Thursday 2 November 2017
I started my journey in the early hours of Thursday morning in a car park in Wrexham. With around 50 tired boys, we travelled down to Dover – a journey of around 6 hours. After reaching Calais, it was only an hour’s drive to the historic town of Ypres in West Belgium. As we reached the French- Belgian border it was obvious that we were driving through a beautiful country both in landscape and architecture. We arrived in Ypres in the late afternoon. The land around the town of Ypres was the location of the battlefields of the Battle of Passchendaele or the Third Battle of Ypres where many soldiers were killed. Every night at 8pm, the Last Post Ceremony is held at Menin Gate. Since 1928 the Ceremony has been held daily to remember the missing soldiers. The building has 54,409 names inscribed on it of missing soldiers from the Commonwealth.
That evening, I was chosen to lay a wreath on the monument along with a member of South OBA and I felt very honoured that I was given this opportunity. With military precision, the ceremony started. We heard the Last Post music and Scottish music played by a piper. Then my choir, Only Boys Aloud sang two songs. During the singing, people from all corners of the world such as Australia, Canada, England, Scotland and Wales laid wreaths. I had my photo taken with groups of people from all over the world and I felt very proud to be a Welshman in their midst! When walking to the monument, it was obviously an unforgettable experience to be there and I was amazed at the silence throughout the ceremony.
Friday 3 November 2017
Our second day in Ypres (or Ieper in Flemish), was very busy for us. We started our day with a tour of Ypres Salient and we had a better idea of the strategic importance of the town during the First World War. Our first stop was Artillery Wood Ceremony. This is where two famous poets are buried during the first day of battle – Francis Ledwidge from Ireland and Ellis Humphrey Evans or “Hedd Wyn”. We gathered around Hedd Wyn’s Grave and sand the song “h” (which stands for “Hiraeth”) by the composer Pwyll ap Sion. Whilst singing the song, we could all feel what each of the soldiers felt during the war – “hiraeth” or longing for home. One thing that did surprise me was the number of unnamed graves. I’m sure that it was here that the majority of us had tears in our eyes.
We then went on to the Welsh Memorial at Langemark where we heard more about the bloody battle. After singing a few songs around the monument, we then went on to the German Cemetery at Langemark. The difference between the Commonwealth graves and German graves was very obvious. In the German cemetery, there were no individual graves, only massed graves. By the end of the day, we had visited many monuments and cemeteries.
We arrived back in Ypres after lunch for our rehearsal for our concert at St Martin’s Cathedral. Luckily for us all, there was time to go and get some Belgian waffles and Belgian chocolates! After this, we performed to a packed-out cathedral. The experiences of the day certainly gave us a better understanding of the feelings and words behind each song that we sang.
Saturday 4 November 2017
After a successful concert the evening before, every single one of us were very tired. But, we had another busy day in front of us. We left Ypres in the morning for our journey to the Somme area in France. Our first stop of the day was Thiepval monument where 72,246 British and South African soldiers were missing in action. The number of names on the monument was unbelievable. It was obvious to us all that the fighting on both sides would have been horrific.
Another famous battle where many Welsh soldiers fought was the Battle of Mametz Wood. Here we sang “h” again and after laying another wreath at the monument, it was time to head back to Calais and home.
Our pilgrimage to Belgium was amazing and I had an unforgettable experience. I’m sure that none of the soldiers that didn’t come back from battle would believe that 114 Welsh boys would be there to commemorate them a hundred years later. I was very grateful for the opportunity and would like to thank our local tours, the staff and Only Boys Aloud.
Oliver – Wrexham OBA