Each VPA Recipient will have their own experience. Uncover the recipients' experiences as they learn more about Canada's First World War.
Jung Hao Cau - Regina, Saskatchewan
Today was the 6th of November, the first official day of the VPA program. At the beginning of the day, we visited the Menin Gate.
There were thousands of names engraved on the stone walls. There we also listened to two presentations of the soldiers. Two participants of the programme told stories about the lives of the soldiers - who they were before, during and after the First World War. Often, when we discuss the Great War, there is a lack of humanity. With this project, we faced the reality that the soldiers were real individuals with their own lives, their own families and their dreams and aspirations.
Afterwards, we presented our field presentation. For the past few months, we have been researching how different demographers in Canada perceived the War. By examining the different narratives of the War, we get a more nuanced knowledge of the War experience. We also wandered the streets of Ypres and visited the In Flanders Fields Museum.
To cap off the day, we visited the Langemark Cemetery. One of the educators, Rosalie, gave us a speech about the German perspective. It was shocking to hear that over 40,000 German bodies were buried there. So far, the programme has been an eye-opener.
Diya Mehta - Toronto, Ontario
Today, we visited the Menin Gate, where the soldier I researched is commemorated. Four months ago, I had never heard of Ypres or Menin Gate! I eventually learned that Menin Gate was a giant memorial to the tens of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers whose remains were never found after the First World War. Because I have researched this soldier for 2 months now, this was an extremely emotional and impactful experience.
As we walked around the gate, thousands of names would just start appearing - the names of soldiers who were never found. While walking around the ginormous monument, I reflected on how each one of these soldiers had hopes, dreams and full lives which almost ended up being completely erased by the terrible violence. I then spoke to the entire group about my soldier, George Hugh Cleal, who went to the same high school as me and passed away at 20 years old during the first German gas attack. While at Menin Gate, we listened to a presentation about the way minorities were presented and the lack of information on racial minorities during the war.
Following the presentation, a group explored how to improve representation when talking about the conflict and the long-term effects that the First World War had on provincial and worldwide relations. Throughout the day, we examined and discussed the perspectives and experiences of underrepresented groups in First World War commemoration such as Indians, Nepalese, Indigenous, and German soldiers. Ultimately, I had a very educational day that helped me reflect more deeply on the experiences of marginalized groups during the war.
Marin MacPherson - Quispamsis, New Brunswick
This afternoon, I stood in front of the 26th battalion of the Canadian expeditionary forces panel on the backside of Menin Gate to give my soldier presentation on Lance Corporal James Walter McIntyre.
Walter was a methodist from Saint John, New Brunswick and was a casualty of war due to shelling in the southeast trenches of Ypres in 1916. It was important to me to do my soldier project on him because as a Christian I felt a calling to learn about a soldier I share a faith with who was also from the same area of New Brunswick as I am.
When I first saw Walter's name on the gate, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of grief for him just because the hours I have spent researching him and his story have given me a sense of knowing him. After giving my presentation, I was hit with the face-to-face reality that not far from Menin Gate was where he died and he didn’t get to die in his home country with friends and family but in an unfamiliar country. It was pouring rain all day and I feel as if the abysmal weather was almost reflecting my sadness the more we drive around Ypres throughout the day. I was constantly thinking about how the fields and small villages around Ypres were the last places Walter walked before he died.
Loïc Verreault - Laval, Quebec
This morning, we went to the Christmas Truce site. I was surprised to hear that there was no evidence of a soccer match being held at the memorial. I expected to see an impressive memorial even though the simplicity and feeling of the one in the centre of the town were very strong. The small museum in town showed the destruction of the church that we recently visited and I felt grief.
We then went to Tyne Cove Cemetery. This cemetery contains 12,000 graves of soldiers who died at Passchendaele. 8,000 of these graves are unidentified. The walls contain the names of nearly 35,000 missing soldiers. This cemetery gave me a feeling that I had never felt in a cemetery before. In addition to the feeling of sadness that these cemeteries bring me, seeing the nobility of the site, the battlefield below and the number of graves, I felt a sense of security and peace at an extreme cost. I felt a great deal of gratitude as I walked past these graves.
