April 3, 2023
The 22 young VPA2023 recipients arrived in Belgium today. Here begins their pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge.
On this first day they were able to visit the New Irish Farm Cemetery in Ieper. We asked them to give us a word or phrase to describe their anticipation of the week ahead and this is what they had to say:
Julian is excited to learn different First World War perspectives from personal stories.
Tim is hoping for a peaceful experience.
Hunter has been studying his family tree and is excited to explore his family’s war contributions on the ground here during this program.
Mei is incredibly interested in learning about Canadian minorities and their contributions to the First and Second World Wars.
Ronak wants to uncover new First World War themes.
Emanuel wants to know the extent of the First World War in person.
Emma P wants to use the knowledge she gains from this experience to help her own community contributions at home.
Yaseen is hoping to develop a different kind of connection to the First World War by experiencing sites firsthand.
Antoine wants to learn history on the ground and in person.
Emily is interested in making larger connections.
Abiola is hoping to learn more about the contributions of Black Canadians and their experiences du ring the First World War.
Marie-Soleil hopes to learn and grow throughout this VPA program.
Amelia would like to develop a deeper understanding of Canadian minority contribution in the First World War.
Natalie hopes to gain perspective on various themes of the First World War.
Aidan is interested in learning about Canadian contributions, especially during the Battle of Vimy Ridge and Hill 70.
Emma S is interested in developing a deeper understanding of the First World War.
Aiden is excited to see things up close to get a better understanding of the First World War.
Nora wants to delve deeper into understanding the significance of First World War events instead of just having textbook knowledge.
Jocelyn wants to pay respect to those who we lost and focus on understanding minority experiences.
Yadhiera wants to build a deeper emotional connection.
Angelena is keen on developing a nuanced understanding of the Chinese Canadian experience in First World War.
Nicole is interested in learning about larger First World War narratives and creating Canada-wide friendships.
Marie-Soleil FORTIN, Saint-Jérôme, Québec.
Today I had the chance to talk about my soldier, Arthur Fortin. This moment is important to me, especially because I had the honor of giving my presentation at the site of his death. This experience allowed me to teach the other my perspective on the history of soldiers and the sympathy for their sacrifice. I am proud of my presentation and, even though the subject matter makes me sensitive, I am happy to have shared my emotions and the story of Arthur Fortin. Also, we visited two cemeteries during the morning, and I was happy to learn more about the perspective of the Germans during the First World War and how they commemorate their soldiers. I think it is important to know how the Germans remember the war, because we know very little about their perspective. I believe that it is part of history and remains an essential part. I also enjoyed visiting the In Flanders Field Museum, because seeing the uniforms, the testimonies and the bombs in real makes us understand all the violence that we don't imagine. This experience was really enriching and I learned a lot of interesting things. I especially liked the fact that, during the tour, we were able to follow a soldier and learn more about him. In this way, I feel like we can connect with that person and we were following their life. We ended our day with presentations at the Menin Gates and it was very interesting. In the end, it was an emotional day, but it was also very interesting and inspiring. I learned a lot and I know I will learn more in the next few days. I am truly grateful to have this experience and can only hope that experience and can only hope for the best tomorrow.
Letter from Marie-Soleil to Arthur Fortin:
Dear Mr. Arthur Fortin, I know that the life you have had was not the best or the easiest. Facing a war is a horrible and atrocious thing. I can't imagine the friends you had to lose or the wounds that were inflicted on you. War was such a traumatic and cruel event that it is hard to imagine that such a thing exists, or even to understand why this solution to conflict still exists in today's society. I know that your living conditions in the trenches were deplorable and that misery, fear and death were everywhere. Knowing all of this makes me deeply sad and I sympathize greatly with all that you experienced or saw during that time. At 29, people are just beginning their adult lives, but you at that age were facing enemy lines. It's a shame to know that innocent people paid a high price for the quarrels between nations. However, I can promise you one thing; you will never be forgotten. Your sacrifice for the Canadian nation will be remembered forever. You are a symbol of heroism and will always be. Thank you so much for all you have done.
Ronak PATEL, Cambridge, Ontario.
