Remembering Vimy

I’m sorry this one’s coming a little late in the day but I’ve been out all weekend and the timing on this one kind of had to be last minute because of the content. I know this blog is generally focused on looking at the transformations I am making in my life through health and wellness but despite all the changes I’m making there are bits and pieces of who I am that I hope never change. I hope I will never lose my hard work ethic, my love of new experiences, and my passion for helping others.

I also hope I will never lose interest in learning about history.

I remember enjoying history lessons at a young age. I think when it really stuck with me was my first elementary school lessons on Medieval Europe. I was fascinated with story about kings, queens, knights, and everything in between. While that era still intrigues me, my interest in history has definitely shifted over the years. I don’t remember what class, film, or whatever else drew me into learning about World War One and World War Two but whatever it was, I was hooked.

In my senior year of high school I had the wonderful opportunity to go on an educational tour of Europe. We went from France to Germany, taking in a wide range of different educational activities that centred primarily around WWI and WWII. We met survivors of the holocaust, talked to veterans of both conflicts, and experienced history where it had been lived. One of the most memorable experiences was a moment touring Vimy Ridge and going to the Goliath of a monument that had been erected there.

I don’t know how much Vimy is talked about in history classes outside of Canada but for us it’s a feature that I think most classes at least mention. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a triumph led by Canadian forces in World War One. We were taught that the ridge was widely remarked as impossible to breach, and yet the Canadians took it full force.

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial now stands proudly on a portion of that ridge, along with preserved trenches and tunnel that had been recreated with stone. This was one of the first experiences we had on the trip walking in the footsteps of those who had come before. As we travelled, we wore names of soldiers on our jackets: one of the two names on my jacket belonged to my great-uncle Curtis who was fought in World War Two. It was a surreal experience and the overall trip was one I don’t think I’ll ever be able to replicate.

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is absolutely massive and while my crappy point and click camera of the time did me no favours, I’m not sure I’d be able to capture its glory even today with more knowledge of photography and a much better camera. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and it’s absolutely breathtaking. Inscribed on this massive monument are the names of the soldiers who fought in the battle and had no known resting place.

Now, you may be wondering what spurred this lengthy post on history and some of my experiences with it. Today, April 9, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. To commemorate this anniversary, a local historic fort in Toronto, Fork York, hosted a free weekend event featuring demonstrations, reenactments, and commemorative activities.

History related and free? Count me in.

On Saturday I got to Fort York early, right around when they opened. Immediately, I was overwhelmed by the feeling I got walking in to find that for the most part I was surrounded by just re-enactors. Their uniforms were pristine, detailed in every way. One of the actors I spoke to even had period appropriate eyewear. Despite the fact that the fort is surrounded by skyscrapers it almost all faded away as I watched them act their way around the fort as if they were at an actual functioning camp.

They had set up some medical tents and a few booths with replica weapons and tools. I learned about the WWI machine gun teams and the different types of gas masks. Every corner had an opportunity for learning from men and women who had clearly done their research with passion and enthusiasm.

One thing I really loved was how many people had brought along their children. I listened in as a boy who looked to be about ten asked endless questions to test his own knowledge. I saw a grandfather telling his grandchildren about the different bits and pieces of the soldiers’ uniform. I love seeing things like this; while teaching at my university I had students who didn’t know what the holocaust was so seeing much younger kids getting a hands on education in history makes me feel a bit better inside.

As the day went on I watched several different drills: they raised the union jack on the flagpole in the centre of the fort, a line of men went through an assault drill, and the artillery gun was fired off with two blank rounds.

As part of the celebration, Fort York had set up a little dining hall with warm lunches, coffee, tea, and some unique little desserts. The fort is dedicated to providing historical based goodies; from brownies to butter tarts, they had a number of scrumptious options to pick up. I grabbed Canada’s First Butter Tart (the recipe for which comes from my hometown) and War Cake. Both were delicious and just a little bit more special than a regular treat.

Additionally, they had some free items to commemorate the event that I picked up. One was a lovely little book of post cards, including one with In Flanders Fields The temporary tattoo was kind of funny but hey, anything to get kids interested.

I enjoyed myself so much on Saturday that I decided to invite my parents down and go back out today.

Since today was the actual anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the events at Fort York were slightly different. They still had a lot of the displays, some of the re-enactors who continued to provide fun details about the war (i.e. some soldiers purposefully got STDs just for the medical leave), and the cafe was open once again for more war cakes and butter tarts. The main events were different though; instead of a bunch of re-enactment demonstrations, the day was centred around a commemorative service with a march from the Queen’s Rangers and speeches from local and foreign dignitaries.

A particularly special moment happened before the ceremony where some replica vintage airplanes did a fly-by over the fort. I am fascinated by old aircraft and this kind of thing always makes me smile. They did the same thing this past Remembrance Day at Toronto’s old city hall and it was all sorts of memorable.

History is important, especially in a time like now where the future can look bleak for so many people. It is important to look at the dim times we managed through in order to provide hope in the darkness we currently trudge through. Today’s battlefield may not be through muddy trenches or clouds of gas but it can still be brutal and bloody. We fight on, despite the injustice and cruelty around us. And hopefully, sometimes we look back and we learn.

To the brave men who fought at Vimy, who I’ve been told may have included my Great Grandfather, we will never forget the sacrifices you made to make sure this world would remain free. It is far from perfect but it is certainly better because of the risks you took and the sacrifices you made. I’d like to dedicate this post to every man, woman, and beast who has served or is currently serving, who sacrificed so much for the rest of us. Thank you for your service.

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