Local students return from Vimy anniversary trip - May 4, 2017
BY DENNY SCOTT
A group of 16 current students and recent graduates from F.E. Madill Secondary School, along with teachers and some chaperones, recently visited Europe as part of the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in France.
The travellers were part of a larger group from the area that visited not only the site of one of Canada’s most notable military battles, but also several other locations in Europe between Amsterdam, the Netherlands and the battle site in France.
The trip took more than a year and a half to plan, according to geography and history teacher Jordan Andrew and history teacher Dana Thiel, which is why some of the students were on the trip who had graduated last year.
“We landed in Amsterdam and from there went to Belgium,” said student Carly Frank in a meeting with The Citizen. “We stayed at a youth hostel there and were in the country for three nights.”
The group then visited Dieppe, the site of the unsuccessful Operation Jubilee in World War II. The Allied force in the raid was comprised primarily of Canadians (5,000) along with 1,000 British troops and 50 United States Army Rangers. Started at 5 a.m. on August 19, 1942, the Allied forces were forced to retreat just under six hours later.
From Dieppe, the students crossed the English Channel to England and then proceeded to Vimy for the celebration.
“The days around the celebration, which was April 9, we kept running into groups from Canada,” Andrew explained. “It was like some kind of family reunion and we had to keep explaining to the locals that we were from different parts of Canada.”
Andrew said there were 15,000 students from Canada who travelled to Vimy Ridge, not to mention active and former service members and individuals with connections to the battle and soldiers.
The group stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium, and were part of a special ceremony where the students presented a wreath in memory of the soldiers there.
The students met Canadian Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr while at the site.
The students also participated in a special sculpture-making art installment in Belgium.
The installment, called Coming World Remember Me, aims to have 600,000 spherical sculptures, one representing each the 600,000 people who died in Belgium during World War I. Andrew said the sculptures are planned to be buried at Hill 62, called Sanctuary Wood, in Belgium in 2018.
“Each represents a person that died in the war,” Scott said. “We will be getting information about the people that were represented by the statues we made.”
While the Vimy Ridge celebration was paramount, Thiel explained that students got a lot of the other experiences on the trip.
“A big part of the trip was the 100th anniversary,” Thiel said. “But Dieppe was a highlight. It helps everyone to understand the sacrifices made by Canadians.”
Carmen Hamilton, a student on the trip, said visiting sites like Dieppe and Juno Beach really helped bring the history to life there.
“You get perspective on what these sites and these battles were like,” she said. “You don’t realize what was involved until you are standing on the beaches.”
Fellow student Sadie Scott agreed.
“I went on the trip to learn because sitting in a classroom isn’t the same,” she said. “It’s completely different being there.”
While completely different from an educational standpoint, Andrew said the terrain was remarkably similar to southwestern Ontario.
“Dieppe reminded me of the Bruce Peninsula,” Frank agreed.
Students had varying reasons for taking the trip, Thiel explained, from being a part of the Vimy celebration, wanting to experience different countries to finding the graves of family members.
She said some students had gone in search of relatives, however time constraints prevented the group from visiting many cemeteries. Students were able to located their family, including Pierce Dodds, who found his great-grandpa buried in Brookwood Cemetery in England, and became the first member of his family to visit the site.
“There are so many cemeteries there,” Andrew said. “You can drive down what we would consider side roads and there is a cemetery in every other field.”
Scott said she was interested in the trip because her great grandpa served in World War I.
“I went to see where his regiment was,” she said, explaining he was stationed in several locations.
She also said she was surprised by the cemeteries the group came across.
“They are so well kept and respected,” she said.
Thiel agreed, saying that while it was hard to describe, the peace and beauty of the grave sites was breathtaking.
Andrew said the cemeteries were memorable, though he was most impacted by the sheer number of names of soldiers whose bodies were never found.
The students also commented on the profound experience of soldiers from opposite sides of conflicts being buried in some locations side by side. They also had striking memories of the Langemark German Military Cemetery in Belgium which has 25,000 soldiers in a mass grave, 8,000 of those whose names remain unknown. The mass grave is small, less than two classrooms in size, the students said.
“The losses on both sides were staggering to realize,” said student Leanne Exel.
Frank said that, after the trip, she found out that one of her relatives had served and was stationed at Juno Beach.
“I found out after I got home and that made the memories of the site a little different for me,” she said.
Having students from two different schools also made the trip unique Andrew said, and an experience that paralleled the one some soldiers from Huron would have had first travelling overseas.
“We joined with South Huron and while we are two schools in the same county, we are at opposite ends,” he said. “It was a bonding experience for our students and the students from South Huron and we realized that soldiers from our area likely went through something similar. These guys would have bonded and got close.”
Andrew said it was an interesting counterpoint to how modern high schools usually focus on rivalry through sports and competition instead of coming together. Thiel agreed, pointing to the 161st Battalion, or Huron Battalion, that consisted of soldiers from across the county coming together.
Aside from the students, teachers and parents, residents of the area also travelled to the site in spirit thanks to a banner the group created which featured a collection of signatures.
The banner was presented at Étaples Military Cemetery, a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery near the north-west coast of France. The site holds over 11,500 grave sites from World Wars I and II.
“Wherever we went before the trip, we took the banner with us,” Andrews said. “It was full of signatures gathered at the Lucknow Legion, the Wingham Legion, the school and other events we were at. We took a piece of Huron County with us when we went.”
The banner featured a photo of the soldiers from Wingham who fought during World War I.
While Thiel had made the trip before, it was Andrew’s first time going, and he said, as a teacher, it was an invaluable experience.
“The trip definitely helped with understanding the sacrifice and being able to teach the history of the site, but it also helped to understand the landscape,” he said. “You can see pictures, but until you’re standing there, looking over the site the Germans held for so long, you might not understand why it was such a hard-fought battle and why it’s so amazing that the Canadians were able to take that ridge.”
The trip also included a visit to Passchendaele, another battlefield that Canadian soldiers were on in World War I. The battle at the site lasted more than three months until Canadian Corps captured the site.
“The landscape there really showed what the soldiers had gone through,” he said.