Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 08, 2015

After a pretty uneventful flight – which is exactly what we want! – the group arrived in London. We encountered the longest Customs line I have ever seen in my life, but there is power in the red Vimy jackets and we were able to fast track through. The Customs agent we had was incredibly nice and funny, and made the whole process smooth for us. I never mind clearing Customs in the UK because of their personable officers!

We got all of our bags which is also good news, and made our way out to the bus loading area. It was kind of a game of « Where’s Waldo? » looking for the person who could call our bus up for us, but we eventually found him, the bus came, and we made good time in our trek to Harrow School.

We were met very enthusiastically by Alice and Nicholas and our BVP UK Coordinator, Gabriela, who showed us to our rooms and helped us get settled – i.e. we had enough time to throw bags on the beds – before going down for lunch. We ate on the school grounds and enjoyed the atmosphere, then Tubed it down to Westminster Palace.

The tour at Westminster was done by audio guide this year so everyone could set their own pace. We had some photo ops, then the weary Canadians and the not-weary UK and French participants headed back to the school for supper, followed by a tour of some of the rooms.

Highlights of the tour included the oldest classroom in the school, the Fourth Floor Room, maybe better known by most people today as the Charms classroom from Harry Potter. (The first movie, anyway). After admiring the 200-year old graffiti carved into the walls, we were able to get into The Speech Room. This is where the Harroians still gather weekly for an assembly. This is also the room where Sir Winston Churchill – a former student – gave a speech which then inspired him to write his « we will never never never give in » speech. It was very fitting, then, that Luca was able to give his presentation on Churchill in that room. I was excited to see the room, too, because in the five years I’ve been part of this program, we have never been able to get into it.

Our final stop on the tour was the War Memorial building, which really helped set the tone for what this whole experience is about. Josanna gave her presentation on David Lloyd-George upstairs in one of the memorial classrooms, we debriefed on the rules (yeah, I know, but it has to be done!) and then it was back to the rooms for showers and bed. You will notice that the promised participant input is missing tonight … they are all sound asleep and this will hopefully allow them to be able to post tomorrow night when we get back from a busy day in London!

All systems here are go, we’ve had a great first day, the kids are already gelling really well, and I think this is going to be another fantastic group to work with!

Loralea Wark

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 07, 2015

So here it is, the day we have all been anxiously awaiting for months: departure day for the 2015 Beaverbrook Vimy Prize! In a matter of hours, 14 students from across Canada will begin their individual journeys to Toronto, where they will meet each other, two of our other chaperones – Mike and Gavin – and me for the overnight flight across the pond. At the same time, our French and British representatives will be making their way to Harrow School in London, where they will be met by our UK BVP Coordinator, Gabriela.

I wonder if the participants have thought about the fact that a century ago, thousands of youth were making the same trip this group is today, but for a much more grim purpose? Or if it has really registered yet that we are embarking on this voyage because the youth of a century ago fought to ensure we could have the freedom to do so? If it hasn’t yet, it will by the end of our two weeks together …

Since they were selected in April, this group of incredible youth have been getting to know each other through social media so they won’t be total strangers when they meet up, but the excitement of meeting in person is pretty intense! (I know this from the last-minute texts and e-mails I’ve been getting, all of which contain the phrase, « I’m so excited » followed by at least five exclamation marks). How different this is from 1914, when the young people going to these same places went with a naive excitement that turned to despair in the face of the horrible conditions and situations they encountered. How lucky we are to be going today and not back then … we have so much to be thankful for, which is something this group is going to undertand in a matter of a few days. They will come back from this trip completely changed, and they will begin to shape their respective communities and countries in new ways because of it.

This will be my fifth year working with the BVP scholars, and I am looking as forward to the experience this year as I have been every other year. I know what the next two weeks are going to bring for these young people, and I can’t wait to see how this group melds and evolves as the program unfolds. Each group we take is different, and I have loved each group for different reasons, but what all of these groups have in common is their shared interest in learning about the past and how it shaped our society, and a commitment to never let the stories of those who fought to shape our society for the better be forgotten. It has been an honour and a privilege working with such mature, compassionate, dedicated young people, and having seen this group interact so far, I know we’re in for yet another stellar experience this year!

In previous years I have tried to type in journal entries from the participants each night (or at least a couple of times on the trip) but I am getting too old to stay up as late as that requires me to, so this year the participants will be sharing their thoughts right in the blog, alternating days. I am thrilled by this as I think it will let everyone get a better sense of what this is all about from the perspective of the ones that really matter: the participants themselves! The other chaperones and I will also be taking turns adding our thoughts on the day; I think the varied perspectives will really showcase not only this program but the exceptional young people our respective countries can be proud of.

