This past week, 26 students and five chaperones returned from a journey that took them back into time. I had the pleasure of being one of these students who travelled from the Netherlands, to Belgium, and then on to France in honour of celebrating the 95th anniversary of Vimy Ridge. On this trip we visited many historic battlefields and monuments. We knew that was what the tour was all about, but now we know that those sites weren’t just places to visit. They were the grounds where Canadian troops died for our freedom.
Leaving Canada I’m not sure that any of us knew what we would encounter while overseas. We all knew that we would be attending a ceremony at Vimy with 4,000 other Canadian students and would be visiting other battlefields that Canadian forces had fought at. What we didn’t know was the emotional bond we would feel to the men who had fought on the ground we were stepping on.
The emotional journey started when we visited a small museum called Hill 62. The museum had been started by a farmer who had to leave his farm when the war started. After the war was over the farmer came back to find his land covered in bomb craters and the trenches that the soldiers had used. Instead of trying to refurbish the land the farmer preserved the trenches and opened the farm to the public. Over the years a museum of war articles has also been opened on the property showcasing items such as the guns they used during the war to medals that had been found on the ground of a battlefield. As I walked through this small museum I was brought back to the time of the war. Articles such as a helmet with a bullet hole made the war seem so much more real; it wasn’t just an event that we learned about from our history textbooks. This feeling was amplified as we walked through the trenches. The passages were so narrow you could hardly fit two people side by side. Sometimes you would come to an opening where there seemed to be a little room with a metal roof and a dirt floor. This was where the wounded would find comfort. As I looked over the side of the trench I noticed the large craters that had made their mark for years, showcasing how close the soldiers were to these exploding terrors. I also noticed the mud under my feet and the chill that the damp air was sending through my body. I couldn’t help but think of how much worse the soldiers had to endure standing in the exact same spot that I was standing. I was devastated imagining my grandfather spending months in trenches just like these.
The next stop on the tour was Juno beach. We had heard plenty about this monumental site. We all knew that this was the site that had hosted the victorious battle that had won the war for the allied troops in World War II. Numerous movies have even been based around the action seen on D-Day. Although this is true, as we walked over the sandy dunes of Juno beach we were welcomed with a familiar sight: white sand and blue water. There was really no evidence of the battle that is so famous. As fellow student Evan Sheppard put it, “It was hard to picture how horrific D-Day would have been due to the rolling waves and the shining sun on the day we were there.” As I walked towards the water I pictured thousands of men running through and diving into the sand in order to salvage their lives. As I looked into the clear, blue water I started to visualize the water stained red as it would have been on that day many years ago. There were no craters or trenches there, but the sacrifices that were made on that sandy beach will never be erased.
As we neared the day of the ceremony at Vimy Ridge, we were able to encounter a small ceremony of our own. A few months before the tour each student was assigned two soldiers to research. Both of these soldiers were men who had died fighting for Canada at Vimy Ridge. The point of researching was to become familiar with the life of the man who died; to see him as a son or husband rather than just a name on a gravestone. One out of each of our two soldiers were buried at the same small cemetery named Givenchy-en-Gohelle. I had the honour of visiting both of my assigned soldiers as they were both buried in this little cemetery. As I walked over to each of their graves I felt a great amount of emotion come over me. I wasn’t sure if these men had ever had anyone who knew where they had grown up, who their parents were, or how old they were when they died visit their grave. There is a good chance that their parents were never able to fly across the ocean to grieve over their son’s gravestone. I felt that I couldn’t thank these men enough for dying for the sake of my freedom. I was so glad that we had the opportunity to visit this cemetery so that we could honour those who had fallen.
Finally the day of the Vimy anniversary came. When we arrived at the town closest to Vimy we were lined up and ready to participate in a march that would start in the centre of town and make its way to a cemetery past the monument. We were wearing the name of the soldier who we had visited in the cemetery over our hearts.
Laura Hovingh describes the experience. “It was as if a wave of silence came crashing down on us as we started walking. We could only hear our footsteps and the rustling of our rain ponchos as we carried the name of a fallen soldier up the hill of Vimy Ridge.”
All four thousand of us walked in silence as we made our way up the path past the monument. The air was close to freezing and it had begun to rain as we entered into the cemetery. During the walk all I could think about was how important it was to me to help my soldier symbolically make it up the ridge. I knew this wouldn’t bring him back to life, but it was the least I could do for a man who gave up his life so bravely. In the cemetery we each stood in front of a gravestone, lit a candle, and placed it in front of the grave. During this ceremony Emily Bond, a student from MSS, was one of the four students who received a medal representing the youth of Canada in remembrance of the battle. She says, “Standing in the rain that day, receiving my medal, all I could think about was the name on my chest—the name of a Canadian soldier that never made it out of Vimy. I remember wishing so hard that he could see me, that he could see the 4,000 other students who have travelled across the world to honour him and all of his fallen comrades. The medal that I received that day was not mine, it was my soldier’s.”
We had some free time after this to visit the monument. As I looked up at the glowing white stone and into the faces of the solemn statues I felt their sorrow. I looked over the small green hills that surround the monument and thought of the men who took in their last breath right on that hill. I looked at all the names written on the monument and realized for the first time how immeasurable the loss was.
After this period of time we made our way to the Vimy ceremony. Our faces were wind burnt and we couldn’t feel our feet because of the unfriendly weather. Rachel Bondi said, “We were cold and drenched, but that is what made the ceremony more realistic because it gave us a glimpse of what it was really like at the battle of Vimy Ridge.” The ceremony was filled with both celebration of remembering the victory of Vimy Ridge, but also with sorrow of the loss that Canada felt. At the ceremony the youth of Canada showed that we will never forget.
Now that I’m back, I see that the point of the tour was not only to see the sites of the battles, but to feel them as well. Before this trip I never truly realized the sacrifice that the soldiers gave for their country. I know now that this generation cannot forget these sacrifices. Just like they fought for our freedom our generation will fight for their legacy.