St Swithun’s School Trip to WW1 Battlefields

“I Want Us To Come Away Feeling Different”

St Swithun’s School in Winchester is an independent day and boarding school for girls. They have run a guided history trip to the battlefields for their Year 9 students for many years. We caught up with Georgina Manville, who has been the group leader for each of the last 5 years.

The trip has evolved each year since I took on responsibility for organising it. We had the same programme for the first couple of trips after which I knew where I would like to make changes. Now, each year, I tailor to the students who will be on the tour. I chat with our guide and we look at the different possibilities for our trip – Anglia are completely comfortable with the trip evolving year on year.

Going to the battlefields with a guide is excellent professional development. Each year the trip affords my colleagues and I the chance to talk about why it is we teach History. We have an opportunity to reflect on why and how we want to do this job.

The trip is fixed in the calendar, it is just what happens. Each September we launch the trip with a letter home to parents and then those students who attended the trip the previous year give a presentation to the whole school in assembly. This really helps to generate interest in the trip and the year tutors really get behind it. Interest can vary but I do not put a limit on the numbers I will take; this has varied from 30 to 70.

I believe this is something everyone should do once in their life. In fact, you should go twice – there is simply too much to take in the first time round.

This visit cements what our students have learnt in the classroom. By the time we go they have finished learning about the First World War in lessons and have moved on to the 1930s. However, this trip helps them to make sense of what they have covered and contextualises what they have learnt, and what they’re still learning.

It’s not about learning about a particular battle or event, my aim is that they come away feeling different. I believe the reason we run the trip is that everyone who goes on it comes home with a better understanding of why the First World War still matters and why it still has such a big impact on the world today.

One way in which the trip has evolved is that our students now have far greater scope to follow the stories of their relatives. We always ask for details of any potential pilgrimages, which we pass on to our Anglia guide. They will do the research and will build relevant sites and stories into the itinerary. We have been quite lucky as some of the students we have taken have had relatives whose stories have allowed us to highlight various themes. These include a Victoria Cross winner and this year, with the Centenary of the Royal Air Force, an RAF pilot. We have had South African and Australian pilgrimages, which enabled us to visit some different places and cover new angles. When one of the group has a personal connection, for everyone it becomes so much more than just visiting a gravestone – it can be very moving.

Once they have signed up for the trip, our students get quite keen to find a relative to visit. Our guide helps with this. Sometimes students have contacted their parents about a relative when on the tour and then the tour Guide has been able to build a visit to their grave into the tour. This then means the trips differ from one year to the next.

The new Sir John Monash Centre at Villers- Bretonneux Australian Memorial was amazing! This year we visited Villers- Bretonneux Australian Memorial for a pilgrimage but we will definitely go again next year even if we have no relative there. The students were completely and utterly bowled over by it. The sounds, images and smells were just so immersive. They came out either crying or stunned – it’s something very different, a powerful experience. This visit was a real highlight for me and the students.

Sunken Lane was another highlight for me. We show them pictures where they are standing, which were taken in 1916 and this makes things very real for them. We have also found Delville Wood has much more of an impact than the Menin Gate. It is far quieter with far fewer people and the students could almost sense the troops moving through the woods. Visits like this make the war more tangible for them.

I feel incredibly safe with our Anglia guide. We have the same guide each year. He pitches it perfectly and knows when to stop talking, plant a seed and leave it to germinate. I could not possibly match what he does, it’s something that should be done properly.

Georgina’s top tips for taking a guided history tour:

  • Think carefully about what you want to get out of the trip
  • Listen to your guide – they know best.
  • Be prepared to go to the less visited sites. The most poignant moments can be here, when you’re the only people there.
  • If you’re going to visit the Battlefields, do it properly with a guide, someone who knows what they are talking about. If you’re leading the group, you will miss out on the experience.