Until tomorrow (from a different time zone and continent!),

Loralea Wark,

Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 18, 2014

Our morning trip this morning took us about 20 minutes down the road from Bernieres to Longues-sur-Mer, where there are some German guns and lookouts to explore. Most of them look to be in exactly the same shape they were in when the Allies captured them, which is pretty impressive considering it has been 70 years and a lot has taken place during that time.

After we got back on the bus I put on the movie Saving Private Ryan, which we played as we drove to Omaha Beach. I cry through the opening 20 minutes every time I watch that movie … there’s something about having seen those beaches for yourself and knowing some of the stories of the men that took those beaches that really hits home when you watch it after being here. Seeing the footage of what the beach looked like on D-Day right before walking the beach definitely put the expanse of soft sand into perspective. We walked the beach for about 20 minutes before getting back in the bus and heading up to the Omaha Beach visitor’s centre and cemetery. (Franky is worth his weight in gold for cleaning up the bus after we get on it with our sandy shoes and feet!)

I overheard a lot of discussion about the differences between the American and Canadian Normandy beach centres during and after lunch. The kids seemed to like both equally for different reasons, though there seemed to be consensus that the Juno Beach Centre should end with the They Walk With You video as opposed to the room that talks about Canada after the war as that would have had more of an impact heading onto the beach than that last room left them with.

Our final stop of the morning actually happened after lunch – good thing our timing was a bit more flexible today! – as we took in Pointe-du-Hoc, the cliffs where the American Rangers scaled the cliffs at Utah Beach to capture the high ground. There are massive shell craters all spread all over the grounds, and while we didn’t have a lot of time there, I think everyone had a good time. I told them not to go into anything they couldn’t get out of and we didn’t have to rescue anyone, so they listened well!

Our drive to Dieppe took about three hours due to traffic, and it was a pretty quiet bus, broken only be the odd snore. (You know the kids are having a good time and learning lots when theyf fall asleep 15 minutes into a bus ride and don’t wake up for a couple of hours!) The nap seemed to have done them good as they were all in top form for the evening vigil at Vertus cemetery in Dieppe. Tomorrow marks the 72nd anniversary of the Dieppe Raid, so most of the ceremonies are being held tomorrow morning, but this evening’s ceremony is always pretty special. We were at City Hall early so when the first bus – carrying the veterans – pulled in, we were able to jump right on it. I have been at this ceremony for four years now and I am starting to recognize faces from year to year, and they recognize us and our jackets as well! I think the kids had a wonderful time meeting and chatting with the veterans and their wives, and Debbie, the woman in charge of organizing their excursion, told me the veterans liked it even more than we did.

There were not as many people at the evening ceremony this year as there have been in the past, and we were down to three buses from five when I first got to attend this event. The biggest gathering was two years ago, of course, for the 70th, so seeing the dwindling crowds makes me even happier that we are here for this. The group was the star of the show as all of the veterans and politicians wanted to speak to the youth, each of them telling the participants how nice it was for the youth to be here, and thanking them for their presence. We got to form part of the third honour guard, standing at attention for five minutes at the memorial stone along with some other veterans groups, and this was a real honour for the group.

One of the highlights of the night was getting to meet Joan, who, at 18, was a bride of two weeks when her husband was killed in the Dieppe Raid. She has come to the ceremony in Dieppe every year and has laid a wreath at the memorial for her husband’s regiment, but now, at 90, her son thinks she is getting too old to come to this and this may be her last time over. Debbie told me on the bus ride home that their group is going to skip the reception so we can go with Joan to lay her wreath this year. She said this would be an honour for Joan, but I really think it’s more of an honour for our youth.

Every year the Education Committee debates whether we should start this scholarship earlier and miss the Dieppe ceremonies, and every year we keep it as-is because everyone – scholars, chaperones, veterans and citizens – get so much out of having youth here participating. The entire purpose of this scholarship is to get youth thinking about the past and understanding the importance of remembrance, and I can’t think of a better way to get them to understand that than by having them at these ceremonies, especially when I see attendance dropping.

We have been blessed with yet another group of outstanding scholars this year. I have thoroughly enjoyed working and laughing with them, discussing things with them, and learning from them. I am having a hard time processing that tomorrow effectively wraps up the programming with them … it doesn’t feel like this year should be over already.

Loralea Wark
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 17, 2014

It was a very early start to the day today as we headed out to walk most of the length of Juno Beach, from Bernieres to Courseulles. Despite the early hour and their level of fatigue at this point in the trip, the group walked very quickly and we made it to the Juno Beach Centre in record time!

There is something about walking this beach that always gets to me and every group I’ve ever walked it with, and I don’t think this year was any exception. Actually, this year it may have been even more meaningful since the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings just took place in June, and there are still signs of that celebration and commemoration all over the place. The newest addition to the walk are the pictures of the veterans take on June 06 this year. As I look at their faces I can’t help but think about what those faces would have looked like 70 years ago, and when I look at the faces of the youth with me on the trip I know that those veterans would have looked like these youth. It is a sobering thought: the old men we honour today were exactly like these youth were 70 years ago, making plans for the future, not knowing what it would hold. I can only hope that the kind of war that changed those veterans’ lives will not wreak havoc on the lives of the youth walking that beach today, and that is why programs like this are so important, so the next generation can see the horrors of war and not want to repeat them.

