OUTLOOK - It's ground that's sacred, solemn, and deeply entrenched in Canada's storied military history.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was fought over a period of four days from April 9-12 in 1917 during the First World War. As part of the Battle of Arras, the conflict raged on in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, pitting the four divisions of the Canadian Corps against three divisions of the German 6th Army.
Now, 105 years later, that monumental battle was remembered at the Outlook Legion Hall on Wednesday evening, April 20.
After a members meeting, the public was invited into the hall to hear presentations on the battle, which started with LCBI High School student Liam Jones, who was a recent recipient of the Vimy Foundation's Pilgrimage Award. The Grade 12 student from Lucky Lake spoke to the room about what had inspired him to make the leap in trying to acquire such a notable prize. Liam told everyone about doing some family research in relation to wartime efforts, coming up with his great-grandfather David Cunningham, as well as another relative named Chester. Not much was known about Chester, but Liam noted that it was likely his expeditiary force was tied in with Vimy Ridge in some fashion.
It was on February 9 of last year that Liam received a phone call that spurred him to work towards the Pilgrimage Award. The only problem in his way? The deadline for submissions was only a week away at that point. To say that Jones worked speedily in putting together his application package would be an understatement, but sure enough, he had done so and gotten it in the mail in what anyone would likely say was record time. He soon learned that he indeed had been granted the award, with Liam being one of only three people from Saskatchewan to have also won. A total of 18 people had been selected out of hundreds of applications, perhaps speaking to the strength of Jones' writing.
Unfortunately, Liam's grand prize of a trip to France to experience Vimy Ridge in-person wasn't in the cards as the COVID impact derailed the group's travel plans, but a makeup trip to Ottawa proved to be special in its own way. Taking in what the city had to offer was something that Jones won't soon forget.
"The experience in Ottawa was awesome," he said. "We went to museums, cemeteries, and we also saw epitaphs."
They also happened to be in the nation's capital on Remembrance Day. One of the most monumental things to happen on this trip took place that day, in which a nearby bagpipe player actually stopped to play as Liam and his group laid down poppies.
"That was quite the experience," Jones remembered, thinking back to the trip's most sobering moments. "That will definitely be something that I'll always remember. It was so special, and that just made the trip for me."
As for what's next for Liam, he says while a trip to Vimy Ridge would be life-changing one day, he's interested right now in exploring the mental health issues that are affecting Canada's veterans.
Legion members John McPhail and Gerry Gross then gave a presentation on Vimy Ridge, having been to the iconic location on a trip together in April of 2019. Above many things, one aspect of the area that seemed to stand out for the two men was how much the sheer silence on the hallowed grounds seemed to speak volumes. A slideshow detailed their trip, where McPhail and Gross were fortunate to have the area largely to themselves, with the Vimy Ridge memorial making for an incredible experience.
With 11,285 names inscribed in the memorial's limestone, they represent Canadians killed in France during World War One who had no known hometown.
"This was perhaps the most sobering aspect of all of this," said John.
No matter where it seemed you were, the Vimy Ridge monuments stood tall and predominant, undoubtedly a commanding presence, and McPhail noted that Vimy Ridge is sometimes referred to as "Canada's coming of age."
Gerry spoke of his grandfather, Frank Pepper, who served in World War One. At age 31, he enlisted and fought in France, where he found himself gassed and wounded. Gross remembers hearing stories from Pepper when he was a kid, and learned that Frank actually would've been killed had he not been asked to switch positions with another taller soldier who ultimately met his end. Allowing the room full of people a glimpse of his family's history, Gerry shared some of his grandpa's experiences by reading from a letter that Frank had written to his girl at the time, which showed what the mindset of a soldier was like at the time.
On the France trip, Gerry was actually taken to the spot where Frank was wounded, and the proud grandson marked the occasion with a soldier's diet staple at the time, marmalade and cheese.
For Gross and McPhail, it's some of the information they learned that hit home with them, including the age of many of the soldiers who served.
"One of the most sobering things was they would say, 'Age: 19'," said John, touching on the graves in the cemetery, where everything is kept immaculate.
Touching on other wartime historical happenings, including the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and D-Day from June 1944, McPhail and Gross continued to touch on history that's important for all to know. Many older generations hope younger Canadians do one thing when it comes to such history: