During their 25th annual battlefields tour, students from Bury Grammar School visited Ath, the last Belgian town to be liberated before the Armistice ending the First World War in November 1918.
On the afternoon of 10th November, troops of 2/5th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, a unit originally raised in Bury, were advancing towards Ath.
One of their officers was Bury Grammar School old boy Lieutenant Thomas Floyd.
He wrote a detailed account of the liberation of the town which was discovered by Bury Grammar’s Head of History and Politics Mark Hone at the Lancashire Records Office in Preston.
Mr Hone contacted local historians in Ath, one of whom, M. Christian Dupret, visited Bury a few months ago. With their help, the Bury Grammar School party were able to tour the sites of the incidents Lieutenant Floyd describes.
As they reached the small village of Irchonwelz, on the outskirts of Ath, the Fusiliers came under German artillery fire.
Floyd describes how one shell landed only ten feet away from him, killing or fatally wounding eight soldiers and several horses.
These men were the last eight members of the Lancashire Fusiliers to be killed in action in the Great War and they were buried in the village cemetery the next day.
One of them was 33 year-old Private William Kitchen from Victoria Street, Elton. He served with the Lancashire Fusiliers throughout the war as a transport wagon driver, joining up on 10th November 1914 and dying exactly four years later, the last man from Bury killed in the Great War.
The people of Ath, including local war veterans and pupils from a local primary school joined the Bury Grammar School students in acts of remembrance at the exact spot where the eight men were killed at Irchonwelz and beside their graves in the local cemetery. The church bells, which Floyd describes hearing as the men were buried, were rung specially.
Afterwards a reception was held for the party at a local hall where the welcome extended to the Bury party echoed that given to the Fusiliers who marched into Ath on the morning of 11th November 1918, 100 years ago. Floyd says that after news of the end of hostilities reached the town : ’The day was spent in jubilation. The inhabitants gave us royal feeds they said they had been preparing for us. They treated us to everything. We did have a time.’
Mr Hone said: "It was a wonderful conclusion to our tour, the last of a series commemorating the Centenary of the Great War year by year. We cannot thank our friends in Ath enough for their fantastic welcome. During the tour, we also visited many other sites connected with the battles of 1918, including the grave of the last Bury Grammar School old boy killed in the war, Lieutenant Joe Morris of 16th Lancashire Fusiliers (2nd Salford Pals). He died in the same action as the war poet Wilfred Owen, on 4th November 1918. His parents paid to have the school motto ‘Sanctas Clavis Fores Aperit’ inscribed on his headstone."