On Monday, April 9 media outlets across Canada allowed many citizens to witness the commemorative ceremony that took place marking the 95th anniversary of the Battle for Vimy Ridge – an event hailed as the defining moment of Canadian nationhood. Taking an enemy held ridge in an all Canadian effort and doing so where other allies had failed, Vimy is the moment of self realization for Canadian identity. The Canadians used ingenuity in applying a creeping barrage, entrusted every soldier of every rank with the battle plan so that all knew what was expected of them, and trained extensively to ensure their success.
Values that attributed to victory at Vimy are now the commonplace of a Canadian citizen and it is for this reason that the anniversary of this event saw so much publicity and was witnessed by so many Canadians.
Bearing witness has whole new meaning for a group of 40 young souls who made a pilgrimage from Parry Sound to that hallowed battle ground. Organized meticulously for well over a year, the 'In Their Footsteps' trip consisted of travelling to London, ferrying across the English Channel, down to the Canadian won D-Day Juno beaches of World War II, up to Vimy Ridge for the 95th World War One ceremony, and finally to Paris and then home.
The Parry Sound High School group was made up of students who applied to be selected for the trip by writing essays. They were to be ambassadors for the Town of Parry Sound and the Parry Sound High School. Theirs was to receive the symbolic torch of remembrance and sacrifice of which John McCrae wrote in his poem, In Flanders Fields. These students did their town, their school, and themselves exceedingly proud.
Before even leaving, the work was underway to make this a meaningful journey. The students initially created a flag in which each of their names was placed in between two fallen soldiers of the Great War. The details of these soldiers lives and deaths was researched and added to give poignancy and a personal touch to their flag. With forty students and six chaperons, the flag was massive. Then the idea came for doing ceremonies at both Vimy and Juno for the fallen of Parry Sound. Taking ownership of the task, these students created their own solemn ceremonies to honour those lost in the two world wars at these two iconic sites. Community partners added their support in the form of two gorgeously embroidered flags, white with a Canadian flag in the top left quadrant and the rest filled with a list of the Parry Sound fallen. All three flags the students carried with them throughout the trip and they featured prominently on newspapers and newscasts, and drew interviewers to the students. The flags are now back in Parry Sound and are to be displayed prominently in the Parry Sound High School.
Many of these students had never been outside of Canada prior to this trip and the group was lucky enough to have seasoned travellers as chaperons and an exceptional tour director. As was to be expected, the students had a great deal of fun. London and Paris framed the trip with some enjoyably touristic adventures. However, as the trip was themed in remembrance, much of the activities required a huge degree of decorum. Our students did not disappoint.
Through the Canada Gate near Buckingham Palace lies the Canadian Memorial. Marching alongside hundreds of other Canadian students, the PSHS group carried their flags proudly and assembled to be addressed by dignitaries. The ceremony had some touching highlights, including Parry Sound's own Alison Weeks being selected to lay a wreath at the foot of the memorial on behalf of Canadian Youth.
Crossing the English Channel to France, the first visit was a powerful one for the students. The Canadian War Cemetery in Beny-Sur-Mer, Reviers is astounding. Walking in requires one to traverse a stretch of manicured lawn to a large white stone block inscribed 'Their Name Liveth Forevermore' on either side of which rise two stone towers. Beyond, the fallen comrades lay in rows marked by uniform white gravestones with their name, age, cross of their calling, and sometimes a brief epigram. Walking amongst these, many moved to tears, all affected profoundly, the students paid their respects. Watching them and murmuring with them in respectfully hushed tones, the utter rightness of being there with this group was assured. Some commented on the beauty of the site, others on the profundity of the sacrifice when faced with the actual names and ages of these fallen, and yet others had no words to describe the deepness of their feeling. The reactions of the students compounded with the power of the site to move the chaperons too to misty eyes and choked replies.
The journey continued to the Normandy beaches of the World War Two D-Day invasion and the Canadian won Juno Beach. While the students did visit the Juno Beach Centre, it was after this visit and on Juno Beach itself where they truly understood and paid tribute to the sacrifices of World War Two. The student prepared ceremony had the whole group assemble in a circle on the beach with our flag of Parry Sound WWII fallen. The names of those fallen were read aloud going around the circle and a moment of silence followed.
Then a visit was made to the Cantempre Canadian Cemetery with each student paying tribute to a soldier that they had researched for our large flag. A small symmetrical square cemetery in the middle of farming fields, one could see seven church towers from the plot. This was the last stop of an emotionally draining day of two cemeteries and Juno Beach. The 95th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge followed on the Easter Monday, just as the battle ninety-five years before had commenced on an Easter Monday. At eight in the morning, in five degree weather, the rain was falling as over five thousand Canadian students assembled for a procession to the Vimy Memorial. Lined up to march, silence broke over the students in a wave and they began through the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle. Students held aloft their personalized school flags, some as wide as the road itself, and locals flew Canadian flags and watched from their yards. Somany moments etch themselves into memory. An elderly couple watches, the husband at his front gate and the wife from her doorway, gratitude in their eyes. We get our first sight of the Vimy Memorial as the thousands strong procession in red winds up the hill. There are more students than gravestones in the Canadian Cemetery Number Two, as one of the memorial ceremonies of the day is held. These are images that will always remain vivid.
In the afternoon the students break off from the thousands of others and hold their ceremony, alike to that at Juno, for those Parry Sound fallen in the Great War. The embroidered flag is held and around the circle names of the lost heroes are read aloud. Converging back with the others, the students at the Vimy Memorial are soaked through and cold. Ceremonies at the memorial begin with Andrew Goslett of Parry Sound High School as one of two students selected who carry the torch and light the flame on the memorial itself. Dignitaries arrive and make their speeches. The conditions are almost authentic to those on the first day of battle, ninety-five years ago. While some are so cold that they are taken to first aid tents, the students tell me that we cannot leave, that they need to stay and bear witness to this moment. The ceremony ends with the playing of the Canadian national anthem. We speak of a generation of heroes lost in the two world wars – the young men who never came home. It seemed that some of the fire from that generation lost was instilled in our youth of today to remain stalwart through the cold so that they might honour the fallen.
Now our youth are home. They have returned with knowing and humility. This group was given the chance to gain something profound in this trip and there is no doubt that they return changed. It serves every person to remember, not just the sacrifices of the past, but the potential of the youth of today. Negativity surrounding the generations to come is too common in our society. Each generation impacts upon the next and investing in our youth, in the future, shows that we value and respect whatwe create. To value the future is to honour the precedents of the past.
These students of the Parry Sound High School followed in their footsteps and proved themselves exemplars of Canadian citizenship and values. The personal connection that the students made with this debt to the fallen, never to be repaid, was a heartening burden. Those teary eyes, sombre faces, and humbled hearts are the torch. Not only do these young Canadians remember, but they understand. They understand that 'Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.' They have more stories to tell of what they experienced, because this was such a personal journey. If you have the privilege of talking with any of these students about their experiences overseas, do not hesitate to let them make you too feel the weight of their new understanding. Our freedoms, bought at so costly a price, will mean so much more if you do.
Stephen Webb, trip chaperon
Parry Sound High School