Once we arrived at the Juno Beach Centre, we stopped at the new display they have out. There is a post with the name and home town of all of the soldiers who died on Juno Beach on June 06, 1944. As we walked amongst the names, we were all struck by the realization that we recognized a lot of the town names from home, and it was not just big cities represented, but small towns as well. I asked all of the kids to find a soldier from their home town or near where they lived, and they were all able to find one, proving that the soldiers who stormed that beach 70 years ago came from across Canada, as did the youth in this delegation today. I come from Manitoba, and I was struck by how many boys from Manitoba were represented in that display, coming not just from Winnipeg but small towns all over the province … and some of those towns are so small I am going to have to look them up on a map because I have never heard of them. If we learned nothing else about the war today, it would have been that soldiers came from everywhere, and communities large and small would have felt the devastation of loss in the fight to bring democracy to the world.

We had an excellent tour of the bunkers and battlements on the beach, including the new German bunker that was just excavated and opened in April. Despite being buried for 70 years it was in remarkably good condition, attesting to the fact that Hitler definitely built the Atlantic Wall fortifications to last. We also had a tour inside the Centre, which is also extremely well done. Unlike Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy Ridge, which are supported and maintained by the Government of Canada, the Juno Beach Centre is run on private funding and donations. I don’t know how much it costs to run and maintain the programs there, but the quality of the buildings, staff and programming is impressive.

After a tour of the museum, we watched the film, They Walk With You as a group. The 12 minute video talks about Canada’s contributions on Juno Beach and during the weeks after as they pushed to take Caen, using archival video and radio footage. Some of the scenes are hard to watch, and their descriptions can leave you in tears. The final scene is a family walking along the beach, the ghosts of the soldiers who died on the beach walking along behind. It was a pretty emotional movie for a lot of the group, and after watching it, anyone who had a relative storm the beach had a much greater appreciation for what they were up against and what they were able accomplish in those circumstances.

Daniel did is presentation of the Mulberry Bridges overlooking Gold Beach above the town of Arromanches, and we then spent an hour looking in the shops. A large portion of the group also got ice cream or gelato in spite of the cool temperatures and rain. (It’s supposedly summer, and summer means ice cream even if it feels more like late September!)

The Abbaye d’Ardenne was our next stop. It was here that 20 Canadian soldiers – mainly from the Stormont Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders regiments – were killed by Kurt Meyer and his 12th Panzer Division from June 07-08, 1944. It is impossible to be in that garden where they were assassinated and not feel anger, sorrow, and confusion, so it was a pretty quiet group that then headed to Beny-sur-Mer, the largest Canadian war cemetery from WWII. Brandon was able to do his soldier presentation on his great-great uncle here, which concludes the soldier assignment portion of the trip. There is something special about the epitaphs on the graves in Beny … many of them are personalized, indicating the soldier left behind parents, siblings, a wife, or children. Many others speak about serving their country with pride. These are very different from the WWI graves, and perhaps because they are more personalized, this cemetery is often the one where people tend to get more emotional. I am anxious to read the journals tonight to get the group’s thoughts on the day.

We were going to head to the beach again after supper, but it started to rain. (I confess that I was not disappointed by this … it was cold and everyone is tired, so I think a night in is probably not a bad thing).

Tomorrow we’re off to see some German battlements overlooking Omaha beach, then we’ll get to Omaha beach itself before heading off to Dieppe to take part in the ceremonies commemorating the battle there. Tomorrow and the morning after really mark the end of our tour, and I cannot believe it has come to this point so quickly. This group has been so much fun to be with, and I think that along with learning some valuable lessons, they have all made some lifelong friends along the way.

Loralea Wark,
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 16, 2014

It’s a good thing our bus is comfy and our driver is fun because we spent a lot of time on said bus today! We were away from Messines by 8:00, and made our first stop three minutes later at the Irish Peace Park, dedicated in memory of the Irish soldiers who lost their lives in the Ypres salient in 1914-1915. We had a couple of presentations there, then drove for about an hour before we stopped to honour the soldiers Daniel and Lola had researched.

After a brief grocery run in Arras, we headed to Amiens to check out the cathedral – gorgeous and stunning … how they did all that so long ago is beyond me because there is no way we could do the same thing today – and have lunch. The afternoon bus ride was even longer, so we broke it up with a couple of bathroom breaks, so much-needed nap time, and a discussion on the end of WWI and the start of WWII since our destination today was Normandy.

