Today, our 2019 BVP recipients visited Langemark German Cemetery and John McCrae’s Dressing station where Lily and Alliya read John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields. Later, the students went to Ypres to visit the In Flanders Fields Museum, located in the Cloth Hall. (Please note: students will blog in their language of preference).
Today was our first official day exploring the many fascinating and stimulating monuments, areas and cemeteries of the Beaverook Vimy Prize program. I was most moved by the very beginning of the day visiting our first Commonwealth grave and famous Canadian poet John McCrae’s dressing station. Starting off at Essex Farm cemetery instantly opened my eyes to new perspectives and challenged my own, as I discovered an almost subconscious bias of mine: one of the chaperones pointed out two headstones right beside each other in one row and asked us why this was the case, and I immediately envisioned a patriotic image of two best friends dying together so being buried together. Learning that they were likely buried together due to being indistinguishable from each other due to horrific wounds, really made me start to rethink any glorified preconceptions of the First World War I may hold. At John McCrae’s dressing station by the spot McCrae wrote the iconic poem In Flanders Fields I was absolutely honoured to read his famous work to the group, which made me feel so connected to its material and thrilled to be standing where the poppy emblem of the war essentially originated from.
I was also so lucky to conduct a tribute to a soldier I had selected at the very spot where his name was engraved – something I never thought I would have the chance to do. We reached the expansive Menin Gate where I spoke about a soldier whose name was written there, Cecil Hubert Cray Cattel – I presented my project including inferring his personality characteristics from letters he wrote that I had studied – this was an incredible moment, allowing me to truly feel a personal connection to a name likely lost in history. I look forward to tomorrow and challenging my ideas and assumptions about the World Wars even further.
Aujourd’hui, nous avons visité deux cimetières : la Ferme d’Essex – cimetière du Commonwealth britannique – ainsi que le Langemark Cemetary – cimetière allemand -. C’était la première fois que j’entrais dans un cimetière militaire. Tous ces noms, gravés sur les tombes, m’ont fait prendre conscience du nombre de morts engendré par la Première Guerre mondiale. Il y a une grande différence entre un nombre et un visuel concret. Ces quelques cimetières ne représentent cependant qu’une fraction de l’horreur de la Grande Guerre. Tout au long des visites, je me suis sentie très concernée par la mobilisation de tous ces soldats. Nous ne pouvons, en effet, rester insensible au sacrifice de toute une génération.
Le cimetière du Commonwealth britannique montrait un style à l’antipode de celui du cimetière allemand. Si la Ferme d’Essex avançait une vision de clarté neutre, le Langemark Cemetery évoquait une image plus sombre et impersonnelle. En effet, la lumière filtrait à peine entre les branches et les feuilles des arbres, les murs étaient noirs, de même que les tombes, complètement à l’inverse pour la Ferme d’Essex.
Durant cette journée, j’ai notamment appris qu’à partir de quarante tombes, la croix du sacrifice était érigée alors que lorsque ce nombre dépassait le millier, on faisait installer la pierre du souvenir. Aussi, j’ai pu éclaircir les origines du poème In Flanders Fields.
Though I have been highly anticipating this program ever since my acceptance, I do not think there is any way to truly comprehend the emotions you experience upon stepping onto a cemetery. Today, during the first day of activities, we visited both a Commonwealth and a German cemetery. The contrast between the two was astounding to me – the Commonwealth cemetery was more celebratory and patriotic whereas the German cemetery was much more ominous and more impersonal. I was quite literally speechless, as in a space no larger than my backyard, there was a mass grave with more than 25,000 German soldiers buried on top of one another. I truly do not think there is a word to describe seeing this in person. Each one of these people had a life, a family, and a story which was cut short … and their only commemoration is a small engravement of their name on a stone.
Later in the day, I had the opportunity to present a project which I had prepared prior to the program. My soldier, private Thomas Hannabury, is commemorated at Menin Gate as his place of burial was destroyed in battle during the First World War. It makes me very proud to carry the legacy of my soldier, as aside from his immediate family I could very well be one of few people to know of his life and incredibly selfless sacrifices he made for his nation. As he was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, it was an absolute honour to pay my respects to someone from my province who gave their life so that I can live mine in liberty. Despite it being only the first proper day, I already feel as though I have gained an entirely new perspective on history and I cannot wait to see where else the program leads and how else it shapes my knowledge and personal viewpoints.
–Evan Di Cesare