Students take incredible journey through war history

“To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high.” These lines, from the famous poem In Flanders Fields, were written by Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae in the aftermath of the gas attacks at Ypres, Belgium in spring 1915.

Trinity College School students picked up the torch as they journeyed through Canada’s war history on the annual Grade 10 Travel History-English trip to Belgium, France and Poland during the March Break. It was a trip filled with spectacular sights and moving experiences that brought the triumphs and tragedies of war to life for our students.

Ypres served as the home base for the early days of the trip, allowing the group to easily travel to various sites including Essex Farm Cemetery (where the dressing station at which McCrae wrote his poem still stands); Langemark German Cemetery and its mass grave of German soldiers; and Tyne Cot, the largest British Commonwealth cemetery in the world. At Hill 60, students witnessed how shell fighting and underground explosives left permanent marks on the rolling terrain. And at St. Juliaan, the Brooding Soldier monument serves as a lasting tribute to Canadian soldiers who withstood the first German gas attacks in 1915.

In Ypres proper, the group visited the In Flanders Fields Museum within majestic Cloth Hall, and took part in the evening ceremony at Menin Gate, a monument erected on the road that the WWI soldiers walked en route to the front lines. Every night since July 1, 1928, a ceremony of remembrance has been held at the gate, and on two successive nights our students laid wreaths on behalf of TCS.

The next stop was France, where the group spent its first morning at Vimy Ridge. Under sunny skies, the students explored this vast historic site, including the preserved trenches and tunnels, as well as the spectacular monument that recognizes the role of Canadian forces in the capture of the ridge in April 1917. Students were particularly excited for this stop, as they had spent a great deal of class time learning about the importance of Vimy Ridge – the first time in which the Canadian corps were brought together to fight as one – in forging our national identity.

Throughout their time in France, students were able to explore areas that spoke to both the military victories and the horrific losses experienced during both World Wars. They visited the beautifully preserved battlefield at Beaumont-Hamel, where so many members of the Newfoundland regiment made the ultimate sacrifice in 1916. They walked the pebbled beach of Dieppe, and the sands of Juno Beach and Omaha Beach. And they concluded their tour with time spent at the Peace Museum in Caen.

After all of this experiential learning, students looked forward to spending a couple of days enjoying all the tourist sites of Paris, including the Paris Opera House, Eiffel Tower, Montmarte, Notre-Dame, Champs Élysées and Arc de Triomphe. This downtime was important in light of what as to come: the last leg of the journey would see the group visit the hallowed grounds of Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau in Poland.

Auschwitz is naturally a sombre place and it is always moving. The local guides are very good and for over three hours toured the group through the various parts of the site, including one of the gas chambers and crematoriums. The guides shared stories of hope and despair. All of it was thought-provoking, and afterwards time was given to discussing the emotional impact of this part of the trip.

Finally, after a stop at the Wielickza Salt Mines, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, students were able to spend their last hours in Europe in the lovely downtown area of Krakow before boarding flights home.

It was an incredible journey for students and chaperones alike, filled with meaningful dialogue, thoughtful questions, and an enthusiastic desire to understand our home country through its role in world history over the past century. The students are to be commended for their comportment throughout the trip. Thanks go to all of the chaperones, and to our knowledgeable guide, Michael Smith.

- By David Ingram, social sciences department