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B 1 • N O R T H B AY N U G G E T • S AT U R D AY, M AY 1 3 , 2 0 0 6
Trekking across battlefields
with history lessons
BY JOHN D. HETHERINGTON
Special to The Nugget
Searching the plot and row numbers etched on the headstones, the
name she had been searching for soon
came into view.
When Plested stopped ahead of the
rest of the group, I knew she had
found the grave of her great-great uncle, Pte. Angus Bethune from Powassan.
Reaching into her pack, Plested
pulled out two small Canadian flags
and placed them at each side of the
headstone. The rest of the group gathered around as I read a letter Bethune
had written to his sister in 1917.
In the letter, Bethune recounted his
experiences about surviving the battle
of Vimy Ridge. This was the last letter
he wrote home. A few months later,
Bethune died from wounds he suffered while fighting somewhere in the
Bethune was one of more than
60,000 Canadians who never returned
home after the First World War. For
Plested, a visit to his grave was an experience that will stay with her forever.
rekking across muddy and
windswept European battlefields
may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday during March break.
For myself and history teacher
Sean Stack from Monsignor John
Pereyma Catholic Secondary School in
Oshawa, our battlefield tour seemed
like the perfect opportunity for us to
bring our students together and show
them where history had happened.
Stack and I designed this trip in order to show our students the actual
battlefields Canadian soldiers fought
and died on during the First and Second World Wars.
For 10 days, our group toured the
battlefields of the Somme, Vimy Ridge,
Flanders, Dieppe and Normandy.
From early morning until dusk
each day, we visited military cemeteries, museums and memorials, and
hiked through the remains of trench
systems, tunnels and bunkers.
Walking across the same battlefields where so many Canadian soldiers fell brought new meaning to
what the students had studied in their
For students like Plested, this was
also a more personal quest.
For the first three days, we introduced our students to the main campaigns of the First World War along
the Western Front in northern France.
In the biting cold wind of the Somme
river valley, our group followed muddy trails along the edges of mine
craters detonated by the allies more
than 90 years ago.
We stepped into the past and descended into the tunnels excavated by
Canadian soldiers under Vimy Ridge
and discovered the remains of unexploded shells and shrapnel that litter
the fields of Flanders in Belgium.
fter our exploration of these battlefields, it was a fitting tribute for the
students to participate in the Last
Post services in the town of Ypres, Belgium.
At 8 p.m. every evening since Nov.
11, 1929, residents and visitors in this
medieval Belgian town have gathered
under the archway of the Menin Gate.
For Kyle Hamilton, a cadet warrant
officer of 427 Canuck Squadron and
West Ferris student, this was one remembrance service that will remain
with him forever.
At exactly 8 p.m., the bells of the
town cathedral rang out as uniformed
buglers from the local fire department
took up position in the middle of the
street. Five hundred people from the
town and visitors stood in silence as
the playing of Last Post called us to attention to remember the fallen.
When the buglers had finished,
Hamilton marched with military precision to the memorial cenotaph and
laid a wreath at its base. He paused for
a moment with his head bowed and remembered all of the soldiers who have
no known grave and lie buried some-
Katie Plested of West Ferris Secondary School examines the grave of her great-great uncle, Pte. Angus Bethune, at Villers Station War Cemetery.
SPECIAL TO THE NUGGET
West Ferris Secondary School student David Peace hoists a fellow student
to inspect a destroyed section of the Todt battery complex near the village
of Audinghen, France.
SPECIAL TO THE NUGGET
where in the Ypres salient.
llowing the students to retrace the
footsteps of the Canadians who
fought on the battlefields of Europe
was one of the main themes of our tour.
In Belgium, we followed the liberation route of the Algonquin Regiment.
In the village of Moerkerke, I lead the
students through the streets retracing
the steps taken by the Algonquins as
they prepared for their assault across
the nearby Leopold Canal during the
night of Sept. 13, 1944.
On this date, the regiment suffered
its greatest single-day loss during the
Second World War.
