Langemarck Trip Commemorating the Centenary of the First World War, 7th-9th November 2014
Exactly 100 years after the battle which later inspired the Langemarck Myth was fought, around 100 students from schools across Germany, Belgium and South Wales gathered in the small town of Langemarck-Poelkapelle, to commemorate the centenary of the First World War as part of a special project designed to reiterate the perpetual importance of peace in a world still ridden with conflict even today and make young people aware of the dangers of propaganda.
Seven Year 13 pupils from Cowbridge Comprehensive School were part of the Welsh cohort (which included the Vale of Glamorgan Youth Service, A&C Company Dyfed and Glamorgan Army Cadet Force) who left incredibly early on Friday 7th November to partake in the weekend’s busy programme. Upon arriving in late afternoon in Langemarck-Poelkapelle, we met our foreign counterparts and got to know them better through a “speed dating” session, before visiting the Menin Gate, where the Last Post was played and members of our multi-national party laid wreaths.
Upon our return we learnt about the Langemarck Myth, where 3000 young and inexperienced German soldiers died in one of the first confrontations with Allied troops, singing “Deutschland, Deutschland Űber Alles‘” (a popular song meaning ‘Germany, Germany Above All’) to try and cease fire from their own side. Amongst those who died were 600 students, which led to the battle later being dubbed as the “massacre of the innocents” or “Kindermord” by the British and Germans alike. In order not to affect morale and to foster pride, military dispatches and the press portrayed the tragedy differently, with the brave and selfless German youth singing defiantly as they went into battle against the enemy, and thus the Langemarck Myth was born. The Myth later went on to be utilised by Hitler in propaganda which glorified the willingness of sacrifice of young Germans during the Second World War to inspire later generations to follow their example.
Sustained by ‘croque monsieurs’ (or cheese and ham toasties to those who don’t know) we helped make 325 clay statues throughout the night as part of the Coming World Remember Me project (which aims to make 600,000 in total to represent the number who lost their lives in Belgium during WW1).We were also given the choice of watching films associated with the power of propaganda (e.g. Die Welle, Wag the Dog) or sleep, the latter being irresistible to many given the next day’s itinerary.
Day two commenced at 4am with an 8-9 km walk across the battlefields, accompanied by a local music group Kotjesvolk, where we visited a small British Cemetery along with other memorials en route to our final destination: the German Cemetery situated on the outskirts of Langemarck itself. It is here that the 600 students of the Langemarck Myth are buried, and as a result the cemetery is also known as the ‘cemetery of students’, despite only accounting for a small, but equally important, number of the 44,000 other German casualties of the First World War who lie beside them.
After a brief respite we separated into three groups; one made films about West-Flanders from a German, British or Flemish wartime perspective, another wrote a peace song with the assistance of local musician Lightning Guy, and another made commemorative graffiti and discussed the purpose and power of propaganda, before visiting the interesting and informative ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum in Ypres. We and our fellow Welsh students then temporarily parted from the main group to visit the Cromlech, the new Welsh memorial in Langemarck built to commemorate the estimated 40,000 of Welsh descent who died in the Great War.
Later in the evening we, along with the locals, gathered at the German Cemetery to hear the peace song and unveil the graffiti we had created earlier in the day, along with a sobering reminder as to the purpose of our trip by the Mayor. Afterwards we attended a concert run in partnership with ‘Gone West’ (another organisation dedicated to keeping WW1 in human consciousness by helping compile a list of all those who died in Flanders) before reaching D’oude Abdij in Reninge for some long anticipated rest ahead of our departure for home in the morning.
One of the highlights of the trip for everyone was getting to know other young people and how close we all managed to become despite having only known each other for 48 hours. Many of us stayed up late into the night (or all in some cases) socialising, and everyone hopes to stay in touch over the years, a feat of course made much easier nowadays than in the past through the extent of social media. Personally I think that these friendships are testament in themselves to the success of the project, whose overriding aim was to actively demonstrate the value of peace by bringing together young people whose ancestors fought each other 100 years ago.
Moreover, the visit helped alter people’s perceptions of the war and its effects, as despite hearing the facts and figures, many people were still profoundly shocked and moved upon being faced with the overwhelming scale of sacrifice from all nations when visiting memorials like the Menin Gate and seeing the long lists of names. Whilst there we were reminded that the impact of war was even further reaching, as each of these people left loved ones behind. Through learning about the different perspectives, many commented on how in Britain we often become complacent in remembering that the war affected other nations just as heavily as it did our own, and how we rarely consider the lasting effect the war has had in places that experienced fighting, like Belgium. War memorials scatter the landscape and bodies are still being recovered, the war is an omnipresent part of the everyday lives of people who live there. Interestingly, several people also commented on how reserved the German teenagers were when discussing the war, as not only do many not talk or learn about the war in the same way that we do here, but many also appeared to feel embarrassed and even guilty for the role their ancestors played in the conflict, despite the fact that they themselves are blameless and played no part in it.
Finally, on behalf of everyone I would like to thank not only Tina Simmons, the Senior Youth Service Manager for the Vale who coordinated the Welsh participants but also Jo Lottegier of the Tourist Department in Langemarck-Poelkapelle and all others who were involved in organising an amazing and unique experience.