Day Nine: The end of our Pilgrimage

I decided to leave my reflections for the final night, when we returned to Vimy to watch the sunset, until today because I think it offers a fitting end to my blog posts on the program. We handed out Vimy Pilgrimage Medals to each student and gave them the individual recognition they all deserved with a personalized tribute. We even made our bus driver an honourary Canadian and gave him a medal for his outstanding bus driving and willingness to go above and beyond for us the entire tour.

It was quite emotional for all of us, chaperones and students alike, which I think is a testament to how wonderful our students were and how much they appreciated the opportunity. In many ways, we all learned from each other and in the process created lifelong memories, friends, and mentors.

While I hope to have the opportunity to return to the battlefields with another group of high school students one day, my first experience leading a tour with the VPA program this year will always hold a special place in my teaching memories.

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Day Eight: The Fog of Vimy

As anticipated, I believe the highlight of the program for many students was visiting the Vimy monument and the tunnels and caves constructed leading up to the battle on 9 April 1917. Although I was a bit disappointed at first that the weather was rainy and foggy, meaning the students would not get to see the view from the top of Hill 145, it turned out that we could not have asked for better weather. When we got off the bus and began walking towards the monument we could barely see the next person in front of us. This meant that the students didn’t see the monument as we approached it from afar, so it wasn’t until we were up close that the monument became visible through the fog. I think it allowed us to concentrate all of our focus on the sights and sounds immediately before us and reflect on the significance of the monument to our nation. The fog did lift later in the day so the students could appreciate the high ground we were standing on.

I decided to title this post “The Fog of Vimy” not just because of the literal fog we experienced today, but also because of the challenges of teaching about Vimy that I have discovered as a result of this program. Vimy certainly holds a central place in our country’s collective memory of the war, but the myths and “birth of a nation” narrative surrounding Vimy can cloud our understanding of the battle itself. So I think that for me, in order to emerge from the fog, I had to acknowledge those narratives and suggest reasons for why they exist, but also give more attention to other areas where the Canadians played an important (arguably a more important) role in the war. I think that as long as we encourage students to think critically about these narratives we have done our job as educators.

Day Seven: Remembering the Forgotten

In reflecting upon today, the theme that stands out to me is that we remembered the forgotten – forgotten groups of people who were impacted by the war and forgotten battles that were important to Canada’s wartime legacy.

Canada’s nursing sisters have often been overlooked in discussions of the First World War, but more scholarship has recently emerged on this topic which is one important step in the right direction. However, it is not just within the academic world that nursing sisters should be brought to the fore, but also within public discourse. One student decided to share the story of a nursing sister for her “soldier presentation” which I think prompted everyone to re-evaluate our emphasis on who we commemorate with these types of projects. Katherine MacDonald was a nursing sister from Brantford, Ontario who was killed at Étaples in 1918 and her name is listed on the Ring of Remembrance, where we listened to her story. My hope is that through this presentation the students gained a deeper appreciation for women’s participation and sacrifices in war, both on the home front and overseas, and that they continue to honour diverse groups of Canadians who were impacted by the war.

An overlooked battle the Canadians fought was at Hill 70. I asked to have the memorial added to our itinerary today because it was just opened in August for the 100th anniversary – so we would be among the first Canadians to visit the site. On the bus ride, I talked to the students about the fighting that took place there and the important strategic position that Hill 70 provided. I also noted that this was the first time the Canadian Corps was led by a Canadian, Arthur Currie. The students’ eyes went wide because many of them had learned that Vimy was the first time the Canadians were under Canadian leadership, a myth that has been perpetuated by the “birth of a nation” narrative. They were also surprised to learn that a monument was only just now erected, 100 years after the battle.

Each of these forgotten aspects that we brought up today demonstrates the selective memory of the war.

Day Six: Thinking like Historians on the Somme

I was very impressed by our students today for their ability to think like historians while examining artifacts, viewing memorials, and engaging in discussions.

We began the day at the Historial in Péronne, and were able to view some artifacts up close because one of our lead chaperones has a connection to the museum. The students really appreciated the opportunity to hold artifacts from the war, and they took the time to examine each one in detail. As I circulated the room I noticed students asking questions like “what material is this made of?” and “what does this symbol mean?” in order to determine what the objects were used for during the war.