After walking through the deserted
village streets, we rested along Algonquinstraat, the laneway that now
runs parallel to the canal. I recounted
for the group the battle that ensued
throughout the night and into the next
morning, when so many young men
from the regiment died in an attempt
to cross this strategic waterway.
Later that morning at Adegem
Canadian War Cemetery, we paid our
respects to those Algonquins who fell
in battle that night.
Having an opportunity to inspect
the actual remains of bunkers and artillery casemates was one of the many
highlights for the students on this
Between the French coastal cities
of Dunkirk and Boulogne sur-mer are
some of the best-preserved remains of
the German Atlantic Wall defences.
During September 1944 the task of
capturing these strongpoints was assigned to the Canadian 3rd Infantry
Near the villages of Audinghen and
Wissant, we spent several hours exploring the remains of the Todt artillery battery complex.
Hiking along the beaches and
crawling through the thick underbrush of the surrounding forests, our
group explored the remains of the
same fortifications the Canadians captured in September 1944.
Nearby at the Calais Canadian War
Cemetery at St. Ingelverdt, the students from West Ferris found the
grave of Cpl. Lafontaine from North
Lafontaine was killed during the
first week of fighting that was aimed
at breaching these strongpoints. His
headstone overlooks the fields where
so many Canadians died during the
liberation of this part of France.
There are few reminders of the
slaughter of the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division that took place on the
shores of Dieppe on Aug. 19, 1942.
A few memorials, cliff top concrete
bunkers and observation shelters are
all that remain.
A thorough background knowledge
of the Dieppe raid is essential for a
history teacher to explain to students
the events that unfolded here.
During the next two days along the
rocky beaches at Dieppe, Puys and
Pourville, Stack outlined the phases of
each part of the ill-fated raid.
art of our walking tour in this area
had special significance for Monsignor John Pereyma Secondary
School student Meghan Waybrant. Her
grandfather was one of the nearly 5,000
Canadians who stormed ashore along
Dieppe’s main beach during the early
hours of the raid.
He was one of the troopers in the
Calgary Tank Regiment. All of the
tanks that were landed were destroyed during the nine-hour assault.
Her grandfather survived the raid
and was captured by the Germans and
remained a prisoner of war until 1945.
A plaque dedicated to his regiment,
the Calgary Tanks, graces a stone wall
that borders the esplanade in front of
Dieppe’s main beach.
For the next three days, our tour
lead us through the Normandy battlefields where so many Canadians died
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John Hetherington has been a history
teacher for the past 20 years at West
Ferris Secondary School in North Bay.
He designs and leads field trips in order to give students an appreciation
and awareness of the people and
events that have shaped history.
Bumps and bruises
during the desperate struggle that
took place as they moved inland from
We visited memorials, cemeteries
and museums and retraced the route
of the Canadian Army through places
such as Beny-sur-mer, Hells Corner,
Authie and Abbey Ardenne — names
that will live on in the memories of the
veterans who are with us today.
Our last stop was at a small stone
memorial at a crossroads near the
town of Ranville in the eastern sector
of the Normandy beachhead.
Throughout the early morning
hours of June 6, 1944, units of the
Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion
fought through the night to prevent a
German breakthrough in the fields
that surrounded the crossroads.
or Rachael Northcott also from Monsignor John Pereyma, this was the
part of the tour she had been waiting
One of the paratroopers in the battalion was her grandfather.
Today, a memorial to his unit has
been erected at the same crossroads
where he and his unit were dug in that
night more than 60 years ago.
Sadly, Northcott’s grandfather died
a few years ago.
Northcott knew, as we all did, that
her grandfather would have been
proud she had made her own journey
to the spot where he had fought during the first night of the liberation of
The students who took part in this
tour did so for a variety of reasons.
Some were motivated by their interest
in Canadian military history.
For others, this was a personal
journey and a chance for them to visit
the places where their relatives or
people from their hometowns fought
during two world wars.
For Stack and I, our motives were
simple, to develop in our students a
lifelong appreciation for the commitment and sacrifices Canadians made
in the cause of freedom and peace.
I know that this year and in the future Remembrance Day will take on a
more personal significance for our students.
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