Third Annual Battlefields Tour
By David D. Stewart, Tour Leader
Department of History and Social Science
The invasion of Normandy remains one of the more significant moments of the Second World War. On five separate beaches, American, British, and Canadian soldiers participated in the largest amphibious assault in history, penetrating Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Sixty-one years later, the St. Andrew's boys stood on Juno Beach where the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada stormed ashore on that fateful day in June, 1944 and laid a wreath by the House of the Canadians. All 35 boys stood at attention as the Lament was played on the bagpipes. After the moment of silence, the boys bowed their heads in prayer. All of us sang 'O Canada'. Colin McCullough recalls that "Juno Beach gave me shivers…it was an amazing experience that I will never forget." In the Colville American War Cemetery, 9,000 Americans who died in the battle for Normandy are laid to rest. Each student was taken aback by the sheer size of this Garden of Stone. They had no idea that we would see many more just like this one.
Perhaps one of the more emotional moments of our journey took place at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy. Here, 2,000 Canadians rest in perpetuity. I stood there and watched my students stroll among the graves, each one adorned with a Maple Leaf. Some boys stopped and shook their heads; others held their head in their hands and wept. Every one of us was affected by the experience. Jamie Walker, who piped the lament at our service, writes, 'I was playing to over 2,000 soldiers who had given the ultimate sacrifice so that I could be free. It was my small way of thanking them.' The sun was setting as we returned to the bus, all of us silent, reflecting on what we had just experienced.
We journeyed north into the battlefields of the First World War. Here we saw cemeteries on either side of the road as we drove along; they were everywhere. While in Ypres, we were invited to participate in the service at the Menin Gate. Inscribed throughout the monument are the names of 57,000 soldiers whose remains were never found. These men, who fought and died in Flanders Fields around Ypres, are remembered daily by the playing of Last Post and Reveille at 8pm. Six Andreans volunteered to lay the wreath and the others, all members of the #142 St. Andrew's College Highland Cadet Corps, created an honour guard along the path. And, Graham Hynds was invited to play the lament at the service in front of approximately 2,000 people. "I played not for the audience of people around me. I played for the thousands and thousands of soldiers who died, and will never be found. As I played I swelled with emotion. It was an honour to play for those men." Each St. Andrew's College student not only made their school proud, but Canada, as well.
We continued into the Somme battlefield, walked in the trenches, and continued to see cemeteries filled with thousands of soldiers. The death and destruction of the Great War became somewhat evident when cemeteries routinely had 10,000 markers, including a German cemetery with 40,000. At our final service at Vimy Ridge, many of the boys were visibly moved by the experience. Cameron Tait fought his emotions as he read through the service and many others did the same as they stood at attention. Scotty Johnstone reflects on the experience when he states: "It is an amazing trip that is a life changing experience…It makes you respect the sacrifices so much more." As we drove away from the twin spires of the Vimy Memorial, I think to myself that each of us is profoundly changed by this experience.
I personally have returned to the Battlefields of the First and Second World Wars for three years now. Each year, the experience has been more rewarding than the previous. I have recently heard from local parents, as well. Jean McCullough writes that "this trip was an outstanding experience for our son and we can’t say enough about the great teacher support and leadership and educational experience…Thank you so much for a most memorable experience for our son." Doug Johnstone believes that "such trips…where 'history'’ took place are the best way to get through to students about the subject matter and to ensure that future generations understand and preserve our heritage."
In the end, an extraordinary group of boys went on an extraordinary journey. Thirty-five students spent their March Break learning about the sacrifices of so many that came before them and were profoundly changed. We are taught on November 11 to pass the torch of remembrance so that future generations will never forget the sacrifice. I believe that come this Remembrance Day, all those who participated this year and in previous years will say a prayer of thanks, stand tall and have a better idea for what we are remembering. The torch has been passed to them and they have made a solemn pledge: We Will Remember Them.