Most of us can identify incidents, happenings or, perhaps, decisions we made that in some way had a lasting influence on our lives. For me a school trip to Holland at the age of 15 was such an occasion.
It was my first trip abroad. The Dutch were warm and welcoming people who spoke with what I can only describe as a slight but attractive gurgle in their voice. Most were sufficiently fluent in English to make communication comparatively easy. We felt ‘at home’.
Our stay had been very carefully organised as an educational visit – the two masters in charge were both geography specialists. We were taken to the polders to see how the Dutch had reclaimed marshland and were introduced to traditional culture and costume in places such as Edam, Volendam and Marken.
Amsterdam was a very different experience. Here was a capital city with a transport system based on trams, bicycles and a network of canals. Bicycles – they were everywhere! Bicycles reigned supreme. Not sporty types, but sturdy, upright machines that seemed to underline their status.
But the occasion that had a lasting impact on me occurred not in Amsterdam nor any of the other interesting places I have mentioned, but at the Arnhem War Cemetery.
Our party was from a boys’ grammar school and we knew that one of our old boys was buried at the Cemetery. It seemed right and proper that we should pay our respects. The necessary arrangements were made, but nothing could have prepared us for what we found.
On entering the Cemetery we were confronted with row upon row of uniform, white headstones stretching far into the distance – 1759 in total, 1392 from the United Kingdom. It is known as the Airborne Cemetery. The Airborne forces went into battle by parachute or glider. In either case they were highly vulnerable to gunfire.
We were directed to the grave we were looking for – the name was Shuttleworth, but I don’t remember the details – and then retraced our steps silently, obviously reading other headstones as we passed along. What was especially tragic was the high proportion who were aged between 20 and 24 when they died, and a few were in their late teens. These were young men, not much older than us, with their lives before them. What a shocking, shocking waste of life.
The coach journey back to the hostel was very quiet.