#100DaysofVimy – April 8th, 2017

Each Saturday, we’ll share some reflections from our past student participants about the impact of their visit to Vimy Ridge and other sites of the First World War.

As part of the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize, recipients are tasked with researching the life of a Canadian soldier, often of those listed on the Vimy Memorial, with no known grave. Adam LaBrash, as a 2016 BVP recipient, researched Private Frederick Gordon McNeil. Here is his story, as told by Adam:

Adam visits Frederick’s grave at the Villers Station Cemetery, France in 2016.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation / Hanna Smyth, 2016.

Frederick Gordon McNeil was born on July 20, 1897 to first-generation British immigrants, Archibald and Louisa McNeil. Similar to other immigrants populating the “Final Frontier” of Canadian Prairies, the McNeils faced difficult circumstances in their new home.

McNeil enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on January 4th, 1916 at only 18 years of age – just six months over the minimum age requirement. He enlisted with the legendary 46th (South Saskatchewan) Battalion, otherwise known as the “Suicide Battalion” of the 4th Division. The 46th Battalion justly earned this cynical nickname. Over a period of 27 months, 3,484 men were injured and 1,433 killed, a 91.5% casualty rate. Seemingly every deployment of Frederick and his unit was to an area destined to become of extreme strategic importance. Unfortunately, McNeil became one of those casualties on May 1st, 1917 in the aftermath of brutal battle for Vimy Ridge, when he was killed in action relieving the 50th Battalion at trenches east of Liévin, France.

I felt a connection choosing someone that grew up in my city and who was only a year older than myself when he enlisted. By the time Frederick came of age, word had reached home of the inhuman conditions on the front, and the excitement for war had begun to ebb, yet Frederick was still eager to serve his country. It is this courage that I greatly admire, and is another reason why I chose to commemorate this man. Just like the First World War and the legacy it left, Private Frederick Gordon McNeil will never be forgotten.

The headstone inscription requested by Frederick’s father can be read in the last row of this document (See Row 1202/1D, Headstone no. 240).
Credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Find War Dead, Casualty Details, McNEIL, FRED GORDON, 2017).

#100DaysofVimy – April 1st, 2017

As part of the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize, recipients are tasked with researching the life of a Canadian soldier, usually of those listed on the Vimy Memorial, with no known grave. Zoe McDaniel, as a 2016 BVP recipient, researched Corporal Alexander John McDougall. Here is his story, as told by Zoe:

Visiting Alex’s gravestone, Zoe left a piece of his home’s foundation, his mother’s tea cup, and a pressed maple leaf from their garden.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation, 2016.

Alex was born August 10th, 1895 in West Lake Ainslie, Nova Scotia, to his parents John R McDougall and Annie MacLellan. He spoke Gaelic and worked as a clerk at his family’s store, remaining unmarried, most likely still living with his parents.

He enlisted in Halifax, Nova Scotia on the 12th of November 1915 at age 20 with the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). His unit sailed October 12th, 1916, and eight days later he arrived in Liverpool. McDougall’s battalion is perhaps most famous for their capture of Hill 145. Alex was killed in this action at the age of 22 years old, on April 12th, 1917, the final day of the battle of Vimy Ridge – while attempting to secure Hill 145. Alex is buried in La Chaudière Military Cemetery, Vimy, France although he was originally buried atop Hill 145, where the Vimy Memorial now stands.

Alex’s death was announced in his hometown’s local newspaper.

I chose to research him in my original application for the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize — highlighting the contributions of the Gaelic-speaking community — and then continued my research for the Bringing the Boys Home component of the BVP trip. I originally felt connected to Alex because he was from my home town, and at the time of the First World War, he was not much older than I am now. The connection I gained with a soldier who lived 10 minutes from me and who died 100 years ago, astounds me. Being able to bring a piece of his home to his final resting place was incredibly important to me as it felt like we both finally had closure. I remember Alex and his sacrifice every day.

#100DaysofVimy – March 25th, 2017

Each Saturday, we’ll share some reflections from our past student participants about the impact of their visit to Vimy Ridge and other sites of the First World War.

George Polanyi-Williamson

George Polanyi-Williamson ascends from the Maison Blanche tunnels, near Vimy Ridge.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation, 2014.

Since the end of the First World War, families have been making their way back to the battlefields to reconnect with lost loved ones. In 2014, George Polanyi-Williamson, a Beaverbrook Vimy Prize recipient, fulfilled his own Vimy Pilgrimage:

“I was able to connect with my own family’s past, retracing the steps of my great-grandfather, who fought at Vimy Ridge. Unexpectedly, when we were exploring a system of tunnels in a farmer’s field, I came across the emblem of my great-grandfather’s regiment etched into the wall of the cave. It was an incredible experience to stumble across your own history without even knowing it was there. This is just one of the things that made the Vimy trip unforgettable.

Just like George Polanyi-Williamson in 2014, families continue to make pilgrimages in an effort to connect with their lost loved ones. An estimated 60,000 from the United Kingdom did so in 1919 alone.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation, 2014.

Much like my great-grandfather, countless people gave their lives for our country, and made an unimaginable sacrifice for us. This trip helped me understand how quickly conflicts could erupt and change the course of the world. I will always remember what I saw in Europe, and how I felt when I learned about the events my ancestors had taken part in.”

 

#100DaysofVimy – March 18th, 2017

Each Saturday, we’ll share some reflections from our past student participants about the impact of their visit to Vimy Ridge and other sites of the First World War. 

2016 Beaverbrook Vimy Prize recipient Hannah Hardy identifies the name of a missing soldier she has researched on the Vimy Memorial.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation, 2016.

One of the educational advantages of the Vimy Foundation’s scholarship programs is the capturing of a tight-knit group’s reaction to the hardships of war and sacrifice. Hannah Hardy wrote about one of these moments after taking part in the 2016 Beaverbrook Vimy Prize scholarship:

“The moments I experienced at the Vimy Memorial can never be recreated; not only were my emotions strong, but the friends who stood around me who shared their own soldier’s stories had the largest impact. To see other youth like me, so invested in the history and moved to tears by hearing of their sacrifice, was incredible. I am overcome with the motivation to bring this new knowledge back to my community and to try and help them grasp a sense of the experience as told through my stories.”

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize recipients are asked to research the life of a specific Canadian soldier, whom they are then able to visit at a memorial or cemetery, sharing their story and delivering a tribute to their sacrifice.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation, 2016.

#100DaysofVimy – March 11th, 2017

Each Saturday, we’ll share a reflection from our past student participants about the impact of their visit to Vimy Ridge and other sites of the First World War.

Visiting the Vimy Memorial in 2014, Beaverbrook Vimy Prize recipient Daniel Mateus found the moment overwhelming:

“Standing in front of the Vimy Memorial, something dedicated to thousands of dead soldiers, I felt overwhelmed with both sadness and pride. Sadness that these Canadians had to lose their lives in the war, but proud that they were so brave, and proud that Canada built such an amazing memorial for them. When I visited Private James Phillips’ grave (the Canadian soldier I had researched before the trip), I was overcome with emotion… I felt honoured that I was one of the few people left in the world that still remembered James and what he had done, and when I placed the Canadian flags I had brought down to his row of graves, I considered how eventually all Canadian soldiers will be remembered, thanks in part to the Vimy Foundation’s Beaverbrook Vimy Prize scholarship. The feelings and experiences that I felt are very difficult to describe, but what the Vimy Foundation is doing by providing this scholarship is changing the lives of Canadian teenagers every year.”

2014 Beaverbrook Vimy Prize recipient Daniel Mateus stands before an expanse of headstones at a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation, 2014.

#100DaysofVimy – March 4th, 2017

Each Saturday, we’ll share some reflections from our past student participants about the impact of their visit to Vimy Ridge and other sites of the First World War.

Zachary Brown – Vimy Pilgrimage Award Recipient, 2013.

Concerned about the loss of Canada’s history, Zachary Brown reflected on the thought following his return from the 2013 Vimy Pilgrimage:

“Sadly, today it has become increasingly easy to lose interest in our country’s past. The monotony of textbooks, and essays seem to hold far less sway on the modern student. The Vimy Ridge Pilgrimage must be considered a leading example of initiatives that have ensured that the immense importance of Canadian history is not lost… The Vimy Ridge Pilgrimage provided me an opportunity to eat, sleep, and breathe Canada’s history first hand in France, with some of my brightest colleagues. This is why I held being part of the pilgrimage with utmost personal importance. It revealed that Canadian history, whether on the fields of Beaumont Hamel, at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, or in the minds of young Canadians is alive and well. The Vimy Pilgrimage is a perfect example of what makes Canadian history so exceptional and unique – a real life testament to a uniquely Canadian historical narrative.”

Recipients of the 2013 Vimy Pilgrimage Award at the base of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation, 2013.
Recipients of the 2013 Vimy Pilgrimage Award at the “Brooding Soldier” St. Julien Canadian Memorial near Ypres, site of the first German gas attack in April 1915.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation, 2013.

#100DaysofVimy – February 25, 2017

Each Saturday, we’ll share some reflections from our past student participants about the impact of their visit to Vimy Ridge and other sites of the First World War. 

Brandon Taschuk (far right) explores the underground tunnels of Maison Blanche in 2014 as a recipient of the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize.
Credit: The Vimy Foundation, 2014.

A number of weeks ago, we learned that approximately 29% of Canadians are descendants of First World War servicemen. In 2014, Beaverbrook Vimy Prize recipient Brandon Taschuk faced the significance of that fact when he explored the battlefield of Passchendaele. In those muddy fields 100 years ago, his great-great-grandfather nearly never made it home: “one of the battles he fought at was the battle of Passchendaele… During an explosion he was flung face-first into one of the many mud bogs. Being a short man, only 5’2″, he was nearly completely enveloped in the mud. His death by drowning was imminent it seemed. But, one of his companions noticed his rather small boots sticking out of the mud, and recognized them as his. He was able to save my great-great grandfather, Benjamin Loney, and because of the Vimy Foundation I was able to stand where my family line almost ended. Not only did I get to walk through the battlefields my ancestor fought at, I also got to walk through the place that could have been the end of my existence, before it even began. I wish words could describe the feelings this trip gave me, but there are no words to describe the intense emotions I experienced and continue to foster after the trip. I only wish that you truly know how thankful I am.”

 

The Attestation Papers of Benjamin Loney.
The second page indicates Benjamin Loney is indeed of slight build – 5’2″ and 138 lbs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credit: Personnel Records of the First World War, Library and Archives Canada, Reference Number: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5723 – 22. Item Number: 535649.

 

 

#100DaysofVimy – February 18, 2017

Each Saturday, we’ll share some reflections from our past student participants about the impact of their visit to Vimy Ridge and other sites of the First World War. 

Credit: Hicham El Bayadi, 2015 Vimy Pilgrimage Award – Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa, ON.

As part of the Vimy Foundation’s Vimy: Canada’s Coming of Age week at Encounters With Canada, students attend a candlelight vigil at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa (the cemetery contains the graves of 212 Commonwealth casualties of the First and Second World War). Writing of the candlelight vigil, Molly reflected: “Our ceremony in the cemetery was incredibly influential and eye-opening; the grave I stood at was of a 17 year-old which is the age of many of my friends, and so it was very difficult for me to imagine one of them fighting and dying for our country at such a young age.”

Credit: Hicham El Bayadi, 2015 Vimy Pilgrimage Award – Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa, ON.

#100DaysofVimy – February 11, 2017

Each Saturday, we’ll share some reflections from our past student participants about the impact of their visit to Vimy Ridge and other sites of the First World War. 

In April 2016, Keaton McLean participated in the Vimy: Canada’s Coming of Age week at Encounters With Canada in Ottawa. Reflecting on his experience, Keaton wrote: “Being at the Vimy: Canada’s Coming of Age week made me realize how privileged I am to live in this country and has made me much more grateful for what the brave men and women did for us all those years ago.”

Participants from Vimy: Canada’s Coming of Age week at Encounters With Canada in 2016 pose with Canadian Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Encounters with Canada, 2016.

#100DaysofVimy – February 4, 2017

Each Saturday, we’ll share some reflections from our past student participants about the impact of their visit to Vimy Ridge and other sites of the First World War.

Jocelyn Davis was a recipient of the Vimy Pilgrimage Award in 2013. Shocked by the stark contrast between the Commonwealth and German War Graves cemeteries Jocelyn reflected afterwards:

“I vaguely knew what to expect of the Commonwealth cemeteries; however, I was distinctly impacted by our exposure to the German ones. I remember wandering in a foggy drizzle between countless rows of grey crosses, struck that four men lay to each cross. For days I had been grappling to wrap my head around the unimaginably horrific conditions that soldiers were subjected to, ranging from rats to trench foot. The German cemeteries, with their uniformly gloomy bleakness, provided me with an increased appreciation of the overwhelmingly pervasive misery during the First World War. This newly gained appreciation allowed each story, sight and bit of information to penetrate deeper and become truly internalized. My experiences on the Pilgrimage will stay with me forever.”

Vimy Foundation students at the Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery. Photo: Andrew Yin
Vimy Foundation students at the Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery. Credit: The Vimy Foundation / Andrew Yin.

 

 

Vimy Pilgrimage Award recipient Tiffany Quon at the Neuville St. Vaast German War Cemetery. Credit: the Vimy Foundation / Pascal Brunet.
Vimy Pilgrimage Award recipient Tiffany Quon at the Neuville St. Vaast German War Cemetery. Credit: The Vimy Foundation / Pascal Brunet.