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Exploring The Battlefields

A mock battle unfolds as part of Camp Husky at Ottawa in  2008. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

A mock battle unfolds as part of Camp Husky at Ottawa in 2008.

Every teacher since Plato has probably heard the same complaint more than once: “History is nothing but a bunch of boring names and dates!”

For a number of Canadian students, however, our country’s military history has become so much more than that, thanks to the efforts of veterans, high school teachers, professors and other adults interested in ensuring that our soldiers’ efforts are not forgotten.

In November 2008, for instance, some 1,400 high school students and 200 teachers from across Canada visited Ortona, a strategic port on Italy’s east coast where Canadians fought a brutal battle in 1943 (Into Ortona Then And Now, March/April). The trip, which included stops at other historic locations, was the culmination of months of preparation. By the time many of the students arrived in Ortona, they had a very vivid mental picture of what had happened there.

In Woodstock, Ont., the 30 students at Huron Park Secondary School who participated in the trip researched particular soldiers. Rachel McLean, 16, was matched with a soldier from nearby Stratford. The man’s nephew shared six albums full of photos with her, which made the long-ago history seem more real. “This could have been my father,” she says.

McLean was also among the 200 teachers and students from across Ontario who attended Camp Husky at the Connaught Ranges in Ottawa on a chilly October weekend prior to the trip. Camp organizer Gene Michaud, a Canadian Forces veteran who now teaches history at Notre Dame High School in Ottawa, spent a year putting together the $20,000 event.

Michaud paid close attention to detail. When the kids were roused at 0530 from their beds in cadet dwellings, they donned the uniforms of their assigned ranks. Then they stepped outside to see a Sherman tank and Bren gun carriers. The effect on the kids was instant and remarkable, Michaud recalls. “No one was laughing or joking,” he says. “That was pretty impressive.”

“Camp Husky was an amazing experience,” says Huron Park student Brent Holmes, adding that the information on hand-to-hand combat, equipment, tactics and other details of the battle was extensive. “The stuff we learned there was very important in Ortona.”

Clearly, the amount of preparation involved in getting students ready to attend a trip like this takes a lot of time and energy. So why do teachers and other adults do it? “You can connect to history,” says Dan Kellerd, managing director of Explorica Canada Inc., a travel company that co-ordinated many schools’ participation in the Ortona trip. He says battlefield tours are an increasingly important part of his firm’s business.

Through that connection to history, teachers have an opportunity to make a lasting impression on students and to impart real insight. “Every teacher likes to feel like they’ve had some kind of impact,” says Dave Robinson, a retired high school history teacher from Port Perry, Ont., who has long been a leading advocate for military history tours. He has been involved with four so far—tours focused on D-Day, Hong Kong, Vimy and Ortona—and is helping teachers prepare students for an upcoming trip to the Netherlands to commemorate V-E Day. He has done presentations in 90 schools across the country to promote the tours.

officer cadets from the Royal Military College examine a restored trench at Vimy Ridge in France. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

officer cadets from the Royal Military College examine a restored trench at Vimy Ridge in France.

Robinson believes it is critical to ensure Canadian students understand our history, because the role of Canadian soldiers is often overlooked or inaccurately portrayed in foreign-made movies and video games. “These liberties with the truth will be accepted as facts unless we make our youth of today experience it.”

Deb Wojtkiw, a social studies teacher at Morinville Community High School in Morinville, Alta., was drawn to the Ortona trip by one of Robinson’s presentations. In all, 22 students, three teachers and several adult volunteers from the school went on the trip.

As valuable as these trips are for students, making them happen isn’t always easy. For one thing, the financial commitment is high—the cost per student for the Ortona trip ranged from $2,700 and $3,200 (depending on the length of the flight and the package selected). At many schools, students do extensive fundraising to offset the cost of the excursion.