We arrived just in time for supper, and then we ignored the wait period after a meal and went to Juno Beach. The sidewalks are still torn up from the tanks coming down in WWII, and there are Canadian flags everywhere; I am assuming some of them were left after the 70th anniversary celebrations in June, though there are always a lot here.

The tide was out tonight as we arrived so it gave us a very good idea of what the beach looked like for the landings. Some of the group went swimming and discoverend it was very cold but stayed in anyway. There was a strange game involving a Vaseline-d watermelon that was played in the water … I didn’t ask too many questions becasue I didn’t think I really wanted to know! What I do know is that the soldiers who liberated this beach would be pleased to see that they did not do so in vain, and that it is being used by multiple generations for multiple purposes: elderly couples and young families strolled along peacefully, horses were being ridden along the water’s edge, astronomers were setting up telescopes for a star-gazing festival, and a handful of teenagers from Canada played in the water while a handful more enjoyed the spectacular sunset. It truly is a gorgeous setting, and tomorrow we will walk the length of the beach from Canada House to the Juno Beach Centre. This is always an emotional day, so it’s an early night so everyone is rested up.

Loralea Wark,

Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 15, 2014

Today has been another busy day … should we expect any less at this point?!

Our first stops of the day were cemeteries to find the soldiers researched by Wesley and Marianne. Wesley’s soldier was his great-grandfather’s cousin, so that was a nice connection to have. Wesley also shared the fact that he has family on both sides of both wars because his mother’s parents came from Germany and they had a farm. During WWII this farm was located beside a sub-camp, and the Nazis brought the family German Shepherds trained to kill anyone escaping the camp and required the family to keep the dogs on their property. Wesley explained how his great-grandparents would lock the dogs up and take potatoes and carrots to the prisoners whenever they could, proving that not all Germans were Nazis and that many Germans did try to work against the Nazi regime. Hollywood tends to depict all Germans as Nazis that blindly supported the regime, so I think it was great for all of us to hear this story to prove that there were Germans who did not support the regime and did what they could to help the people being persecuted by the Nazis. It has only been the past 20 years or so that the Allied nations and Germany have commemorated their war dead together, so it is important for youth to hear these stories so the healing can continue.

Gabriela gave us a great lecture on the German university students and their professors – none of whom were career soldiers – who rushed to enlist in WWI and were killed during the fighting in Belgium. These soldiers are buried in Langemarck, so we spent some time there looking at the headstones and names on the plaques for those who were buried in the mass grave. There are more than three times as many soldiers in this cemetery than there are in the largest Commonwealth cemetery, yet it looks much smaller because each headstone commemorates a minimum of six men, and there are tens of thousands more in the mass grave. This was a very different feeling even from Maison Blanche, and while the rain definitely didn’t help the atmosphere, this is always a stark and somber place to visit.

We paid a quick visit to the church in Messines, where Hitler had been treated when he was wounded as a runner in WWI, and we stopped at the Passchendaele monument where we had a brief discussion about the battle, the land that was taken, the condition of the fields and Canada’s role in this battle.

Since we weren’t able to do the soldiers on Menin Gate last night due to the crowds, we ended our morning in Ypres where Nick and Hannah found their soldiers’ names and paid tribute to them. There is something haunting about standing on the memorial, with the names of 54,000 soldiers who lost their lives in Belgium but were either never found or not identified, written all around you.

After a quick lunch on a monument outside a church – the ground was too wet to sit on after all the rain they’ve been getting here – we joined Steve Douglas, owner of Salient Tours in Ypres, for an intense and busy afternoon. The group saw the mine crater at Hill 60, Tyne Cot Cemetery – the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world with just under 12,000 graves – Essex Farm, where John McCrae’s dressing station was (and where the famous poem, In Flanders Fields, was written), and some trenches down from Hill 62 where we were yesterday that were used during the battle at Passchendaele. We then went out for a pizza supper, which I think was a hit since the restaurant is owned by a Canadian couple so it tastes like pizza back home! Steve also came back to the hostel tonight with a whole bunch of artifacts from his shop so the group could see them and manipulate them. Steve very generously donates his time to us every year, and we greatly appreciate his time!

Tomorrow we are wrapping up the WWI segment of our trip and moving into the WWII battlefields. Internet access there is a bit tricky but I will do my best to post!

Loralea Wark
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 14, 2014

Today we left France and ended up in Belgium, where we will be able to see where the First World War actually started. Our day ended on a very emotional note, but before I get to the end, I’ll do like that song in The Sound of Music suggests and start at the very beginning!