After hours of traveling yesterday, sleeping a good seven hours last night was a perfect way to start our second day. We began early at 7 AM with a discovery of the most effective fuel to start the day: the Flander’s Lodge orange juice. The first items on our itinerary were the New Irish Farm cemetery and the Polygon Wood cemetery. We walked among the last remnants of youth, fathers, brothers, and sons. Their names will live onto posterity, however, the stories that define the individual will be forgotten without the constant action from the current generation, us. Before this experience, I have never had the opportunity to truly comprehend the scope and magnitude of the war and its impact on all humanity, regardless of race or other differences. The other recipients shared that they found a connection when imagining the soldiers themselves instead of the grave stones. Personally, I foster my connection to those from over 100 years ago by imagining the mutilated bodies buried over where I stand. I am able to take a peek at the horrors and severity of the war. To envision such a death would destroy my sanity. I wonder if the 17-year-old adventurous soldiers imagined such a death. If so, what did they do? Did they keep persevering? It is one’s perseverance in a situation with no light at the end which constitutes one’s bravery. In my walk around the cemeteries, I noticed several graves that marked unidentified bodies. These soldiers who committed as much as their lives to another person’s war will never have a burial known to their descendants or future generations... This leads to another memorial that we visited today: the Menin Gate Memorial, which is dedicated to those who were killed in the war but their grave is unknown or not placed anywhere. I was surprised by the number of names on the walls. The memorial surpassed all expectations and was much larger than what I expected. I observed that although the Menin Gate Memorial is so important to commemorate the soldiers who would otherwise have no permanent mark in the world, traffic still passed by as if the monument did not exist. I understand that paying respects is not always plausible, but I can imagine the memorial becoming meaningless as less and less people appreciate it. Four recipients completed their soldier biographies and reflections today about a soldier who contributed to the war and whose name is on the memorial today. Each person had a unique story, and I am sure the thousands of names have their own stories that define them. They must not be forgotten. The highlight of my day was visiting the In Flanders Fields Museum. The architecture was awe-inspiring and the insides were just as impressive. One of the most interesting objects for display was a painting which depicted Sikh soldiers running into No Man’s Land with a shooting target attached to them. The European soldiers were still in the safety of the trenches. The coloured soldiers were not as valued. As a result, leading them to their death was thought to be beneficial for the Europeans. There were five other paintings with similar meanings. The location of the paintings was in the back corner of the museum, away from the main displays. They were hidden; most other recipients did not see the paintings as a result. I think this was a strategic position for them as it symbolizes how the themes portrayed in the paintings are hidden in our views of Canadian history; the minorities are marginalized and the commemoration of them is as equally marginalized. Today was an impactful and valuable experience and I am already feeling the loneliness one feels after an exceptional trip.
Yaseen HAMMOUD, Ladysmith, British Columbia.
Today, we visited the In Flander's Fields Museum, in Ypres, Belgium. Before we went and explored the museum on our own, we were given a presentation by one of the local experts on the First World War and how its effects are seen today, how similar war schemes are happening today, and how the life of a soldier was affected by the war. I noticed that when listening to her presentation, specifically the points about children, I was extremely emotional and felt extremely connected to the subject. I found that when learning more about women and children in the Great War, the more I got upset and almost angry. Men had altered the ways that women and children participated in the war in the history books to make it look like men did more. This enraged me. Everyone deserves to be remembered regardless.
While going through the museum, we had the chance to learn about a soldier of our choosing, through an interactive activity with posts set up around the whole building. Marie-Soleil Fortin (one of my fellow recipients) and I decided to choose David George Parfitt. He was a soldier from Montréal who served in the 8th battalion. We were able to learn about his life, and a bit on what he experienced on the battlefield.
Today, we also went to Menin Gate. At Menin Gate, I did my "Bringing Them Home" project on George Eccles Bulleid. George Eccles Bulleid was one of the youngest soldiers to enlist, and is listed on Menin Gate on panel 10-26-28. There is extremely little information on him as he lied on his application and unfortunately had lots of his documents lost. Perhaps it is even extremely important to learn about and educate others on people who served in the First World War as they have a higher chance of being forgotten.
Amelia GAGNON, Ottawa, Ontario.
This morning, the first location we traveled to was the Christmas Truce memorial, which I was really looking forward to. It’s one of those moments where a brief bit of humanity was demonstrated and mercy was shown. This was a theme I saw throughout the day, and it touched me deeply. Kim, our tour guide for the day, took us to a beautiful church, where we were able to climb to the top and observe the breathtaking view of Messines. It was there where she spoke to us about a variety of topics, one being the courageous medics of war. Specifically, how when soldiers on the front lines would not shoot men with red crosses on their uniforms, an indication of them being a part of the medical unit. While of course there were situations where individuals didn’t respect the rule, it was hard for me personally to conceptualize the fact that while such violent acts occurred, these moments of compassion coincided with them. Another example of this being the Christmas truce, naturally. It always amazes me how the soldiers became friends, learned about each other's familles, passions, and background, and yet, the fighting persisted.
At the Essex cemetery, Kim spoke to us about John McCrae’s tender relationship with animals, and Marie-Soliel mentioned how some veterans kept dogs who were in the war along with them. This was another example of a pure, genuine connection amidst the chaos and ruthlessness of warfare.
This reminds us that soldiers were people. Not a number, a simple statistic showcasing the brutality of the great war, but actual human beings. Human beings who enjoyed soccer, loved dogs, wrote poetry, and who all had hopes and memories and fears. These are the thoughts I was reminded of as I visited cemeteries, battlefields, and memorials. These sights are surreal, but what’s more, is the unique stories behind each and every one of the names etched onto stone.
