By Berkeley Wilson
What an amazing experience it was; travelling from the Beaches area of Toronto over to Vimy, France to take part in one of the most significant centennial commemorations in Canadian history. My name is Berkeley and I’m a Grade 12 student from Malvern Collegiate Institute, a school with a fittingly rich military legacy.
More than 20 Malvern alumni lost their lives in the First World War, so I thought it my duty to honour them by attending the Vimy Centennial; especially because one Malvern alumnus, Thomas Murray Watson, was killed the day prior to the attack on April 8, 1917.
Since Malvern was not running a Vimy trip this year, after having done so on the 95th and 90th anniversaries, I was welcomed to travel with Silverthorn CI from Etobicoke. This was a great decision to travel with Silverthorn as the teachers and students were all very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the war and the trip. I believe it was meant to be that I joined their group. We were paired and travelled with a group from Foam Lake, Sask., with a population near 1200. This was also an interesting match because two men from Foam Lake were killed at Vimy, and there was much fascination between our groups regarding each other’s stories of our men who served. It was reassuring to see that, no matter where one is in Canada, we can all be united under the idea that men from all backgrounds mixed together to work towards a common goal of freedom. The men broke down the social and cultural barriers of the time, and the idea of the birth of a nation arose after this one battle.
As for our tour route, we landed in London, and after two days there, we took a ferry across the English Channel, as the men would have, and spent a night in Normandy. We then spent the next three nights in Lille, approximately 45 minutes from Vimy, and visited various battlefields and war cemeteries of both the First and Second World wars. The final day, our ninth, was spent in Lille and attending the ceremony. Lastly, we spent one night in Paris.
The reason I believe it was fate that I travelled with Silverthorn was because of the relationship I had with one of the students on the trip. I became friends with this student and, after spending a lot of time together, we discovered we had a distinct connection. The Silverthorn teacher organizer came to our table at dinner the night before the ceremony and asked the student about his great-great uncle who died at Vimy what his name was so we might be able to find his grave, and he replied, “Thomas Watson”. Now, back to Toronto and the parents’ meeting for the trip, I vaguely recalled overhearing his mother speaking about her great uncle who died in the war had lived in the beaches, which is the area where I live and where Malvern is located in Toronto. I jumped in and asked, “Wait, Thomas Murray Watson?” then sounding confused, he replied “Yes… how did you know that?” “Did he go to Malvern?” he said in apparent jest. “Yes, actually he went to Malvern,” I assured them and adding that he was the only alumnus killed at Vimy.” And thus, I we had a mutual connection to Vimy that I could not have foreseen.
One of the most transcendent experiences of my life was actually our visit Juno Beach on our stop in Normandy. I was by myself, barefoot, walking down the beach towards the water, and I spontaneously started to cry – I am not much of a crier either. Although it was a cold day, I walked into the water with my jeans rolled up and let the cold waters of the channel hit my feet like daggers for a split second, then it oddly turned warm and I felt the sensation of standing in a hot bath. I ended up standing in the water for a good two minutes and my trip companions were astonished at how long I stayed there standing in the 10-degree water. I think it could have been a visceral reaction to knowing how much was sacrificed by our troops and the valour the Canadians had shown and wanting to experience some part of that day. From a family perspective, my grandfather was in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the second war and, so I have a tighter connection to what the beach represented.
As for the Vimy ceremony itself, I also had a touching experience; under the polar opposite conditions of the day
that greeted the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force 100 years before, it was 24 degrees with not a cloud in the sky. Easter morning 1917 was a different story with the snow; a real Canadian test. The performers on this day gave various renditions of wartime scenarios and contemporary dances relating to the soldiers, battle and the preparations. Then a couple of Canadian artists sung sombre songs. Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s speech was reflective of the nation building the battle represented. French President Francois Hollande made a more political speech from what I understood of it, and Prince Charles’ speech was probably my personal favourite. I found what he said very genuine and sentimental. Also, his French accent was significantly better than I anticipated. Another part of the ceremony I appreciated a lot were both plane fly-bys – one by replica vintage aircraft from the war and another by modern jets – and the obligatory 21-gun salute. I enjoy these parts of war ceremonies because they give a tangible sense of warfare through the sounds of war, and provide a look into what the soldiers themselves experienced. It was intriguing to make the comparison between old Sopwith Pups from the era of the battle and the modern fighter jets of our day. It proves how rapidly humans have progressed technology in 100 years.
The Vimy centennial was one of the best weeks of my life. I hope that it revives the memories and stories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in a war of attrition. It puts into perspective the privilege we Canadians enjoy thanks to their heroism 100 years ago.