PARRY SOUND – It was a moment to remember for local teenagers, when a Benny-sur-Mer senior citizen centred out the group during a visit to France.
The now elderly man was 16 years old during World War 11 when the German army invaded his hometown in France.
“It’s something I will never forget for the rest of my life,” said Grade 12 Parry Sound High School (PSHS) student Eric Carruthurs, 18. “He was not old enough to be a soldier, so he was sent to do work for the Nazis, he was sent to plant mines and dig trenches.”
It was teacher and chaperon Rick Lund who first spoke with the man.
“He saw our jackets and he called us over he said ‘Canadian, Canadian’ but I don’t speak much French and I knew Eric was (a) French immersion (student) so I called Eric over,” he said. “And Eric took it from there….he was just so happy to see us because his town had been liberated by Canadians.” The man proudly shared his list of Canadian contacts, all family members of the seven Canadians who died in the fight for the town.
“I had no idea how much I was respected (as a Canadian in France) and now I have respect for people in France,” said Grade 12 student Alora Scali, 17, of meeting the grateful man.
Eric and Alora, along with 38 other PSHS students and three teacher chaperons were part of the Vimy 2012 Student National Remembrance Tour “In their footsteps” that saw 4,000 Canadian students marking the 95th anniversary of the battle with a ceremony at the ridge April 9.
Students left Parry Sound April 4 and returned April 12.
“There were a couple solemn days when you just had to check yourself and not cry even more than you wanted to, ‘cause you know they didn’t die in vain, but it was moments like that kind of defined the trip,” said 17-year-old Grade 12 student Tatjana Thoennes.
The tour included ceremonies at Juno Beach to honour those who died in World War II, visits to graveyards of Canadian soldiers, and tours around London and Paris, with stops at Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower. The tour followed in the path Canadian soldiers would have taken on their way to the front; including making sail from Dover and watching the white cliffs disappear behind them.
“Going over to Europe on the Vimy Ridge trip was a life changing experience,” said Eric. “It allowed me to see another part of the world I had never seen before, I had no idea what it was like over there and also experience the culture, as well as, going on with the historical aspect of the tour as well, I was able to see what these soldiers went through while they were over there, and standing in the pouring rain on Vimy Ridge made it all come together.”
Grade 12 student Lindsey Hutchins, 17 agreed with Eric.
“I was told that going on this trip that it would be life changing, like you would never forget it,” she said. “I was like ‘ya, ya, like I know it’s going to be awesome’ but I didn’t think it would have such a big impact on everything. Like now, just walking around I am thinking about it, what they went through so I could just walk.”
For the students on the trip, what they learned in textbooks has taken on a whole new meaning.
“A textbook is numbers and painted pictures and it’s kind of like a story almost, but then you’re there it’s so real and you can see the cliffs they had to try and climb up and beaches they had to try and hide in,” said Lindsey.
The students visited three cemeteries holding the remains of Canadian soldiers.
“When you see all those headstones it goes from learning it to actually, you can’t believe the shear amount and volume of people it took,” said Tatjana.
They also located the gravestone of Parry Sounder Edwin McElvey who died September 29, 1918, where they left Parry Sound and Ontario pins at the graves.
The April 9, 95th anniversary of Vimy Ridge was marked with two ceremonies, the first at a nearby cemetery, and the second at the Vimy Ridge monument.
The 4,000 Canadian students marched in silence for two kilometers from the cemetery to Vimy Ridge. It was raining as the students passed by signs warning of shells that haven’t exploded since they were shot during the war outside the path and now grassy moguls that were about 16 feet deep that were once muddy shell holes.
“That walk up to the monument was unbelievable,” said Alora. “We were all sort of rowdy and just talking to each other and we were told we’d have to do a silent march up to the monument for 45 minutes. I was like, ‘I hope nobody screws this up’ …we were walking a little bit and stopped and everyone was chatting and then silence fell over 4,000 people and it was so powerful and, literally, silence for the entire 45 minutes. That was for me, one of the defining moments of that trip.”
On the Vimy Ridge monument McKellar resident Tatjana, at the request of local historian and North Star columnist John Macfie, found the name of his great-uncle.
Even the rainy, cool weather didn’t put a damper on the trip but simply added to its solemn nature, the students said. The students had taken two Canadian flags with them: One listed the names of local soldiers killed in World War 1 the others the names of those who died in World War 11. Those flags are going on display at the high school’s lobby.