By Jason King
Many hundreds of young people are introduced to Lochnagar Crater each year on trips organised by their schools. These visits are crucially important. With luck – and with some inspired teaching – the experience generates a lasting impression and a willingness to help the mission of remembrance. In this article, a Friend of Lochnagar who is a teacher and regularly leads school group battlefield tours, tells of his engagement with the south Wolds Academy at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire and Lochnagar Crater.
It was, as I remember, a pretty tedious meeting at the University of Nottingham, something about our mentoring trainee teachers, but my teacher friend Pete Ford asked me that day if I still ran “bespoke battlefield tours”! I’d been travelling with my own school students for many years. I am ashamed to say that originally I knew very little about Lochnagar. That came later. I’d got the WW1 passion, and I met Mick, Kaye and the late Harry Fellows in Nottingham, and then Richard Dunning somewhere along the line. I have a picture of him talking to the students I was accompanying from Eltham College back in 1987. I reckoned it would be even more brilliant for teenagers to attend the 1 July ceremony that I’d witnessed. It would be the centrepiece of their WW1 battlefield tour.
So it was, with Richard’s generous agreement, we signed up to attend the Crater ceremony in July 2000 with teenage students from south Wolds Comprehensive (in the pre Academisation days). The interment at Ovillers of George Nugent, whose remains had recently been found on the lip of the Crater, was an unexpected, brilliant bonus – a moving occasion the like of which they’d never seen. How many students could say: “We attended the burial of a First World War soldier.”
Over the next fifteen years we have seen it all. That freezing cold and wet ceremony? Technically, I wasn’t directly in charge of the students, so I succumbed gladly to Mick Fellows’ mightily welcome tot of the hard stuff before 9.00 am.
By then, we’d established firmly the practice of involving students to make their own donations to support of Lochnagar.
We thought it was too easy for the school to stump up; it was much better coming directly from the young people themselves.
Wreath laying, 2016
Several days later and back at school, I’d got round to opening the donation envelopes before forwarding them to the late Les Disbrey, then Treasurer of the Friends; I found two students had been so moved that they’d contributed some £50 between them. Big panic. Frantic plea to Richard to write to them in appreciation before we broke for the summer holiday. (He did!)
Younger brothers and sisters came and went, as did the ‘pre trip meeting’ where we stressed that it was a privilege to be there at 0730. Staff changed. Pete retired. But the school’s commitment continued.
Richard always confirmed that our presence was valued, but we never assumed. He suggested south Wolds students might like to participate more directly by being involved in the wreath laying, which involved much pride and nervousness. And we developed the idea of students writing on the envelopes, to give a sense to Richard and to the Friends of Lochnagar, of their response to what the Crater, and his guardianship, meant to them. Humbling. Unfailing generosity of spirit – and of dosh.
We were there. The French port blockade meant that P&O got our coach (and 98 trucks) on to the last ferry to Boulogne.
We were there. Pity Harry or Wills couldn’t have spared the time.
A miss. Had we seen the weather forecast? No.
But the south Wolds staff wilted in the face of the bureaucracy of taking children anywhere, never mind all the other educational revolutions of syllabi, curricula, and even “progress tracking”.
With luck, we’ll be there; the planning is under way.