‘Where once they stood’

Mark Rendell Special to The Telegram
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Students feel connected to events during Vimy pilgrimage

Light April rain trickled down as Zachary LeShane stared out over a muddy field in Northern France still littered with live munitions.

Ninety-eight years earlier, rain had muddied the same field.

July 1, 1916.

The 16-year-old from Lower Island Cove knew this date well.  

At 9:15 a.m. that damp morning, hundreds of Newfoundlanders had marched from the safety of their trenches into the pockmarked muck of No Man’s Land and a hail of machine gunfire.

The attack lasted less than half an hour. But of the approximately 800 Newfoundland soldiers who went over the top, only 68 responded to roll call in the evening.

Surrounded by juniper, dogberry and other plants native to Newfoundland, Zachary stood beneath the bronze statue of a caribou that commemorates the battle of Beaumont Hamel and wept.  

“That moment will stick with me till the day I die,” said Zachary, now back in Canada following a nine-day tour of battlefields in France and Belgium.  

“I remember saying, ‘Where once they stood, we stand. Their prayer we raise to heaven above, God guard thee Newfoundland.’”

Zachary, a Grade 11 student, was one of two Newfoundlanders on the Vimy Pilgrimage, an annual trip for high school students organized by the not-for-profit Vimy Foundation. The other was Victoria Jackman from Mount Pearl.

Twenty-one students in grades 11 and 12  from across the country, “who demonstrate outstanding service, positive contributions, notable deeds, bravery or leadership,” were chosen for this year’s pilgrimage.

Students from other provinces were respectful of the Beaumont Hamel memorial, said Zachary, who volunteers with the Salvation Army, the Heart and Stroke Foundation and his school’s breakfast program.

“But we felt more connected,” he said, referring to Victoria and himself. “It was our own people.”

“You feel the atmosphere and the heaviness of the place,” said Victoria, an assistant karate instructor and Special Olympics swimming coach.

There’s a plaque near the memorial with the names of the soldiers. Victoria, who hadn’t been aware of family having fought in the battle, saw two Jackman names on the plaque.

“It sparked an interest to further look at my family tree,” she said.

“Once you emotionally understand something, it becomes more than a fact. It becomes real.”

Beaumont Hamel was only one stop on a trip which saw the group trace the battle line of the Western Front from Arras and Vimy in France to Ypres and Passchendaele in Belgium.

At each site the young Newfoundlanders felt “a double patriotism,” said Victoria. “You feel very patriotic as a Canadian and also as a Newfoundlander.”

Along with museums and battlefields, they visited a number of cemeteries, including one for German soldiers where rows of iron crosses marked the dead instead of white crosses.

“It doesn’t matter what side you fought for, these were still humans and they were only fighting for what they were told,” said Zachary. “They were still 16- or 17-year-olds… and they still should be remembered equally.”

A highlight of the trip was a cave called the Maison Blanche Quarry, where Canadian soldiers were billeted underground in advance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

There is a narrow brick staircase descending into a cavern “as big as a church,” said Zachary.

Names, dates and battalion crests are carved into the cave’s chalk walls. Scrawled hearts hold the names of girlfriends back home. One artistic and lighthearted soldier even carved a Canadian postbox out of the supple stone.

“The ceiling could come down at any minute,” said Zachary. “But we’re such exceptional Canadians, they made an exception.”

The group was at Vimy Ridge on April 9 to partake in the 97th anniversary of the battle that saw all four Canadian battalions fight together for the first time.

The Canadians captured a strategic hill that had withstood numerous British assaults, and today many regard the battle as a defining moment in the Canadian identity.

Around 100 people attended the anniversary, including several MPs and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino. Victoria was chosen to read a pledge of remembrance on behalf of Canadian youth.

“They were young, as we were young; they served, giving freely of themselves. To them, we pledge, amid the winds of time, to carry their torch and never forget.”

Afterwards the group explored the tunnels and trenches surrounding the towering Vimy Memorial.

“A textbook does not give an accurate description of what happened. … To physically witness and be at the exact same site that people fought is amazing,” said Zachary.

It’s this kind of tactile experience that Jeremy Diamond, campaign director for the Vimy Foundation, hopes will inspire increased engagement with Canadian history.  

“We have lost the last living link to World War I,” said Diamond, referring to the last Canadian First World War veteran who died four years ago. “We can’t forget about it just because those who experienced it are gone.”

Ignorance of our own history is a serious problem, said Diamond. Only four provinces have mandatory history courses until the end of high school and Newfoundland is not one of them.

A recent Ipsos Reid poll conducted for the Vimy Foundation found that one in five Canadians don’t know what Vimy Ridge is; around 10 per cent think it is a Canadian mountain range, another 10 per cent said it was a ski slope used for practice during the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, only 47 per cent could correctly identify in which war the battle was fought.

“We need to impress upon people that there are great stories, and great accomplishments, as well as great tragedies that we need to learn from,” said Diamond.

He hopes students like Zachary and Victoria will return to their communities and ignite interest in their fellow students by speaking about the pilgrimage.

This is especially important in advance of 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 2017.

A new museum will open near the memorial to mark the centenary, funded in part, says Diamond, by the Give a Vimy for Vimy campaign. It’s trying to get people calling $20-bills Vimys — for the image of the memorial on the bill.

“It will be like, lend me loonie or a toonie. Can I borrow a Vimy?”

For Zachary and Victoria, the kind of remembrance experienced on the pilgrimage was deeply personal.

But it’s a kind of remembrance that is important for all Newfoundlanders and Canadians.

“You need to know the success and mistakes of the past,” said Victoria, “to know the best decisions for the future.”

 

 

Organizations: Vimy Foundation, Salvation Army, Heart and Stroke Foundation Special Olympics Veterans Affairs Ipsos Reid

Geographic location: Vimy Ridge, Victoria, Newfoundland France Belgium Lower Island Cove Canada Ypres

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