Coalhurst students observe Vimy Ridge centennial

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Piper Ryan Calvank leads the colour party and students from Coalhurst High School and Coalhurst Elementary School to the community Cenotaph as part of the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

COALHURST – Centennial celebrations of any sort are usually worthy of note. The challenge for teachers is trying to make such events relevant to a generation generallly focused squarely on today, or tomorrow, at best.

That’s why Coalhurst High School focused on local connections to bring home the significance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Staff and students at Palliser’s Grade 7-12 school hosted a community commemoration just days ahead of the official 100th anniversary of that nation-defining moment in history.

Among the invited guests were Marilyn Brown, daughter of Vimy Ridge veteran Arthur Roy Baxter, and her husband Gordon Brown, a Korean War veteran.

Baxter lost his leg in the historic battle, which began April 9, 1917 on a heavily-fortified, seven-kilometre ridge in northern France. Students had earlier researched his history for the school’s Hall of Honour – which memorializes local veterans – and Gordon has shared his father-in-law’s story annually at CHS for more than a decade.

“The Vimy Ridge memorial is in France, but having a local involved makes it more personal and more relatable,” said Eden Pauly, who placed a wreath at the community Cenotaph on behalf of senior students at CHS. “We have something significant here and it’s not just a story in the history book, it’s real.”

The commemoration began with a service at CHS, including a video tribute produced by students and a look at both the human dimensions and logistics of the Battle of Vimy Ridge by guest speaker Glenn Miller, a veteran and military historian.

Miller, who also described the personal impact of his own visit to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, told the students the soldiers’ sacrifice is a legacy for them, but only if they remember and pass those stories on.

The school ceremony was followed by a march to the Cenotaph, including a colour party and Grade 6 students from Coalhurst Elementary School, for the placing of wreaths and a short service.

Teacher Michael Saad, organizer of the Vimy Ridge ceremony, said it can be a challenge to get students to think outside of their own bubble.

With fewer veterans left each year to tell their story, he tries to draw connections in his social studies classes between the events of yesteryear and current affairs like the recent chemical attacks in Syria or the ongoing tensions in the Koreas. Saad points out that the First World War was a war of nationalism, an ideology which has come alive in some “very stark ways” of late.

“Conflicts are still going on and I think students need to understand that these conflicts impact them one way or the other, and in the past our troops have died and died gallantly preserving freedoms for others and ultimately freedoms for ourselves,” he said.

The importance of recognizing and remembering the Battle of Vimy Ridge was not lost on Grade 12 student Andrew Sumrall, who served as emcee for the ceremony.

“These were innocent men, just like us, who gave their lives to defend our freedom against the German invasion,” he said. “They did their part and we wouldn’t be living life as we do right now if it wasn’t for them.”

The Battle of Vimy Ridge isn’t part of the curriculum until Social Studies 20, but Pauly's parents had earlier explained to her that it was a turning point in the war and one of Canada’s greatest victories.

The Grade 10 student was most impressed by the “genius planning” that went into the Canadian attack.   Previous attacks on the stronghold had left the French with some 100,000 casualties.

“It shocked the world. Nobody thought anybody would take it from the Germans – and then they did, against all odds – and that stood out for me,” she said.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge marked the first time all four Canadians divisions fought side by side, and in doing so, raised the country’s international stature. It came at a cost, however, with almost 3,600 Canadians killed and another 7,000 wounded in four days of fighting.

Sumrall said the battle changed the tide of fortune.

“It brought hope,” said the Grade 12 student.

Saad hopes the involvement of the entire community in the commemoration ceremony will help bring home the impact of Vimy Ridge for his students.

“We really want to give them the sense that this was a real time with real people – real people in their very community – who understood what they were fighting for and knew they could very well die, and die horribly,” he said.

To read more about the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the official ceremonies to come, go to the Veterans Affairs Canada website at