But the kids aren’t the only ones working hard. As well as preparing kids in the classroom, many teachers work behind the scenes, raising money, garnering support and negotiating with authorities. At Huron Park, for example, history department head Stephen Hills applied to his school board for permission several times before getting the green light. His principal and the community were very supportive, he says, but superintendents were concerned about the number of school days the participating students would miss.

Despite the obstacles, teachers were delighted with the effects of the trip on their students. “In terms of a learning experience, it was like nothing I could provide in the classroom,” says Lindsay Hall, a history teacher at the school.

In France, students visit the beach at Dieppe. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

In France, students visit the beach at Dieppe.

Efforts to connect students to Canada’s military history are also being made outside the classroom. In Summerside, P.E.I., for instance, the Legion’s George Pearkes VC Branch has organized an elaborate event each Remembrance Day for the last nine years, recreating a particular period of military history. Last year it focused on Ortona because some 20 local students had signed up for the tour led by Robinson. Through various activities, other Legion branches across the land have also recognized the importance of helping to prepare high school and university students for visits to wartime locations.

Six of the students were each assigned a P.E.I. veteran of the Battle of Ortona and met either with a veteran from the battle or his family to get details on the soldier’s experience. At the branch, each student gave a presentation on his or her assigned soldier as the veterans and their families watched in an atmosphere that included period music, uniforms and tears. Through various activities, other Legion branches across the land have helped students make connections to Canada’s military past prior to or after overseas tours.

After the Ortona trip, the Huron Park students shared their experience with local veterans, and Hills noticed a distinct change in the way students interacted with the veterans. Before the trip, they were often awkward talking with people from a different generation, but afterwards, “they felt really comfortable…they could connect instantly. And they could share the stories.”

They also shared a new understanding of their country. “I think the kids came home with a new pride in who they were,” says Wojtkiw. “I think that’s huge, because we’re inundated with American media….I think it’s important for the kids to take pride in their country.”

For some students, the effect was surprising.

“It really changes you in ways you don’t really expect,” says Holmes, who noted that he and friends who went on the trip can’t play violent video games any more, after learning in a vivid way that war is anything but fun.

Teacher Dave Robinson and students visit the Polish military cemetery at Monte Cassino, Italy, in 2008. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Teacher Dave Robinson and students visit the Polish military cemetery at Monte Cassino, Italy, in 2008.

On June 2 this year, University of Ottawa history student Zack Cavasin stood in Nine Elms Cemetery in France by the grave of a Canadian soldier named Howard Ford. Ford had been killed at Vimy Ridge, and Cavasin had spent months researching the soldier and his family in preparation for a Canadian Battlefields Foundation (CBF) tour of the battlefields of France and Belgium. Nervously, he gave a talk to his fellow students about the young soldier. “It was one of the hardest presentations I have ever had to undertake,” he wrote in the journal each tour participant is required to keep during the journey. “I had learned so much about Howard and how he died that seeing his tombstone and being there with him, it was impossible to stay composed.”

Ford’s brother, who had also fought at Vimy, wrote a letter to their parents about the soldier’s death, which Cavasin read aloud to his fellow students. “I could never [imagine] having to write my parents and tell them how one of my siblings had died,” he later wrote.

Those sorts of visceral, emotional connections are one of the goals of the CBF tours. Since 1995, the CBF—an organization founded in 1992 that is devoted to preserving the memory of Canadians’ military history—has brought groups of university students from across Canada to European battlefields. Each year, it chooses 12 participants from among dozens of applications. “On our tours, we try to challenge bright, motivated young people,” says Serge Durflinger, an associate professor of history at the University of Ottawa who co-led the CBF’s June 2009 tour of France and Belgium with Colonel David Patterson. Both had previously led other CBF tours. Durflinger specializes in teaching students about the political and social history of war, while Patterson concentrates on the military aspect.

In France, students visit the trenches at Beaumont Hamel. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

In France, students visit the trenches at Beaumont Hamel.

