PHOTOS: DAN BLACK
In April, Legion Magazine travelled with a group of high school students to Vimy Ridge for the 90th anniversary of the historic battle, and the rededication of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. The students, mostly from Port Perry, Ont., were invited to submit personal stories describing what it was like to visit such an important place. We are pleased to share some of these with you, along with a few other impressions from students living in the Ottawa area.
Melissa Moor, Manotick, Ont.: As a Grade 12 student at St. Mark’s Catholic High School in Manotick, Ont., I was privileged to be chosen to make the pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge, and to represent Private Thomas S. Harding. For me, the journey began in the fall of 2006. At the time I had no concept of the scope of the actual event or the impact it would have on me.
Thomas Harding is much more than a name for me. He was a young man, a soldier, a son and a husband. He was a Canadian like me. He is our past, and he gave us this future. When I put on my replica World War I shirt and did up the heavy metal buttons, I saw his name written above my left pocket and I knew I was going to Vimy to remember him along with all the other Canadians who gave their life on that ridge.
The earth–in what is now a memorial park–was pulverized. Carpeted in a layer of bright green grass, it dips sharply and then rises to form a peak. As we walked through woods and fields to Canadian Cemetery No. 2, the jagged ground around us told a story of pain and devastation.
The cemetery is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. I stopped at a pristine white headstone and stood behind it. “A Soldier of the Great War” it read. “Known unto God.” All around me I could see other Canadian teens in their dark green shirts standing behind headstones. That’s when I realized that each of those graves was for someone with a family, friends, dreams and plans. They were real people who sacrificed everything so that we could be there on that day as free and proud Canadians.
When I caught my first glimpse of the memorial–our tribute to the fallen–I was amazed. We had heard about it for so long, but to actually be there–at the place where Canada earned the respect of the international community, where so many gave their lives, where so many had stood before us to remember them–was overwhelming.
It was an incredible honour to march to the front of the monument as the youth of Canada. I have never felt more proud to be Canadian. We will remember the day we stood shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other Canadians. We will remember the waving flags, the trumpets and the bagpipes. We will remember the events of April 9, 1917. We will remember the fathers, sons, brothers and husbands who were our soldiers. We will remember their lives, their sacrifice, their legacy.
Jeremy Foster, Port Perry, Ont.: As the plans were being made for the trip to Vimy I was informed that the students were going to put together a time capsule. Some of my friends were going to draw pictures and write poems and do other creative things. We were also told that each student was going to represent a soldier who fought or died at Vimy. That night I told my parents, and as it turned out my great-grandfather, Arthur James Foster, fought in the 38th Battalion at Vimy!
From then on I soaked up as much information as I could about the war. My dad and grandpa told me stories of great-grandpa’s personal experiences. I decided to express my new knowledge of the war–and the emotions I felt–by writing a song for the time capsule. It is written for piano and voice, and it’s about the hell the soldiers must have gone through. Here is the chorus:
Lost lives and fallen soldiers,
They were looking to go home.
Lost lives and fallen soldiers,
What were they all fighting for?
When I arrived at Vimy I could not believe that I was walking on the same soil my great-grandfather walked on 90 years ago. At Canadian Cemetery No. 2 all of the students placed a poppy on top of the headstone they stood behind. It was so powerful to see all the green replica war uniforms bearing the names of the soldiers that were represented. It was also amazing to see the rows and rows of headstones–each crowned with a poppy–and to experience the complete silence, other than the wind and the birds chirping.
After making our way to the memorial and then gathering on the pathway, I couldn’t tell how many students were there, and that must have been how the soldiers felt when they were in their tunnels, waiting for the signal. Our leader assembled us in rows of 10, and I was fortunate to be near the front. The line behind me stretched way, way back, and I still could not see where it ended. I was absolutely disgusted when I realized that it was about the same amount of people who were killed 90 years ago at this exact place.
Looking back at it all, the trip sort of felt like a dream–but it was very real. Those men did die for all of us, and I believe they were honoured that day.
Emily Bray, Port Perry: On the 90th anniversary of the battle I had mixed feelings. Firstly, I felt thoughtful. The name Martin King kept popping into my head. He was my soldier who I had been researching for the past month. I kept imagining him out fighting on the fields in front of me. I kept imagining how different it would be today if men like Martin King had not gone to war. Canada would not be the same. The world would not be the same. Secondly, I felt excited. I was excited to be half way around the world with all my friends and excited that we were able to have the opportunity to take part in such an epic ceremony. After researching my soldier, I was able to find deeper meaning in the ceremony and in all the cemeteries we visited.
Laura Moor, Ottawa: When I learned I would be one of the students going on the pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge I had no concept of the importance, nor the scope of the event I was about to witness. Little did I realize that this trip would forever change my point of view concerning our heritage, and help me realize the greatness of the impact made by our soldiers so many years ago.
Looking across an ocean of people to see the memorial towering above me put everything in perspective. I was part of something that would be embedded in history, and in the hearts of Canadians for years to come. This day was a chance for the youth of Canada to demonstrate that the sacrifices made for our country will not be forgotten, and that the soldiers who died in the Battle of Vimy Ridge will live on through us.
The soldier I represented was Corporal Richard Gorrell. He died during the battle, one of more than 3,000. Being there 90 years later gave me a personal connection to a man I have never met.
Although Vimy Ridge was part of our voyage through northern France and the Netherlands, it was the most significant part of my journey. It was a time to put the excitement of travel aside, and just remember. Remember our soldiers, remember our history, and most of all, remember our home–Canada.
Jennifer Freele, Kanata, Ont.: Private Joseph Gallant is a name I had never heard before this whole experience began. Now I will never forget his name. To some people, he is just one of the 3,598 Canadian soldiers who died during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. To me, he is much more than that, because he is someone who has renewed the pride I have for my country, something that every person my age should experience. Before making the trip, the lives lost during the war were just numbers to me. But standing there, seeing the graves and the names on the headstones all around me, made me realize that each of those thousands of names represented a man, and a family that had lost him. Standing at the memorial I understood the devastating impact of war in a way that can’t be learned from history books.
I was stunned by the number of names engraved on the monument. And these were just the names of those with no known resting place. I looked out over what had been the battlefield and could sense how Canada, as a nation, was born. I could feel the history.
Lisa Harris, Port Perry: As I stood looking out at the devastated terrain at Vimy Ridge, I could almost hear the gunfire and the screams, see the pools of blood on the ground. I imagined the men trying to climb up the hills, slipping and falling in the mud. The ground had changed from the day of the battle, but the craters still remained. I had never expected the ground to look so torn, as if the battle had not taken place 90 years ago.
There were so many lives lost on the very ground I was standing on. Yet despite the horrors that had taken place, new life had begun. There were flowers, grass and tall beautiful trees swaying in the wind. I saw a message that the hills were telling. It was a message about life. That even though mines and gunfire had devastated the ground, nature had found its way back.
The land was beautiful once again, with an eerie duality present. When I left that day, I still had the image of the torn forest in my mind. I drew a picture of the forest to try and capture the natural beauty and the scarred landscape reflecting the horrors of Vimy Ridge.
Heather Shearer, Port Perry: For me, the day at Vimy began with an exploration of the tunnel and trenches near the memorial. I had expected that I would have to crawl through the tunnel, but was surprised to find that I could walk upright. One can only imagine the incredible amount of work that went in to building such an elaborate passageway.
During the ceremony at Canadian Cemetery No. 2 it was especially sad to see all the gravestones that had no name carved on them. So many men gave up so much, and still today, they lie with no recognition of who they really were.
After lunch, a sea of green shirts lined up in rows of 10 to parade to the official rededication ceremony in front of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. I couldn’t believe it when I and a few other students were escorted to front row seats that were labelled Canada–Youth. We listened to beautiful music and a choir. And we witnessed a student from our school recite the Commitment To Remember.
After the rededication, the Queen walked along a row of veterans, then–to our surprise–she stopped and had a conversation with us! She spoke about her memories of the unveiling of the memorial, and how pleased she was that it had been refurbished.
The memorial is truly inspiring. We felt so much pride and gratitude when we looked at all the names inscribed on its ramparts. We will remember them.
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