By Cadet Sergeant Jamie Whittaker
I have never felt the effects of war. I cannot fathom the pain, comradery, and fear felt by Canadian soldiers from 1914-1918. Earlier this year, as part of a school trip, I travelled throughout Britain, Belgium and France to various World War One memorials.
One hundred and one years ago, Canadian troops went to Europe to fight in what would become known as the Great War. Many assumed this fighting would only last until Christmas 1914; little did they know that many of them would not return. The brutality of the First World War defined what Canada is today.
On behalf of my school I was honoured to place a wreath at Menin Gate, a memorial in Ypres, Belgium, dedicated to those who never returned home. A Last Post ceremony has been conducted here since 1928. Marching for the Last Post I was both proud and sad. Soldiers had walked where I now stood, but under vastly different circumstances. No shells flew past my head; I was not afraid for my life. One hundred and one years ago, soldiers, some as young as 15, were petrified. 54 000 people died, and as a Cadet and a Canadian, I recognize what those soldiers, our veterans, sacrificed to secure our future.
Many soldiers suffered from shell shock (also known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD) during their time in the trenches. The powerful exhibit titled ‘Coming World, Remember Me’ was raised to represent soldiers lost along the Ypres Salient. Hunched soldiers with exposed backbones cover their heads. The area is covered in 600 000 sculptures, painting the muddy field in shades of red and copper, much like the blood of those who died here. The sculptures show a physical representation of how many lives were lost.
Many people never had the opportunity to visit relatives lost along the Ypres Salient. My great cousin, Sergeant Francis Lloyd Younghusband was never found. Many families never saw their loved ones or had final closure. With the idea of comradeship in mind, it was decided that the fallen should be buried with their brothers-in-arms. I believe it was the right thing to do for these men who fought in unison for a greater good. Though my cousin was never found, I hope to continue on his fight for freedom in the Canadian Armed Forces.
On July 1, 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment used the Danger Tree as a key landmark. At one point, the soldiers had to crawl from the trenches, through barbed wire. This gave the German troops an easy view of the Allies, enabling enemy forces to train machine guns on the spot, turning the mud red with blood.
Now, the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial marks where, on that day so many years ago, soldiers climbed over their comrades. Many tugged on uniforms to drag lifeless bodies aside so the attack could continue. Any soldier in their final moments would have been horrified at the sight. There is no question that those who survived suffered shell shock. These were their comrades, and now their bodies were strewn with bullet holes.
Within thirty minutes, the Newfoundland Regiment was annihilated. Eight hundred men climbed the trench walls that day; on the following morning, only 68 soldiers answered roll call. Few made it past the Danger Tree that day. To this day, the tree still stands, even though the land around it was ravaged by explosives and piled high with bodies. A singular plum tree continues to stand for the resilience of the Newfoundland Regiment, a reminder of the sacrifice they made to gain ground on that gruesome day.
I visited the Vimy Ridge Memorial, its tall, milky white limestone pylons overlooking Hill 145, where many soldiers died, never to be found. The sculpture of Peace drapes a soldier’s body, while the Torchbearer’s arm holds the torch high for his Brothers and Sisters Hope, Faith, Justice, Peace, Honour, and Charity. As John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Field’ states, “To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die”. Sacrifice is spread out as his Brothers and Sisters watch over him from above. On Vimy Ridge, rank did not matter; the bloodshed of war connected those soldiers. They held the ridge, while bombs exploded around them.
It is obvious that battles were once fought here. Enormous craters and fields laid barren by shells have long since been healed over with grass. Birds sing in the trees, and the sunlight pours between the branches. Uniforms may have changed over the decades but the symbolism remains unchanged. I marched proudly up to the Memorial in my cadet ceremonial dress uniform. As I saluted the 11 169 Canadians lost and remembered on the plaques surrounding the memorial, I felt proud to be a Canadian.
I learned that not only there is a physical healing, but a mental/emotional healing after war. Though we live after their sacrifices, we cannot forget them. We must be strong and change for the better, much like the grounds of Vimy did after the war.
When people run from fear, soldiers and military personnel run towards the problem, ready to secure and solve it, with undeniable and unquestionable bravery, courage and self-sacrifice. I cannot thank you enough for all that you do in times where we need a hero.
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