Sometimes we hear complaints that students don’t learn enough about the First and Second World Wars and the part Canadian soldiers played in these historic events. Hoping to change that, a number of Canadian teachers have, for the last three summers, taken part in study tours designed to provide an in-depth understanding of the Canadian experience in the two wars. This past summer Rob Gamache, a rural Manitoba teacher at Portage Collegiate Institute in Portage la Prairie, was selected to participate in a 10-day “Canadian Battlefields Study Tour.”
There were two tours, both given in collaboration with the Canadian Battlefields Foundation, the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies, and Veterans Affairs Canada. Gamache was chosen for the tour for francophone educators, along with 15 others from nearly every province. “It was a great first-hand learning experience,” he says. “Everyone learned a great deal that we can now pass on to our students.”
The tours are designed to introduce high school teachers to important Canadian battlefields and memorials in Belgium and France. Before leaving, participants were required to read material on the war and prepare a couple of short presentations – one about a specific battle or phase of the fighting, and the other a brief biographical sketch of a Canadian soldier who is buried or commemorated there. These were presented to the group, two or three each day, at the appropriate battle site or cemetery. The soldier Gamache was asked to research was a young man from rural Saskatchewan who died in 1944 and is buried at Brettevillesur-Laize.
The educators’ tour began at Ypres, Belgium with a visit to the Flanders Field Museum, the cemeteries there, and a moving ceremony held at the Menin Gate. This is a monument dedicated to British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the battles around Ypres but for whom there is no known grave. The names of 54,896 soldiers are carved into vast panels, but they ran out of space, so those missing from after August 15, 1917 – another 34,984 – are inscribed on a memorial at Tyne Cot. At the Menin Gate ceremony (which is actually held every evening) two members of the educators’ group took part by laying a wreath.
During the next couple of days the group visited Vimy Ridge and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. Opened in 1936, it is in memory of the 66,000 Canadians killed in the First World War. Listed there are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers with no known grave, missing and presumed dead in France. The park around it contains tunnels and trenches, many of which are closed to the public for safety because explosives are still in the area. To keep the grass a reasonable length, sheep and goats are pastured there, and occasionally one of these is blown up.
Before he left Manitoba, Gamache had recorded names of soldiers from the cenotaphs at MacGregor, his hometown, and nearby Beaver. He located a number of these names on the Vimy Memorial and at Menin Gate. He also talked beforehand to Portage la Prairie relatives of one particular soldier who died in France in 1917. One morning Gamache made a 6 a. m. start and with the help of his tour guide, took a special side trip to find the soldier’s grave and take photos for them.
The educators’ group also visited the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel in the Somme, a 30-hectare site that commemorates all Newfoundlanders who fought in the First World War. (Newfoundland was not then part of Canada.) This site contains a mound with rocks and shrubs native to Newfoundland and a large bronze statue of a caribou. Three tablets list 820 Newfoundlanders with no known grave. In the surrounding area, trench lines from the battle are still visible.
On their fourth day the group moved to the beaches of Dieppe and explored the area where the Allied troops were repelled in August 1942. The group spent one night there in a hotel right on the beach. Later nights were spent at the Moulin Morin, a reconstructed mill in Normandy. From this base they studied the various D-Day landings of June, 1944 and visited the famous beaches at Juno (site of the Canadian landings) and Omaha Beach (American landings). They also went to other cemeteries such as the Canadian Military Cemeteries at Beny-sur-Mer/ Reviers and Bretteville-sur-Laize, the American Military Cemetery at St. Laurent-sur-Mer, and the German Military Cemetery at La Cambe. “I had no idea there were so many different Canadian cemeteries,” says Gamache. “We’ve all heard of Flanders, but not of many of these other places. I was also overwhelmed by the lengthy columns of names of those with no known grave.”
In groups, the educators discussed ways of teaching about the wars in their high school classrooms, and analyzed various Second World War battles in the region, followed by visits to the actual sites. At the site of the Battle of Flers-Corcelette (the Canadian part of the Battle of the Somme in 1916) Gamache discovered a bullet and cartridge in one of the fields. He also found shrapnel from the 1944 Battle of Normandy.
“The whole trip was a very moving experience,” says Gamache, “and I would encourage others to take it, if they have the chance. It’s hard for students to understand the significance of the wars from a textbook. I hope that first-hand accounts and my actual photos will make it seem more relevant to them.”
– Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba