As Canadians, Remembrance Day is an important reminder of the sacrifices that have been made for our freedom and our safety. While the country pauses in silence each year on November 11th to remember those who have fought, the two of us remember the feelings we felt as we had the opportunity to literally walk where they walked in the First and Second World Wars.
In March 2009 we had the privilege of joining in on a school trip to France and Belgium. Before we express our gratitude and epiphanies, full disclosure: Mad went on the trip in hopes of falling in love in Paris and bumping into a reincarnated Coco Chanel on the Champs d’Elysee. Teal went on the trip because her mom said she would pay for this one, and not the Jamaicain grad trip. It was a no brainer...off they went. Suitcases big enough to fit a small pony, the girls were bound for Europe.
We owe our friendship to this trip, but that isn’t all. We left for the airport that fateful day thinking we would hit all the hotspots and just go to the grave sites ‘cause we had to. We were told to bring rubber boots for trekking back into the fields but we wouldn’t actually wear them, we thought. Maybe we would even wait in the bus while the history buffs and teachers got off at the numerous scheduled grave sites to do the rubbings and record data on local soldiers. We weren’t being inconsiderate or ignorant, it just wasn’t the selling feature for us.
Maybe it had something to do with meeting a group of cute British military boys at one of the first grave sites, but we quickly stopped counting down the days to Paris and realized the significance of the trip we were on and the places we were seeing. One thing we quickly learned is how respected Canadians are abroad. On our very first day, we were taking pictures in the centre square in Bruges, Belgium with a Canadian flag. Belgians who passed by either cheered, wanted to take a picture with us, or started singing and dancing. They loved Canada and it took us, again, a couple days and a lot of reflection to truly understand why.
The next day we began our graveyard and battle site tours. This was the part of the trip that we had not been too keen on but was the part that ended up impacting us the most. The first cemetery we saw was Tyne Cot which is located on the Paschendaele Ridge. Growing up, we hear the poem In Flander’s Fields every single November 11th when we remember the members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty. As soon as we stepped foot in Tyne Cot, we immediately thought of the second line of this poem, “Between the crosses, row on row”. Over 11,000 soldiers were buried in the first cemetery that we stopped at. Of these fallen men, 4,000 of the graves were marked and the rest were labelled “Unknown to God”. The imagery of 11,000 stark white gravestones in rows was poignant beyond belief.
A unique aspect of our trip was that before leaving, every student had been assigned a different soldier from our area who was buried in one of the cemeteries that we were going to be visiting. We had researched our soldiers, spoken with remaining family members, and our goal was to come back with a grave rubbing to present to their family. Walking through the graveyards of the French countryside made the reality of war very clear to us. You see, gravesites appear everywhere because during the war, the dead who could be found were often buried right at the battle site. This resulted in impromptu cemeteries, found in farmers fields and along the sides of back country roads. While the locations of these gravesites may not be widely known or prestigious, the soldiers that lay there have our greatest respect. We understand and appreciate the sacrifices made by these men.
A highlight was visiting Essex Farm which is the cemetery where John McRae wrote his famous poem, In Flanders Fields. We also had the opportunity to visit Vimy Ridge. For a history refresher, Vimy Ridge is a gradually rising escarpment outside of Arras. It provides a natural unobstructed view for tens of kilometers in all directions. The ridge fell under German Control in October 1914. In the spring of 1917, Canadian troops were sent to capture Vimy Ridge. The allies (United States, Great Britain, and France) had tried several times to capture the ridge, but every attempt was met with failure. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the first instance in which all four Canadian divisions participated in battle together and was one of the greatest battles led by Canadian officers during World War I. The Vimy Ridge Memorial took our breath away. It was originally built in 1922 and restored in 2007. It is a 10 storey white limestone monument with twin pillars that list the names of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died in France and whose remains were never found. It also consists of a large limestone figure representing Mother Canada, gazing down onto a single tomb. We had a tour of the monument and the preserved trenches and tunnels. We came across a maple leaf that had been carved by a soldier into the tunnels and preserved. A sign of respect, France gave the land to Canada which means that the Vimy Ridge Memorial actually sits on Canadian soil.
This trip allowed us to experience for ourselves the history that we had previously only read about in textbooks and watched in documentaries. It was beyond what we could have ever imagined in a superficial vacation to Paris and we couldn’t be more grateful for that. We were amazed by the respect and appreciation that people living in the areas we toured still had for Canada, even 100 years after these historic events took place. Our trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity…. visitng landing beaches, Vimy Ridge, trenches, and grave sites… but something that makes November 11th that much more impactful each and every year.
Lots of love,
Mad & Teal