Emma PITTS, Montréal, Québec.
In preparation for my soldier project on Wednesday, I thought of his life while also reflecting on my own. When initially introduced to the soldier project, I understood its significance but didn’t know how profoundly it would impact me. In researching my soldier, Alex Wuttunee Decoteau, I learnt of his accomplishments and life story. Yet, nothing affected me as much as his affinity for being a multi-talented individual. Gifted in a variety of sports, running and being a protector of his community, I saw a lot of my own qualities in him. As a public speaker, advocate, artist, tutor and leader in my community, I incorporate my varied skills and talents for the benefit of others.
With Alexander using his strength in long-distance running on the battlefields to deliver messages, I saw a new side to him. Although much of his life in Canada was spent competing on the tracks, he was also a protector. Being the first Indigenous police officer in Canada, I grew to understand the importance his community played for him. Being so tied to his community, he fought overseas, aspiring to preserve the Canadian identity. To me, I have always been deeply rooted in my environment, balancing my Montreal-Canadian and Colombian culture, embracing the diversity that Montreal has to offer. Learning that someone with similar principals as me fought in the Great War gave me something important: Perspective.
After presenting my soldier project and visiting his grave in person, I feel an emotional weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Although I initially felt sorrowful, being able to share his story and memory with the group allowed me to properly grieve him. While it sounds odd to have connected so much with an individual I had never met, it shows the importance of interacting with historical players on an individual level, no matter how grand their contribution. Having opened myself up to an empathetic interpretation of one of the Great War’s many soldiers, I gained a familiarity with him, transporting myself to the past. I can’t ever know the grief faced by his community and loved ones; however, this project has opened my mind to being more considerate of their experiences.
Along with my soldier presentation, familiarizing myself with my exceptional VIMY participants has broadened my mindset on Canadian identity. Coming from across Canada, I have met people of varying backgrounds, both religious and cultural. When visiting the St. Julian church, we discussed our various religious affiliations and how they affect our interpretation of culture and society. Although we didn’t all share the same principles, the respect the group had for each others’ various affiliations inspired me, allowing for the free-exchange of ideas and views. I value this honesty and understanding within the group as it is essential to effective communication and innovation!
In relation to the First World War, I learned that the utilization of religion allows for individuals of varying backgrounds to commemorate soldiers who have passed. With the First World War bringing fighters from across the world together, it was an exposition of the cultural identity our world has to offer. With this cultural diversity comes religious identity, and its societal importance, both today and more than a century ago. With the principles of all soldiers’ deaths being of equal value, they were all given the option to have the religious symbol of their choosing represented on their grave, along with an inscription. Personally, it impacted me to learn of this inclusion and consideration, as the respect payed to fallen soldiers at the time transcended cultural biases.
Aiden SATTERTHWAITE, Kelowna, British Columbia.
This week has been amazing so far! And I look forward to the next days to come! The other participants are all so nice and fun to learn with! We have got to go to many sites such as graves, memorials, museums and many more things to come! Even though everything we have done is amazing! My favourite thing that I have done so far is my biography and reflection on my great great grandfather. My family and I did not really know much about my great great grandfather. Thankfully because of an assignment I was given by the Vimy Foundation, I was able to learn so much more about him! And it was an honour to be able to present his story in the very place he fought in the First World War.
I will never forget this experience. And I can’t wait to go home and share this experience with my friends, family and community!
Emanuel THIBEAULT, Egan-Sud, Québec.
Today was a wild day, full of travel, friends, and my favorite museums so far on this program.
I started off my day a bit sleepy, yet enthusiastic. Our first stop was the Le Trou Aid Post cemetery as this is where I presented my soldier project. When we arrived my heart dropped, and I must admit that forgot my words for my presentation because I was so taken aback by the site. I was then reminded by my peers that I was part of the most respectful group I had ever seen. As my worries eased, I spent the rest of my day laughing and learning with my friends, giving my respects as part of our group, and having some of the most genuine conversations I have ever had. On top of that I was able to visit the Mons Memorial Museum, which was such a great experience and one of my favourite places that we have visited so far on this program. So at the end of the day, I can't but smile and anticipate what the next few days will hold for me.
Angelena WU, Regina, Saskatchewan.
Walking through the sticky ground, the sweet scent of fresh soil- we arrived to a serene cemetery secluded from the rest of the world. The Ayette Indian and Chinese cemetery was hidden in the dancing oak and the swift whistle of the wind. Each grave marked by a soldier in Chinese characters had put me in a loss for words; I was beyond sympathetic. Behind each stone was someone who held ambition, loved and were loved, whose experiences I could see myself in finally. As we gathered around Jocelyn Wong, my thoughtful friend, she spoke of the forgotten efforts of the Chinese Labour Corps in the Great War. Today, I learned that their contributions were crucial both during and especially in the aftermath of the First World War. I began to question how their physically taxing labour in railroad construction, material transportation, and digging trenches became unknown to our nation. How they stood by their country after the war ended, while their counterparts returned to their loving homes- carrying the heavy weight of the emotional anguish, leftover artillery and innumerable bodies. For the first time since we had arrived in Europe, I started to cry. At the foot of each gravestone, the date of death was engraved months or years after the Great War had already ended. It became evident that the majority of the Chinese Labour Corps were taken by fatal illness or active bombs from their dangerous work. I sorrow for the families who lost their unidentified soldiers, for those who gave everything to be forgotten, and to those who returned home traumatized, sick and disappointed by their own communities.
I, along with three of my peers, gave our respects- three bows at the altar. I am eternally grateful for this opportunity because it has opened my eyes to the nuanced, complex experiences of the Great War effort.
Antoine POITRAS, Moncton, New Brunswick.
Recently, on our pilgrimage to follow in the footsteps of the soldiers of the First World War, we saw everything. From cemeteries to trenches to monuments and museums, the program really opened our eyes to life during the war. Imposing cemeteries such as Tyne Cot or other more moving ones where our soldier or nurse is presented open our eyes to the inextricable losses of war.
Yesterday, the visit of the Tyne Cot cemetery in Passchendaele, Belgium brought us back to earth. The sea of graves forced an incomparable silence upon us and made us think. Who were they, what did they do? One row at a time, we observed the diversity of soldiers and their experiences. Our fantastic guide, Kim, could only push the emotion in us further with historical lessons, sharing and anecdotes. It was a dense but necessary day.
Today, at the Quéant Cemetery in France, I shared my presentation on Fabien Poitras, a Canadian sapper from Poltimore, Quebec. Although his life was neither heroic nor tragic, it allowed me to learn about the story of a soldier, and to better imagine the past of the war. It allowed me to relate to someone's story and see it from a whole new perspective.
I believe that it is because of all those who started the Vimy Pilgrimage Award that today young people can open their horizons to the different facets of life around the First World War. The program will always be remembered and I will be forever grateful! Thank you for your time!
Jocelyn WONG, Markham, Ontario.
The East and South Asian Cemetery in Ayette brought probably the most fulfilling experience of this program to me. Being a Chinese-born Canadian whose parents raised her using their culture, I have always felt a strong relationship with other Chinese and Asian people.
I had the honour of being able to present about the Chinese Labour Corps— the group of Chinese men supporting the British Commonwealth which lay in this cemetery— to my fellow Vimy Award recipients. I presented in front of 王起發’s tombstone because his last name was the most similar to my own, 黃. Unlike other presentations, I presented on the entire Chinese Labour Corps rather than a specific soldier because the government had censored information on the Chinese back in 1900s, making the information now untraceable.
One of the first things that I noticed is the stone in which the land acknowledgement was engraved. It was shaped like a Chinese temple, which I find fascinating for its time. The cemetery itself actually felt quite small in comparison to the other cemeteries we had visited prior. Considering there were 96,000 men from the CLC, the 28 graves felt sparse and really just depicted depreciation. This one was also the only cemetery which was based on race whereas the other cemeteries were in that location because of the soldiers there had fought on that land. Nevertheless, I am grateful that this cemetery exists, considering the inequality instigated by the policy-makers back then.
It felt empowering informing others of the contributions the Chinese did for the Commonwealth despite the discrimination they faced. It felt even more empowering being able to read and write a poem in the language of the ones that sacrificed for the life I can now live. During my poem, it really felt as if I was talking to people right there. When my fellow Chinese peers kow-towed (bowing and kneeling per Chinese tradition) to pay respects to the men, it struck a chord in my heart that resonated with tears. It felt all so real, and I felt so grateful towards these men.
Nicole XIE, Brossard, Quebec.
I woke up this morning with a curious and excited mind. The day certainly did not disappoint me, just like every other day of the program so far.
Walking through the streets of Peronne, I was able to experience a new atmosphere and discover many differences of this foreign city. Our first destination was the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum. One of the parts of this trip that I was most excited about was visiting museums, as I get to see, with my own eyes, authentic items from this devastating war. I was able to see many uniforms, everyday items, weapons, posters, etc. There are several stunning paintings. However, the works that touched me the most were those in the exhibition of the creations of the famous artist Otto Dix. His expressionist pieces really touched me; his drawings speak. I felt as if the exhibition was filled with the frightened and mournful voices of the soldiers and victims depicted by the artist.
Afterwards, one place that stood out for me was the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. I was able to learn more about the history of Newfoundland during the First World War. The story of the soldiers' struggle and their brave actions touched me deeply; I felt feelings that cannot be described in words. Going into the same land where battles caused countless deaths is not something I could have done without this program. I was truly fascinated by all the hollows where the old trenches were. It was hard to imagine that the combatants had to stay the majority of the time (almost 90% of the time) in these unwelcoming underground places, but that despite this, they found ways to boost their morale.
In short, the experience so far continues to impress me every day. In other words, even though there are still a few days to go, I am so grateful for this program; I left knowing almost nothing, now I know so many touching individual stories and know more about the war as a whole.
Natalie MITCHELL, Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Today was one of the most incredible days of my life, and even though it was an emotional experience, I wouldn’t change a thing. As we entered the parking lot, my heart beat like a drum. Today was the day we visited the Beaumont- Hamel memorial, and as a Newfoundlander, I knew this would be an experience I would never forget. We toured the site with the help of one of the Canadian student staff members and traveled through the numbered locations along the trail, learning about key points along the way. I stared blankly at a field that not too long ago was a battlefield known unto the Newfoundlanders of past generations. It looked so peaceful now; no mud, no blood, no dead, dying or wounded lying across the battlefield. It’s hard to believe the horrors that once occurred on that land.
We walked through the remainder of our tour and I finally spotted the caribou, staring down at all of us. I felt so small as I glared up into the sky to see this powerful, strong statue that is the memorial. As we got closer, I could see the plaque with the names of the missing and lost soldiers that came from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. I approached, curious about who each man was; their stories, and how they got there. I recognized a couple of names from discussions from my junior high social studies classes. It brought me peace to know they were being recognized.
The sense of pride I felt standing next to the caribou, looking down at the rest of the field is unexplainable. Knowing that many of these men came from my hometown, the ancestors of many of my friends gave me an immediate connection to many of these people, even if I didn’t know their whole story.
I was blessed to have the opportunity to present one story in particular at the Y Ravine Cemetery; the story of Israel Anderson. He grew up in Mouse Island, Newfoundland, and enlisted in the First World War at only nineteen years old. He worked as a soldier with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment from January 1915 until his death during the battle of Beaumont Hamel on July 1st, 1916.
I was emotional during my presentation, knowing his body was buried directly underneath me but, as I shared parts of his story with my fellow participants, I knew that I was doing something right. After I did the etching of his gravestone, I finally placed a small Newfoundland flag next to his grave. If I cannot bring him home, I’ll bring home to him.
Aidan NOWICKI, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Today, is April 7th, Day 5 of our Vimy Pilgrimage. This was a long but extremely interesting day. We began with a visit to Historial de la grande guerre museum – which specializes in what the name implies - The Great War. I found this museum very interesting because it categorizes and organizes rooms based upon the years of the war. I also enjoyed their organization of the uniforms of the major countries involved in the war; each of them offering a different perspective of what a person would, or could have worn depending upon their roles and country. There was an exhibit mapping this on the floor surrounded by alarms. Throughout the rooms, propaganda posters can be viewed - each in their own language - English, French and German were the most dominant languages used. This provided the viewer (me) with eye-catching imagery, characterized by symbols/characters that displayed honour, bravery and the most common trait, displaying a masculine ideal - to serve their nation or empire with a sense of belonging, fellowship, brotherhood and honour.
This visit was followed with Sean’s presentation on an African-Canadian soldier named Carvey with a discussion about the involvement of African-Americans in the Canadian Expedition Force and the infamous No. 2 Construction Battalion’s roles and responsibilities. The soldier, Carvey, was a member of this unit; however his story is quite unknown. Through unknown circumstances, Carvey ended up in an argument with a fellow soldier, which led to his unfortunate death. The causes of Carvey’s death remain a mystery to this day.
We then visited Beaumont Hamel, a memorial dedicated to the contribution of Newfoundlanders and learned about their horrifying experiences/operation there. We were guided around the different points of interest - from their support trench to the communication trench to the crater. This was created to gain an upper edge, and finally the battlefield itself. The unequal and unlevel green ground, set shivers down my spine, knowing that was the place where 85 - 90% of the regiment perished and was unable to capture their objective. Natalie presented here about a soldier from Newfoundland.
Our group then visited the South African memorial where Thomas presented on the imperial meanings on many commonwealth memorials. This included the South African memorial which was hidden away, implying racism tones. His presentation on the experience of North African Colonials, with a large focus upon Tirailleurs Sénégalais, and their representation in the lineage of the French army, and the French notion of assimilation through colonial repression, was quite the opposite of other empires, such as the British and the Germans not allowing colonial forces to serve on the frontlines. Although through assimilation, racism still existed. This is most prominent theme seen in recruitment posters, objectively.
Our final stop was to an Indian Cemetery where one of my colleagues gave us insights into Indian culture; by explaining the significance of a soldier’s name - “Sita Ram” ; this name is very significant in Hinduism and holds high religious importance. I am very grateful for this opportunity today to learn more about the impacts of the colonials and the role they played in the First World War.
Emily MCKINNON, Mission, British Columbia.
