148 (Barnsley) Squadron

Royal Air Force Air Cadets


Battlefields Tour (France and Belgium) 2023

On the evening of Monday 23rd of October 2023, 10 cadets and 4 staff members from 148 (Barnsley) Squadron, joined by cadets and staff from 4 other squadrons in the wing, embarked on a journey to France and Belgium, for a trip of almost 18 months in the making. Excited that the day had finally arrived, we endured at least 10 hours of travel before reaching our destination: the beautiful town of Messines, in West Flanders, very close to the famous city of Ypres, or Iepers in the local Flemish. 

On the first day, we explored Messines and went on a peaceful walk where we learned all about the battles, the front lines both British and German and how close they were. It was a strange but necessary experience to find out that we were treading the same ground as the soldiers did, 105 years ago. It was a haunting thought that such beautiful countryside was once a shredded battlefield and a sobering moment for all on the trip. 

After a long, but interesting, day of travelling, walking, and learning, we settled into our accommodation at the Peace Village and enjoyed some relaxation time with the other cadets on the tour, decked out in our new merchandise, kindly given to us all by the trip organisers. It was nice to be able to relax amongst friends, all whilst being surrounded by beautiful scenery with such a rich history. Exhausted, cadets and staff alike crashed into our beds ready for the next day of our tour. 

Early that morning, we enjoyed a continental breakfast at the Peace Village, and set off refreshed and ready to take in more stories from our knowledgeable guide, Mr Grimley, who himself was once in the RAF Regiment, and later became a Warrant Officer in the Air Cadets. 

The weather was typical for Belgium in October, where you can have 5 seasons in an hour, but this grim weather did not stop the high spirits of the group, until we got onto the coach and half the group promptly fell asleep, determined to catch up on the sleep they may have missed on the drive down to Dover.  

After the group nap, we got off the coach at Vimy Ridge, where we got to see reconstructed trenches of the front line and had the chance to poke our heads above the parapets, just as the soldiers would’ve done. There was also a spectacular memorial to the Canadian forces, very beautiful and quite eerie as the memorial was set against a backdrop of thick mist, which made everything feel serenely quiet, and reminded us that we were standing on hallowed ground. Our next stop was the Arras Air Forces memorial, a rather special place for us as Air Cadets, as we listened intently to the stories about personnel who served in the RFC, the RAF’s predecessor, during the First World War. 

Later, we headed into the city of Ypres for our evening meal at “Frituur t’Kaatekwaad”, described to us as “McDonald’s but with attitude”, and we tucked into burgers and chips, as we discussed everything, we had seen that day. We were then given an hour or so to explore Ypres itself. We found it to be exceptionally beautiful and we could hardly believe that just over a century ago it was reduced to rubble and ruins by warfare. We also got some brilliant pictures with our groups, and some of us even managed to tempt the staff into having a picture with us in front of the main church building in Ypres!  

Once we were back at the accommodations, we started preparing our uniforms for the big event tomorrow, the Menin Gate ceremony, in which we were all equally nervous and excited, to have the chance to represent the RAFAC at such a large event. We brought our shoes down to the recreation area where we exchanged stories, and uniform tips, and debated the merits of different shoe polishes with the staff, over Coca-Cola and polished our shoes in a group of cadets from all over the wing. 

Thursday, another early wake-up, and off we went to Essex Farm ADS, which is where Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote the famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, and almost discarded it. A haunting moment that will stay with me from that day, is visiting the grave of Rifleman VJ Strudwick, who died just aged 15, as old as the youngest people on the trip. We also saw Langemarck German Cemetery, which was equally as haunting as the commonwealth cemeteries due to the sheer number of lives lost, showcasing the true tragedy of the war.  

At Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest CWGC Cemetery in the world, with over 11,000 graves, 8,000 of which were unidentified and 35,000 names of the missing on the Memorial Wall, some members of our group found family members and relatives. I was lucky enough to be given the honour of doing a reading at the cemetery during our Act of Remembrance and it is something I will never forget, much like the Menin Gate Ceremony. We rushed back to the accommodation and got into our uniforms, waddling around like ducks so we didn’t crease anything, and headed back to Ypres. We marched through the Menin Gate, in front of hundreds of people, gathered to remember all who sacrificed their lives for their country.  

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate our banner bearer, Cpl Harris, and our wreath layer, Cpl Bloomer, who did the Squadron proud in their respective roles, and all cadets and staff on the trip for representing the Corps in such an important act of remembrance. 

We spent the rest of the evening, once again, relaxing on the sofas, chatting about the stories we heard, acutely aware of the importance of what we had just done. 

Friday, our last day, we said goodbye to Messines and set off for Sanctuary Wood Trenches, where we learnt about Hill 62 and the mining of the war. Then, we went back to Ypres for our chocolate-shopping adventure. The Master Chocolatier of Ypres had a special deal for us, and we indulged in the rich Belgian chocolate. I think I spent 70 euros there alone! 

We then went to Brandhoek Cemetery where Noel Chavasse, who was awarded 2 Victoria Crosses, is buried. Next, the most haunting moment of the trip for me, the tour took us to Poperinghe, the rest area where deserters were executed and shot at dawn. This hit hard, as the youngest to be executed, Pte. H. Morris, was just 17 years old. Seeing the cell where they would’ve been kept before their fate, was harrowing, and left me at least speechless. 

Finally, we saw the grave of Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler, from Wakefield, who was one of the only women to be killed in the war at just 26 years old. After walking around Lijssenthoek Cemetery, we boarded the coach and set off for Dunkirk, ready to catch our ferry back to Blighty. After another journey back to Armthorpe, we finally arrived home at midnight, tired, but glad that we had been on the trip and learned so much, and permanent memories were created. 

I’m sure all can agree when I say that this trip has been the experience of a lifetime and that moments from this trip will stay with us forever, especially during Remembrance activities. 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank on behalf of all the cadets, first of all, Pilot Officer Titley for organising the trip, our tour guides for providing such insightful knowledge and engaging stories throughout, and finally, our 4 squadron staff who came on the trip with us, Fg Off Banks, FS Smedley, Sgt Swaby, and Sgt Annetts, for going above and beyond to support all cadets on the trip. 

By Cpl Wallis