This day started off with me being awakened by Gabriela knocking on my door asking if I was up. This would not have been an issue had it not been me that was supposed to be waking everyone else up … of all the days for my alarm to not go off, it had to be today when we had to be up and out for the train! The girls were still able to be ready on time, so we were very impressed! We even arrived at St. Pancras station in enough time to get across the street to King’s Cross so those wanting their pictures taken at Platform 9 3/4 could do so.
The ride across the English Channel was very smooth, and Franky was waiting for us when he arrived. This is our third year with him behind the wheel of our bus, and this makes everything so much more relaxing because he knows the program and most of the places we want to get to. His response to every request is “no problem,” which I also love!
Our first stop in France was a rest stop to grab lunch, then we got into the real reason we’re here by finding Meghan’s soldier in Don Communal Cemetery. We had to search for it a bit but we did eventually find it. It is a fairly unique cemetery as the war graves cemetery is right in the middle of the town cemetery. We see that a lot in Canada, of course, but not in Europe. I am speculating that it was because there was a hospital or dressing station close by, but I could be wrong. Meghan’s tribute was beautiful, and she left her soldier a letter and a bottle of maple syrup since it is made in the town he came from. She said she was far more emotional than she thought she would be … this is what the participants always say. There is something about actually seeing the grave and speaking directly to your soldier that makes this far more personal, and each participant will feel this to some degree. I think this is why year after year the participants say this is their favourite part of the program, because it is a link between the past and the present.
Lola gave her presentation about Rudyard and Jack Kipling at Jack’s gravesite. Rudyard Kipling was very pro-war prior to the death of his son, and after that became very involved in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, coining the “Their name liveth forevermore” for the memorial stones in the cemeteries, and determining that “Unknown Soldier” and “Known Unto God” would be used on the headstones of every unknown soldier. Having this presentation today is perfect timing since we’ll be at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission office tomorrow for a tour, and we’ll be able to see some of these stones being made and repaired.
I got to do my soldier presentation next, and I was no less emotional than Meghan was. My soldier was my great-uncle so the family connection made it even more meaningful. I took some sterilized dirt from the family farm, his school, his father’s grave and two of his brothers’ graves … since he never got to go back home, I wanted to bring a little bit of home to him. It started to pour just as we were leaving the cemetery so I know that dirt really will stay with him.
We made it to Vimy next, and the reaction from the kids was great. Normally I can point out the monument well in advance so they get an idea of how big it really is, but because it was raining so hard they couldn’t see anything. When we turned the corner and it came into view, then, the collective gasp was pretty cool to hear. The question this year focused on the monument and the values it projected, so this group already has a lot of knowledge about the monument. I think this was the moment a lot of them have been waiting for, and all of them said it was even more than they had expected. While it did rain a lot of the time we were there we got some amazing pictures. The stone used in the monument is such that it looks as dramatic set against blue skies as it does when it is cloudy and gray, and this year the kids got both because we were there long enough for it to clear a bit.
Our guide for the site was, as usual, a Canadian university student who accepted a 4-month position to be a guide here. (This is a fabulous program any Canadian who is bilingual and a university student can apply for, in case any of you are interested!) This year’s guide, Saxon, also happens to be the granddaughter of very close family friends, and I hadn’t seen her since she was very young, so it was great to see her in this role! She did an amazing job explaining the site to the group, and the scholars were all talking about how being there really helped them understand the battle.
We were given a rare treat in that Peter Craven, an archaeologist for the Vimy site, gave us a presentation about what steps need to take place in order to make building the new visitors’ centre safe. We learned that the entire area will need to be swept of mines and shells, and any bodies that are uncovered will be given a military burial in the closest cemetery. It is mind boggling that nearly 100 years after the fighting they can still find intact shells and mines that close to the surface; how much more is buried deeper than the requirements for the construction project? The land is visibly scarred by the war, of course, but those scars run so much more deeply than the surface, in more ways than one. Peter took us out to his car to show us a forged implement used by both sides to impale horses – or humans – that stepped on it. None of us had ever seen anything like it. It was found on site a few days ago and Peter told us to touch the tip … it was as sharp today as it would have been in the war, despite having been exposed to the elements all that time. Unreal.
After Sara paid tribute to her soldier in Givenchy Road Cemetery, which is on the site, we walked back up to the monument. We had a discussion about how the battle at Vimy was different than battles elsewhere, and why it was more effective. The knowledge these young people already have is so impressive, I can’t wait to see their journals to find out what their thoughts were as they talked about the battle while climbing the ridge the Canadian soldiers did 97 years ago.
While we were on site, several people from other countries told the kids that they should be proud of the monument and what it stood for, and that it was good they – Canadian youth – were there to see it. I think hearing that had as much of an impact on the group as seeing the monument did. While this battle was fought 97 years ago, part of a war that started 100 years ago, people are not forgetting about it because it is so important to understand the lessons learned from the horrors of that time. These students are just starting to understand how important it is to remember and to share that idea with others … I am sure by the time this trip is over the students will be the next group to grab the torch of remembrance that has been passed on to them.
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation займ