After visiting Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval, we had a group discussion about burial practices. One of our leaders posed a question that made students think more deeply about the issue of assuming the religion of a soldier by placing a cross above their grave. The students drew comparisons between the CWGC headstones, the French and the Germans, demonstrated empathy and perspective-taking, and were able to form well-articulated arguments. Throughout this process, the students were encouraged to consider whether cemeteries and memorials are for the dead or for the living. The critical thinking skills they exhibited were a testament to how great our group of students is this year.

Day Five: The Last Hundred Days

Today we made our way from Ypres to Peronne, stopping along the way in Mons to learn about the Canadian liberation of the town at the end of the war as well as in Cambrai to visit the cathedral where Thanksgiving services were held by Canadians following the armistice. One of the most memorable parts of the day for me, and perhaps of the entire program, was the group discussions we had at the Bourlon Wood Memorial. While I was explaining the significance of Canadian involvement in this area to the final hundred days of the war, I looked around and saw that every single student was focused on me and what I had to say. I am by no means an expert on this part of the war, but I appreciated that the students were engaged in what I had to say. Afterwards, one student told me that she liked the simple way I explained objectives and strategies because it was step-by-step and easy for her to understand because I spoke to their level. I was glad to hear this because sometimes these aspects of war are even confusing to me and I was worried about being able to teach about it – but great battlefield guidebooks and maps help too!

I was winding down my teaching about the final days of the war when a student asked a question about the date when a soldier’s death is still considered a war casualty. I had had similar conversations with groups of students while walking around cemeteries, but this was an opportunity for everyone to discuss an important question. The students complicated the idea that August 31, 1921 marks the end of war deaths for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as it was the official end of hostilities, by posing a number of questions: Should those who died of the flu be considered war dead? How about those who suffered from shell shock and committed suicide years later? Or those gassed during the war whose postwar lives were cut short? What about the farmers in the present day who are still being killed by unexploded ordnance in their fields? We talked about the need to have an official date for something like the CWGC but that sometimes there is no single answer to a difficult question like that.

Day Four: Touring the Ypres Salient

Today we met up with a Belgian tour guide who planned a full day of visits to cemeteries and monuments around the Ypres area – including Langemark German Cemetery, the Brooding Soldier at St. Julien, Hill 62, the Christmas Truce memorial, and Tyne Cot. We were so fortunate to have such an excellent guide whose passion for the history of his country was evident from beginning to end. The students were mesmerized by his presentation style and he told many stories of local people (some whom he knew) who lived during the First World War. Our guide was able to provide the perspective of an occupied territory during the war, and he even had a personal family connection for the Second World War. He said his grandmother lived through the Second World War and if she was still alive today he thinks she would not approve of his bringing tour groups to a German cemetery. One of the most memorable statements he made was that with each passing generation the anger and resentment fades more and more, allowing for a more complete history of the wars to emerge. It reminds us that as teachers we must incorporate perspectives and sources from all sides.

On a more upbeat note, our guide told the group that he recently purchased a German bunker from a local farmer for only one euro and has moved it to his garden for a future “man cave.” Only in Belgium would we hear something like that!

Tomorrow we leave Ypres for Péronne, making stops along the way in Mons and Cambrai…so tomorrow’s blog will be from ‘somewhere in France’!

Day Three: In Flanders Fields

We started the day at Essex Farm cemetery to visit the location where John McCrae wrote his famous poem. We had a student from Guelph, Ontario, McCrae’s hometown, deliver an excellent presentation about his life and service during the war, and she read a poem composed by McCrae in the later war years. One of the aspects of this cemetery that stood out to students was the grave of the 15 year old British soldier Private Strudwick who enlisted despite being underaged and was killed near Ypres in 1916. They said that they put themselves in the shoes of this soldier and couldn’t imagine being their own age and fighting in a war. I think this was an important moment of reflection and perspective-taking for the students. When we returned to the bus I played the song “In Flanders Fields” for the students to hear how musical accompaniment complements the messages of the poem.

One of my proudest teaching moments so far has been having the opportunity to use a skill I learned on my own battlefield tour as a student last year – orientating our group on the Passchendaele battlefield using a compass and map in order to explain the Canadian advance while taking the ridge. Some students that I spoke with told me it helped to see the landscape in person, rather than just hearing about Passchendaele in their classroom back in Canada. We did, however, discuss the differences between what the landscape looked like in 1917 and what it looks like today, and how that impacts our ability to understand what soldiers experienced at the time.

