Remembrance Day

Presented here are the memories of one Canadian who made the pilgrimage to the Vimy Memorial. Without further ado, and with thanks to the author, Bonny Hoyer, please read.
Private George Cunningham

November 10th, 2013, I found myself quietly being regarded by a petite older woman on a bus in Paris, France.  I smiled at her and she smiled back.   I sensed that she wanted to communicate something with me.   After a while she lightly tapped her heart with her right hand and said with sincerity, “Merci, Canada” and then pointed at my poppy.  I was, to be honest, surprised, as I had forgotten that I was wearing my Canadian Remembrance Day poppy and a tiny Canadian flag pin on my jacket.  That was my first experience of encountering gratitude from people in France for the sacrifices of our countrymen and women in both world war battles on their soil.   

The next day we jumped onto a train headed for Arras, which was the town closest to Vimy Ridge.  The countryside was beautiful, but I wasn’t able to truly enjoy it as I was anxious to get to the Remembrance Day ceremony on time.  Our train was going to arrive 10 minutes before 11, and we weren’t sure whether we would arrive at the Vimy Ridge ceremony on time.   As soon as the train stopped, we hurried onto the train platform and ran out of the station.  Across from us, we could already see the townspeople gathered for their own Remembrance Day ceremony at a beautiful memorial in their town centre.   In front of us was a taxi and I saw the driver gesture at our Remembrance Day poppies on our jackets and then shouted, “Canadiens?”  We exclaimed, “Oui!” and jumped into his taxi.  He never even ASKED us where we wanted to go, he just took off at a ferocious speed, driving like a possessed man.  He knew that we wanted to get to the Vimy Ridge ceremony on time, and the memorial is about 10 km from the train station.  We quickly made plans with him to return several hours later, and then we ran as fast as we could to join about 90 others at the memorial service.

 We stood solemnly amongst fellow Canadians as short essays, letters, and poems were shared by some of the soldiers’ family descendants as well as military cadets.   Wreaths were laid by many groups and families.  A choir of young people from Saskatchewan sang “In Flander’s Fields” which was devastatingly beautiful and then lead all of us in singing ‘Oh Canada’.  I doubt that there was a dry eye in the gathering as we sung with all of our hearts.  To stand and sing our national anthem with such passion with fellow Canadians from all corners of our country, was a moving and emotional experience that I or my husband will never forget. 

As my eyes lifted up to the gleaming white sculptured memorial, I felt that there could be no other fitting design for this tribute.  The monument, on the highest point on the ridge, was designed by Canadian architect and sculptor, Walter Seymour Allward.  The idea for this memorial came to him in a dream. There are over 20 figures such as Justice, Peace, Truth, Knowledge, Gallantry, and Sympathy that were carved on location, using rock that was quarried from Yugoslavia, which is now called Croatia.  This monument didn’t focus on war, but on peace. On the outside of the memorial are carved the names of 11,285 young Canadians who were killed in France and whose final resting places are unknown.  As well, all of the First World War regiments that had fought at Vimy Ridge are carved into the monument. 

After the ceremony, we walked up closer to read the inscriptions on the many wreaths that had been laid during the ceremony.  Two young Canadian girls came up to us and we began to chat.  We told them that we were from Alberta, and they explained that they were from Ontario and New Brunswick, studying at different universities in France.  At one point, one of the girls asked me if I could give her a ‘Canadian Mom hug’, which I gladly gave to her and her friend.  As I hugged these two girls, full of youth and exuberance, I couldn’t help but think of how many moms would have loved to have hugged their sons who died on the battlefield around us.  Both girls had said that they had an overwhelming feeling that on Remembrance Day, they had to travel to Vimy Ridge and to be with other Canadians.  They talked of how they were the same age as many of the young soldiers who had given their lives in the war, and how blessed they were to have the many freedoms that they enjoyed; one of the freedoms being that they could travel to France, just to study and experience the beautiful country.  They realized that they had a whole future ahead of them, where all around us, many young Canadians had had their lives struck down at the same ages as them.  We climbed the steps together and looked out over the fields below us, knowing that there were many other Canadian war cemeteries in the area that we could not see in our gaze. 

After a while, we hurried together toward the Visitor Centre to book a tour through the trenches and tunnels. A guide greeted us and led us through narrow tunnels that had been dug in secret so that they could safely transport troops and equipment without getting noticed. While we waited for our tour, we watched a video and read the displays.  A young Canadian tour guide greeted us and lead us through narrow tunnels that had been dug in secret so that they could safely transport troops and equipment without getting noticed.  We then walked through the trenches and were shocked at how close they were to their enemy.  You could easily throw a grenade or whatever across ‘no-man’s land’ and into a German trench.   The day was overcast and gloomy; we could imagine the trenches that were often cold and wet. 

We said our good-byes to the young Canadian girls and then walked through the grounds that were not leveled and made ‘pretty’ but were kept as they had looked after being bombed.  Canadian maple trees had been carefully planted throughout the area. 

Finally, we located my dad’s cousin’s grave, Private George Cunningham, from Bruce County, Ontario, a young 28-year-old husband and father of three children.   He had been killed on the first day of battle, shortly after leaving the ‘jumping off’ trench on the morning of April 9th, 1917.  He had been instantly killed by a bullet from the rifle of an enemy sniper.  We stood in silence, unable to speak or move.  I thought of how lucky I had been to travel to England and France several times in my life for pleasure, while George would never return home again to his family. George was known in his community as ‘Doc’ and was a genial, good-natured, and well-liked young man. Annie, his wife, had just received a letter from him 3 days before, saying that he was well.  George’s wife never re-married and struggled hard with the three small children to manage their farm that had no electricity or heat. She eventually moved to Walkerton once one of her sons took over the farm.  She lived there until she died in 1984.

As we walked away, we were grateful that George had an actual marked and identified grave unlike the thousands of graves whose occupants were ‘Only Known unto God’.  

Submitted by Bonnie Hoyer, St. Albert, Alberta

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