To begin our first full day in France, we began with an early morning walk to Historial de la grande guerre. Here, we wandered around the 3-room museum full of information and artifacts where I couldn’t help but take dozens of photos of the different propaganda posters hung on the walls. A poster that caught my eye was one where a group of women is drawn in soldier uniforms with heeled boots, captioned, “For every fighter, a woman worker; back our second line of defense.” This poster was for the United War Work Campaign, and I find it interesting because it recognizes the incredibly significant role women had on the homefront, going as far as to depict them as soldiers themselves. With a large piece of the war economy being handed over to women workers, it was up to them to ensure adequate work was done to support soldiers overseas.
After visiting another cemetery along the way, our next stop was at Beaumont Hamel. The landscape here reminded me of Hill 60, as the land is scarred by the damage of artillery and bombing during the First World War. Trenches cut through the hills, weaving through the vast green landscape we stood in. Beaumont Hamel is significant to Canada, and Newfoundland in particular, as the casualties sustained by the Newfoundland Regiment here on July 1, 1916, were catastrophic. Our tour guide told us that of the 800 Newfoundlanders who had gone to battle in the morning, a scarce 68 were able to come to roll call the following day. In total, more than 700 Newfoundlanders were wounded, missing, or killed, and we were told that the casualties that came of the First World War for the Newfoundlanders would prevent them from being able to have their own full regiment in the Second World War. For such a small country at the time, numbers like this are so incredibly disheartening. Seeing the caribou monument, head tipped up to the sky, looking out over what used to be the battlefield these men fought on, provided a sense of comfort knowing that in the face of massive loss, the efforts of the Newfoundland Regiment will always be recognized.
Finally, before leaving Beaumont Hamel, we visited the cemetery that was on the site where I found an epitaph that had me thinking about the duality of the writing; “he answered the call, he paid the toll.” The Newfoundland soldier paid the price of fighting for his country, which has the potential to be seen as either patriotic or could be interpreted as condemning the unnecessary losses of the Beaumont Hamel battle where so many lives were lost. I hadn’t seen any epitaphs like this one before, but it connected to our lesson where we learned about the different motivations (in this case, Newfoundland being under British colonial rule) that had soldiers joining the war and the responses that came from them.
Though we are getting closer towards the end of this experience, every day has something new and insightful to offer, and I’m so grateful to be here in France with the amazing people I’m surrounded with here.
Julian TAN, Calgary, Alberta.
Day 6 of our Vimy Pilgrimage was an exciting day for us. We said our goodbyes to Péronne and the towering Thiepval memorial as we set out for the next stop in our journey: Arras. We visited many sites on our way to Arras, including the Ulster Tower next to Thiepval, as well as various memorials which stand on the site of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, where the Canadian Corps made their debut in the Battle of the Somme, and where the tank, a revolutionary new weapon of war, was used for the very first time. In addition, we visited a memorial dedicated to animals who served in the war, and later in the day, we travelled to the massive French cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French military cemetery in the world, the Ring of Remembrance, a modern memorial at the same site commemorating all soldiers of all nationalities who died in the Arras region, as well as the memorial at Hill 70, where Canadian forces would fight in a major engagement for the first time under a Canadian commander. These as well as presentations on Canadian conscription and sexual violence in the First World War were eye-opening experiences that have done much in expanding my understanding of areas of the First World War that have historically been not as well studied.
However, the most impactful part of the day came in the afternoon, when we visited the Arras Flying Services Memorial at the Faubourg D’Amiens Cemetery, near the heart of Arras itself. Including the 2,678 Commonwealth soldiers buried in the cemetery, and a memorial to the missing of the Battle of Arras with 35,942 names listed on its walls, the Flying Services Memorial stands tall within the complex, with the names of 990 aviators of the Royal Flying Corp, the Royal Naval Air Service, and subsequent Royal Air Force, who lost their lives over the skies of the Western Front who have no known grave. It was here that I gave my presentation on 2nd Lieutenant Cecil Bertram Whyte of St-Jacques-de-Leeds, Quebec, and later of Edmonton, Alberta. Throughout his life Cecil was many things; he was the middle brother of three who would serve in the war, an arts student at Queen’s University in Kingston, a sapper in the Canadian Engineers and later the Royal Scots, and subsequently an observer in the Royal Air Force. Cecil’s story was interesting for me because he left behind two diaries, through which I was able to directly follow his life as a soldier. Additionally, as an air cadet myself I had the desire to share his story with the air cadet in my home city of Calgary. He also was involved in some way with all three of the regions we visited during our time in Europe; he first saw combat at the Ypres Salient in late 1916, he was wounded at the Somme in January 1917, and returned to Ypres as an airman in April 1917. However less than a month later, on May 3rd, 1917 his aircraft was shot down over Ypres, and with his body never being found, he is commemorated here in Arras. As I read out my letter addressed to him I could not help but feel emotional. Here was a person who in his diaries had so often fantasized about the coming of peace and his future after the war, and to realize that he never got to experience that future was truly heartbreaking. Yet as I read my letter I could just imagine him standing in front of me, alive once more. It made me think of a quote by Ernest Hemingway, which stated that “Every man has two deaths, when he is buried in the ground and the last time someone says his name.” In a sense, although Cecil has been dead for over a hundred years, learning about his story has allowed him to live on in our hearts today.
Today society still very much generalizes about the experience and reasons for the common soldier to enlist as a desire to sacrifice for the nation or its people. Furthermore, when we look at memorials to the missing such as not only the Arras Flying Services Memorial but also Menin Gate and Thiepval, we often tend to think of the soldiers on the wall as simply that: names with no memory of the person behind them. Yet after researching the life of Cecil Bertram Whyte, it turns out that there is much more to that, and by learning about the individual experiences of soldiers we realize that the reasons for enlistment are much more complex. For instance, through his diary, it can be inferred that Cecil could have been influenced by many factors such as his older brother enlisting their year prior, wanting to go with his university classmates, a desire for adventure away from home, or a sense of duty to represent Canada on the battlefield. By exploring the lives of these soldiers, we can ensure that the names on those panels can come to life once again. As we departed the Flying Services Memorial, I laid a wreath at the foot of the memorial, with a copy of the letter I wrote to him, and a pin from his home province of Alberta. As I took one last look at his name perfectly inscribed high up on the memorial, I promised him that if he could not bring himself back to his native land and tell his tales to his fellow Canadians, then I would bring him and his story home for him in my heart, and tell them for many years to come.
Nora CALIF, Surrey, British Columbia.
Today has been spent in the city of Arras in France, exploring the town’s First World War history and monuments. The day began with a walking tour of the city, in which I learned about how the sewer system stretching across 19 kilometers in the city was used by British troops to cross No Man’s Land and prepare for a collective attack on German forces. Throughout the program, it has continuously surprised me how many cities in France and Belgium have been almost completely rebuilt following the war. To think that a town with such rich architecture and visible history is merely a remake of what it had been prior to 1914 both amazes and shocks me. It really calls to attention the gruesome nature of the First World War, not only destroying the livelihoods of millions of soldiers and civilians, but also the culture and composition of entire cities.
Next, we toured the Citadel of Arras, and then the nearby Piper’s Peace garden. This green space commemorates the Scottish forces who contributed to the war effort in Arras through a theme relating to their culture and local vegetation. It touched me deeply to see how France and Belgium commemorated the Allied Powers and the Commonwealth through First World War sites and monuments, as it pays respect to the mutual fight that was fought.
Lastly, we visited the Arras Memorial, where the Commonwealth soldiers who fell nearby are buried and those with no known grave are commemorated. On the wall, there were no Canadian battalions, since those are written on the Vimy Memorial. However, we found various Canadian soldiers in the cemetery, most of whose deaths coincided with the start of the Hundred Days campaign. This cemetery sparked lengthy discussion surrounding its separation and orientation of Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim graves. Although all in all, it was as an enduring reminder of these soldiers’ immense sacrifice and adversity.
Hunter BIENIAS-GREEN, Kingston, Ontario.
This Morning was going to be a big day and I was excited for it. I was going to present my soldier presentation on my 3rd great grandfather James Mack Jr 1867-1916, see the famous Flanders Field Museum and visit the German Cemetery Langemark.
The location of which I’d be presenting is the Menin Gate memorial which has 54,000 names of soldiers and officers who lost their lives at the Ypres Salient and whose remains are lost. Actually seeing Menin Gate in person was such a surreal experience as you walk across the valley of names all of which you know were never found or lost to time, knowing they all have a unique background in story. As I located my James it was hard to keep my composure as I had gotten to understand and learn so much it had felt like we had known each other my whole life and I had just lost my grandfather even though I never knew or met him.
We also visited the Flanders Field Museum which took us through what soldiers in the Ypres salient would have experienced. Something else we did there was climb to the roof of Cloth hall. The most important part of the museum to me was the speech we got. The most surreal part of the speech to me was about all the different effects Shellshock played in people's minds, whether that constant shaking or not being able to stand. It really showed me in a powerful way what the war really did to the survivors and showed us all that there was a lot these survivors went through.
Finally, we also saw the German cemetery of Langemark. The most shocking thing we saw there was the Comrades Grave. The Comrades Grave is a mass grave which holds 25,000 men of which 7,977 identity is unknown that in itself was really shocking but another thing about this cemetery that was really shocking was how many were buried in each plot for example some could have as many as 6 or 8 unknown soldiers in a single coffin. It was really shocking to see how many were unknown as well. Just seeing a grave knowing that in there was so many stories of so many unique individuals whose stories I hope are some day unearthed to be shared with the whole world.
I’m really excited to experience and explore the rest of this program so far it’s been a blast!
Emma SMELTZER, Labelle, Nova Scotia.
