The Way Home

Our last two days took us from the American Military Cemetary to the Palace of Versailles, where due to time constraints and monstrous crowds we took in the extensive gardens with their boating pond, statuary, hedge mazes, and flower gardens. The boys enjoyed themselves, but we were soon on the bus again and making our way to the ferry and back across the Channel to England. Our flight back to the States was a good one – the flight was barely over half full and all had plenty of room to stretch out. We did have a bit of a moment as I tried to explain the decomissioned shell I had bought at a museum at Ypres to the airline company and airport security.

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Honoring a Brother in Blue

Private Harrell, an engineer with the US Army, was an alumnus whose final story is still being unraveled. We believed that he had died of influenza, but upon arriving at Surenses American Military Cemetary outside of Paris we found that he was memorialized on a plaque to those from the Great War who were lost at sea and whose bodies were never recovered.

We had spent some time earlier in our trip taking in the differences between British Commonwealth and German memorialization to the dead in the way they designed and layed out their cemetaries; the American cemetary provided yet a third model for memorializing and honoring the fallen with elements of both styles but an overall effect that was unique from either. As with every other military cemetary managed by the Battlefield Monuments Commission that I have visited across Europe, Surenses was an imaculately tended place of beauty and reflection.

The Cadets presented a wreath at the plaque where their Brother was honored and were presented flags by the cemetary’s manager, flags which had been placed at all of the gravesites for Memorial Day. The cemetary was out of our way, but it was an amazing experience that seemed to make a strong impression on the Cadets. A hundred years ago a brother was lost, but we had come across an ocean, across thousands of miles, to remember and honor him. It was a single encapsulated moment which spoke to Riverside’s nature and purpose.

 

Two Days in the City of Lights…

…has never been described as enough! However, the boys have gotten a whirlwind tour of the city and have enjoyed much of what Paris has to offer. Over the last two days, we have seen landmarks, museums, cathedrals, and monuments; we have dined in cafes and fantastic little resturaunts; we have eaten snails, bought trinkets and learned about the city’s history. I should also mention in passing the heat. It has been amazingly unseasonably warm throughout this trip – in the upper 80’s, which is about fifteen to twenty degrees hotter than normal for now. So despite the fact that we all packed far too many dress shirts and umbrellas for the trip, the boys have born it well and certainly made the best of things. It has been a great two days, and it marks the near-end to an amazing journey.

Tomorrow we rise, visit the gravesite of a Riverside Military Academy alumnus who fought in the Great War and then died of Spanish Influenza – and who now rests in a cemetery on the outskirts of Paris. From there we are off to see Versaille – home of the notorious peace treaty that laid the groundwork for the Second World War (but was also in a happier time the site of the first hot air balloon launch!) and then head over to London for our last night abroad.

Remembering Unimaginable Carnage

1916 was a year of cataclysmic battles – titanic and futile clashes of men doomed to a Cthonic fate as they struggled in a technological era that facilitated mass murder on the battlefield but could not yet prevent it. For the French, this was manifest in the battle of Verdun, for the British Commonwealth it was the Somme. The Somme was a battle of depressing superlatives – the artillery barrages lasted for days, the participants numbered in the hundreds of thousands, the mines detonated underground were the largest explosions in the history of mankind; yet the German fortifications were deeper and the results more tragic than anyone forsaw…by an order of magnitude. For a variety of reasons the first day of this three-month attack was a total disaster and witnessed sixty thousand British and Commonwealth casualties. In one day. Seeing the battlefield reinforced many things to our boys, the futility of distance being one of them. The memorial park to Newfoundland’s regiment still has visible (if eroded) trenches from both the Allied and German side. They stand within easy rifle shot of each other; the stump of tree that marked the limit of the first day’s advance stands within a minute’s walk of the soldiers’ starting trench line.

One picture here deserves special explanation. The British tend to bury their dead in small cemetaries near where they fell or were initially buried. The circular graveyard marks the final resting place of over two dozen who were killed in a single shell hole.

 

An Unexpected Honor

As mentioned in the last post, our Cadets received an unexpected honor that will be a watershed moment in their lives. Here is the summation of the rite they were able to participate in as told by Wikipedia; not that this is similar to the playing of “Taps” at a US memorial:

“Last Post” ceremony

In July 2016, the Cessnock (Australia) Pipes & Drums played during the Last Post ceremony.[22]

Following the Menin Gate Memorial opening in 1927, the citizens of Ypres wanted to express their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom. Hence every evening at 20:00, buglers from the local fire brigade close the road which passes under the memorial and sound the “Last Post“.[23] Except for the occupation by the Germans in World War II when the daily ceremony was conducted at Brookwood Military Cemetery, in Surrey, England, this ceremony has been carried on uninterrupted since 2 July 1928.[24] On the evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres in the Second World War, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate despite the fact that heavy fighting was still taking place in other parts of the town.

