‘All quiet on the Western Front’ as Bethnal Green’s Morpeth pupils return from Ypres
- Credit: Morpeth School
Pupils have returned from a two visits to the Somme battlefields of the First World War organized by their school in London’s East End as part of their history GCSE studies into causes of the 1914-18 War.
They explored the battlefields and what’s left of the trenches of the Western Front to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War.
The youngsters from Bethnal Green’s Morpeth Secondary, in the run-up to this year’s #RemembranceDay, had their own private act of Remembrance at the Menin Gate where they paid tribute to two men from the East End killed in the four-year world conflict.
One was a former pupil, Walter Gillings from Mile End, who enlisted at 18 in the City of London Territorial Regiment based in Poplar and went to the Western Front in 1915 as a rifleman, then joined the Machine Gun Corps a year later as a Lance Corporal.
The other was Thomas Parker, a 27-year-old professional soldier from Bethnal Green, who was killed at Ypres on November 11, 1914—ironically on the same date that was to be declared Armistice Day four years later, when the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th month.
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The bodies of both fallen warriors were never found.
Morpeth Headteacher Jemima Reilly unveiled a plaque in the school playground in the summer in tribute to Walter Gillings, killed at on the first day of the Battle of Messines Ridge in 1917.
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It replaced one lost when the school was badly damaged in the Blitz 25 years later during the Second World War.
The school had a call in 2012 from the National Memorial Archive for information about a memorial to L/Cpl Gillings which they understood was in Morpeth. It followed a request for information back in 1991 about such a memorial from an ex-pupil who remembered Walter Gillings’ name. But no-one at the school knew anything about it.
So Head of History Tom Smith set about solving the mystery and discovered there had once been a plaque to Walter Gillings, who was a pupil between 1903 and 1911.
Walter was born in 1896 to Billingsgate fish curer John Gillings and his wife Alice at 5 Sceptre Street, Mile End Old Town, Tom’s research found.
Walter was enrolled at Essex Street Elementary school when he was seven. Morpeth’s Lower School was once housed in Essex Street, which is why they received enquires over the years about the Gillings memorial.
He was killed at Passendaele on June 7, 1917, during a British action to dislodge German forces occupying the Messines Ridge that overlooked the Belgian town of Ypres.
“He would likely have been sent forward to capture the German machine guns,” Tom tells his students on the field trip to Ypres.
“The besieged town never fell, thanks to men like Walter Gillings who prevented the German invaders getting in, leaving a small corner of southern Belgium unoccupied.”
Walter’s name was later inscribed on the Menin Gate memorial containing 55,000 names of British and Empire soldiers killed defending Ypres who have no known grave.
“The visit widened our students’ understanding of the war as a global conflict,” Tom told the East London Advertiser.
“We were also careful to highlight the extent of German losses by visiting Neuville St Vaast cemetery, exploring how the defeated Germans were not allowed to honour their dead in the same way as the victorious Allies.”
The fate of the British and Empire forces depended on the willpower of those men fighting without adequate supplies and bogged down in Flanders mud, the students are told.
But somehow, the German thrust was halted at Ypres, leaving a small corner of southern Belgium unoccupied by the invading forces.
“Demarcation stones around the town today show just how close the Germans got,” Tom explaines. “They show how close we came to losing the war in those first three months.”
The Morpeth youngsters, a century on, were at the Menin Gate on October 28, where the King and Queen of Belgium and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel gathered with dignitaries from all nations to commemorate “this first titanic struggle” of the Great War.
“The focus was on reconciliation,” Tom added. “The speeches were about the need to remember that the formation of the European Union more than half-a-century later was to prevent future tragedies like 1914, especially poignant given current moves to remove Britain from the EU.”
The students also toured Messines where Allied forces launched their assault in June, 1917, on the ridge to free up troops for the more challenging Battle of Passchendaele that July.
It was at Passchendaele where Walter Gillings died in 1917.