with crosses.

"I like that people of all faiths are buried together," says Olivia Dowell, 17, from Hasmonean High School. "They fought together and they died together."

After hearing the personal stories of several soldiers interred at the site, including Jewish poet Isaac Rosenberg, we walk 20 metres down a gravel path.

There, we find a shady field replete with German graves. Space is limited, meaning one mass grave in the centre holds more than 32,000 men. Looking at the surrounding headstones, Star of Davids are visible again.

"It is so interesting to see how many lives were lost on either side," observes Hasmonean pupil Harry Gothold, 16. "My father's grandfather on one side was German and his grandfather on the other side was British. Both were Jews who fought for their countries."

We then march, single file, back to our waiting coach.

I am travelling as an interloper on a very special school trip - one that has taken me from Kent to Calais, and then on to Ypres in Belgium and the Somme in France. This four-day tour is one of thousands of trips that form a five-year initiative: the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme.

The programme is run by the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) alongside school tour operator Equity, and is funded by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The aim? To enable teachers and pupils from every state-funded secondary school in the country to develop a deeper understanding of the Great War.

It runs from 2014 to 2019 - spanning the centenary of the First World War. During this time, the IOE offers a free tour to one teacher and two students from every state school in England.

"Pressures on the national curriculum mean that the First World War can sometimes get left in the past," explains IOE educator Eric Dennis, who is overseeing the tours. "But it's not just 'in the past'. There is shrapnel still on the ground all around us.

"We both train teachers to teach the war in new and different ways, and encourage students to be ambassadors for remembrance when they go home."

So far, 1,150 schools have taken part, amounting to 60 visits. Each tour is led by a specialist International Guild of Battlefield guide, and is also accompanied by a soldier from the British Army, who explains to pupils how war has changed in 100 years - and how some things never change. With a target of 4,000 schools, the IOE has another 2,850 to go.

But that is only half the scheme. As only two students are eligible to attend from every school, they carry the task of taking home what they have learnt. Each is expected to participate in Legacy 110, an initiative where they strive to impact upon at least 110 people within their community.

If this is achieved, the project will reach more than 880,000 people in total, which is equivalent to the number of British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the First World War.

"It is a brilliant idea," says Nathan Heddle, head of history at Hasmonean Boys', who is accompanying Harry, and Tomer Weider, 17. "Our students are taking their responsibility seriously.

"They will be presenting Armistice Day assembly to the whole school when we return."

My coach is filled with 45 students from 15 schools, ranging in age from 13 to 17. These include delegates from Hasmonean High (both the girls' and boys' schools) in Hendon and Mill Hill, JFS in Kenton and King David High in Liverpool. It is the first time that Jewish schools have been involved.

"I am fascinated by the First World War," says JFS history teacher Geordie Raine, who has come with Jacob Arbeid, 17, and Vitale Stone, 16.

"The war was fundamental to our understanding of the 20th century and, specifically, to our understanding of the Jewish experience. It enables us to have a better understanding of the Holocaust."

History A-Level student Jacob adds: "The First World War can sometimes get sidelined at school. But I think it is important to counter the myth that Jews didn't fight."

Our tour days are long and jam-packed - including, but not limited to, visits to the In Flanders Field museum, Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park, Thiepval Memorial and Tyne Cot Cemetery.

Along the way, we are led by our impossibly well-informed guide, Tim Stoneman, who, before leading school parties, soldiers and members of the public on Battlefield tours full-time, served in the Royal Navy for 35 years. He is an imposing and authoritative cross between Brian Blessed and Lord Kitchener.

"I make it my business to show the children a personal connection to the sites we visit," Stoneman explains. This aim, and the fact that Jewish children are on board our tour, leads him to choose Isaac Rosenberg's grave as a point of interest. There, Stoneman passes out poetry written by Rosenberg from the trenches.

Every morning begins with Stoneman and Dennis posing a focus question to students, such as "Is remembrance more or less important 100 years on?", to encourage deeper thought and understanding.

Such insight is also fostered with the help of David Barrow, a WO2 (aka a Sergeant Major) in the Reserve London Regiment of the British Army, who fought in Afghanistan.

"I am here to give students a modern perspective, and take them into the military mind," Barrow explains. "Being forced into unpleasant situations, you bond with people in a way you never expected. You feel a duty to your country, but really, you want to protect the comrades beside you. Your sense of duty is to them."

As we walk from grave to grave, we hear how propaganda and "fear of missing out" spurred young boys to lie about their ages and enlist. Then, following the war, the shame and taboo of mental health caused many who experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to suffer in silence.

Barrow tells his audience how far the army has come since then. "I deal with the welfare of soldiers," he says. "We drum it into them that there is no shame in admitting to shell shock."

Back at the hotel, Barrow and his comrades demonstrate how uniform has changed, with pupils trying on both old and modern camouflage, helmets, and gloves, and learning how certain things, like food rations, have largely stayed the same. Corned beef, tinned vegetable stew and HP sauce are still mainstays of a diet on the front line. Upon hearing this, Vitale confesses: "I could never join the army."

Other highlights range from visiting memorial sites to treading wet terrain inside preserved trenches.

On Monday night, we visit the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, where, every single evening since 1927, buglers have played the Last Post cavalry call, before wreaths are laid and the assembled crowd falls silent.

Vitale and Eva Bracha, 17, from Hasmonean High, are chosen to lay a wreath on behalf of our tour group. Eva describes it as "a real honour.

"I got really emotional, so can only imagine how people who had relatives who died here would feel," she adds.

The following day, we arrive at Thiepval Memorial, where the names of 73,000 soldiers who fell in the Battle of Somme but whose bodies were never found, are inscribed. One name, Percy Braham, holds special meaning for Lottie Blankstone, 13, Daniel Greenway, 14, and their teacher, Jennifer Partridge, from King David High School in Liverpool. Percy went to the Liverpool Hebrew School for Boys and is named on their school's war memorial. His family lived next to the synagogue.

"I'm proud of our school's involvement," says Daniel, who himself had family who fought in the Battle of the Somme. "It is scary that he was only 17 - three years older than me."

As our whirlwind tour draws to a close, we make a final stop at the Coming World Remember Me workshop in Ypres, where the students contribute to a project to produce 600,000 sculptures - matching the 600,000 people who died in Belgium.

"This trip has really helped me connect to my ancestors who fought here," Harry says. "It is important because all survivors are now dead, so it is up to us to tell their stories."

For Eva, a highlight was showing other pupils on the trip a different side to history - that is, the Jewish experience. "Some people were surprised to see Jewish graves," she says.

Olivia adds: "It is so important to know what our country has been through. As much as we are Jews, we are also British - and this is a massive part of British history."

With that, the pupils begin their journey back home to the UK - a return trip that so many British soldiers were denied - with the words of IOE's Dennis lingering in the air.

"All those gravestones out there - they deserve you making the effort to put something back into your community," he implores them. "Soldiers gave their lives. What are you going to do to preserve their legacy?"

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive