B.C. Students Celebrate Lives of Vimy War Dead
David Carrigg | Vancouver Sun | Published on: April 9, 2017 | Last Updated: April 9, 2017 1:42 PM PDT
VIMY RIDGE, France — Caden Ward carried John Bullock up Vimy Ridge on Sunday. Two young Canadians separated by a century, one full of hope and promise, the other long forgotten until this warm spring day in France when again he travelled uphill on ground pocked by shell holes and surrounded by thousands of youths on the same path forward.
At least half of the 25,000 people who attended the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Northern France on Sunday were students. They sat in groups on freshly cut grass, eating baguettes, braiding one another’s hair, under the watchful gaze of Canada Bereft, the standing centrepiece of this massive limestone monument to the fallen. In the background, non stop, the names of Canada’s war dead were read out until finally a guitar played and an afternoon of entertainment began before the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Amid this scene, Ward, 17, of Vancouver, held tight the neatly folded gravestone rubbing, made from charcoal and paper, taken a day ago from a cemetery near Arras: It reads 775007 Private John Bullock 38 Battalion Canadian Inf. 9th April 1917.
“I got to see my soldier (yesterday),” Ward said.
“I didn’t know him (Bullock), he’s not a relative. But I feel connected. We are not so different,” said the tall dark-haired boy, who was among a 40-strong group from Vancouver’s Fraser Academy for children with language-based learning disabilities.
Ward, who spoke clearly and with passion on this day, noted that he was on a foreign adventure, as was Bullock, but with drastically different reasons and outcome.
“This could have been me 100 years ago. He enlisted at 18 and died at 19. I feel like he was lost and I’m so glad to bring him back to life.”
The four-day attack began early on Easter Monday with all four Canadian divisions confronted by the best defended stretch of the German line at the point and was brilliantly prepared and executed. It occurred in the 50th year of Canada’s confederation and is now marked by the finest war memorial on the Western Front. Therefore, fact, timing and the memorial itself make this battle a defining moment for Canada — amid so many other acts of war its men undertook during the three years and nine months the Canadians were active in France.
Ward learned that Bullock was among the first to attack that snowy day, but was part of the 12th brigade of the 4th Division which due to a tactical error had its men charge toward machine-guns that had not been taken out by artillery and they were easily cut down.
Visiting graves to connect with individual soldiers from this foul, bloody, war was a highlight and seemed at the core of the experiences of several students interviewed by Postmedia News on Sunday.
None spoke of the glory of war, nor did they want to be soldiers. They simply wanted to breathe life into others of similar age and from the same places, who by chance or destiny, died in unspeakable ways on this rich dirt many miles from home.
Julia Maunber, 17, of South Delta Secondary, was emotional.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “It’s the memorial, but it’s also the environment created thinking about the soldiers a hundred years ago. How selfless they were.”
She hopes to take those feelings back home with her. “I’m going to try and be more selfless and create more peace and love in a small way.”
Keith Donaldson, a Delta teacher partly responsible for the 100 Grade 10-12 students from the Delta school district, said the group would visit the Faubourg d’ Amiens Commonwealth War Grave near Arras and repeat Ward’s work, having spent the past weeks studying a Canadian soldier from that cemetery.
Donaldson has been assigned Private Alexander Maxwell, from Vancouver’s 72nd Battalion (the Seaforth Highlanders), a conscript who was killed by shellfire while working as a stretcher bearer on Sept. 9, 1918, less than nine months after conscription. The 28-year-old was born in Toronto but was conscripted while working as a machinist in Penticton.
Donaldson also has a deeply personal connection to the First World War through his great grandfather, Joseph Smyth Donaldson, who survived the war, along the way winning a Military Medal on the first day of the Battle of Hill 70 in August, 1917, and later a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Joseph Donaldson joined up in April, 1916 and arrived in England the following month and was at the front in France two months later. The short turnaround was an indicator of the dire need for men during a bad year for the Allies. Donaldson — who rose from private to Company sergeant major — won his medal in a classic First World War way. As a private, he took command of his platoon during the attack on Hill 70, used a rifle grenade to clear 75-yards of trench, then encountered 25 Germans, killed five and took the rest prisoner. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal in Sept., 1918 and returned to Canada in April 1919.
Other B.C. groups at Sunday’s event included 60 from Vancouver’s Seaforth Highlanders Regiment, cadets, soldiers and families of the fallen.
Seaforth’s spokesman Hon. Lt. Col. Rod Hoffmeister (son of Bert Hoffmeister, one of the regiment’s Second World War commanders) said the group walked through fields earlier in the day that were the exact same that First World War Seaforths crossed one hundred years ago.
For Ward, he plans to take his gravestone rubbing home to Vancouver where he will continue to research the short and ultimately violent life of John Bullock — who like Ward had brown eyes and dark hair — and hopes to find a family member to whom Ward can say, “He was not forgotten”.