Remembrance Day was never a big deal for me. I could never get my mind around world war; I never really wanted to. But when I was attending university in England last fall, a Canadian friend suggested travelling to France and trekking out to Vimy Ridge on Nov. 11.
Both of us were expecting a European adventure, so neither of us was prepared for the all-Canadian contingent we met when we scored the last two beds in the youth hostel closest to the ridge. As we walked past the communal kitchen, we were immediately bombarded with "Hey'der! You guys Canadian?" Ten shiny faces were staring at us from around the table, and within 10 minutes of putting down my bags, I was chatting with a girl who grew up in the same minuscule town in northern Ontario that my parents grew up in.
Finding common ground
So began our Vimy experience. At a nearby bar that night, 20 of us under the age of 25 met up with about 10 of the Vimy guides who were also Canadian. As we talked, I quickly realized that we had all come to pay our respects for very different reasons. My friend and I – two feminist, leftwing arts students – expected to confirm our beliefs that war should never happen and that violence is never the answer. But we were wide-eyed to discover that many of the other young adults were part of the Canadian military – they had come to validate and commemorate the efforts of the soldiers who had gone before.
Two were soldiers on leave from Bosnia. Another fellow – an engineer – worked part time for the army. And a couple just barely out of high school had paid for their trip by joining the reserves and enduring basic training. Hearing all the military talk, my friend and I wondered what we were getting ourselves into, but as the conversation progressed, we realized that we had more in common with the soldiers-in-training than we might have liked to admit. Certainly, when it came to our native land, we found lots to talk about. Needless to say, there was Canadian cockiness in the air as we took over the bar and made it a little piece of home that night.
Learning the historical significance of Vimy Ridge
On the bus ride over to Vimy Ridge the next morning, an ex-guide who was travelling with us gave us the rundown on the historical significance of Vimy.
At the battle of Vimy Ridge, the Canadian Corps had the autonomy to strategize, plan and fight together under Canadian command. Its mission -- to topple the Germans from a key defensive position -- had been tried and failed in previous attempts by the British and by the French. At Vimy Ridge, Canadians had a chance to show the world what they were made of.
Page 1 of 2 -- Lorna imagines the trenches from the perspective of a young Canadian solider on page 2.
Not surprisingly, they were made of the same stuff as everyone else: flesh and bones. More than 3,500 Canadians died and 7,000 were wounded, but our troops were successful. And this stunning victory became a defining moment in the creation of our national identity.
Learning the history of the battle was one story; visiting the cemeteries, seeing the trenches and feeling the cold ghosts' breath in the underground tunnels was a different story altogether. On our silent graveyard walk we were no longer the infallible Canada-proud kids from the night before. Suddenly time and space collapsed between those walking the earth in the 21st century and those beneath our feet who died fighting for our freedom in the 20th. I felt a pride of country that I had never felt before, a kind of nationalism that no beer ad can capture and no hockey anthem can evoke.
Walking with my new Canadian friends between row on row of gravestones, I saw two very different views. Ahead, the white stones stretched out one behind the other like long chalk lines, straight and narrow, giving no perspective of how many dead the graveyard actually held. But when I turned my head only the slightest bit, the rows splayed out to reveal thousands of headstones like so many white teeth strewn in the mud.
Those stones brought home to us the weight of our history and privilege. For us, being in our mid-20s means the freedom to travel, discover new places – and ourselves – along the way, test our limits and push our boundaries. For the soldiers who lie still – the same age then as we are now – it had meant fighting to establish national boundaries and dying, perhaps, for a few feet of muddy ground. At the same time, they were learning that there are no boundaries to war or the atrocities that humans will commit against one another.
Imagining a Canadian soldier's Vimy experience
But in those quiet spaces between battles, I could imagine how they laughed and joked the way we did. I could hear them asking one another if they knew Nadine from Kirkland Lake, Ont., or Pete from Gander, Nfld., discussing how to tell a male lobster from a female lobster in Prince Edward Island or debating which coast was better, east or west. And just as we would sing along to the latest Sarah McLachlan song, I'm sure they sang sometimes, too – sang and listened to songs that reminded them of their homes so far away. Melodies that made their insides ache for the people they loved. But, unlike us, they didn't know if they would ever see all those brothers and sisters, friends and lovers, and parents again.
The night after our trip to Vimy Ridge was much less boisterous. Mostly the soldiers talked about war -- planning for it, training for it, hoping for the call to go to Afghanistan. Those of us outside the military listened, asked questions and felt as if we were being let in on secrets – secrets we weren't sure we wanted to hear.
The next day, several of us stood apart at the train station, faced with saying an appropriate farewell. One of the girls – a student from P.E.I. – said we should give one another "a Canadian goodbye" and reached out to hug the guy next to her. Our hugs felt awkward. We were disconnecting and pulling back into our separate worlds. But although none of us knew how to express it in words, we were all grateful for our chance meeting and the communal memories we had created by seeing those rows of headstones through one another's eyes.
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