Tag Archives: Vimy Ridge

Europe 2019 Day 7

Good morning les enfants! As you can tell by the greeting, we are now in France. Dave is rather chipper this morning; I got some sleep! Okay, let’s be clear though, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows, but I definitely feel decent. Maybe I’m finally finding my travel stride. In any case, we do haves one bus  time again, so I can always have a little nap if I need a recharge.

So, what’s on the agenda for today? Well, we’re about to leave the hotel for the 30 minute drive to Vimy Ridge. We will linger there for a while, visiting the trenches and memorial before we hit the road again. The next stop will be Beaumont Hamel, in the Somme area. After that, we have about a 4 hour drive to Normandy and our hotel in Caen.

“🎶…Here I am, rock me like a Hurricane!” Alright, so we’re on the bus for the hour ride to Beaumont Hamel and the Newfoundland Memorial Park. If you’re wondering why I’m quoting the classic 1980s song by the Scorpions, I’ll tell you. It’s not raining today, which is fantastic, but it is a tad windy. Like how windy Dave? Well, bowl you over tornado force winds windy. People like me with aerodynamic hairdos don’t have to worry, but many of the girls are now rocking the messy hair look. But hey, it’s not pouring rain, so I will not complain.

We had a great visit. The broke us up by school, with each group doing a separate tour. Our guide took us first into the subway system, tunnels dug by engineers through the soft chalk. They were used to move troops and equipment to the forward trenches away from observation and fire from the Germans on the ridge. This one was known as the “Grange Subway” and is an amazing piece of Canadian history. Unfortunately, and I’m not sure why, maybe because of flooding, our tour of the subway wasn’t as long as it was in 2014. Regardless, it was neat for the kids to see.

Vimy Canadian Memorial, March 2019.

After exiting the subway, we made our way through the preserved Canadian and German trenches. When they were constructing the monument, they decided to keep portions of the front line trenches in the park. To retain their shape. Sandbags filled with cement were stacked along the trench wall, which later deteriorated, but left the cement like stone pillows. They are amazing in the sense that it gives the kids an idea of what it would have been like to live and fight in the these glorified ditches.

Vimy Canadian Memorial, March 2019.

Vimy Canadian Memorial, March 2019.

Vimy Canadian Memorial, March 2019.

From the trenches, we hopped on the bus for a short ride to the monument, located on the summit of Hill 145. From there, it becomes very apparent why the ridge was so important. Looking east, one can see the Douai Plain stretching out in front you, with the city of Lens and the immense slag heaps being prominent features. On bright, clear days, you can see the Belgian border.

We had a brief prayer service on the back side of the memorial, before proceeding to the front for a group photo. Then the kids had some time to wander around, explore and take photos. This is where we were able to experience the full-force of the “light breeze” that was blowing. It was crazy how windy it was on the top of the hill, but it certainly didn’t dampen our spirits. I think it was important for them to see it, and I think that every Canadian should visit this hallowed ground if they can. The sacrifice of these and other soldiers will not be forgotten if we keep the history alive.

Vimy Canadian Memorial, March 2019.

Vimy Canadian Memorial, March 2019.

Vimy Canadian Memorial, March 2019.

Mother Canada weeping for her fallen sons, Vimy Canadian Memorial, March 2019.

Back on the bus again after another stop. Whew, we made it! Pardon the language, but holy crap it windy! I just checked the weather and it says the wind is out of the west at 54km/h gusting to 74km/h. I’m not a sailor, but isn’t that like gale force wind? I have no idea how Tish is keeping the bus on the road.

Anyway, we were just at Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park. This commemorates the action of the Newfoundland Regiment on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st, 1916. Unfortunately, the entire regiment was wiped out in the course of the 20 minute attack. Of the 600+ men who started the assault, only 60 men were left unscathed. It was an unprecedented tragedy for Newfoundland, and after the war it was decided that it would be turned into a memorial park, complete with trenches, monuments and cemeteries.

Beaumont Hamel Memorial, March 2019.

Beaumont Hamel Memorial, March 2019.

Beaumont Hamel Memorial, March 2019.

Beaumont Hamel Memorial, March 2019.