During an extended version of the ceremony, individuals or groups may lay a wreath to commemorate the fallen.[25] Bands and choirs from around the world may also apply to participate in the ceremonies.[25] This extended version of the ceremony also starts at 20:00, but lasts longer than the normal ceremony, when only the Last Post is played.[25] Schedules are available on the Last Post website.[25]

This history coincides with that described by our tour guide.

Unbeknownst to us, one of the extended ceremonies (as described above) was scheduled for the very night that we were visiting to watch the proceedings. The extended ceremony included a parade of participating units, bands, and wreath laying at two separate locations. Those participating military units were predominantly from the UK, but Belgian and German units were also in attendance, as were a multiplicity of civilian nationalities. Dean Green was able to quickly secure Riverside’s boys a position in the order of units from Major Ray Jolly, Officer Commanding of 18 Squadron 3 Medical Regiment in Preston England (the British officer controlling the parade), while Mrs. Pedry was able to secure permission from a Belgian organizer to photograph the wreath-laying from a normally off-limits location behind the memorial.

With less than three minutes of rehearsal, the Cadets found themselves marching between a British and German military unit. The parade’s commanding officer made a deliberate decision to give Riverside’s cadets a place of precedence in front of the German soldiers despite our youth – we were formally representing not only Riverside but the United States of America. The Cadets marched admirably in front of a crowd of thousands, holding their own under intense scrutiny. Afterwards, they were high on life – their happiness was as intense as it was real. So, to the TACs, Commandant’s Staff and to the Sergeant Major who prepared them so well for such an intense and unexpected examination – Thank You.

Additional photographs and video were captured by some of the other trip participants and will be made available either through this blog or the Public Relations Office as soon as possible.

A Day Never to be Forgotten

Today will be a day that these Cadets will never forget. Today we walked the low fields of Belgium, saw the still-cratered woods near Ypres, and marched in a memorial parade beside British, Belgian and German military units commemorating the British Commonwealth’s fallen and unidentified dead in the Ypres salient. We learned the stories of heroes and visited the field hospital where the famed author of the WWI poem “In Flanders Field” by Canadian officer John McCrae saw his close friend die and was inspired to that verse. We also visited three cemeteries: two Commonwealth and one German. One of the boys commented that he had never learned so much from any class or textbook; as he was one of my US history students I dare to think that that was quite an endorsement of the academic value of this trip.

It has been such an amazing day…and so very late! I will update more pictures about this amazing day shortly and provide some more information about our experiences – especially Riverside’s participation in the Menin Gate Last Call memorial parade and wreath-laying ceremony.

Across the Channel

A short update for today – we crossed the English Channel by ferry, taking in the White Cliffs of Dover from the sea as we lunched aboard our vessel. Arriving in Calais we then drove into Belgium to the town of Ypres. Several Cadets remarked with satisfaction about having been in three countries in one day.

We spent a little over an hour in Ypres taking in the WWI museum in the rebuilt Medieval cloth hall as well as the town square and neighboring cathedral. Then we were off to dinner and a bit of relaxation and volleyball before bed. Tomorrow we visit the battlefield and many of the boys are looking forward to revisiting the sites in Ypres.

Final Day in London

Our cadets are many things. Polite, fit, disciplined…and today, we can add appreciators of public art. As we got off the tube this morning we found ourselves confronted by an obstacle of considerable entertainment value – a large circle of glass rods that presented a viewer on one side with a shadowy look into the world on the other side. Not only was this amusing for the boys in the short term, but it sparked conversations about art, architecture and the purpose of such in the world all along the way to our next destination.

Our morning’s destination was Buckingham Palace. We took pictures, absorbed the sights, and were treated a few minutes later with the Queen’s motorcade leaving the gates – several of the boys were able to catch a glimpse of the Queen herself in the backseat of her lorry.

A few minutes walk through London from Buckingham took us back to the Thames near Parliment, and after crossing the river we booked VIP tickets for a ride on the London Eye, a large structure similar to a massive ferris-wheel that provides breathtaking views of the city. After resting and waiting for the line to die down in the lounge we hopped into one of the Eye’s pods and were off, to be rewarded with the city’s panorama in all its glory.

Another walk by the river, past the reconstructed Globe Theatre, and the boys picked lunch venues before we stepped out to see the HMS Belfast, a light cruiser from the WWII and Korean War era. We took the opportunity to discuss WWI’s naval war and naval technology before boarding the ship, for though the Belfast dates to a later era, her type of ship was an important component of WWI’s naval campaigns.

As a final pair of treats before dinner, we were witness to the raising of the Tower [draw]Bridge and saw the oldest Church in London…which dates back 1,300 years to 675AD.

