Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 19, 2013

After a couple of days of spotty internet we are now in Paris and as the kids have gone to bed – or, at least, their rooms! – the internet seems to be working in the courtyard (fingers crossed!), so here we go with the final entry. (I can’t believe it’s the last one!)

Our day yesterday was a busy one. We left the hostel bound for Longues-Sur-Mer, which is where the British army captured German battlements on June 07, 1944. They left them in tact, allowing visitors to see the war from the perspective of the Germans, which is pretty neat. The fact that the guns look pretty much usable today is testament to their capabilities in 1944, and this site set the stage for understanding what the British, Canadian and American soldiers were up against on the Normandy beaches.

We put on the movie Saving Private Ryan as we left Longue-Sur-Mer; as it is about 20 minutes to Omaha Beach from there we finished watching the opening scene – the hell of taking Omaha – as we pulled into the parking lot. It was a pretty sombre group that walked past the memorial and alongside the cemetery to the beach; love or hate Spielberg’s interpretation of history, that opening scene – which is as accurate as it could be given the military advisors he had help create it – certainly puts that battle into perspective. It is so rewarding as an educator, a Canadian and an adult to see how these young people react to seeing “stuff from textbooks” meet “I’m actually here” and put those pieces together. This program is itself a textbook case of why experiential learning is so important.

We added a new stop to the program this year, ending our Normandy beach visit at Point-du-Hoc where the American Rangers came ashore. This stop tied the first two together as they were able to see the German perspective which they first saw at Longues-Sur-Mer meet the Allied perspective from Omaha together: there were still guns and battlements at Point-du-Hoc, but there were also the craters left from the American naval bombardment. While it was a short visit, I think it was a good one!

We were back on the bus for 3 hours as we headed to Dieppe. Kaleb told the group about the Dieppe raid on the beach, and once you’re standing there seeing it for yourself there is no question as to why it was a failure. While this was powerful, the evening vigil in the Dieppe cemetery was even more so as we got to ride to the service with some Dieppe veterans. They are always so happy to see the group there, and they are always so interested in what the group is doing and learning. They’re not the only ones: we routinely meet mayors from communities around the Commonwealth and dignitaries from various military branches from France, Canada, Belgium and the UK, and all of them thank us for attending the service. The group told me last night that they were humbled by this thanks as they are here to thank those people for their service so it felt “weird” for those people to thank the group. I have been telling the group all along that what they are doing here is special, and their commitment to remember is special, but while I don’t think they really believed me, it’s hard to not believe the Department of Defence’s Attache to France when he says the same thing!

It was an early morning this morning as we headed off to the first of three more services. It was fantastic being at the 70th anniversary celebrations last year as it was great to be part of the excitement and crowds, but there was something more intimate about this year that made it even more special. There was a record low number of veterans this year – 18 – and none of them were from Canada as they were all here last year. That made the visits we had with the British veterans even more special, and as we were riding the buses with them and attending the same ceremonies, we saw quite a bit of them. Alice and Andrew read the Youth Commitment to Remember in French and English respectively at the first ceremony back in the cemetery, and Andrew was subsequently interviewed by a French TV crew … we’ll have to see if we can find that somewhere as he did a fantastic job. We went on to the second service in Puys, then concluded the morning at Canada Sqaure, at the end of the beach. The kids were so pleased to have had the chance to participate in these services, and I think it will be a highlight for them.

As one of their chaperones, I was so proud of how mature, respectful and polite they were through all of this. It was a lot of standing, a lot of waiting, and a lot of getting on and off buses, but there was not one grumble or question about when we were going to be leaving, and considering we were headed to Paris, I was impressed. I am also not afraid to admit that they gave me goosebumps at the service in Canada Square when they sang the national anthem. I told them this morning that the national anthems for a few countries would be played, and if they knew them to sing along. I also told them to be “loud and proud” when it was their country’s anthem as we so seldom get the chance to sing our anthems proudly, and if there was ever a time for it, today was it. They did well at the first service though they were obviously not sure how loud they should be. The second service I noticed a definite increase in volume, and then came the third service: we happened to be standing right beside the band, and it was like the group decided their 16 voices needed to drown out the brass. (And I think they did, in a good way!) As I said, I had goosebumps listening to them.

After a quick lunch on the beach we headed to Paris, and we got settled into the hostel around 5:30. As Roxanne is leaving early tomorrow we did our farewell dinner tonight, followed by our certificate ceremony. As a teacher I don’t like making kids cry and I like it even less when I cry in front of them, but both happened tonight. I cannot begin to tell you what a great group this was: they gelled right away with each other and with the chapereones, they were bright and enthusiastic and mature and funny and fun and … well … simply wonderful. It was an honour and a privilege to work with them.

Two weeks ago, in the first blog, I said that the group that would be heading home would be different than the one we left with, and I think I was right about that. They are returning with a newfound respect for the rights and freedoms they have, and they now understand that freedom isn’t free: they saw the pricetag in every cemetery they visited, on every memorial plaque they read, and in every epitaph on headstones of boys from home that they wept over. They are also returning with new friendships that will last them their whole lives through as this was a bonding experience unlike any other.

While the understanding and friendships are key, in my opinion they are bringing home something even more special, and that is the memory of the soldier they chose to research. Their soldier, who fought in a foreign land thousands of miles from home, who never got to go home, will now be going home in the heart and mind of one of these extraordinary youth who really mean it when they say, “We will remember them.”

I am so thankful to have been a part of this experience, and to those who make it possible: The Beaverbrook Foundation; The Vimy Foundation; schools and teachers across Canada, Britain and France that encourage their students to apply for this, and the parents for raising their kids to care about this topic, supporting them in preparing for this experience, then letting total strangers take their kids to other countries (and continents!)

My biggest thanks of all goes to the kids themselves as they have made this experience what it is, and it has been incredible.

As we have a busy day out and about Paris tomorrow I am going to sign off my blog for another year. I know a blog cannot come close to explaining how awesome the past two weeks have been, but I hope it has given you at least a

Until next year,
Loralea Wark
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation кредит