Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 13, 2014

Our first of eight cemeteries today was Cabaret Rouge, where Canada’s Unknown Soldier was buried before he was repatriated. The group seemed to be very interested in the hows and whys behind making this possible, and we had some time to look around the cemetery before we got back on the bus and headed off to the Somme region.

July 1, 1916 is the worst day on record for the British Expeditionary Force – they lost over 50,000 soldiers on the first day of the battle – and it was this battle that we learned about in the Historiale in Peronne. This museum is the only one I’m aware of that has artifacts and the stories of French, British and German troops who were part of the Somme battles. A lot of the journals have indicated that the kids think it’s wrong that Germany still gets blamed for the war, and they find it upsetting that German soldiers are not given the same respect that Allied soldiers are simply because Germanylost the war. With the last of the WWI soldiers passing away, perhaps public opinion will start to shift and people will be more accepting of the notion that the German soldiers of WWI were just like the Allied soldiers of WWI, fighting for their country and what they believed in. It is very interesting to hear this kind of thinking from the next generation, as these thoughts would not have been accepted a few decades ago.

We had lunch at the Thiepval Memorial, which commemorates the soldiers from France and Britain who were killed in the battle of the Somme and who have no known grave. This monument is always impressive to see as it is so huge. Sadly, it has to be huge in order to include all of the names of the missing. We were told at the CWGC yesterday that there is a panel on the back especially for names of people who are missing who aren’t on the memorial because they weren’t recorded as missing. That panel is now full and they are likely going to have to start at least one more as families are still coming forward – perhaps more than ever now because of the attention of the centenary – to say their family member was lost in the Somme offensive but not listed on the memorial. It boggles the brain to think that the battle was so ferocious that 100 years later the land is still holding on to that many missing.

After lunch we attempted to find George’s soldier, and we finally stopped and asked for directions from someone living in the town. She sent us to the cemetery and we hiked up a dirt road, then down a gravel road,both cutting through a farmer’s field. (Our bus driver wanted to take us right to it but the road conditions would not permit it, so that says something!) It was a fairly small cemetery so the group just spread out to find the grave. They found it quickly but the letter on the headstone didn’t match the name of George’s soldier. When he looked at it, however, he realized that this was the headstone of the brother of his soldier. Some may say it’s a coincidence, others may say it was serendipity, but whatever it was, George has had a string of it because when we were in the Maison Blanche sous-terrain yesterday he realized that his great-grandfather belonged to the battalion that was responsible for a lot of the graffiti and carvings in there, so his great-grandfather had likely been in those sous-terrains. Because we had a booking at Beaumont-Hamel, we decided we’d try to find George’s cemetery after the visit to the Newfoundland memorial.

The reaction to seeing Beaumont-Hamel and hearing of how and why the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated there is always the same: disbelief, shock and sadness. This group of young adults was no different. The guides at these sites always offer new information so no matter how many times I am there I learn something new, and I know the kids gained a lot of insight from the tour today. Seeing the battlefield while hearing about how and why things went so badly also helped them put into context the battle at Vimy that they learned about earlier this week: it was because things went so badly there that Currie and Byng changed pretty much everything to ensure those mistakes were not repeated in 1917. It is too bad that we had to do these days out of order as it does make things a bit more confusing, but these kids are so smart and catch on so quickly that it doesn’t seem to be troubling them at all.

We managed to find George’s soldier’s cemetery after we left Beaumont-Hamel, and our driver, feeling badly that he hadn’t been able to get us up to the other cemetery, put on a remarkable display of his mad driving skills and backed the bus up a road most people would not attempt to back up in a Bug! The cemeteries this year have been as unique as other years, and it is giving everyone a really good understanding that they come in all shapes, sizes and locations. We’ve had some we’ve had to walk up to because they are on remote dirt roads, and we’ve had some we can park right next to because they’re so big they come with parking spaces because so many people stop there. We’ve had some on their own in the middle of nowhere, some right in the middle of a town’s regular cemetery, some attached to the town’s regular cemetery, and some that are combinations of British and French cemeteries. Some have been bordered by buildings, others by cornfields; some we have to look at the map to figure out where the graves will be, while others are small enough that we can split up and simply look for the headstone. With all of the differences, the group has been quick to spot the similarities: they are all immaculate, they are all bright and beautiful, they are all full of flowers, and they are all full of too many men who are close to their age who gave their tomorrows for our todays. It is a pretty powerful experience to be in these cemeteries, and it is evident that the kids on this trip are taking a lot away from what they are seeing. Now when they hear that 40,000 are buried in a cemetery they will know what that looks like, and that will make their understanding of these events and places so much clearer. I wish every Canadian could see these places so everyone would understand how special our rights and freedoms are, and why we need to ensure we don’t take them for granted … they came at a steep price, and these kids have now seen that.

If you thought that was the end of the day, you should remember this is us and we’re all about cramming as many unique and special experiences into our day! This year the teacher-chaperone is Fr. Jason van Veghel-Wood, the Chaplain at Ridley College. From where he sits in the school’s chapel he can see the memorial windows and plaques of two Ridley boys who died in WWI, Jack Wainright and John Hart. They were best friends who enlisted together, fought together, were gassed at Vimy together, and died mere hours apart. They are both buried in the same cemetery, and Jason decided that for his tribute he would like to conduct a funeral for them since they never would have had one. When we got to the cemetery we realized that these boys were buried in different rows, but one was right in front of the other so despite all of the vagaries of war, these boys were still standing together. The service Jason conducted was beautiful, and it turns out that the scripture he chose to read was also the epitaph on one of the boys’ headstones. Josh, who is a student at Ridley, was able to be there for the funeral of these two soldiers who had been in the same classrooms he is currently in but who died a century ago, and I think that was a pretty powerful experience for him.

It is experiences and connections like George’s, Jason’s and Josh’s that make these trips so meaningful and rewarding, and the kids themselves who contribute so much to the atmosphere of the entire journey. We are off to Belgium tomorrow, and I know it is going to be an equally moving day as we learn about the early stages of the war and take part in the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate.

Loralea Wark,
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation займ без отказа