Our day started with the first longer bus ride as we headed towards Ypres. We were able to find Allyssa’s and Josh’s soldiers in two cemeteries, then we came into Ypres itself to visit the In Flanders Fields Museum. They closed it almost two years ago to renovate prior to the centenary of the start of WWI, and it was well worth it! The Imperial War Museum used to be my favourite European war museum, but I wasn’t totally impressed with their renovations, and now, having seen what this museum did … well, this has now become my favourite European war museum. It is laid out beautifully, with all sorts of interactive features and explanations for every artifact in the museum. I was very impressed and, more importantly, the kids thought it was fantastic as well!

We set the kids free for lunch in Ypres, and I think there were many fries consumed! The majority of the group learned an invaluable lesson: if you order as a group you’ll be served as a group and that may mean not getting your meal before you actually have to leave. We are very fortunate that Franky is as amazing as he is as he willingly agreed to drive around the block (which takes about 15 minutes here since blocks don’t really exist in any logical manner!) so he could re-park in the 10-minute bus parking zone. By the time we got back the kids were all done (or had their fries in bags to eat on the bus!) and we headed to Sanctuary Wood cemetery for Audrey’s soldier presentation.

Our next stop was Hill 62 Sanctuary Wood museum, which is actually a series of trenches that have been maintained in a farmer’s back yard since the end of WWI. There was a lot of laughter as the group made their way through the trenches and a few tunnels there – in the pitch dark – and there was also a lot of discussion about what living in such conditions would have been like … there has been a lot of rain so the trenches were full of mud, kind of like what they would have been like during the war, though the mud wasn’t as deep as it would have been in WWI, there were no rats, and Nick very kindly carried Lola through the muddiest corners. (I’m sure soldiers didn’t carry each other through the trenches unless someone was injured, but Nick may have at least gotten a sense of how tricky it would have been to move around with extra equipment!) We took advantage of the sunshine there to sit on the deck to hear presentations on Talbot Papineau, Georges Clemenceau and Robert Borden, then it was off to the Brooding Soldier statue and a presentation on gas warfare and the St. Julien (Brooding Solider) monument.

Supper time was back in Ypres … I told them they had to have something besides chocolate, so the chocolate came back on the bus in bags and boxes, and I heard a lot about hamburgers, fries, and waffle cones for supper. (It’s not that we don’t believe in feeding these kids vegetables, it’s more that they expect North Americans to want fries and pop with every meal!)

We gathered at the Menin Gate early so we could listen to three soldier presentations there, but when we got there people were already starting to claim their spot for the ceremony. It didn’t take long to figure out why: there was a men’s choir from Wales there, and they were to sing a couple of songs during the ceremony. I have been to this ceremony six times and I had never heard a choir there, so we were all eager to hear the performance. The place was packed, so we, too staked our claim and waited for the ceremony to begin.

I cannot stress enough here how patient the kids were, and what great ambassadors they all were, for their communities, the Foundation, and our country. We were able to form the Honour Guard again this year, which is a huge honour for us to be able to do, so half of the kids were chatting with the choir members on one side of the steps while the other half were chatting with the wives of the choir members on the other half of the steps. The participants answered questions for and distributed pins to other people waiting for the ceremony to start, and I am pretty sure they will be on the BBC and ITV at some point in the future since the choir had cameras from both organizations following them around.

Once the ceremony started everyone got pretty emotional. This ceremony is always emotional anyway, but having a choir there, filling those arching ceilings with beautiful music, was unlike anything any of us had ever experienced before, and it definitely added to the atmosphere there. The choir sang the hymn the Welsh soldiers sang together every time they were about to go over the top, which gave a few of us goosebumps to even think about, and it was at that point that some of the kids began to cry. (And the others who said they didn’t cry said they found it to be very emotional and they almost cried). Wesley, Audrey and Allyssa laid the wreath on behalf of the Foundation, and they did a great job despite the base being too big to fit on the rack so they had to adjust it a few times!

We have now made it to Peace Village (aka Spider Village). The rooms have been swept of spiders, the curfew and wake-up times have been given, journals have been written and collected, and we are all off to bed so we can get up and fill another day with some laughter and some tears! It is hard to believe we’ve been here a week already, but no one has started a countdown to the end yet, so I think everyone is having a good time and learning lots!

Loralea Wark
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 13, 2014

Our first of eight cemeteries today was Cabaret Rouge, where Canada’s Unknown Soldier was buried before he was repatriated. The group seemed to be very interested in the hows and whys behind making this possible, and we had some time to look around the cemetery before we got back on the bus and headed off to the Somme region.

July 1, 1916 is the worst day on record for the British Expeditionary Force – they lost over 50,000 soldiers on the first day of the battle – and it was this battle that we learned about in the Historiale in Peronne. This museum is the only one I’m aware of that has artifacts and the stories of French, British and German troops who were part of the Somme battles. A lot of the journals have indicated that the kids think it’s wrong that Germany still gets blamed for the war, and they find it upsetting that German soldiers are not given the same respect that Allied soldiers are simply because Germanylost the war. With the last of the WWI soldiers passing away, perhaps public opinion will start to shift and people will be more accepting of the notion that the German soldiers of WWI were just like the Allied soldiers of WWI, fighting for their country and what they believed in. It is very interesting to hear this kind of thinking from the next generation, as these thoughts would not have been accepted a few decades ago.

