Contributed by Dianne Rabel
Forty-two CHSS students and six chaperones went to Vimy Ridge in April for the 95th anniversary of the famous Canadian victory in 1917. This was an experience to remember for a lifetime.
The tour began in Amsterdam where we visited a cheese farm, stopped at a windmill, took a boat tour through the city’s canals, and visited the Van Gogh Museum. The following day we visited the Anne Frank house where Anne and her family hid for a year before their capture in 1944.
We drove to the beautiful medieval city of Bruges, Belgium next. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a jewel, seemingly untouched by two world wars. It was Easter Saturday and many of us were on a quest for Belgian chocolate.
Easter Sunday found us in Lille, and from this central location over the next few days we fanned out through Normandy. The first thing we did on Sunday was hold a ceremony of our own in the Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery. Many of the men buried here are Canadians, and at least half of the men are “Known unto God”. Before we came on the tour, each of us researched a soldier buried here. We honoured each man by telling his story as we stood by his grave. From Cabaret Rouge we drove a short distance down the road to the German cemetery at Neuville-St. Vaast. It was sobering to walk amongst the 44,833 graves, knowing the enemy suffered just as Canadians did.
Sunday was a very busy day. Our next stop was the city of Ypres where the famous Cloth Hall and cathedral were rebuilt following the destruction of 1915. We all wished we had more time to visit this beautiful city, but there were so many more places to stop. We drove a short ways outside of Ypres to the Essex Farm Cemetery where Dr. John McCrae wrote his famous poem, In Flanders Fields. In 1915 an Advanced Dressing Station was located in this place, and it was here that Dr. McCrae attended to the wounded and dying. When he learned of the death of his good friend Alexis Helmer, he sat down here and wrote the lines we quote every November.
Our next stop was the magnificent Menin Gate in the city centre. Amongst the thousands of names of Commonwealth soldiers on these arches are those of at least 13 men from the Prince Rupert area who died at Ypres, Sanctuary Wood, and Passchendaele, and who have no known grave.
Following the stop at Menin Gate we drove a short distance outside of town to Vancouver Corner and the statue of the Brooding Soldier. It was here that Canadians withstood the first gas attacks; 2,000 Canadians died in a few days here in 1915. Many were from British Columbia and several from Prince Rupert.
Our last stop that day was a private museum at Hill 62, Sanctuary Wood. Students enjoyed exploring the landscape which has its British trench system more-or-less intact. Several Prince Rupert men died here, too.
Easter Monday was the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and we spent the day on the hill. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Canadian students gathered in the village of Givenchy and marched silently the 2.5 km uphill to Vimy Ridge. Then we marched downhill to Canadian Cemetery No. 2 where we held another ceremony. A man from Prince Rupert is buried here, also.
We had some time to explore the trenches and the monument, and were able to locate the names of 23 of the 34 or so Prince Rupert names inscribed there. We couldn’t find all of them because the front of the monument was out of bounds for security reasons.
It started to sprinkle in the morning, and by the afternoon when the official ceremony began, we had a full-on Prince Rupert-style rain and windstorm. We braved it as long as we could, then sought shelter in our bus. Some brave souls held out to the end of the ceremony, including Meagan Fontaine who was an honourary torch-bearer, and Kaila Beaudry who carried the BC flag.
There was a concert for students that evening, but considering our soaked state, we happily dropped that plan and went back to the hotel to get dry.
Tuesday was our day to visit Juno Beach. We started above Omaha Beach at a place called Longues-sur-mer. Four enormous German casemates are still standing here, three with guns intact. From this spot we drove down to the Canadian landing beaches and the Juno Beach Centre. Our group purchased a memorial brick in support of the Centre, the only place in Normandy devoted to telling the Canadian World War II story.
The day ended in the city of Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.
We spent our final day in Paris. We visited the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, took a Seine River cruise, shopped and soaked up the atmosphere. A perfect ending to a wonderful tour.