Alright, we’re on the bus to our hotel for the evening. After a 300+km journey, we’re now in Normandy, in the city of Caen. We had a chance to walk around the city a bit before dinner; I especially liked the Norman castle, which apparently belonged to William the Conqueror. Dinner today was at Le Cafe, where we had ham with some type of sauce, and potatoes. Dessert was a chocolate brownie with whip cream. There was some disagreement amongst the chaperones as to the rating of the meal; I thought it was good.

Caen, March 2019.

Caen. March 2019.

So tomorrow we have a bit earlier morning, heading first to the Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery before our 10:00 appointment at Juno Beach Centre. We will visit a few other spots before we leave for Paris in the afternoon. Anyway, there is things to do before we go to bed. Until then…

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Posted by on March 15, 2019 in History, Travel


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Vimy 2017-Reflections

The challenge of history is to recover the past and introduce it to the present-David Thelen

Do you ever wonder how these quotes become famous quotes? Do people set out to generate them, or are there people sitting around waiting for them to be said? Is there a committee that decides what is or isn’t a good quote? Who votes on them…is there a quotes academy? Okay, okay, I’m obviously being very facetious. The whole point of the quote from Thelen, who is an American History professor (I had to Google it), is that teaching history is not easy. One of the best ways to do it, is to have people experience it firsthand.

Well, it’s hard to believe that it has already been a week and a half since we returned from the trip. But I guess time moves just as fast when you’re not on a trip as it does when you are. We were very busy on the trip and it’s been even crazier now trying to catch up on everything while we were away. I’ve never missed 7 days of work before and I sure paid for it. There was a whole stack of marking I needed to get through, especially since midterm marks were due. I’m mostly caught up now, but I’m glad I hopefully won’t be missing that much school again in the future.

My return to real life and work was made that much more challenging by how jet lagged and exhausted I felt when we returned. I know, I know, poor me! I did get the gears from a lot of people who read this blog during the trip and asked me about how tired I was. How tired were you Dave? Really tired? The reality is I was tired…that’s why I wrote it. Duh. I realize I was in Europe and not at work, but these excursions are not your run-of-the-mill let’s jump on a plane and see some stuff type of vacation. First, I am the group leader and ultimately responsible for the 23 students we had with us. That is a tad bit stressful; when you’re teaching, the kids go home to their parents at the end of the day and you’re not on duty 24/7. Secondly, these trips are very busy and they try to pack in as many things as they can. So ya, I was up some days at 0500 and getting to bed, albeit because I was working on this blog, after midnight. I did try to nap some on the bus, but I like to see some of the sights and don’t want to sleep it all away.

In any case, it was a great trip. The kids really enjoyed themselves and hopefully learned a lot more about the history and culture of the world. I can honestly say, even though this was my third trip, that I learned a lot too. Even though the three trips were relatively similar, and there were some repetitive things, you experience new stuff. Amsterdam and Paris are so big, that there is so much still to discover. Besides those two places, we’ve never stayed in the same city twice, which is amazing. I have now seen Rouen, Amiens, Valenciennes, Colombiers-sur-Seulles, Lille and Honfleur. Each has it’s unique features, architecture, history and culture. In my personal opinion, while Paris is an amazing city, I much prefer the those smaller cities for their distinct charm and character. Maybe someday I’ll be able to explore them at a much more leisurely pace.

The whole crew in Honfleur, April 2017.

One of the things people often ask me is what was my most memorable memory or moment from the trip. That is always a difficult question, as there are so many. If I have to pick something, I would have to say it’s not one thing in particular, but rather watching the reactions of the kids. I mentioned before it’s a huge step for many of them, and for most their first experience with European culture. It’s akin to what I’ve experienced with my own kids, just they’re not mine…that sense of awe and wonder. It’s heartening to hear them talk about coming back and exploring more of the great places we visited. I was also blessed to be able to travel with a great group of chaperones, who shared my excitement and my stresses. I’m already looking forward to our next adventure! Our EF Tour Director, Jason, was the icing on the cake. His professionalism, easy-going manner and silky-smooth commentary put everyone at ease. The kids loved him and still talk about how great he was.

St. Patrick crew, April 2017.

So what about the bad Dave? I guess I can say there was really only one bad experience that I had. I thought the whole Vimy commemoration was good, though as I already described, more festive than I anticipated, especially compared to the 95th anniversary. I guess that will happen when there’s 25,000 people and lots of VIPs there. I thought the early part of the day was well planned and went very smoothly, but not the second half. I don’t think they (they being Veterans Affairs Canada, who were in charge of the event) anticipated the impact of having so many people squished into such a small area would mean.

In retrospect, we did have it easier than some groups, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. It only took us about 1.5 hours to get through the line to the shuttle buses, but no one thought to put any facilities in the assembly areas (or at least ours in Lens) so people could go to the bathroom. The poor employees at the MacDonald’s beside the parking lot must have had a rough day. At the memorial, I thought there should have been people directing traffic and making sure some areas did not get too congested. The fenced in area on the front side of the monument became so packed you could not move, and there were nowhere enough toilets for all the people (I tried going at one point, but couldn’t find the end of the line). Many stopped drinking water, which was not a good thing on such a warm day, so they wouldn’t have to go (myself included).

The exfil (to use the military term for exfiltration) from the site was an absolute gong show. People near the front began streaming up and over the monument to get out, while those at the back, including us, were trapped because they would not open gate to the main entrance. It seems as though transporting some of the minor VIPs took precedence over the thousands of people who had been baking in the sun for hours. Someone or some people broke down a portion of the fence and there was a mad rush for the opening. It was utter pandemonium! It was fortunate no one was trampled, but it was a nightmare trying to keep the group together. The scary part was realizing, as we surged along with the crowd, that we were walking through a part of the site that is off-limits due to UXO. Yes, people (myself included) were walking through fields with unexploded munitions in them! They don’t even cut the grass in those areas, but rather use goats to keep the vegetation down due to their lower ground pressure.

Thankfully we had told the kids where to go to catch the shuttle back to the assembly areas. It was insane, but we managed to get most of the kids rounded up in one big group, with one chaperone and a few students slightly separated. Getting on the shuttle created a lot of anxiety and some tears, but by 2030 we were all on our bus, Big Green, and heading back to Lille. We didn’t find out until later that it took some groups until midnight to make it back to the assembly areas. That’s nuts! Anyway, we got everyone out and I don’t think we’ll be involved in an event like that again. But it will be something that we all remember for the rest of our lives. Alright, so that was only four paragraphs of ranting!

From a personal perspective, my only issue, as it always has been, is leaving my family behind. I know my boys missed me, and it does put a lot on my wife, especially since I was gone for 11 days. I certainly appreciate everything she did during that time. If there is one positive to my absence, it has generated a lot of interest in the boys to see these places as well. I have promised them I will take them on a tour when they get to St. Pats.

All griping aside, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. While the Vimy ceremony wasn’t as solemn as I anticipated, there were many opportunities for us to have an intimate view of history. The place that probably generated the most reflection and emotion was the Bretteville-sur-Laize Cemetery in Cintheaux, south of Caen. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were relatively alone there, as opposed to the tens or even hundreds of people at the other places we visited. When it touches close and becomes personal, the impact of the history is much greater.

Newfoundland Memorial, Beaumont Hamel, April 2017.

Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, April 2017.

Now speaking of which, we are planning to do it all again, hopefully in two years. We would like to change it up a bit, maybe see a few new places in the process. We’ve submitted our application to go during March break of 2019, but haven’t settled on an exact tour yet. One option would take us to Berlin, some different parts of the Netherlands and then Vimy, Normandy and Paris. The second is a complete break, focusing on the Italian battlefields. We’re leaning towards one, but we’ll make a final decision once the paperwork is (hopefully) approved. Wherever we go, it will be an amazing experience for the kids just like every other trip.

Anyway, it’s time to wrap this up. Now that things are getting back to normal, I’ll be back with my usual blog posts soon enough. Until then…

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Posted by on April 25, 2017 in History, Travel, Writing


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Vimy 2017 Day 5

Ugh. Day 5 children. I feel like a bag of poop; I know, wonderful analogy first thing in the morning Dave. It is what it is though. I fell asleep quick and slept well, but all those nights without sleep have caught up to me. Maybe it’s fitting that today is the April 9th, the day we go to Vimy and commemorate the 100th anniversary of one of the most important military (and otherwise) events in our country’s short history. I’m sure all of the those men were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they crouched in those trenches. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.

I was up at 0500, but I didn’t go to bed until almost 0030. The wifi at this hotel is not very good, and I had to spend a lot of time fiddling around with their blog, trying to upload pictures and getting them inserted into the post. I know, first world problems. Whatever the case, it is still an issue and my issue to deal with. I had to use some of the precious data on my phone to expedite the process after a lot of frustration using the wifi. I need to run right now and wake up the kids. I know they’ll appreciate the 0600 knock on the door from “Dadistel” (my latest nickname-thanks Ben Grassia).

It’s a crisp and clear morning. The sky is starting to lighten in twilight, as night gives way to dawn. I want to get a photo as the sun comes up. It’s supposed to be 23 today, very unlike it was 100 years ago, when the attack commenced in a blinding snowstorm. Hopefully I don’t burn in the sun.

Early morning in Lille, April 2017.

We are on the road right now, on our way to our drop off point. It’s a beautiful morning right now, a bit hazy, but it looks like it’s going to be a great day. The haze gives the countryside almost mystical feel. I think there’s a lot of mixed emotions as we head towards the Vimy site, probably not unlike was like 100 years ago. Maybe that gives us a little bit of a sense of what the soldiers were feeling before the attack.

So we’re here in the city of Liévin and we’re having our bus “fueled up” and “bombed up” for the celebration. Very fitting for the day; it’s almost like a military operation, with groups of people coming out bringing boxes of food and water for a bus. It’s going to be a long day at Vimy and we need all of this food and water to get us through the day. It really gives you an idea of the scope and magnitude of the celebration and all the planning that went into it, much like Vimy.

So it’s 10 o’clock now we’re in the city of Lens and we’re standing in a massive queue waiting to get the shuttle bus to go to Vimy Ridge. There are hundreds of people standing here…it’s just an amazing thing to be part of. There are groups people from all walks of life; military, civilian and police. I see members of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, Queen’s Own Rifles, cadets and many military members, current and former here waiting for the buses. Everything is proceeding with clockwork like precision.

Waiting in Lens, April 2017.

It’s now almost 1 o’clock and we’re sitting below the base of Vimy Ridge in the sweltering heat. It is unbelievable how many people are here, literally tens of thousands of people. It is a very different atmosphere than 2012. With the pouring rain we had that year, it was a very sombre affair and very sad. In some ways it feels like we’re at a rock concert with a very festive like atmosphere. I’m sure the tone will change when the time for the ceremony begins, but for now it feels a lot different than it has in the past. There’s almost like a whole village created here at the ridge; tents for VIPs, facilities, stands for the media and the display on the memorial itself.

The Memorial, April 2017.

The crowd at Vimy, April 2017.

The Vimy 100 ceremony, April 2017.

That was one of the best experiences of my life and quite possibly one of the worst. It was one of the most memorable experiences and one of the most nightmarish. I am completely and utterly exhausted and so is everybody else. I just want to go back to the hotel and go to sleep. The end of the day was absolutely crazy.

After hours of sitting in baking under the sun, the ceremony started at approximately 3 o’clock. There was a slight delay with the arrival of the dignitaries but after that they got everything started. It unfolded in 4 movements, each preceded by actors such as Paul Gross reading letters from the war. There were speeches from the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales. Interspersed were performances by musicians and choirs and fly past of historic biplanes. As I mentioned earlier, it did feel more festive than in 2012, but there were moments of emotion, such as when the whole crowd, however many thousands were there, accompanied the band in playing “O Canada.”

With the kids clearly beat, and some bordering on the verge of heat exhaustion, we decided to duck out a few minutes early to get into the queue for the buses. Unfortunately we were hit with a double whammy. They blocked our exit from the front area of the monument (the part that faces east) just as we got there, and the reason they did, was all the VIPs, the GG, the Royals and the PM all passed by right where we had been standing. Had we stayed in that spot, we may have been able to meet them and certainly get some real good photos and video. Damn!

Once the ceremony was over, things got a little messy, definitely much less organized than the morning. We had difficulty leaving the area through the main exit and the crowd was very agitated after a long day in the heat. When they did let everyone through, we had a real hard time keeping everyone together and organized. This was very poorly organized on the part of the planners and created a great deal of stress. Fortunately we got everyone, in small groups, on the shuttle and back to the bus in Lens. I’m sure the kids will definitely remember their experience at Vimy 100 for many years to come.