What was I expecting from the Vimy Pilgrimage Award program? I was expecting an educational interactive experience with a group of youth to better understand the contributions and stories of the Great War. But it’s safe to say that I definitely underestimated the prosperity of the program, it has been so much more. Intellectually I along with my peers have learned so much, but not just learned, we have an understanding of the real life context of historical events that developed over the course of the Great War. Not to mention this program has been so eye opening and has had substantial character development in a great majority of the participants, including myself. Before I begin with the events of April 8th I just wanted to appreciate the experience we have gotten, the opportunity to learn in such a unique environment as well as the friendships we have been able to create.
Today was a very busy but fulfilling day, with plenty of monuments, soldier presentations as well as plenty of cemeteries. We had the very important presentation from Chloé about sexual violence in War, this was a very sensitive subject but also very enlightening. It is a subject not talked about very often, especially in the media, to the extent that even to this day we do not have statistics to prove the scale of this tragedy. As a group I believe we were very sentimentally affected by this important topic and definitely got us thinking of different narratives.
We also had the opportunity to visit the Nécropole Notre Dame de Lorette, a French memorial and cemetery. It was the first French cemetery visited and we got to explore the differences in burial customs as well as appreciate the amazing architecture of the monuments and the beautiful church. L'Anneau de la mémoire which is located beside Notre Dame de Lorette is the first monument to commemorate just the names (excluding ranks and infantry division), this monument has names from every man or women implicated in the war that passed in the region regardless of which country they served for. It is the first time we have seen this level of inclusion in representation of the time frame.
We finished off the day with my soldier presentation, at Hill 70 and Loos British Cemetery. My presentation was definitely unique, presenting a different type of soldier's story. I spoke about Ltn. LeCain, a soldier from my province, Nova-Scotia. His story narrates the mental hardships that some of the soldiers and officers faced during these times and the lack of support they received. Regardless of war time achievements or sad stories of trauma it is important we continue to put the effort into commemorating all different types of soldiers' stories.
Tim VOLKOV, Toronto, Ontario.
Although this week has been interesting to say the least, today has been by far the most memorable and has left the largest impression on me as we visited many places during our travels today and spent precious time with my peers that formed formidable memories and friendships.
The highlight of the day has been by far the Vimy Ceremony honouring the 106th year since the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
We began the day early at 8:00 am when the fog was thick and the atmosphere was drowsy and yet paradoxically energetic at the same time due to the approaching commemorative ceremony. Soon thereafter, we left the hotel on the bus in high spirits and excited to partake in the ceremony commemorating the Battle of Vimy Ridge and representing the youth of Canada. Not too long after our departure, we arrived into the foggy parking lot of the monument. As we split up to approach the monument at different angles, we were immediately greeted by the fog. Interestingly enough, this fog enhanced our experience because it increased the tension of approaching the monument. The fog’s thickness made it impossible to see anything at a distance of more than 25 metres. Furthermore, due to the monument's pristine white colour, we could only see it when we arrived at the steps of the monument, behind it. Immediately, the sheer scale and splendour of the Canadian National Vimy Monument. Although simple and graceful at a first glance, the symbolism of the monument gave me much to think about. The towers standing together over a crevice, represents Canada and France going through loss and victory together. At the highest points of the monument, we saw the Statue of Justice and the Statue of Peace. Their placement at the zenith of the monument is no mistake, representing their importance. Later on, after visiting a German cemetery and the Battle of Vimy trench lines, we returned to the monument anew, to attend the ceremony that was about to begin.
The ceremony was a sombre and elegant one. My ambivalent feelings were composed of nervousness for my role in the ceremony, and pride for my country. The honour of representing the youth of Canada at the wreath laying and being present in front of the honour guard and many honourable guests, was truly a one of a kind experience that I will never forget.
Mei ZENG, Regina, Saskatchewan.
Today honestly felt solemn, but also very fresh. It was most definitely a day for reflection and getting over my own fears of public speaking as well. I read a letter addressed to a mother from a lieutenant about her son who passed in battle. It was nerve wrecking reading at such an important ceremony and I was worried about mispronouncing words, however as soon as i got up there all the nerves settled down. Having such an important role in the Vimy ceremony that happens once every year made me feel like I had a lot of pressure on myself, but the process of preparation was totally worth it and the outcome was incredible. Seeing the Vimy memorial in person made me realize how little I am in comparison to the monument, and the detail in the sculptures just demonstrated how much thought and care was put into its design. I also presented my solider project on Frederick Lee at Hill 70 which felt a little emotional to me, but I was beside other recipients who gave me so much emotional support. One thing I really love about the group is how accepting and considerate they are of others emotions; Sean creates such an inclusive judgement-free zone which made me and I’m sure many others feel safe about being vulnerable. The last day was one of both sorrow and smiles; knowing that this is my last day being with all my friends for the last time feels bittersweet, yet nevertheless, they all hold an incredibly special place in my heart and I am so grateful that I was able to spend 10 days with all these unique individuals.