Twenty-eight cadets and adults from 1st Battalion the Highlanders visited the battlefields, memorials and cemeteries of Ypres and Vimy Ridge in Belgium and France.
The three-day tour saw the cadets learn about the various conflicts fought in the small area, from the Battles of Ypres – fought across five different engagements between 1914-18 – to the Battle of Messines and the various advances of warfare, from trench warfare to the use of tunnelling and mines, to the later involvement of tanks and planes.
The cadets were also challenged on the various misconceptions of the war, such as the “lions led by donkeys” debate. One point that was driven home was that it was a truly joint effort by a series of nations, as the British didn’t hold a large percentage of the Western Front whereas the French held almost 70%.
Every time the cadets visited a memorial or cemetery they were always told to imagine what it was like a century ago, which for Cadet Bombardier Danielle Savage (15) from St Ola Detachment was quite hard to as she said: “The old front lines and battlefields are now such beautiful places, it is quite hard to picture the madness taking place over 100 years ago.”
The tour was made as personal as possible for the cadets to know the men named on the memorials and headstones, with some personal correspondence of fallen servicemen being read out. During a visit to Railway Wood and the Royal Engineer Memorial, Cadet Lance Corporal Max Scott (15), from Elgin Detachment and Cadet Lance Corporal Caitlin Green (15), from Thurso Detachment, read out letters between a 2Lt Charles Boothby of 177th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers and his sweetheart Edith. After reading out a series of love letters written over an 18 month period the cadets learned that he was tragically killed in action, along with 11 other men, by a mine exploding underneath their tunnel, with their bodies unable to be recovered. He died a week before he was due to go on leave and see Edith.
As well as visiting Commonwealth War Graves, the cadets also visited the Vladslo German Military Cemetery which for Cadet Lance Corporal William Loftus (15), from Elgin Detachment, was the most emotional part. He said: “For me it was seeing the cemetery, no more than 100 metres squared and being told there are almost 26,000 people buried there.”
On Saturday evening the cadets paraded at the Menin Gate to take part in the Last Post Ceremony, a ceremony that has taken place every evening since 1928 – apart from when Ypres was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War. Three cadets from the battalion’s Caithness Company were given the honour to lay a wreath at the gate: LCpl Green to lay the wreath, with fellow Thurso Detachment Cadet Sergeant Dylan Gunn (17) and Cadet Amanda Mulvey (17), from Halkirk Detachment, as escorts. After the ceremony the cadets had a look around the Menin Gate, which has the names of 54,896 soldiers with no known grave.
LCpl Green commented: “It was an eye opener as to how many soldiers had lost their lives defending their country.”
The final day of the tour saw the cadets make the trip into France to learn about the Canadian effort during the war and their part in the Arras Offensive during the Battle of Vimy Ridge with a visit to the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy Ridge.
After their return home, Cadet Corporal Natasha Gregor (16), from Fort William Detachment, said: “The tour was absolutely eye-opening. I learned so much there, from where all the lines were at various times and also in some cases how close they were to one another. It was a huge honour to be part of the Menin Gate Ceremony.”
Twenty-eight members of the battalion took part in the tour, Colonel Iain Cassidy (63), Commandant of 1st Battalion the Highlanders, Sgt Dylan Gunn (17), LCpl Nicole Gunn (15), LCpl Caitlin Green (15), Cdt Eilish Brinded (17), Cdt Amanda Mulvey (17), SI Paul Turner (36), SMI Keith Farquhar (40) and Capt Neil McLean (67), from Caithness Company, Cpl Matthew Newberry (17), LCpl Natasha Gregor (16), LCpl Connor Hutchison (15), LCpl Hugo Findlay (15) and SI Flora Thomson (56), from Inverness Company, Cpl Michael McBride (16), LCpl Max Scott (15), LCpl William Loftus (15), LCpl Kyle Duncan (16) and SSI Graeme Wells (26), from Moray Company, Bdr Danielle Savage (15), LBdr Keiran Bews (17) and Major Andrew Barton (55) from Orkney & Shetland Battery, LCpl Harry Dawson (15), LCpl David Miller (15), LCpl Andy Tait (15), LCpl Louise Cameron (15) and SMI Lorraine Woolley (53), from Ross Company, and LCpl Anna Campbell (17), from Western Isles Company.
The tour was paid for through fundraising efforts by the cadets, various grants and also kind donations from local Highland businesses Tulloch Homes, The Robertson Group, SGL Carbon and Sheriffmill Motors.