by Annie Markarian (former St. Francis Xavier student)
This past April, approximately 8000 students from across Canada travelled overseas to Europe to represent all the soldiers who gave their lives at the Battle of Vimy Ridge 100 years ago. Over 200 students embarked on this journey from the Ottawa Catholic School Board. Our trip to Europe was educational, moving and an incredible learning experience. We are so privileged to have been given a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Our trip to Vimy began on a Wednesday night. The airport was flooded with hundreds of children in their white jackets and crying parents. Most importantly, we were excited. Excited to see Europe, excited to learn, excited to visit these foreign countries, and excited to mature without our parents for ten days. We were ready to go to France and represent our country proudly. Even after we passed security and sat at our gate, parents were anxiously watching from above. The gate was buzzing with eagerness and enthusiasm. We eventually boarded our long six-hour flight to London Heathrow and landed the next morning in the humid, sunny city.
We were astonished by the beauty of London. We explored Piccadilly Circus, the National Gallery (which was conveniently located across from the beautiful Canadian Embassy), and had some free time to explore the incredible area at our own pace. We visited the Tower of London, the British Museum, HMS Belfast and took a boat cruise on the River Thames, seeing all the marvellous monuments such as the London Eye and Big Ben! We ended our trip to London with a Jack the Ripper tour, visiting the historic sites of the famous murders.
Before we boarded a train to a small town called Lille, we spent the morning at a Good Friday church service, then passed through the channel between the United Kingdom and France. We were instantly immersed in the magnificent French culture and enjoyed going to Subway and ordering our sandwiches in French. We visited the St-Julien Memorial in Belgium and continued to the Passchendaele Museum, where we learned about the Battle fought by the Allies against the German Empire. We ended our day off with a classic crepe dinner.
The next morning, we woke up bright and early, ready for a historic day we were to be a part of. We were heading off to Vimy Ridge, the incredible land that Canada won, to commemorate the battle that has been described as “The Birth of a Nation” by Brigadier-General A.E. Ross. We travelled by bus to the site, where we witnessed incredibly preserved land. The land was covered in craters, which hide explosive landmines that are still active to this day. Our group was overcome with emotion. We were amazed by the thousands of Canadians like ourselves who had come all the way to Northern France to take part in this stunning celebration. The day was hot, the sun was shining brightly, but more than 20,000 Canadians stood proudly as we listened to speeches by Justin Trudeau, David Johnston, The Royal Highnesses Prince William, Prince Harry and their father Prince Charles. It was an emotional moment, listening to the diaries and letters of unknown soldiers who’d sacrificed themselves. April 9th, 2017, is a day that no Canadian – whether young or old – who stood at Vimy Ridge will ever forget.
As part of our journey to Vimy, every student had to research and write a tribute to the soldier they were representing at Vimy. Our goal was to visit the grave of our soldiers and place our tributes there. We visited three beautiful cemeteries. Once we found the grave of our soldier, we placed our tributes onto the grass in front of the white headstone, along with a poppy gently placed at the foot of the grave. It was a sentimental and moving moment, visiting the graves of the men we’d been doing thorough research on during the past months. It gave us a feeling of thanks and gratefulness for these men who sacrificed their lives for our nation.
From there, we continued our journey to our last stop: Paris! We were very impressed by the city and its features: Galeries Lafayette, The Opera House, Champs-Elysées, the Latin Quarter and Notre Dame. We explored the city and ended our first night in Paris with a quick visit to the Louvre: running in; snapping a quick picture of the Mona Lisa; running out. The next day, we ascended the Eiffel Tower! The view of Paris was incredible, and we loved running down the steel stairs to the bottom, which is a true “Tour Eiffel” experience.
Our flight home was long, but seeing our families were so nice. Every student who went to Vimy is grateful for having been part of this historic day and given this rare and unimaginable learning opportunity. We are beyond thankful to our teachers who organized the trip and the 3600 Canadians who, 100 years ago, gave their lives at Vimy Ridge and created the birth of our beautiful nation.