Six Island Cadets, representing their Corps, attend centenary memorial of famous battle
FRANCE—Six members of the Manitoulin Sea Cadet Corps, along with four chaperones travelled to France and the Vimy Ridge memorial earlier this month, along with 800 other cadets and 25,000 other Canadians for the 100th anniversary commemorative ceremony of the Battle of Vimy Ridge at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. In addition the Manitoulin group visited other famous war memorials and took in the sights and history of France.
The cadets began their journey on Friday, April 6, flying overnight to Paris. Once they landed, the group travelled to the town of Peronne, located two hours north of Paris near Vimy. Their first afternoon in France, the group visited the Royal Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont Hamell.
“The monument is in memory of the July 1, 1916 battle where 95 percent of the soldiers were lost in the first 30 minutes,” explained Manitoulin Sea Cadet Training Officer Lieutenant (Navy) Denis Blake, who was one of the chaperones on the trip.
They also explored a medieval museum castle in the middle of the town they were staying in and attended an Expo in the city of Arras. At the time of the First World War, Newfoundland was not part of Canada and was a Dominion in its own right.
On Sunday, April 9 the group attended the Vimy Ridge memorial service.
“We arrived at 9 am and were there for the day,” explained Lieutenant Blake. “We were in uniform and it was a fairly hot day—24 degrees but it felt hotter in the sun. The ceremony included military bands, poems and speeches from diplomats. It was a very moving ceremony. A lot of the things the cadets were hearing, they were hearing for the first time and it was very thought provoking.”
Lieutenant Blake said the crowd was very respectful and there was a strong sense of camaraderie.
“French speakers indicated a deep thankfulness to Canadians,” he said. “The French territory had been invaded and occupied several times through the years and it was the action of Canadians on Vimy Ridge day that helped the French and their allies to reclaim that part of their country. The message, over and over again, was that it wasn’t just that the Canadians who fought that battle but it was also the planning that took place in the months beforehand and the courage displayed. The soldiers used technology in the Battle of Vimy Ridge and were open to new ideas that were new in the military at the time. Vimy Ridge was really the birth of a nation—those soldiers did something that no one else had accomplished do up to that point. Many French soldiers had died in the previous two years to the Canadians successful assault on Vimy Ridge, trying to claim back the land and four divisions of Canadian soldiers accomplished this in four days.”
Lieutenant Blake said he was left with a deeper understanding of not only the battle, but what it meant to the French people. “I felt a lot of pride in being Canadian,” he noted.
“When Prime Minister Trudeau took the stand, he was greeted like a rockstar by the crowd,” said Lieutenant Blake. “I was also surprised at Prince Charles’ ability to speak French—he spoke exceedingly well.”
Lieutenant Blake commented that it was a long day for the cadets, but that none of them complained.
“It was a special day for them and something that many of them noted they would remember for the rest of their lives,” he added.
“Being at the ceremony on Vimy Ridge Day was incredible,” 16-year-old Petty Officer Second Class (PO2) Miranda MacKay told The Expositor. “Actually standing there at the monument and seeing how many people were there to honour the lives that were lost was amazing. It was wonderful to be part of the large crowd of Canadians. I’ve learned about the Battle of Vimy Ridge and other WWI battles in history class—I know about the dates, the number of people killed, but those are just numbers. It was something powerful to be there, standing on the ground where the battles took place—it brought new meaning and significance to everything.”
“I wanted to go on the trip to be part of the memorial and to remember the sacrifices of the thousands who gave their lives for France,” said 14-year-old Master Seaman Von Clayton.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” added fellow cadet PO1 Brodie McAllister, 17. “It was very moving. I enjoyed hearing the accounts from soldiers’ letters that were read aloud.”
“It was a really good service,” said PO1 Tim VanVolkingburgh. “It was by far the best service I have every been to and the magnitude of the people there was overwhelming.”
“It was definitely once-in-a-lifetime,” said P01 Bailey Dechateauvert, 16. “I felt honoured to be there and to be able to pay my respects. It was different being there as opposed to learning about it (the Battle of Vimy Ridge) in books—to see the conditions—it really hit home. The service was very good and very patriotic. It was cool when three fighter jets flew over during the ceremony.”
“I was honoured to be able to stand in uniform among 25,000 Canadians and with the pride in knowing the role that Canada played in changing the war with that one battle,” shared Chief P02 Alexis French.
Another moving part of the trip for many of the cadets was a visit to the Artois British Cemetery.
Each cadet was given the name of a soldier buried at the cemetery prior to the trip and asked to research that person’s life. Then each cadet shared the story of their assigned soldier after locating their gravestone.
“I obtained 50 small Canadian flags from MP Carol Hughes which we planted at the graves and the cadets laid a wreath at the front of the cemetery in honour of the fallen soldiers,” said Lieutenant Blake.
The Manitoulin group was paired with an Air Cadet Corps from Orillia. A piper with the Orillia Corps brought his bagpipes and played during the wreath laying ceremony.
Lieutenant Blake explained that the soldiers were from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry regiment (PPCLI) and that one of the cadets, Brodie McAllister’s father, Jim McAllister had served with the PPCLI in Afghanistan.
“Most of the soldiers buried in the cemetery died on the same day, August 26, 1917 and it was overwhelming to see that many graves, mostly from one battle,” said Miranda.
The group’s visit to the Royal Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont Hamell, also in France, was also a highlight for many of the cadets and for Lieutenant Blake and his son, Civilian Instructor with the Manitoulin Sea Cadets, Andrew Blake, who also helped to chaperone the trip.
Lieutenant Blake explained that Andrew’s great grandfather, Howard Morry, was one of the 64 Newfoundland regiment’s survivors of the July 16, 1916 battle of Beaumont Hamell.
“Beaumont Hamell was very emotional because just so many lives were lost,” said Miranda.
“I had heard about the battle, but it was different being there where it had happened,” added Bailey.
Tim also noted how Beaumont Hamell was a highlight of the trip for him. “Going through the trenches—we could only see a glimpse of what they must have been like as grass had grown over them, but it was powerful.”
The Monday following the Vimy Ridge service, the Islanders headed to Paris where they took in the local sights such as the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, a guided tour of the city and a boat cruise of the Seine.
“It was great to be able to travel to France,” said Brodie. “It was my first time out of the country and learning about French history was interesting.”
“The French treated us like gold,” added Bailey, noting how many people were excited to talk to them after learning they were Canadian. “Seeing the Eiffel Tower was a big highlight for me as we experienced the culture.”
“It was amazing being able to travel overseas,” said Alexis. “I hadn’t left Canada before. People were stopping us and thanking us on Vimy Ridge Day, which made me very proud to be Canadian.”
“The fundraising for the trip was met with overwhelming support and generosity from Manitoulin businesses and individuals,” said Lieutenant Blake. “It didn’t take us long to meet the goal to pay for the trip for all the six cadets and to be able to provide them with some spending money while they were in France and for the bus to take them to the airport in Toronto.”
The cadets will be doing a public presentation at the Northeast Town recreation centre about their trip in the near future, sponsored by the Little Current Branch 177 of the Royal Canadian Legion.