We had dinner again at the hotel and everyone now is ready for bed. I think we all had a bit too much sun, very evidenced by sleepy behaviour and possibly sunburnt faces. I know that for myself, even after several applications of sunscreen, I am beet red in a few places that I missed. Tomorrow is a much more relaxed but early day, with visits to Albert for church, Beaumont Hamel and Arras. I going to turn in, but tomorrow’s a new day. Until then…

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Posted by on April 9, 2017 in History, Travel


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The Indiana Jones emulation

Most people can recognize it from the first few iconic bars of the theme song. Some of us have even pictured ourselves as the lead character, flying across the globe in search of epic buried treasure and all the while fighting hordes of bad guys. Let’s not forget landing the beautiful leading lady too! This series of movies certainly brought the field of archaeology into the public eye and all the exciting events that go along with it. I mean come on, who wouldn’t want to find the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail? And it’s not like Hollywood ever lies or embellishes things right?

Hey, welcome to November kids! I know I sound like a broken record, but man does time fly by; two months gone in a heartbeat. And guess what? Any guesses? Give up? If you didn’t say that I’m tired, sick and burnt out, you don’t know anything about me. So the reason for all your tribulations Dave? Uh, work…duh! There are way too many things going on; marking, a new course, extra curriculars and the list goes on. It doesn’t help that coming back to all of this is tough after having been off for seven months this year.

So besides work, what’s been keeping me busy you ask? Well, it is fall, so the correct answer would be football. Minor ended a few weeks ago with both boys losing in the semifinals, but I have yet to recover from the insanity of coaching two teams. This week was playoff time in high school, and we played on Thursday night. We had an opportunity to redeem our regular season loss to Hammarskjold and advance to the city finals. However, it was not to be; the boys fought hard but came up short in the end. I’m going to miss working with some of the characters we had over the last couple of years, but I’m also excited to continue coaching the talented Grade 9s we have.

Since I mentioned extra curriculars earlier, I do have a big one coming up later this year. I’ve written on several occasions in the past about my upcoming trip to Europe. In April, myself and two other teachers will be leading 23 students from our school to tour the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The highlight will be our participation in the 100th Anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The planning for this trip began two years ago and now that we are less than 6 months away, work has kicked into high gear. Our next endeavor is to organize the school’s Remembrance Day services coming up in just over a week.

So with everything going on, I have had zero time to work on any railway related stuff. Once football wraps up I’ll be back at it, but for now I just don’t have the energy. I thought of trying to get out for a hike this weekend as it’s supposed to absolutely gorgeous, but there’s too many things to do.We’ll see in the coming weeks if the weather holds. Now speaking of hiking, the last bit of railway work I did involved my annual Thanksgiving visit to Gunflint. It was a productive visit, but the weather wasn’t as cooperative as in past years.

We left early on Friday morning for the roundabout drive to Gunflint. After a brief stop in Grand Marais we arrived at the Cross River Lodge around 10am local time. Unfortunately it had rained the night before and the bush was very wet, which wrecked our plans for the day. However our hosts and friends, John and Rose, had an idea to keep me busy in the meantime.

Rainbow over Gunflint Lake, October 2016.

Rainbow over Gunflint Lake, October 2016.

If you recall I was at Gunflint in the summer to do a presentation at the Chik-Wauk Museum on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad. Due to a number of scheduling conflicts, the turnout was not as great as for previous events. With that in mind, John asked if I would be interested in doing an impromptu presentation at the lodge for some of their neighbours and guests. I never pass an opportunity to talk about the railway, so I gladly accepted. I was a bit nervous, but thankfully I had a presentation on my laptop to work off of and the packed house was very appreciative.

Amazingly, I didn’t come away from this lecture empty handed either. One of the guests that evening was Gunflint resident Sharlene LeTourneau. I had spoken to her many years ago and learned that she was the daughter of Peggy Heston, who operated Heston’s Lodge on the lake for many years. At the time I had asked her about a photo that appeared in Willis Raff’s book “Pioneers in the Wilderness,” which chronicled the history of Cook County, MN. In it is the only known photo of the railway at Gunflint Lake and had been provided by Peggy. She said she would look into it, and low and behold, she presented me with the photograph. I was completely blown away and grateful for this amazing piece of railway history.

