Of all the expressions known to humankind, nothing captures the essence of remembrance more than a prolonged period of silence. When the First World War ended 90 years ago on Nov. 11, 1918, it wasn’t a loud celebration that erupted from the trenches; it was the rise of pale silence.
The true nature of that silence cannot be completely understood by those who weren’t there and didn’t experience the unspeakable horrors of a war that killed approximately 10 million people and maimed millions more. Among those who did serve in the war, only a tiny number remain, including Canada’s Jack Babcock, as of December 2008.
However, the nature of that silence can indeed be felt today, and it can certainly connect us to the men and women who were there, and to the need to remember their service and sacrifice.
In the city of Mons, Belgium, on Nov. 11, hundreds of mourners gathered in a cemetery to honour the 68,000 Canadians who gave their lives in the First World War. And although it was 90 years to the minute after the end of the Great War, fresh emotion played across the faces of mourners. Veterans from more recent wars and conflicts as well as serving members of the Canadian Forces, and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police honoured past brothers-in-arms who made the ultimate sacrifice to uphold the values to which they, too, have pledged their service and their lives. Canadian youth and parliamentarians, some whose eyes glistened with tears, remembered relatives who had perished as local residents bowed their heads in thanks for the liberation and freedom they enjoy today.
It was the first of three occasions on Remembrance Day—amid many during the week—that caused deeply banked emotions to rekindle and briefly flame among members of the Veterans Affairs Canada delegation attending commemorative activities in France and Belgium. “We came here to remember what the written record cannot remember—and to stand in the places where Canada came of age,” Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson said at a ceremony at Le Quesnel Memorial in France, Nov. 10.
The 13 students from across Canada were the nucleus of VAC’s Youth Learning Journey which would, over the course of a week, take them to First and Second World War battlefields, memorials and cemeteries.
Although Canada had entered the war a junior member of the British Commonwealth, the young country was given a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles in recognition of its many military accomplishments and great sacrifice. More than 619,600 Canadians—of a total population of less than eight million—served in the war. Of those that served, more than one in 10 died, and 172,950 were wounded.
That sacrifice is certainly remembered and honoured by Belgian and French citizens. “I come every year for remembrance,” says Mons resident Jean Pirson. Mons had been occupied by Germany for more than four years when Canadians liberated the city on the final day of the war. For generations, parents and schools have taught Belgian children to carry on the tradition of thankfulness for freedom, Pirson says. “It is important to remember and to pass on that memory to young people, so it lives.”
And so emotion still spills easily into the city’s modern square, following the service at the Mons Cemetery and a parade and ceremony at the Canadian Monument organized by the City of Mons. Attending were representatives of Belgium, Canada, Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Portugal, Greece and the United States, as well as members of Canadian veterans organizations, among them The Royal Canadian Legion, The Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada (ANAVETS), and the National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada.
“Canadians made this history,” says Captain Rick Towey of the Royal Regiment of Canada in Toronto. “I’m proud to be part of an army that made history and liberated a city.”
“I was very touched to be here,” said Master Corporal Serge Tremblay, a Canadian Forces photographer. “Mons is where the first soldier was killed in the First World War, and where the last Canadian soldier was killed four years later.” Private George Lawrence Price of the Saskatchewan Regt., who was killed by a sniper just two minutes before the ceasefire, is buried nearby at the St. Symphorien Military Cemetery. On Remembrance Day, local residents placed fresh flowers on his grave.
A further touching demonstration of Belgian thankfulness was made that evening at the Last Post ceremony under the memorial arches of the Menin Gate at Ypres, Belgium. Save for the period of occupation during the Second World War, traffic through the arches has been halted and buglers have sounded Last Post every evening at 8 p.m. since Nov. 11, 1928.
Crowds began to gather hours before the ceremony on Remembrance Day, filling the memorial’s interior Hall of Memories and lining the street to the town square. A deafening roar rose from the crowd as the Canadian Forces contingent entered the memorial. Soon a piper began the beloved hymn Amazing Grace, and within moments the crowd began to hum, then sing. “I was at attention and unable to move and unable to look around. I could hear the crowd around me sighing and gasping, showing the emotion I wasn’t able to because I was at attention,” says M.Cpl. Marc Jacobs of the Rocky Mountain Rangers in Kamloops, B.C. “When I heard the entire crowd begin to hum, I felt a chill go down my spine.”
“I couldn’t hold it in,” says Marie-Josée Chapleau, a CF recruiter who was flag commander during the ceremony. When the tears began to flow, “I was so proud it didn’t matter.” She wasn’t the only one. “It brought tears to my eyes,” says M.Cpl. Richard Hickey of First Newfoundland Regt. in St. John’s. “You heard that, and you felt the pride,” adds Corporal Anthony Edwards of the Toronto Royal Regt. “I’ve never felt more Canadian, never been more proud,” says Master Bombardier Kimberley Loucks, 2 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.
“Because I can’t hear I really didn’t get to enjoy all the songs and music, but I could tell by the people’s faces that it was really affecting them,” indicated youth delegate Jamie Routledge of Halifax, who is deaf.
The Crescent School Boys Choir from Toronto gave another tearful moment to the Canadians in the crowd when they sang In Flanders Fields, before the buglers of the local volunteer fire brigade, on silver instruments donated by the Brussels and Antwerp branches of the Royal British Legion, played Last Post.
The Canadian contingent placed the first wreaths, adding to those placed earlier in the day. Member of Parliament Kevin Sorenson, on behalf of Canada; Legion Dominion Vice-President Erl Kish for the Legion; William Story on behalf of the National Council of Veterans Associations in Canada; Gord Marsh for ANAVETS; Ron Griffis of the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping, on behalf of the veterans of Canada; and youth delegates Jonathan Jampies of St. Catharines, Ont., and Andrea Omilgoitok of Iqaluit, Nunavut, on behalf of Canadian youth.
Two staircases lead from the central Hall of Memories. Over them is inscribed “Here, are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”
Engraved on the walls are the names of approximately 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers, including 6,940 Canadians. Among them is Lee Wood, who signed up at 18 and was killed at Passchendaele at the age of 21. He is the great-great uncle of VAC youth delegate Sam Wood of Fredericton, who searched the walls after the ceremony until he found his uncle’s name. He left beside it a poppy for remembrance.
“Seeing those names on the wall… I can always see in my grandmother’s eyes the sadness when she talked about her brothers she lost,” says Sergeant William MacDougall of the Cameron Highlanders in Ottawa. “It’s one thing to hear that when living in Canada, but to come over here and see all those names—that’s another.”
It was a theme repeated often during the week’s activities as VAC delegates young and old internalized the stories of the First World War, of battles won and lives lost, of the strength of character of those who lived and died in the trenches.
“Our young nation began the war with one division of citizen soldiers under the command of a British General,” says MP Kevin Sorenson at the first of the week’s events at Vimy Ridge on Nov. 9. “We ended with a superb fighting force under the command of one of our own sons and recognition around the world for courage, strength and determination.”
As Sorenson spoke, sunshine broke through the leaden sky above the memorial’s soaring twin pylons. Engraved on the ramparts are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were posted as “missing, presumed dead” in France.
A chilly breeze played eerily with the microphone, making it sound as though his words were being punctuated by far-off gunfire. “Vimy Ridge is the story of tens of thousands of individuals, ordinary people like you and me, who stood up for something they believed in—who stood up for things we all believe in: peace and freedom.”
This was the day local people observed their Ceremony of Remembrance, and a crowd of roughly 300 joined the soldiers and government representatives from Britain, France and Germany to pay their respects. Among them were Canadians, including Eleanor Saunders of Ottawa who attended with her son Stephen and grandson Max, nearly two years old. “It was wonderful to see (local) people still coming after 90 years.”
The beginning of the end of the war started an hour before dawn on Aug. 8, 1918, when “more than 100,000 Canadians marched over this horizon for a battle that would change the course of Canadian history,” Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson said in a ceremony at Le Quesnel Memorial Nov. 10. That successful surprise attack began the Battle of Amiens, the start of the Last Hundred Days of the First World War, when Canadian soldiers proved their mettle.
Amiens marked a turning point. The Canadian Corps took more than 5,000 prisoners and 161 guns, but suffered 4,000 casualties. And to honour them, eight members of the multidisciplinary Canadian Casualty Support team from the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where seriously wounded Canadian soldiers from Afghanistan are treated, drove 12 hours to attend this commemorative service. “It was important for us to be here to commemorate the 90th anniversary,” says Julie Bédard, the commanding officer, based in Winnipeg, but in the middle of a six-month tour in Germany. “It was such a touching service. It’s great they (the young people) can see what’s been done in history by our military and talk to the veterans about their experiences.”
“You always hear people saying ‘I’m proud to be Canadian,’” adds Andrea Omilgoitok, who was honoured to give the Youth Pledge of Remembrance. “But this is the first time in my life I felt it in the core of my being.”
The students had the opportunity to visit many of the area’s 30 war cemeteries housing the graves of more than 7,000 Canadians. Later that day they placed wooden crosses on the graves near the Canadian Bourlon Wood Memorial. There they became aware of how young were many of the men who gave their lives. As Jessica Roberts of Abbotsford, B.C., slowly searched the many headstones, her eye was drawn to one marking the last resting place of Cpl. J.A. Morrison, a Canadian infantryman who died at 26. “He has the same initials as my brother; we call him Jam. He’s 14, and he’s talked about going into the forces. I was feeling—what if he went to war, and died like this man died?”
“A lot of people who died were 18, 19—our age,” says Joshua Jennings of Haines Junction, Yukon. “I was thinking of all our friends back home and thinking about going to war with all of them and having them die around me.”
This weighed heavy on the mind of Andrew Sheppard of Glovertown, Nfld., who recognized on the Newfoundland Beaumont-Hamel Memorial the names of many families who lost sons in the Battle of the Somme. A great bronze caribou, emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regt., stands on a mound surrounded by rock and shrubs native to Newfoundland, looking out over the trenches and ground where so many men died.
Sheppard lost a great uncle, John Saunders, who joined the Newfoundland Regt. at the age of 22, and died, the family believes, in the Battle of Cambrai Dec. 3, 1917. Sheppard learned his great-uncle had come from a poor fishing family. Enlisting was a way of escaping the privations of life in a community where food was scarce. “Life was so very difficult.”
Stories like his helped keep the journey from being a dry recitation of dates of battles and names of long-dead heroes. “We’re trying not to focus on names and dates,” says Carl Kletke, historian with the Directorate of History and Heritage of the Department of National Defence. Each student was assigned the name of a fallen soldier to research and then they were asked to give a presentation on that soldier in the graveyard where he was buried or at a monument near where he was killed. As the tour bus travelled between cemeteries, battlefields and monuments, Kletke lectured on battle tactics, troop movements and events which students could follow on maps they’d been given.
“If we don’t understand why those memorials are here, they’re just pieces of stone,” says Kletke. “If we don’t understand why those cemeteries are there, they’re just a collection of headstones. But they’re more than that; the people that were here are part of our Canadian heritage.” Kletke was careful to include battalions from the hometowns of the students or the soldiers they researched, to make a stronger connection. They got an idea of the distances covered, visualized the progress of troops, imagined settings where battles were fought.
This was made easier by tours through the trenches where the Newfoundlanders fought and died on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, and through the tunnels in the battlefield surrounding the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, where Canada suffered 10,600 casualties in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9-12, 1917.
And the connection was also strengthened by exposure to the veterans accompanying them. Although they were soldiers of the Second World War and more recent conflicts or peacekeeping operations, Kletke was able to connect the experience of the veteran and CF delegates with the exploits of those who have passed into history. “General Andrew McNaughton, who was commanding the artillery at the time of the Armistice, said, ‘why aren’t we chasing them straight into Germany? If we don’t do that, we’ll be back here in 25 years.’ And sure enough, McNaughton was commander of the First Canadian Infantry Division when they came over in 1939; he was back 20 years later with another group of young Canadians.”