Then a great Italian dinner before taking the train back to the hotel for our last night in London. Tomorrow we’re off to the Channel, the ferry, and the battlefields of Belgium!

Changing of the Horse Guard and other bits of Awsome

Another full day of London for the Riverside Cadets on our journey! So it seems everyone wants to know about the food.  Today, we had three really excellent meals – a full breakfast buffet at the hotel, lunch at a local burger place that Dean Green swore made the best burgers in the city – and the consensus (among us being some very qualified burger eaters) was that he was probably right! Finally an excellent dinner.   Several boys readily opted for traditional British fare such as steak and kidney pie, fish and chips, or bubble and squeak and were very satisfied with pleasant results to their brave epicurean journey. The adults sat at a near but separate table from the boys and though we enjoyed our own meals immensly,  the plum in our pudding (that’s British-speak for dessert) was the waitress’ comment to us that she “[had] never served a group of boys of that age who were so well behaved!” “…I mean, I’ve just never seen that! It’s really exceptional, really!” An excellent end to the day.

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But that was the end, and we have not even talked about the beginning! First on the day’s agenda was the changing of the horse guard. After witnessing this spectacular display, the boys decided  that Riverside “definitely needs to adopt riding boots, possibly sabers,” and an equestrian program so that the battalion commander (at least) can be mounted. I told them that when they were alumni they could try to make that happen!

Red phone booths provided some levity after that parade, though it was quickly contrasted again upon passing a monument to “The Glorious Dead” of the Great War, piled high with laurel leaves and red poppy wreathes. It was a preview of what the boys will see in Belgium and France. Trafalgar square was our next stop, site of national celebrations, fantastic monuments and the National Gallery of Art. The boys got a bit of a history lesson about Lord Nelson and the connection between the English and American revolutionary ideals and then were given some time to take in the fantastic collection on display in the Gallery.

The event on many minds today was the terrorist attack over the weekend. It was a tragic event, but it happened about 250 miles from London and our local guide and our research have indicated that it is not cause for us to change our plans; we are remaining vigilant and will continue to monitor the situation. It is worth noting that we’ve been very well received by the locals, as evidenced by the extremely pleasant and accommodating “bobbies” we were able to snap a picture of – they were all smiles for us even after the weekend’s events.

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We then hit a number of local sites and shopping destinations in the city, taking in Soho and other venues, having lunch, and generally getting a feel for the lively and trendy places in this city whose reputation is often described as neither such thing. It was a pretty part of the city, filled with older buildings whose stone facades were frequently crafted over a hundred years ago – when buildings were made beautiful as a matter of course.

An hour before closing we reached the British Museum and cut the boys loose to take in a lifetime’s worth of art and artifacts from across antiquity. Though we barely scratched the surface the boys got some exposure to fantastic artifacts and then headed out again to see more of the city and get some dinner. It was a late night back to the hotel but having gotten a good night’s sleep the day before they were much less hang-dog tired during our end-of-day brief. (All that despite having raced Dean Green and Mr. Pedry up 193 steps at one of the tube stations earlier that day.

Tomorrow is our last day in London before we ‘carry on’ to the continent. Buckingham Palace, here we come!

Our First Sunset in London

What a journey it has been already! Our departure from Atlanta went off without a hitch, and the transoceanic crossing on Virgin Atlantic was spectacular. The food was good, the seats were comfortable, and the boys enjoyed the large in-flight movie selection. Most memorably, Cadet Font turned around in his seat a couple of hours into the flight and suggested with quiet awe that we check out the view of the stars from the plane window. What a sight! The stars from thirty thousand feet shine unimpeded by competition with a city’s all-consuming luminescence. It was a great moment. Some of the boys got their journals out and spent some time jotting down the trip’s memories so far…sure to be more of that soon!

There was a little sleep snatched on the plane, but we met our tour guide, Ryan, and hit the ground running in London; perhaps a bit less bright eyed and bushy tailed than Cadets normally are on a Monday morning (as it was still 1am to us!). A long ride through London to our hotel gave the boys a chance to nap or take in the city’s character…options they chose in relatively evenly divided numbers.

After dropping our things, we were off! The Tower of London was our first stop, with many taking advantage of the guided tour by one of the “Beefeaters”, who, as it turns out, all have 22+ years of good and faithful service in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces just to be considered for the post. From the castle’s trials to beheadings to architectural evolution over time the guide walked us quickly and entertainingly through the history of The Tower.

A great lunch was followed by a boat ride up the Thames and then a few minutes to take in the Parliment Building before we headed off to dinner. Recognizing weary nods at the dinner table our group then split, about two-thirds heading back to the hotel and the other third finishing up an evening taking in the sites.