Students dig deep to honour Canadian soldiers who fought and died for their country
Jordan Jacob, 12 holds a light for timberland outlet Keagin Joudrey, 12 as they continue to dig into the darkness. 16 students from Eaglesham school spent the night before Remembrance Day in 2012 digging and then sleeping in a trench to recreate conditions soldiers in the two great wars would have encountered.
For hours they hammered away at the frozen soil, tossing clumps of snow and dirt, digging deeper and deeper.
This is how students commemorate Remembrance Day in Eaglesham, a hamlet of barely 100 people 480 kilometres northwest of Edmonton surrounded by cattle ranches and energy development near the Peace River.
Lest they forget, Mike McKay, a teacher at Eaglesham’s little K to 12 school, invites junior high and high school students to take part in a ritual unl timberland outlet ike any in Canada. First, they march nearly two kilometres carrying military kit bags, then they dig until their muscles are sore, then they hunker down in the trenches late at night and wait for sleep that never comes.
“Somewhere around three in the morning, the temperature plummets and so does morale,” says McKay, a former reservist whose grandfather fought in Italy and Holland during the Second World War. “I try to teach the kids that war isn’t glorious like video games and movies make it out to be, and I try to erase the idea that Remembrance Day is just a day off of school.
“I hope they never see Remembrance Day the same way again.”
For seven years McKay has pushed students to their limits on Remembrance Day, and Eaglesham, which has a long and distinguished military past, has followed along. In early morning, veterans address the students beside their trenches. Later, 100 people jam the Royal Purple Lodge for a ceremony presided over by teenagers only hours after they climb, sleepy eyed and shivering, from trenches similar to those dug by Canadian soldiers during the First World War.
“It makes you realize the sacrifices that are made by soldiers, and how uncivilized warfare is,” says Ben Bourke, a 15 year old Grade 10 student. “It really makes me appreciate veterans more.”
“You really feel like a soldier,” adds Kevin Bollster, a 14 yearold in Grade 9. “It makes you think about what they went through.”
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” Winston Churchill
Misery was a constant companion in the trenches during the First World War.
Shells whistled overhead. Shrapnel fell like rain. Poison gas descended in thick, yellow clouds. Soldiers waded up to their knees through icy mud, and stood atop fallen comrades to fire at foes across the Western Front.
New recruits often died within a week, shot by snipers as they peered curiously out into no man’s land, the killing field between enemies that at times was no wider than one could toss a grenade. Rats gnawed at corpses. Latrines overflowed.
“Men lived like rats more than they lived like men,” says Scot Robertson, an associate professor of Canadian military history at the University of Alberta. “It must have been horrific.”
Settling in for a sustained battle, the Germans constructed magnificent ditches that contained hospitals and kitchens and even recrea timberland outlet tion areas. Never anticipating a stalemate, the British Imperial Forces and so, the Canadians did not invest as much in their trenches, at least not in 1914 and early in 1915, at the beginning of the sadly mistaken “war to end all wars.”
Three years later, networks of elaborate trenches zigzag timberland outlet ged more than 800 kilometres from the English Channel to the Swiss border as combatants tunnelled toward, across and even beneath one another in a desperate struggle over parcels of land that were seized and then lost time and again.
Death occurred often and quite arbitrarily on the Western Front, whether by artillery, bullet or bayonet. Canada sent approximately 425,000 soldiers into battle, and more than half were either wounded or killed. In some areas, the number of casualties was as high as four out of five.
“When you look at the diaries of some soldiers, dying was a fact of life,” says Andrew Ionacci, a historian and professor at the University of Western Ontario who did a three year doctoral fellowship at the Canadian War Museum.
“Men took on a fatalistic attitude ‘Some of us are going to get it and some of us aren’t’ and in the meantime, they went on day to day.
“For the most part, there were only three ways out: an armistice and the fighting stops, serious injury, or death.”
Soldiers rotated in and out of the trenches, spending a few days at the front, often fortified by shots of rum, and then weeks further back on supporting lines.
In a year, the average Canadian was in the firing line maybe a month or two, yet it is estimated that at least one third of all casualties were sustained in the trenches during the First World War.
“It was difficult enough living day to day without being shot at and shelled,” says Brent Wilson, a professor and researcher at the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick.
“They were essentially living out in the open like a bunch of tramps.”
At the front, opposing troops followed a shared etiquette. They didn’t interrupt each other’s dinner, they called truces so each side could retrieve their wounded, when not in battle they purposely misfired in one another’s direction at a scheduled time to be certain not to hit anybody.
But then they would resume fighting, charging from their trenches under the cover of artillery fire, dodging machine guns and fighting to the death in hand to hand combat.