MIKE WILLISCRAFT – THE MACLEOD GAZETTE
History came to life last week for 4,000 high school students from across Canada, including right here at home as local youth travelled to France to observe the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
A group of 10 students from F.P. Walshe school in Fort Macleod braved near-freezing temperatures and cold driving rain throughout the day as they toured the Vimy battle site and saw an afternoon ceremony honouring all the soldiers’ bravery.
It was nothing compared to the -20 Celsius temperatures of April 9, 1917 when the epic battle, which is credited as a seminal point in establishing Canada as a nation, was launched.
In the end, more than 7,000 wounded and nearly 3,600 dead did what they had to do and took the strategic ridge and the rest, as they say, is history.
“It’s been unbelievable, very impressive,” said F.P. Walshe teacher and the students’ group leader, Chris Baxter.
The students participated in a 2.5-kilometre silent march from the centre of Givenchy, the town at the foot of the hill, up to the ridge which overlooks the picturesque French countryside.
They toured the entire site, including trenches on both the allied and German lines, the battle field, the monument which dominates the landscape and the cemeteries for hundreds and hundreds of war dead.
The ceremony itself was fit for the magnitude of the occasion, including a speech by Canada’s Governor General David Johnston.
The students are part of a group of 4,000 from across the country who have taken in events in London, England, Amsterdam, Belgium and visited a series of places in France.
Federal Minister of Veterans Affairs Steven Blaney implored those at the massive gathering to tell all the story of the things they saw and learned on their adventure.
“Use your Blackberry, use Twitter to tell about the story of sacrifice made here,” Blaney said. “That will keep the brave alive forever.”
Blaney’s comments came during a presentation about the famous battle from July 1, 1916 in which all but 68 men from the 801-man 1st Newfoundland Regiment where wiped out in an hour of battle. The sacrifice of a generation of Newfoundland men resulted in another strategic battle victory.
The trip was conducted by EF Educational Tours, a leader in Canadian history tours.
“As part of their pre-trip studies, students are matched with a soldier who died during World War One or Two, and research more about the soldier and their life,” said Greg Owen, the company’s vice-president of public affairs and event tours. “Often times, they will visit the grave of a relative or a soldier that they researched, and they realize that these soldiers were the same age that they are now. It is a life-changing experience,”
The students from Fort Macleod return to Canada on April 20.