— Vimy Ridge, France
Even driving rain and his first media interview couldn’t take Bradley Mallard’s eyes off the towering Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
The Grade 9 Holy Heart student was among the nearly 5,000 Canadian youth who helped mark the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge Monday.
Despite the rain that poured steadily, Mallard was glad to be there at the monument that honours the Canadian sacrifices at Vimy.
“You can read all the textbooks. You can watch all the movies. You can talk to people. You can learn it. You can understand how other people feel. But you can’t actually feel it for yourself unless you are here,” he said after the ceremony.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge lasted four days, April 9-12, 1917. It was the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps in France fought together.
The sacrifices were severe — approximately 3,600 dead and almost 11,000 wounded — but the Canadians succeeded in their mission, something allies hadn’t been able to do.
The victory over the Germans at Vimy is often considered the start of Canada becoming an independent country.
The ceremony commemorating the battle was held with the haunting monument as a backdrop and under Mother Canada, the memorial’s largest piece.
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Students moved by event
It’s a statue of a cloaked female that represents a young country mourning its fallen.
The event featured a Canadian honor guard and band as well as Canadian and French dignitaries.
There were prayers, commitments to remember, “The Last Post” was played, wreaths were laid, and speeches were given.
“It was a military engagement unlike any other in our history,” Gov. Gen. David Johnston said.
“There’s something deeply special happened here on this hallowed ground 95 years ago.”
Student representatives played a major role in the commemoration, reciting “In Flanders Field,” reading the names of some who fell, and lighting a torch of remembrance.
Earlier in the day, the youth — more than 400 of them from Newfoundland and Labrador — participated in a silent, three-kilometre march from Givenchy-en-Gohelle up to the Vimy memorial.
From there, they proceeded to the rear of the site for a private ceremony at Cemetery Number Two, where nearly 3,000 are buried.
Ryan Aspell, a Grade 9 student at St. Bon’s in St. John’s, was moved by that event, which involved student readings, a wreath-laying and candle lighting.
“I thought it was really emotional and it gave me a sense of remembrance and what it means,” he said.
“I also felt that when people were describing, during the ceremony, their experiences with Vimy Ridge, I thought it was an interesting way to look at it from a different perspective.”
After a day of remembering, a concert was held at a nearby stadium Monday night.
It was themed Birth of a Nation, a chance for the students and dignitaries to enjoy the freedom for which the soldiers fought almost a century ago.
Hey Rosetta! of St. John’s was on the concert bill with folk rockers Spirit of the West from Vancouver.
“I think everybody has been reflecting pretty heavily about the gruesome goings on of war,” Hey Rosetta! singer Tim Baker said before the concert.
“Hopefully we’ll set up the night to be a celebration after a lot of sort of hard truths.”
More than 66,000 Canadians died during the First World War.
Reporter Steve Bartlett is travelling as a guest of EF Tours.