The students got a chance to talk to some of those Canadians, now old soldiers, sailors and airmen, to discover they are the link between history and memory.
From 88-year-old Phil Etter of Belleville, Ont., an assistant purser in the Canadian merchant navy, the students heard about duty on hospital ships plying the North Atlantic; and about the hard life of a mid-upper gunner from Eldon ‘Joe’ McCallum of Woodstock, N.B., who flew 36 missions on a Halifax Bomber. They heard about service in the First Special Service Force, also known as The Devil’s Brigade, from Bill Story, now living in Moneta, Virginia. Retired Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Quarton, who lied about his age in 1940 to sign up with the South Alberta Regt., spoke about the advance across France. The young people also heard of the dangers of peacekeeping from former private Karl Morel whose service as a reservist included a tense six-month tour of duty in Egypt.
They also heard from those with family connections to the Great War. “My great-uncle and grandfather went through this area in 1916 and 1917,” explains Legion Vice-President Erl Kish, who found the grave of his great-uncle, Andrew Kish, of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles at the Aubigny Communal Cemetery northwest of Arras. “I brought a bit of dirt back to put on my grandfather’s grave,” he says. Kish himself served in the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers between 1953 and 1983.
Students also witnessed the respect and honour of the veterans and serving Canadian Forces members during the funeral of Pte. Ralph Tupper Ferns of the Royal Regt. of Canada, killed Aug. 14, 1944. His remains were recovered in 2005, and he was identified in the spring of 2008 and buried Nov. 14, 2008, with full military honours in Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. His nephew Gary Ferns and niece Janice Basilone came from Canada to attend the funeral, along with local citizens, including Valérie and Christian Guilloux of Cintheaux, France, who took their children Laurine and Quentin out of school to attend the funeral.
“Being here with the veterans was the most impressive part,” indicated Jamie Routledge. “Not many people my age have the chance to be with them. Later in my life they’re going to be gone and I won’t have the chance then to hear their stories.”
Though Caitlyn Delwel of Edmonton had a great-uncle who fought in the Second World War, she said he lost his best friend and is reluctant to talk about his experiences. “Having a chance to hear it from other veterans is great,” she says. “You get a first-person point of view.”
During the pilgrimage veteran Phil Etter was oft heard to quote: “Tell me and I may forget; show me and I might remember; but involve me and I’ll understand.”
As time went by, a visible change stole over the students, one by one, on their “Learning Journey.”
By week’s end, it was obvious: They understand.
A Lift To Vimy
When bedraggled Canadians intent on visiting the Canadian National Vimy Memorial emerge from the train at the station in Vimy, France, they are often met by a jaunty 85-year-old French gentleman who offers them a lift.
There is no public transportation service to the Vimy Memorial, so for the last 12 years Georges Devloo, retired schoolteacher, has offered his services as chauffeur—and talkative guide—to stranded Canadians.
He says he recognizes Canadians immediately when they get off the train because they consult their maps and guidebooks, then “look to the left and look to the right and move forward very slowly.”
That’s when Devloo offers his services, first in French, and if they don’t respond, then in halting English. “I say, ‘I go to the memorial,’ and open up the car.”
In a black beret and trench coat, he’s handsome in a Maurice Chevalier sort of way. His bonhomie overcomes the traditional Canadian reserve and any fear of accepting rides from strangers. “I give them lessons in hospitality,” he says.
He’s given about 1,200 Canadian visitors lifts to the memorial, never asking a penny for the service (though he does appreciate maple cookies, often mailed by thankful passengers once they get back home).
Why does he do it? “It’s a matter of solidarity,” he says through interpreter Brianne Watson, head guide at the memorial. It’s just one more example of the many ways French people thank Canadians for their deliverance from occupation.
Devloo has become a fixture at the memorial, and is a favourite among the young Canadian guides, to whom he offers goodies from his garden. He is also helpful in fixing their bikes or in offering lessons on how to drive a vehicle with a standard transmission. The guides call him the Grandfather of the Vimy Memorial.
Devloo received a certificate of appreciation from Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson on Nov. 12, presented on behalf of the Canadian people.
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