We had lunch at the Thiepval Memorial, which commemorates the soldiers from France and Britain who were killed in the battle of the Somme and who have no known grave. This monument is always impressive to see as it is so huge. Sadly, it has to be huge in order to include all of the names of the missing. We were told at the CWGC yesterday that there is a panel on the back especially for names of people who are missing who aren’t on the memorial because they weren’t recorded as missing. That panel is now full and they are likely going to have to start at least one more as families are still coming forward – perhaps more than ever now because of the attention of the centenary – to say their family member was lost in the Somme offensive but not listed on the memorial. It boggles the brain to think that the battle was so ferocious that 100 years later the land is still holding on to that many missing.

After lunch we attempted to find George’s soldier, and we finally stopped and asked for directions from someone living in the town. She sent us to the cemetery and we hiked up a dirt road, then down a gravel road,both cutting through a farmer’s field. (Our bus driver wanted to take us right to it but the road conditions would not permit it, so that says something!) It was a fairly small cemetery so the group just spread out to find the grave. They found it quickly but the letter on the headstone didn’t match the name of George’s soldier. When he looked at it, however, he realized that this was the headstone of the brother of his soldier. Some may say it’s a coincidence, others may say it was serendipity, but whatever it was, George has had a string of it because when we were in the Maison Blanche sous-terrain yesterday he realized that his great-grandfather belonged to the battalion that was responsible for a lot of the graffiti and carvings in there, so his great-grandfather had likely been in those sous-terrains. Because we had a booking at Beaumont-Hamel, we decided we’d try to find George’s cemetery after the visit to the Newfoundland memorial.

The reaction to seeing Beaumont-Hamel and hearing of how and why the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated there is always the same: disbelief, shock and sadness. This group of young adults was no different. The guides at these sites always offer new information so no matter how many times I am there I learn something new, and I know the kids gained a lot of insight from the tour today. Seeing the battlefield while hearing about how and why things went so badly also helped them put into context the battle at Vimy that they learned about earlier this week: it was because things went so badly there that Currie and Byng changed pretty much everything to ensure those mistakes were not repeated in 1917. It is too bad that we had to do these days out of order as it does make things a bit more confusing, but these kids are so smart and catch on so quickly that it doesn’t seem to be troubling them at all.

We managed to find George’s soldier’s cemetery after we left Beaumont-Hamel, and our driver, feeling badly that he hadn’t been able to get us up to the other cemetery, put on a remarkable display of his mad driving skills and backed the bus up a road most people would not attempt to back up in a Bug! The cemeteries this year have been as unique as other years, and it is giving everyone a really good understanding that they come in all shapes, sizes and locations. We’ve had some we’ve had to walk up to because they are on remote dirt roads, and we’ve had some we can park right next to because they’re so big they come with parking spaces because so many people stop there. We’ve had some on their own in the middle of nowhere, some right in the middle of a town’s regular cemetery, some attached to the town’s regular cemetery, and some that are combinations of British and French cemeteries. Some have been bordered by buildings, others by cornfields; some we have to look at the map to figure out where the graves will be, while others are small enough that we can split up and simply look for the headstone. With all of the differences, the group has been quick to spot the similarities: they are all immaculate, they are all bright and beautiful, they are all full of flowers, and they are all full of too many men who are close to their age who gave their tomorrows for our todays. It is a pretty powerful experience to be in these cemeteries, and it is evident that the kids on this trip are taking a lot away from what they are seeing. Now when they hear that 40,000 are buried in a cemetery they will know what that looks like, and that will make their understanding of these events and places so much clearer. I wish every Canadian could see these places so everyone would understand how special our rights and freedoms are, and why we need to ensure we don’t take them for granted … they came at a steep price, and these kids have now seen that.

If you thought that was the end of the day, you should remember this is us and we’re all about cramming as many unique and special experiences into our day! This year the teacher-chaperone is Fr. Jason van Veghel-Wood, the Chaplain at Ridley College. From where he sits in the school’s chapel he can see the memorial windows and plaques of two Ridley boys who died in WWI, Jack Wainright and John Hart. They were best friends who enlisted together, fought together, were gassed at Vimy together, and died mere hours apart. They are both buried in the same cemetery, and Jason decided that for his tribute he would like to conduct a funeral for them since they never would have had one. When we got to the cemetery we realized that these boys were buried in different rows, but one was right in front of the other so despite all of the vagaries of war, these boys were still standing together. The service Jason conducted was beautiful, and it turns out that the scripture he chose to read was also the epitaph on one of the boys’ headstones. Josh, who is a student at Ridley, was able to be there for the funeral of these two soldiers who had been in the same classrooms he is currently in but who died a century ago, and I think that was a pretty powerful experience for him.

