The past came powerfully and poignantly to life for teenagers from Newtownabbey recently as they made a pilgrimage to the World War One battlefields of Belgium and France.
One hundred years after the guns fell silent, the local cadets learned about the unprecedented loss of life in ‘the war to end all wars’.
Accompanied by expert guides, the cadets toured museums and cemeteries and explored the trench and tunnel systems where so many fought and died and discovered that many of those who sacrificed their lives were themselves little more than teenagers.
It was an emotional, and occasionally overwhelming, experience for the young visitors, as well as an opportunity to deepen their understanding, as Colonel David McCleery OBE from Army Cadet Force Association Northern Ireland explained.
He said: “Our cadets learn about World War One at school, but nothing quite prepares you for the impact of visiting the region. Our young people were deeply moved by everything they saw and learned during their visit and, in particular, none of us will ever forget the sad sight of landscapes filled with row upon row of carefully-tended military graves.
“The ‘Great War’ was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, with 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded. It is hard to comprehend that scale of devastation, but the battlefield tour helped our young people to recognise that there are real people behind those statistics and real stories of fear and courage, survival and sacrifice.
“The cadet movement is well known for providing its members with fun-filled outdoor adventure, sociability and sport, but there is also a more serious side to what we do, as this tour demonstrates.
“The battlefield tour was an enriching and maturing experience for our cadets and I believe they have returned with memories which will stay with them forever.”