The tours aim to encourage students to think about history-related careers. It seems to be working; Durflinger points out that many tour alumni have become professors, journalists, museum curators and other history professionals.

This year’s 16-day tour took in both First and Second World War sites, including Ypres, Vimy Ridge and Dieppe. Each student paid $1,500 to participate, about a third of the total cost, while the CBF provided a bursary for the rest. The itinerary varies somewhat each year—last year’s tour focused on the liberation of the Netherlands—but there’s always a component on Normandy.

Tyler Turek, who is taking a master in history degree at the University of Ottawa, participated in this year’s trip and was struck by how real the two world wars are, still, in the minds of many Europeans. In even the smallest town, he points out, he found shops selling shells dug up from the fields. And at a ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, the group met a woman in her 90s who had come to the event to honour Canadian soldiers’ sacrifice. “If it’s real for her, why shouldn’t it be real for us?” asks Turek.

Another student on the trip, Louise Janisse, was touched by the empathy of Normandy residents during a ceremony at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. “The most striking moment for me was when I heard Normans sing our country’s national anthem.  When I began to sing O Canada en français I could hear the Norman women singing in French with me,” she wrote in her journal. “Remembrance Day might not be the most cherished and respected day in Canada, but, after witnessing the ceremony at Beny-sur-Mer, I am confident that the Normans will never forget Canada’s sacrifice.”

The desire to deeply understand Canadian soldiers’ efforts in war also drives another group of students to visit Europe annually. For six days during the February school break, between 25 and 30 third- and fourth-year students at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston visit the Somme, Vimy, Passchendaele, Amiens, Dieppe and Normandy. Not surprisingly, these trips focus strongly on military history. “We want to make the tours as technical as possible,” says Major Michael Boire, an assistant professor of history at RMC who has led a number of the trips. Each student takes six night classes to prepare for the tour, and Boire also does extensive research so he can be prepared to answer the most detailed questions. When it comes to leading such a trip, he emphasizes, “You’ve got to have someone who’s really, really well read.”

Boire is careful to put Canadian soldiers’ experience in the context of the times. While he gives credit where credit is due, he avoids the temptation to make Canadians’ role in any given battle look more important than it actually was—a temptation he believes many others fall prey to. “A lot of Canadian history is embarrassingly biased,” he says bluntly.

He encourages teachers and students—both those on his trips and on others—to read a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, and to contact him if they’re looking for recommendations on research materials.

To participate in one of Boire’s tours, students must convince him that they have the necessary maturity and interest to profit from the trip. “I don’t want to waste this opportunity on the average dummy,” he says with characteristic candour. Each student also contributes $500 to the cost, while an alumni fund covers the remaining $1,500 per participant.

The payoff of such selection rigour comes during the trip. For about half of the students who go each year, he says, “It’s a very, very profound experience.” If students have relatives buried at a site the tour visits, Boire will ensure they visit the graves—if they can provide detailed information on the soldiers. Other students are matched with veterans to whom they have no personal connection. The RMC professor urges students to think about each soldier’s particular circumstances—for instance, people from different parts of the country may have experienced war in different ways. He says such detailed research frequently leads the students to uncover fascinating details. “We all lead exciting lives,” he says simply.

Fascinating details on lives lost during wartime are also being uncovered by youth representatives attending pilgrimages hosted by Veterans Affairs Canada, and by those participating in the Legion’s biennial Youth Leaders’ Pilgrimage of Remembrance. Experiences gained from these trips have helped educate participants who in turn have helped educate and encourage others back home to participate in a battlefields tour.

While a lot has been done in our schools, one refrain keeps coming up again and again from teachers and students: the importance of providing enough funding and support to ensure future students can enjoy similar experiences. As the First and Second World Wars recede further into the past, there’s a danger that both will be forgotten by later generations. Students who have gone through these tours argue that that would be an unspeakable tragedy. “How can you not remember this?” asks high school student Brent Holmes.

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