It is experiences and connections like George’s, Jason’s and Josh’s that make these trips so meaningful and rewarding, and the kids themselves who contribute so much to the atmosphere of the entire journey. We are off to Belgium tomorrow, and I know it is going to be an equally moving day as we learn about the early stages of the war and take part in the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate.

Loralea Wark,
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 12, 2014

This is the fourth time I have been on this scholarship trip and the first time it has rained in all those years. It is making up for not having rained before, I guess, by pouring off and on all day. Fortunately none of us is made of sugar, and while the ground is soaked it is not dampening the spirit of those here to experience as much as they can!

Our first stop today was Ecoivres military cemetery, where Megan paid tribute to her soldier in a very emotional tribute. We then moved on to our first booked venue of the day, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We arrived a few minutes early so Nick told us all about Georges Vanier, and when he was done we were able to go in to start our tour.

The CWGC has the mandate to ensure that every Commonwealth soldier who has died in service to their country has a headstone, and that all soldiers regardless of rank, age, nationality, ethnicity and religion were treated the same. During WWI, Fabian Ware was the first person to determine that soldiers needed to be buried where they fell, and that they should all be treated the same in death. Because of the work he did, we now see the beautifully kept cemeteries and memorials that are so common in this part of France because the CWGC still exists. They look after 1.7 million Commonwealth graves in 150 countries, and their job is far from easy! The cemeteries here are all so beautiful, and the CWGC is doing an admirable and fantastic job of keeping the cemeteries looking pristine despite budget cuts. The six main Commonwealth countries – Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India – each give money to the CWGC to keep up the graves of the soldiers from their country, but funding has been cut over the years. So, despite the fact that the centenary is going to draw tens of thousands of people here to find their family members and those people are going to expect the cemeteries to be immaculate, so funding should have increased rather than decreased, the CWGC is running the office on a shoestring in order to focus on the cemeteries and memorials.

On top of not having enough money, the CWGC workers do not always have safe working environments to work in. They are currently waiting to take headstones to Karachi, Pakistan, but because of the current political situation there it is not safe enough to send a team in with the headstones. They are facing the same problems in Libya and Gaza. Our tour guide was extremely informative, and we all learned a ton. I cannot say enough about the work this Commission does … you just need to come here to see the hundreds of cemeteries to know they have a huge job and they do it exceptionally well.

We had planned on having lunch outside the German cemetery at Maison Blanche this afternoon, but it started to pour as soon as the bus stopped so we ate on the bus instead. By the time we were done it was time for the tour of the sous-terrain (underground caverns) at Maison Blanche. Phillip Robinson of the Durand Group once again led us down to see the cavings done by Canadian troops who used this sous-terrain in 1917. The carvings and graffiti in this sous-terrain are absolutely amazing to see, and it was very cool that George found carvings that were made by people in his great-grandfather’s battalion! It was very interesting to see how much water was lying around underground, as well, caused by the rainfall we’ve been treated to the past few days!

Once we were all back above ground and were able to walk without hard hats, we spent a bit of time in the Mainson Blanche German cemetery. The kids all immediately noted that there is a different feeling in German cemeteries than Commonwealth cemeteries … we’ll be talking about that in more detail tomorrow.

It was a day of different kinds of cemeteries because our second-last stop of the day was Notre Dame de Lorette, which is the largest French cemetery in this region. Of course it was pouring again by the time we got there, but not one of the kids complained and they spent close to 45 minutes exploring the chapel, the memorial to the unknown soldiers of France and those Frech citizens and soldiers who lost their lives to the Nazis, and the row upon row upon row of headstones … between the ossuary and the cemetery, the remains of over 40,000 soldiers are contained in this cemetery, along with the ashes of many concentration camp victims.

Our last stop of the day was at the statue of General Barbot, where Wesley gave a great presentation on the French leader. He did it in the rain and with lots of traffic going by, so it was not the easiest of conditions but he handled it like a pro!

Phillip Robinson has been giving the group a presentation on mining and tunneling for the past hour, so when this is finished we’ll head downstairs for supper then we’ll take a walk to the grocery store to stock up on snacks for tomorrow. (Franky has been so impressed with how clean the bus is that he says he is fine with the kids eating on the bus, which is very good news!).

Tomorrow we’re off to the Great War Museum, Thiepval Memorial and Beaumont-Hamel, which should be another informative and eventful day!

Loralea Wark
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 11, 2014

This day started off with me being awakened by Gabriela knocking on my door asking if I was up. This would not have been an issue had it not been me that was supposed to be waking everyone else up … of all the days for my alarm to not go off, it had to be today when we had to be up and out for the train! The girls were still able to be ready on time, so we were very impressed! We even arrived at St. Pancras station in enough time to get across the street to King’s Cross so those wanting their pictures taken at Platform 9 3/4 could do so.

The ride across the English Channel was very smooth, and Franky was waiting for us when he arrived. This is our third year with him behind the wheel of our bus, and this makes everything so much more relaxing because he knows the program and most of the places we want to get to. His response to every request is « no problem, » which I also love!

Our first stop in France was a rest stop to grab lunch, then we got into the real reason we’re here by finding Meghan’s soldier in Don Communal Cemetery. We had to search for it a bit but we did eventually find it. It is a fairly unique cemetery as the war graves cemetery is right in the middle of the town cemetery. We see that a lot in Canada, of course, but not in Europe. I am speculating that it was because there was a hospital or dressing station close by, but I could be wrong. Meghan’s tribute was beautiful, and she left her soldier a letter and a bottle of maple syrup since it is made in the town he came from. She said she was far more emotional than she thought she would be … this is what the participants always say. There is something about actually seeing the grave and speaking directly to your soldier that makes this far more personal, and each participant will feel this to some degree. I think this is why year after year the participants say this is their favourite part of the program, because it is a link between the past and the present.

Lola gave her presentation about Rudyard and Jack Kipling at Jack’s gravesite. Rudyard Kipling was very pro-war prior to the death of his son, and after that became very involved in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, coining the « Their name liveth forevermore » for the memorial stones in the cemeteries, and determining that « Unknown Soldier » and « Known Unto God » would be used on the headstones of every unknown soldier. Having this presentation today is perfect timing since we’ll be at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission office tomorrow for a tour, and we’ll be able to see some of these stones being made and repaired.

I got to do my soldier presentation next, and I was no less emotional than Meghan was. My soldier was my great-uncle so the family connection made it even more meaningful. I took some sterilized dirt from the family farm, his school, his father’s grave and two of his brothers’ graves … since he never got to go back home, I wanted to bring a little bit of home to him. It started to pour just as we were leaving the cemetery so I know that dirt really will stay with him.

We made it to Vimy next, and the reaction from the kids was great. Normally I can point out the monument well in advance so they get an idea of how big it really is, but because it was raining so hard they couldn’t see anything. When we turned the corner and it came into view, then, the collective gasp was pretty cool to hear. The question this year focused on the monument and the values it projected, so this group already has a lot of knowledge about the monument. I think this was the moment a lot of them have been waiting for, and all of them said it was even more than they had expected. While it did rain a lot of the time we were there we got some amazing pictures. The stone used in the monument is such that it looks as dramatic set against blue skies as it does when it is cloudy and gray, and this year the kids got both because we were there long enough for it to clear a bit.

Our guide for the site was, as usual, a Canadian university student who accepted a 4-month position to be a guide here. (This is a fabulous program any Canadian who is bilingual and a university student can apply for, in case any of you are interested!) This year’s guide, Saxon, also happens to be the granddaughter of very close family friends, and I hadn’t seen her since she was very young, so it was great to see her in this role! She did an amazing job explaining the site to the group, and the scholars were all talking about how being there really helped them understand the battle.

We were given a rare treat in that Peter Craven, an archaeologist for the Vimy site, gave us a presentation about what steps need to take place in order to make building the new visitors’ centre safe. We learned that the entire area will need to be swept of mines and shells, and any bodies that are uncovered will be given a military burial in the closest cemetery. It is mind boggling that nearly 100 years after the fighting they can still find intact shells and mines that close to the surface; how much more is buried deeper than the requirements for the construction project? The land is visibly scarred by the war, of course, but those scars run so much more deeply than the surface, in more ways than one. Peter took us out to his car to show us a forged implement used by both sides to impale horses – or humans – that stepped on it. None of us had ever seen anything like it. It was found on site a few days ago and Peter told us to touch the tip … it was as sharp today as it would have been in the war, despite having been exposed to the elements all that time. Unreal.

After Sara paid tribute to her soldier in Givenchy Road Cemetery, which is on the site, we walked back up to the monument. We had a discussion about how the battle at Vimy was different than battles elsewhere, and why it was more effective. The knowledge these young people already have is so impressive, I can’t wait to see their journals to find out what their thoughts were as they talked about the battle while climbing the ridge the Canadian soldiers did 97 years ago.

While we were on site, several people from other countries told the kids that they should be proud of the monument and what it stood for, and that it was good they – Canadian youth – were there to see it. I think hearing that had as much of an impact on the group as seeing the monument did. While this battle was fought 97 years ago, part of a war that started 100 years ago, people are not forgetting about it because it is so important to understand the lessons learned from the horrors of that time. These students are just starting to understand how important it is to remember and to share that idea with others … I am sure by the time this trip is over the students will be the next group to grab the torch of remembrance that has been passed on to them.

Loralea Wark,
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation