by Kara Wickstrom-Street, History Teacher, Miles Macdonell Collegiate, Winnipeg
As a high school history teacher, I have been fortunate enough to be able to take part in three national services of remembrance with my students; the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Ortona, and now the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Although each of these experiences has been unique in terms of the students that have taken part and the places that we have visited, the heartfelt displays of pride and appreciation displayed by my students when they set foot on the same places where Canadians generations before them made the ultimate sacrifice has been the same each time. Having the opportunity to witness this history first-hand enables these young people to forge connections with the past that they would never be able to do otherwise and being able to share this experience with other Canadians coast to coast only adds to the richness of this experience.
This particular trip began with a few unexpected surprises including our flight from Montreal to Paris being cancelled which caused our entire trip to be set back by about 24 hours. As a result we were forced to cram two days of sightseeing in Paris into one with our students having gone over 30 hours straight with no sleep. To further complicate the situation, the most important day of the entire trip, the Vimy ceremony, was taking place the next day and after our long day in Paris the students would have to survive on only a couple of hours of rest in the hotel before departing for Vimy. It was 6 a.m. when we boarded the bus to leave for the Vimy ceremony and despite rain clouds threatening the skies, the sheer exhaustion and the disappointment from losing a day of their short time in Europe, the bus was buzzing with excitement about the day that lay ahead.
We arrived in the village of Givenchy around 9 a.m. and began the ceremony with a silent march through the village to Cemetery 2 where we would be taking part in a special service. During the march each school displayed a flag that they created that paid tribute to soldiers that fell at Vimy Ridge. Prior to departing on the trip each student was assigned two soldiers that they researched and created a tribute to on a 15-inch square piece of cloth and then the pieces were together to create a school flag. Our group consisted of 46 students from two schools, Miles Macdonell Collegiate and Kildonan East Collegiate, so it was quite a site to see these two giant flags adorned with maple leafs parading through this beautiful quaint French village. Many of the students were surprised to see the little Canadian flags in the windows of the shops and houses and in the hands of the locals that lined the streets as we passed by. Many later commented on how proud they felt to be Canadian when they saw how appreciative the French people still were of Canadians 95 years after these soldiers helped to defend their land.
After marching through the village the thousands of students arrived at Cemetery 2 to take part in a memorial service commemorating the event. Seeing the graves of the fallen soldiers really hit home for many of the students as they were able to see first-hand the consequences of what happened there so many years ago. The ceremony itself was very moving and was highlighted by the fact that it focused upon students sharing their tributes. Unfortunately rain began to fall during the ceremony and it did not relent for the rest of the day. Despite the uncomfortable conditions, the spirit of the students remained high as they looked forward to touring the trenches and then taking part in the larger ceremony in the afternoon that would be attended by the Governor General and minister of Veterans Affairs.
Due to the large number of students at the Vimy site they were unable to tour the tunnels, but they were definitely in awe of how the battle had altered the landscape and they were shocked to discover that the area was fenced off due to the danger posed by the live shells that still lie in the fields. Later in the afternoon, the students marched once again, this time to gather in front of the monument. It was an unbelievable site to see the thousands of Canadian youth from coast to coast gathered in front of this breathtaking monument. The sense of national pride and camaraderie felt by the students was apparent throughout the ceremony, and many students commented on how surreal it was to take part in something so fervently Canadian in northern France. The ceremony itself was extremely moving especially the when the students were called upon to light the Torch of Remembrance in honour of the sacrifices made 95 years ago. Each province and territory had a male and female representative taking part in this aspect of the ceremony and one of the students from my school, Chelsea Guidon, had the honour of being selected as the female representative for Manitoba. Having this role provided her with the opportunity to actually go on the monument, which unfortunately was not possible for students that did not have a special role in the ceremony. She was extremely moved by the beauty of the monument itself and mentioned how honoured she felt to make the pilgrimage to Vimy and carry on the legacy of the fallen soldiers. I was so impressed to see how the spirit of the students remained high throughout the day despite the unrelenting rain and wind, and my of the students even commented on how they didn’t feel that it would be appropriate to complain because the discomfort that they were experiencing was nothing compared to what the soldiers experienced.
After the solemn ceremonies at Vimy Ridge, the students were really excited to get out of the rain and take part in the Birth Of a Nation Celebration at a nearby stadium. Any signs of physical or emotional exhaustion quickly disappeared as the students were re-energized from the excitement of the DJ and the bands. Impromptu mosh pits emerged as Canadian youth from coast to coast came together to celebrate their shared identity and the amazing day that they experienced.
The next day we concluded the Vimy leg of our trip by visiting Dury Mill cemetery in Normandy so that the students could visit the grave of one the soldiers that they researched. The cemetery itself was tiny and hidden away beyond some canola fields. Because the cemetery was so small the students were able to locate the grave sites of their assigned soldiers quickly, and as soon as they did an eerie silence emerged as the connection that they were making with the past came to the forefront. We held an intimate ceremony at the site and then the students spent their time reading the tombstones and commenting on the personal inscriptions. It was quite emotional for the students to see how many of the soldiers were close to their ages and how many of them were unknown. The time we spent here was a fitting way to end such a powerful and memorable experience that will forever change the young people that took part in it and will ensure that our Canadian soldiers will never be forgotten.