Gravesite at Juno Beach was one of the many historical sites Chemainus’ Rachel Woodruff visited during the summer. (Photo submitted)

Touring historic war sites a chance of a lifetime

First impressions are lasting ones for Chemainus’ Woodruff

Earlier this year, Chemainus’ Rachel Woodruff received word she had won the presitigious Beaverbrook Vimy Prize from the Vimy Foundation, a Canadian charity, to travel to historic sites in Europe.

She was one of just 14 outstanding students from across Canada plus one each from the United Kingdom and France to study the intertwined histories of our countries during the First and Second World Wars.

The trip was taken Aug. 8-23 and left a profound impression on Woodruff. Following is her account of the experience:

“I found the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize extremely eye-opening and absolutely perspective changing. It’s really hard to find the words to describe it, as the emotions I felt while in Europe were varied and sometimes overwhelming.

The program was informative and taught all of the BVP participants a new way of thinking about the First and Second World Wars, despite us all being amateur history buffs. I had so many memorable experiences that it’s hard to pick which ones to talk about.

We attended the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, and I was astounded by the number of people who came to watch. The Last Post Ceremony occurs every day in Ypres, rain or shine, and the Legion, military and firefighters come out to attend every single one. It warmed my heart to see the Belgians commemorating the fallen Allies of the First World War, who liberated them from German occupation.

Over 100 years later, their gratitude is still alive in today’s generations. That’s what I think makes the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize so amazing; young people from allied countries are selected to walk in the footsteps of our soldiers and keep the flame of remembrance alive.

Now that I have been to Europe and met people whose lives would have been dramatically affected had the Allies lost the war, I can truly understand how important both wars are to world history. Seeing the mark our soldiers have left on Europe made me incredibly proud to be Canadian. Every time someone found out I was Canadian, their smiles and thanks made my day. I only wish the fallen could hear their gratitude, as they are the ones who deserve it.

An unexpected highlight was visiting Abbaye d’Arenne, a beautiful Gothic church whose walls hide a sad tale. Twenty Canadians were taken prisoner and executed in the garden courtyard shortly after D-Day. We laid our poppies on the memorial, like hundreds of others had before us. Then I sat on a bench in the quiet, sunny garden and listened to the leaves rustling in the surrounding maple trees.

At every cemetery and memorial I visited, I took a moment to close my eyes and talk to the fallen soldiers inside my head. It sounds crazy, but I really felt as though they could hear me, and were trying to answer, for the wind picked up and the trees rustled every time I ‘spoke’ to them.

At Abbaye d’Arenne, at least two soldiers’ bodies have never been found. When I reflected and thanked the soldiers who died there, I asked where the two soldiers who had never been found were buried. Imagine my surprise when a large snowberry bush to my right rustled loudly! Honestly, if I had been allowed to dig under that bush, I would have.

I truly feel that being in Europe allowed me to feel a connection to the soldiers I never would have experienced otherwise. Vimy, of course, was absolutely stunning as well, especially at night. It actually was raining while I was there, which almost seemed like tears splashing on the cold white marble.

But I think one of the most special parts for me was presenting the biography and tribute to Private Benjamin Bonsall of Westholme. I visited his grave the same day I saw Vimy for the first time, and it was literally the most perfect morning of my life.

The cemetery was out in the middle of a field (there are hundreds in France and Belgium), and it was so serene compared to the battlefield it once was. When I stood in front of Benjamin’s headstone and sang the song that I wrote for him, “Small Town Boy,” I couldn’t help but cry. Benjamin was only 22 when he died and he is buried so far from home, never to return.

So I brought him some soil from his farm, and his parent’s graves, as well as some water from Bonsall Creek in Crofton. These gestures were small, but I hope that in some way, they brought him peace. Once again, I knelt in front of his grave after everyone left, and talked to him quietly, telling him where I was from and that I had spoken with his nephew. (Yikes, I’m crying typing this). He was so young, and so many were, and we owe them so much.

The Beaverbrook Vimy Prize is an extremely valuable experience, and I would encourage any 15-17-year-olds who want to meet amazing people from across Canada and Europe and change their lives forever, to apply. It is completely worth it. Two weeks was not enough to learn everything the UK, France, and Belgium has to offer. Being in Europe was the most incredible two weeks of my life, and I hope I can return there someday.”

 

Chemainus’ Rachel Woodruff at Vimy during an experience that was everything she expected and more. (Photo submitted)

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