The St. Julien Canadian Memorial shows the harsh reality of chemical warfare. As the Canadians arrived to reinforce the weakened chlorine lines, 2,000 Canadians died on April 24 alone from the effects of the gas in this victorious resistance of 18,000 Canadians. We went to the Canada Gate at Passchendaele. I gave my group presentation there on geography and topography. The day ended on a very emotional note for me with the daily commemoration at Menin Gate where I was able to lay a wreath. It was an honour for me and I would end by thanking all those who have served and are continuing to serve.
Ava Haynes - Clearwater River, Saskatchewan
Today, we went on a Salient tour. I have never been on a guided tour before so I found it very informative and interesting. I was able to see places dedicated to the Christmas Truce, the Brooding Soldier and the grave of a boy only a year younger than me. Our tour guide Kim managed to make jokes and provide a light atmosphere despite the dark topics of war that she was describing. The information that she provided was phenomenal.
I learned that no football game occurred during Christmas time and that plastic surgery advanced extensively during this time. I felt as though the personal stories that were told to me today reflect the experience I am having in this program.
Furthermore, something that fascinated me was the sheer amount of graves and names at Tyne Cot Cemetery. As a scientist and person that enjoys math, the numbers given never bothered me, however, the visual aid of seeing all of these graves provided a feeling of there being more graves than I could have imagined. I felt like whatever comprehension I had of the numbers and the deaths in the war were wrong.
When seeing smaller graves, it made me see a certain smaller picture – a more personal perspective of war. Seeing Tyne Cot, it forced me to see the bigger picture – the bigger magnitude of war. Overall, today was one of the best days for me thus far in this program.
Logan Saunders - Miramichi, New Brunswick
For my entire life, I have always heard the poem “in Flanders Field.” For me, this poem was always just words someone said once a year and had no real meaning. I knew John McCrae had written it but I had no idea why, or who he was; this is what sparked my interest and research for my soldier presentation I did at Essex’s Farm today. Learning McCrae’s story and journey through all of his adventures brought the poem to life and I now feel the message behind it which is "about the transition from the struggle of life to the peacefulness of death." I wrote a poem for John McCrae titled “A Poem for A Poet,” which addresses why John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Field,” and the reason he joined the war.
The First World War is something I have always heard about, but it has always felt very distant and hard to understand. Comparing being in Canada and mainly learning my information either online, or in school, is so drastically different from actually being in the places the war had happened: such as hill 60, Essex’s Farm, or Passchendaele.
Doing my research on John McCrae was fascinating and gave me context on the poem he had written. However, being at Essex’s Farm made everything feel real, and not a distant event that had happened 100 years ago. Sharing what I knew about McCrae felt so important, as we typically speak very generally about the soldiers who fought, which leads to an insensitive view, but speaking about a single soldier's experiences, like Johns, makes me feel very emotional and happy to learn these stories - knowing we are never going to forget what happened.
A Poem for A Poet – Logan Saunders
“In Flanders Field, you wrote for them,
To give them voice and to pretend,
That no one truly passes on,
Instead, they’re sleeping until they’re gone
Now I know you tried your best,
But some people just had to rest,
The war was hard and took a toll,
On the people, we love and never told,
Joining the war was about something more,
Helping the wonder and surging the storm,
100 years ago you set out to help,
People you didn’t know, and your country’s belt,
You believed fighting for Canada was necessary
A doctor, a poet, a solider, a hero,
You were these things and will be remembered
We thank you for what you have done,
100 years ago, when you helped not only then,
But us today,
In Flanders field we say today,
To remember our loved ones,
And to never forget,
Evelyn Sar - Thornhill, Ontario
Today, we visited the city of Mons, Belgium, which is an impactful city as this is where the First World War started and ended. We went to the Mons Memorial museum where we saw different artifacts from the start and end of the war, and gained insightful knowledge from guides who let us in on many different perspectives. Later on in the day, we travelled to Perone, France and visited another museum where we got to learn even more and we even got to touch artifacts, which was a unique opportunity!
Personally, being able to touch the artifacts with my own hands connected me to the war even more. Touching artifacts that soldiers made in the trenches while they were not directly on the frontline for their families allowed me to feel as if I was in their shoes. Lastly, we finished off the day at a memorial where I got to present my field presentation of “women on the front lines”.
Although I did really enjoy sharing the positive impacts the war had on women, and stories of some incredible nursing sisters and spies, I would like to see more memorials for women in the war, as they played just as important roles as men. I heard they just added 2 memorials for nursing sisters in the Canadian War Memorial in Ottawa, which is a great start!
Ashley Ahadjitse – Ottawa, Ontario
Today, we visited the town of Mons, Péronne in Belgium. This little town might not be much but it holds much significance for being the place where the First World War started and where it ended as well. Learning about the history of Mons and the effect of the German occupation on the population really touched me because thinking of the terror and anxiety of the towns citizens must have been extreme.
I can’t imagine not being able to connect with people and possibly family from the other side of my own country for the duration of the war. The trauma and violation that the citizens of this town faced left an impactful mark on its history that is still remembered today.
Another amazing experience was being able to see war artifacts from Historial de la Grande Guerre. It was surreal to see actual weapons and equipment used during the war because these objects actually took the lives of real people and contributed to the millions of lives lost during that . With those heavy feelings at the back of my mind, I did enjoy the experience all in all. For example, trying out the different soldier hats on and seeing people try to hold the very heavy shells and struggling with that was a fun experience!
Today, I was able to reflect on the war from the civilian’s perspective. Something that our tour guide told us that really impacted me was the story of a young girl walking around her house’s hallways with loud boots and finding her mom scared and in tears in their kitchen because it reminded her of the sound of the German’s heavy boots. It’s important to also acknowledge the effects of the war on civilians as well as soldiers, even if they weren’t on the front lines.
Ciaran Williams - Verdun, Quebec
Our last day in Belgium was certainly the most memorable. We started off our morning with a thought-provoking presentation from Francis and Diya that set the tone for the day. What was interesting about their presentation was how they formatted their presentation because they talked about the daily lives of soldiers and took us through what a day in the life would look like. Instead of presenting statistics, they actually brought us through what a soldier’s day would look like. I am excited to present my own presentation tomorrow.
Another part of the day that stood out to me was our visit to the Mons Memorial Museum. The most interesting piece in their collection for me was a set of four trench rings which were shown to me by a curator of the museum. These rings were crafted by soldiers who during their downtime would create these pieces from spare equipment and ammunition that weren’t in use. This puts into perspective the repetitive lifestyle of trench warfare – showcasing otherwise unrepresented aspects of soldiers’ experience in the war.
One more part of this experience that stood out to me was seeing the reminisce of infrastructure from the front lines. There is a large difference between seeing these objects in a book versus actually being face-to-face with these buildings in person. It really puts into perspective for me the reality of the war as you can see the damage firsthand.
Zaahira Bidmus – Calgary, Alberta
My day today was the highlight of my VPA trip so far. We started the day at the South African Memorial which commemorated the British and white South African fighters. There was a group presentation on colonial forces in Europe and afterwards, Thomas elaborated on its effects.
I really enjoyed both presentations because they informed me about the effects of war that we don't often talk about. The economic repercussion on the Balkans and the affected countries was not known to me before. I'm glad I had the opportunity to learn more about it and I will definitely do some research on Africa's involvement in the war.
Afterwards, we went to Desleaux Farm to see the home of Vincent Carvery who was a member of the Number 2 Construction Battalion. His story was not only inspiring but heartwarming. His "fight to battle" reminds me of the struggles I still face today and I will always admire his valiant battle.
We then went to Beaumont Hamel to learn more about the Battle of the Somme and the contribution of Newfoundland. It was very shocking to see how far apart the German and French front lines were from the battlefield where the Christmas truce took place. The two sites side by side helped me to put the war into perspective and to understand the tragedies that occurred on a deeper level.
The Thiepval Memorial was probably the most impactful. The symbolism of the names of the soldiers and the battles together on the wall touched me and my friends deeply. Even though the soldiers are lost, I loved the fact that the names include their last known battle. It's a chance for them to be with their team one last time.
Another thing that really touched me was the names being erased at the memorial. It gave me a sense of comfort that the brave soldiers once lost but found have been laid to rest. Although there were many found soldiers, for every one found, it represents the thousands of soldiers who will never have this opportunity. This memorial, though sad, represents hope. Hope that the families had their sons naremoved from the wall next.
It also represents the sad reality that many will never be found. As sad as it is, this memorial made me think and reflect on the war from all angles, including the families left to mourn on both sides. To them, they were more than a number and there are stories attached to each of them. I am incredibly honoured and grateful to be able to visit this memorial and will cherish this experience forever.
Rosie Goulet– Sherwood Park, Alberta
Today, the 10th of November, we made several interesting stops. The Quebec Cemetery was particularly touching, because they were soldiers conscripted from where I am from. It was super fascinating to learn how headstones are designed at the Commonwealth War Graves! Also, we went to Notre Dame de Lorette; the largest French memorial cemetery in the world. To have each soldier's name inscribed on their grave adds a human aspect to the cemetery; something I greatly appreciated.
The memory ring allowed some of us to find soldiers with our surnames; maybe I'll discover an ancestor that I didn't know about thanks to this visit! We finished the day by going to Hill 70, a landmark for Canadian soldiers of the Great War. We are now in Arras, and are ready to explore the Vimy Memorial tomorrow on Remembrance Day, which will also be our last day of the program.
Ardyn Hardy – Albany, Prince Edward Island
Today, on November 9th, we travelled to many memorials and graves, however, today has been the highlight of my trip so far. Today has stood out for me due to multiple reasons: the first being that I presented my project on colonial forces at the South African War Memorial.
I had been researching and studying this topic for a while so being able to share my research with the group had a huge impact on me. In general, when we talk about war, we tend to focus on the narrative that we’re building a nation. We don’t always focus on the many colonies that were implicated.
Being at a memorial designated for South Africans who aided immensely in the fight of the war gave me a sense of comfort because we were shown that they too have been given equality in death. Later in the afternoon, we went to Beaumont Hamel, where we were given a tour of the grounds where the Battle of the Somme took place. This in specific stood out for me because this was where the majority of Newfoundland’s only battalion had fallen.
Samuel Kamalendran – Mississauga, Ontario
Coming into the VPA program, I was not completely aware of the trip’s entire itinerary. However, I quickly learned that WWI monuments and memorials composed the bulk of our stops and signify the importance of physical commemorations due to how they offer us a chance to represent and critically reflect on our past.
The most significant experience I had today was visiting the Beaumont-Hammel memorial. We were taken through the trenches by a Canadian student guide who described the events that took place on July 1st, 1916 in the Somme. Of all the places I visited today, I experienced the most emotion here as the stories I learned displayed the way human lives were sent forth to destruction as a chain of unfortunate events went off. What started off as the unexpected explosion of an underground bomb became the cutting down of Newfoundland soldiers as they ran over No-Man’s land towards an army prepared for them. The idea of these men going forward despite the plan not going as planned and the massacre being a near certainty was shocking and frightening as the process was essentially running to one’s death. Besides this error of not calling off the assault, the misinterpretation of a German flare led to orders for the next line of soldiers to march forward, which demonstrated how the inefficiency of systems and holes in leadership led to the worsening of the situation. Hearing these narratives and walking around the trenches from which these soldiers lept out helped me to understand and feel the possible helplessness the soldiers felt as they could see what danger awaited them. Mixed with the bottlenecking of soldiers due to strong barriers of barbed wire and the interlocking fire from German machine guns, the battlefield had become the epitome of the name the Germans gave to the assault’s larger war: ‘das blatbud,’ or ‘the bloodbath.’ Understanding the battle’s impact outside of the war helped me form an idea of how negative the impacts of the conflict were. The war blew massive hits to Newfoundland's social and economic facets of Newfoundland which took it from a Dominion to a Colony. Furthermore, we cannot forget the empty chairs of the kitchen tables that were never filled again by the fathers, brothers, and sons, some of whom came from the same families, and did not return home.
I also want to discuss the Thiepval monument, a breathtaking memorial for the British and South-African soldiers whose graves are not known. I felt that the grandeur of the building was a fitting way to commemorate the men who died for their motherland and did not receive the honour of burial. The concept of erasing the names of those whose bodies were later found was an interesting aspect of the memorial as I felt that doing so ensured that the names of those whose families could not receive the closure of knowing the place of burial of their loved ones were preserved in their monument while also celebrating with the families of the men who were found and whose names could now rest on gravestones to the relief of their families. My group’s discussions about the monument explored topics like this and others like the separation of the past and present and the memory of the building which expanded my views and understanding of the monument and its significance.
Prabhpreet Gill – Abbotsford, British Columbia
On November 10th, we packed our bags from Sommes and headed towards the Quebec cemetery. At the Quebec cemetery, I had the honour to educate my peers about Lucien Riopel’s outstanding life and his contribution to the 22nd Battalion for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Presenting Monsieur Riopel was truly an emotional experience for me as I stood at his grave sharing his story that he won’t be able to tell anymore. His legacy, pride and honour lay there with him. I decided to recite a poem that I wrote as my reflection on my soldier and it was truly a wholesome experience.
I reflected on my parallel experiences with Lucien, from battles of emotions to the complexities of behaviour and its repercussions. The poem meant a lot to me personally as I drew from some very vulnerable moments throughout my life while writing it. This experience allowed me to fully understand the emotional element of the first world war. Attachments with such emotions allow for learning to be more individualized while creating a better understanding of the concept.
Throughout my whole experience, the soldier presentation were some of the most emotional and educational experiences throughout the Vimy Pilgrimage Award. Such stories are valuable to understand the First World War given such an extreme volume of deaths. Furthermore, we made our down to the South African memorial. We further learnt about the multi-faceted intersectionality colonization had on World War One. Overall, it was a very emotional and heartwarming experience.
Kevin Guo – Toronto, Ontario
One of the highlights of the day for me was our visit to the Arras Flying Services Memorial; at the site, we learned about the experiences of Indigenous soldiers in the First World War. In the presentation, there was an activity that simulated the “piecing together” of history — chaperones and VPA recipients alike were encouraged to “construct” the story of Francis Pegahmagabow (the deadliest sniper in the Canadian military in the First World War) from individual “pieces” of his story.
The activity reminded me how difficult it is to construct the stories of individuals from the war — especially the stories of soldiers from marginalized communities that have been lost due to the eurocentric social climate of the 20th century that has effectively filtered out the nuances of the war and has instead left historians with an overwhelmingly large amount of evidence surrounding the stereotypical white male soldier narrative.
To me, learning about the First World War with the Vimy Foundation could be imagined as discovering a nearly submerged iceberg that’s ever-so-slightly peaking above the surface. Answering the weekly questions and looking at the readings posted on the Google Classroom was but a germinating awareness regarding the possibility of an iceberg underneath the water — seeing the cemeteries and memorials for myself as well as listening to the many presentations was the act of diving into the freezing water and seeing the actual iceberg.
The shock that accompanied me with this dive was the realization of just how much I personally didn’t know about the war, and how much historians will be able to know about the war. I can’t begin to describe how much I’ve learned from the experience, whether it be the individuality of the stories shrouded by the popular narratives, or the act of seeing the war through racial, colonial, or even prejudicial lenses instead of a government-endorsed lens that portrays the war as being a “nation-building event”.
I hope that in the future, I can study this metaphorical iceberg in greater detail and guide my fellow peers and community members into seeing below the one-sided surface of the single stories that we constantly hear about during commemoration.
Thanks for reading my blog and have a wonderful day,
Julia Elmslie - Guelph, Ontario
Powerful. This is the only word I can fathomably use to describe today's experience. From an interactive group presentation to touching 'Bringing them Home' projects, today, just as all the others, was educational and inspirational. Overall though, it is crucial to note the most impactful portion of the day: The Ring of Remembrance and the adjacent Notre Dame de Lorette.
At the Ring of Remembrance, thousands and thousands and thousands of names are listed on the walls of a once brutal war zone. However, regardless of the war's endless destruction and hatred, all names of those killed in the First World War can be seen together.
These individuals were not equal in life, but the memorial ensures that they are in death, as friends and enemies are listed together, regardless of age or nationality. This was a beautiful reminder of togetherness and the human spirit.
Across the street: memorial and cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette. The antithesis of the Ring of Remembrance, this location demonstrates the futility of the conflict and the scope of its impact. Rows upon rows of white crosses stand tall across the never-ending lawn representing the great number of French soldiers who lost their lives in battle. The sea of endless headstones is accompanied by formidable buildings of stone. Though these graves are individuals, they represent the overall impact of the Great War, what we as VPA recipients have come to learn so much about.
Today was not out of the ordinary; each day, we get to commemorate something greater than the day before. Sadly, we are nearing the end of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the knowledge we have been gifted will live on with us and is absolutely immeasurable.
Thanks to the Vimy Foundation and the chaperones, and to all of the wonderful individuals with whom I was able to experience this.
Lest We Forget.
Rowan Brosha (they/them) – Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
Due to past prejudices and social views, gender non-conforming perspectives are rarely, if ever, seen in history and historical re-tellings.
As such, as a non-binary individual, I find it very challenging to relate to common historical narratives of brave men and kind women.
However, one major part of my personal, human identity is music and sound, something that, upon reflection, I have found very easy to relate to this trip. Throughout the trip, one topic that has been at least mentioned at the majority of the sites has been sound, whether we are discussing the cacophony of war or the silence of remembrance.
As both a musician and an avid music-listener, music is one of the very few things I can always relate to, no matter the message or context. Across the various ceremonies we have attended, music has been a subtle, yet extremely present aspect of them, and that, more than anything, has been reassuring to me.
Francis Holm – High River, Alberta
Tears streamed down my wind-bitten cheeks as I told my group the story of L. C. George Atkins. This is a man I have no connection to, who is one of the 11,285 names written in stone at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. Although he did not stand out on the memorial because of any visible or historical significance, he still touched my heart in a way that I cannot describe – I felt that connection then.
The group arrived at the memorial before the sun rose, while the street lights of France dotted the countryside. Other visitors were scantly seen, allowing us to absorb the serenity of this astounding monument. Walking up the steps of the memorial and looking out onto the land provoked me to wonder if the soldiers had the same view the day they charged forward on the battlefield. Looking back on the monument, the titanic pillars guide your eyes upward with stonework so incredibly unique it was difficult not to stop and stare at each figure.
After taking in the memorial, I focused more on what makes it so important, and for it was the names. Name after name, I searched until I found my soldier “G F ATKINS” as if he were my child and I was looking for him, like a lost child in a mall. Relief passed through and within me once I found his name, engraved on the top row on the left side of the stairs when I walked up the front of the memorial. By now, the sun had risen high above the horizon and the cover of the night had been released. Looking out onto the peaceful horizon, where this high school kid from High River, George, and the immortalized names of the 11,285 alongside him lay forever...
Achyutha Surukanti – Edmonton, Alberta
The first thing Sean told us this morning was that it was our last day and that we should live and appreciate the moment. So, after the wave of sadness passed, that is what I did.
We approached the Vimy Memorial and I was struck by how it almost blended into the pale sky. It almost transcended the earth. Reading the names made me feel lonely. While gravestones made me feel distinctly with the fallen soldiers, at Vimy, I only noticed their absence. The sun came out at 11 o'clock and we took a moment to remember. What hit me was the number of young children and youth that were there. I appreciate that there are people to carry on this history, and that I am one of them. Seeing Centennial Park made me imagine what it'll look like in a few decades, when we youth are older and the trees are taller.
We spent all day coming back to Vimy. On the final time back, we reflected on the entire program. The sky got darker above us, and the lights turned onto Vimy. I remember the darkness of the first German grave we visited, the sunset at Thiepval and the sunset at Hill 70. I know now that the sunset back in Edmonton will never look the same again.