YPRES, BELGIUM -- Twenty-three Cadets of the Ansbach 9th Battalion JROTC were given the opportunity to visit Ypres, Belgium between November 8th through 11th, 2019, to study WW1. During the trip, they visited several historic sites reflecting the landscape were the soldiers fought. They also heard first hand stories from people whose relatives experienced the war.
The battalion visited the In Flanders Fields Museum and was able to learn about the weapons and uniforms that were used in WW1, as well as the various means of propaganda that encouraged innocent people to risk their lives. “Being able to see the objects in person causes a deeper meaning and understanding of the tragedy that really occurred,” said Cadet Nathan Griffin. The Cadets also attended a multicultural tour that allowed them to visit several historic landmarks and cemeteries. They learned about the tunneling tactics used and saw how the fighting caused enormous craters, such as the Caterpillar. This gave them an idea of how deadly and powerful the battles were, as well as a deeper understanding of the various physical struggles that both sides of the war faced. “I learned how far “No Man’s Land” actually was, which wasn’t very far... the conditions were terrible,” said Alina Morecraft.
Visiting the cemeteries and seeing the hundreds of fallen soldiers buried there changed many of the Cadets’ perspectives on the war. It showed how many men were willing to sacrifice themselves in order to end something so dangerous and also how devastated many people must have been to learn that their fathers, sons, and loved ones were not going to come home. At one of the cemeteries, the battalion met a British man who was able to tell them about some of his relatives that were buried there. Seeing the different nationalities organized in the cemeteries also taught them how the whole world was affected by the war. “The most meaningful thing for me is going to the cemetery and remembering all the soldiers and how many loved ones that we’ve lost. We’ve lost so many loved ones in the military and that’s what will stick with me forever,” said Jasmine Rivera. “I was asked to find a buried soldier who “spoke to me” and research him. I settled on a man resting beside an unknown soldier. In that moment I realized the absurdity of fate. Why can one man be remembered and another not? Why do a man’s awards matter after he passed? In the end, they’re all the same,” said Cadet Collin Robertson.
After the tour, the battalion attended The Great War Remembered Concert held in St. Martin’s Cathedral in Ypres. The concert featured breathtaking music from an orchestra, an opera singer, and several bagpipers. First hand stories from people of different ethnicities were also presented and strengthened the Cadets’ knowledge of individual contributions to the war. “The most meaningful part of the trip was the concert. The music was so beautifully composed but it was hearing the stories passed down from great-great grandfathers or grandmothers (so first hand stories) reminded me of my family’s story,” said Cadet Alina Morecraft.
The next day the Cadets went to Pond Farm, a farm owned by a family that had been collecting WW1 artifacts found on their land. “I learned that Belgian farmers still have to deal with enormous amounts of shells that haven’t exploded,” said Cadet Matthew Pregana. The Cadets were also given the pleasure of riding in a tank designed just like the ones from WW1. “The most meaningful thing was the tank ride because it showed the technology back then,” said Cadet Josiah Quinland.
Later that day the Cadets visited the Talbot House Museum and were able to experience what soldiers did in their free time during the war. They now understand how important it was for the soldiers to “escape” the fighting and relax. Next, the Cadets stopped by the death cells and execution post in Popperinge, where soldiers were imprisoned and executed if they betrayed the army and their allies. Finally they went to the John McCrae site, an advanced dressing station, to see where soldiers were treated in the midst of fighting and where the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” was written. All of these locations that the battalion visited that day taught the Cadets the physical and mental harm the war caused the soldiers and how the soldiers tried to escape this harm. “I learned how deserted soldiers were treated. This was meaningful to me because it shows how far we’ve come with treating various mental illnesses like PTSD,” said Cadet Eliana Vales.
The evening of November 10, the battalion went to the Menin Gate to attend a ceremony in order to celebrate all of the missing fallen soldiers. Cadets Cooper Robertson and Jasmine Rivera, along with Major Roberts, laid a wreath to honor the Canadian 13th Infantry Battalion in remembrance of Major Robert’s great-uncle Charles Norman Stewart. Cadets Eliana Vales, Cooper Robertson, and Nathan Griffin also had the honor of laying a wreath from the 9th JROTC Battalion. The ceremony was packed with people eager to remember those that lost their lives in the devastating war and remain missing.
To end the trip, the battalion participated in a ceremony on Veterans Day at the Flanders American Cemetery. The Cadets were given a tour of the cemetery to learn about the soldiers that were buried there and the price that they had to pay even moments before the war ended. “The most meaningful thing to me was seeing the graves and seeing all the men side by side who died on the same day, and realizing how terrible war is,” said Cadet Cooper Robertson. During the ceremony, Cadets Victoria Young and Jeremiah Tran laid a wreath from the American Legion Post 1982. Then, Cadets Caison Duplessie and Alina Morecraft laid a wreath honoring one of the seven soldiers who lost their lives on the last day of the war, November 11, 1918, and are buried in the cemetery.
Given the opportunity to learn the rich history of WWI in Flanders and being able to visit the areas where this history took place had a significant impact on the Cadets. They learned so much about how people will do anything to achieve something that is nearly impossible, even at the risk of their own and others’ lives. “Learning about the brutality soldiers faced from the weather, the terrain, the combat, and even from their own friends and allies if they violated or abandoned their duties was staggering and really eye-opening,” said Cadet Caison Duplessie. Ansbach 9th Battalion JROTC would like to thank the Ansbach Spouses and Civilians Club, American Legion Post 1982, and USAG Ansbach community members for supporting the trip and allowing them to get to attend a once-in-a-lifetime experience.