In the evening we attended the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate and three students were selected from our group to lay a wreath on behalf of the foundation. We were honoured that we happened to be at the 31,000th ceremony. One of the highlights for me was the unexpected but perfectly timed flock of birds that flew by the archways the moment the ceremony ended – it almost seemed like they were released! I have since had an opportunity to lead a discussion with the students about the soundscapes of war and commemorative ceremonies and they brought up the Last Post ceremony as a poignant example of how music and sounds contribute to our commemorative experiences.

Day Two: Views of Ypres

Despite being pretty tired and jet lagged our entire group made the most of today and began getting to know one another. We had fun playing icebreakers and name games – there is such a diverse group of students and it was exciting to hear about some of the opportunities they’ve already had and their plans for the future.

We decided to walk to the Cloth Hall for our tour of the In Flanders Fields museum so we had a chance to see some of the outskirts of the town. The students were fascinated by the architecture – so much so that we had to make sure they weren’t so excited that they stopped to take pictures in the crosswalks! We made it to the museum just in time for a rain shower but our first stop was climbing the Cloth Tower so we got a little wet. As we were climbing the steps the bells started chiming to mark 4 o’clock and we were in the belfry as they chimed again for 4:15. We had a conversation about the importance of bells at the time of the war because wristwatches were only just invented so they made up a significant part of European town soundscapes. We also talked about church bells being melted down for ammunition during the war, so the ones the students were seeing were not originals. They were very interested to see the photograph I showed them of the Cloth Hall destroyed during the war for a visual comparison to the beautiful structure it is today. And even though it rained on us the look out at the top of the tower offered stunning views of the city – and our first views of the Menin Gate.

While walking around the museum I had the opportunity to point out some particularly interesting artifacts that I remembered from the last time I was there to the students walking by. They especially liked the shell casing art, Last Post ceremony bugles, and pressed poppies from the first Vimy pilgrimage. One student said she felt a bit overwhelmed by the museum and didn’t really know what to focus on within our one hour time, so she liked sticking with me to hear about my highlights of the museum – in my own experience it’s always nice to go with someone who has been before so I’m glad I could take the opportunity to share what I learned last year!

Before leaving, I made sure to purchase a few poppy themed items at the gift shop, including an umbrella which I think will be useful this week!

We returned to our hotel for dinner (there have been excellent vegetarian options here so far!) and checked in with all the students before wishing them a good and early night – and sound sleeping before another busy day tomorrow. I’m going to take our own advice and sign off for now!

Day One: #VPA2018

We made it to Belgium!

I met up with six students in Toronto who were flying with me to meet the rest of our group in Montreal and had a chance to meet some of their parents – and put them at ease a little about taking their children overseas! Everyone was really friendly and they started learning a new card game that one of the students brought which was fun. Our final student flying in from Windsor met us shortly before we boarded and we left for Montreal. The flight was short but quite bumpy and made a few kids (outside of our group) sick. I felt bad for them because I know what it’s like to have been in their shoes but at least it was within 5 minutes of landing.

When we got to Montreal some Air Canada representatives pulled us aside to let us know that they wanted to take a group picture and were rounding up everyone who was already at the airport. We received some water bottles, neck pillows, and lanyards as a complimentary gift from Air Canada. I met all the other students (some had been at the airport since the morning because their flights from other places were early!) and started to hear about where they’ve travelled before, what subjects they’re taking in school, and what they are excited for about the Vimy program.

We all had a chance to rest on the flight over to Brussels and landed early morning. We met up with our final chaperone who traveled from Paris and boarded the bus for Ypres. Today we have a relaxing day filled with icebreaker activities, time to rest, and a visit to the In Flanders Fields museum in the Cloth Hall. I’m excited to get to know the students more and start teaching them about the First World War!

Check back soon for more about our first full day on the program! And follow the hashtag #VPA2018 on twitter!

Two more days!

Only two more days until we head overseas for the Vimy Pilgrimage Award program!

I am busy packing, reading up on the sites we will be visiting, and downloading some First World War songs to provide a soundtrack for our tour. I look forward to meeting all the students soon and sharing such an incredible experience on the Canadian battlefields in France and Belgium!