In 2016, Oundle School undertook its largest ever trip, taking all 200 Fourth Form pupils and the CCF Marching Band to the Somme battlefields for Field Weekend as part of the 100th Anniversary of World War One. It was decided to repeat the trip until the end of the centenary commemorations, and so on Saturday 23 September a fleet of minibuses with 240 pupils left Oundle for Dover.
The Battle of the Somme was fought from 1 July to 19 November 1916 at an almost unimaginable cost in human lives. Five Old Oundelians lost their lives on 1 July and a further 27 made the ultimate sacrifice during the battle. Many are buried in cemeteries on the Somme and 17 are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial. Overall, more than 420,000 British soldiers died on the Somme.
After a smooth crossing the convoy headed northeast to Ypres, Belgium, where the CCF Band played in the daily Last Post ceremony. As the sun set, the Band formed up and marched under the arch of the Menin Gate, halting at the western entrance in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 people. After the Last Post was sounded and as the wreath laying started, the Band played ‘Nimrod’, ‘Abide with Me’, and ‘The Day thou Gavest’, transforming a sombre ceremony into a moving and memorable occasion.
The next day, the group set off in different directions, visiting battlefield sites, memorials and cemeteries across the Somme battlefields. Two ceremonies marked the most sombre and moving moments of the trip. The first occurred in seventeen different cemeteries between Serre and Mametz, where each group laid a wreath on the grave of an Old Oundelian. Their citation was read and during the silence many pondered the similarities between their time at Oundle and that of the OOs: games of rugby for the 1st XV, plays, choirs and a place at a good university.
At the end of the day the group gathered again at the Thiepval Memorial, the largest British war memorial anywhere in the world, with 72,000 names upon it. With the cadets and the band forming a hollow square between the memorial and the cemetery, and a Drumhead altar built by the Corps of Drums at the centre, cadets gathered to remember all 256 OOs killed in WWI.
Once again it was the presence of the CCF Marching Band that transformed the experience for all. ‘Scipio’, ‘I vow to thee my country’, ‘Nimrod’ and ‘Last Post’ all echoed beneath the memorial’s mighty arches. Under a clear evening sky the sun sank in the west over the fields of the Ancre Valley, where 101 years earlier so many had laid down their lives for others. It was a moving ceremony and a scene of tranquil beauty which none who were there will forget.
The group returned to Calais via Vimy Ridge, the site of a successful Canadian attack in 1917, during which many of the lessons of the Somme were employed. It was a positive, but sombre end to an emotional and memorable weekend.