Handcar, Gunflint Lake, circa 1910.

Handcar, Gunflint Lake, circa 1910.

The next morning dawned brigher and somewhat sunny, though cold and very windy. After breakfast, we left for the other side of the lake. The west wind was blowing down the length of the lake, and even hugging the southern shore did not afford us much respite. It was one of my roughest experiences on the lake, the bow of the boat plowing into every trough and spraying us with the chilly water. Our goal for the day would be to follow the railroad grade south of Bridal Falls, in an area where I did a rather spotty job the year before.

Once above the falls, we followed the grade south through an open area as it passed alongside the Crab River. Just inside the first treeline, we made an interesting and potentially important discovery. As a brief rainshower pelted us, we located a pile of what appeared to be telegraph wire on the west side of the grade. Was the line run past Camp 4 all the way to Camp 8? Maybe next year I can turn up more wire to confirm this hypothesis.

Telegraph wire, October 2016.

Telegraph wire, October 2016.

Continuing south, we left the wooded section and entered another open stretch. Here we located corduroyed logs in the high grass, obviously laid there to support the grade above it as it crossed this low, wet area. From there it was on into another treeline as the grade turned southeast and then east paralleling the river.

We found many physical traces of the railroad, from spikes and fishplates to rock cuts and cutting work. I already knew the route the line had taken, but this was just further confirmation of this notion and now I had precise GPS coordinates to back it up. Shortly thereafter we arrived at our turnaround point and headed back toward the boat. On the way we made another neat discovery near the telegraph wire; the problem is that I have no idea what it is. Ethan suggested that it might be a piece off of a sleigh.

GLS Cutting, October 2016.

GLS Cutting, October 2016.

Mystery object, October 2016.

Mystery object, October 2016.

Crab River, October 2016.

Crab River, October 2016.

Sunday morning was very nice, with clear skies and little wind. The temperature however hovered around -4C and fog hung in patches over the lake; it made for a pretty yet chilly ride across Gunflint. Our agenda for the day was to trace the grade of the railroad north from Camp 4 (to fill in a missing piece from the previous year) and explore more of the area south of the camp.

Foggy morning on Gunflint, October 2016.

Foggy morning on Gunflint, October 2016.

The grade north of the camp was already in rough shape from the 1999 blowdown and 2007 fire; however this spring the area was hit by several intense windstorms that toppled even more trees. To get to where we needed to go, I figured that walking along the shore would be the most expedient route. Turns out it was. It was a bit tricky get from the shore to the grade, but the boys and I did manage to. Once on it, we followed the line north to where I thought I needed to get to; I later realized that I did not get as far north as I needed to, so I will have to revisit this again next year.

Our explorations of the camp proved to be more rewarding. We discovered what appeared to be several coils of telegraph wire north of the northern most building, further reinforcing the idea that the communication line did in fact stretch this far. However, it was what we uncovered to the south that intrigued me the most.

Last year the boys and I had located some artifacts south of the camp and I wanted to see what else was there; our discoveries far exceeded my expectations. Sweeping with my metal detector, and being careful not to disturb the area, it was one hit after another. I located a lot of items in a 200 metre stretch including wire, spikes, chain, a whole assortment of metal objects, one glass bottle stopper and quite a bit of coal and slag. It certainly points to a location that was alive with activity during the early 1900s.

Bottle stopper?, October 2016.

Bottle stopper?, October 2016.

Metal objects, October 2016.

Metal objects, October 2016.

Metal object, October 2016.

Metal object, October 2016.

I am really hoping that the US Forest Service can get some archaeological work going again at the site of Camp 4 (and maybe Camp 8 too). There is so much more than this place can tell us; I am just one guy, not a trained archaeologist and I don’t really have the authority to do more than locate items on the surface. Real archaeology is not glamorous or always exciting, but it’s an important tool for us to understand the story of our past. Hey, and I do have a trade mark hat that I wear 😉

Anyway, time to go. I have a lot of things to catch up on in the rest of my life. I’ll be back as soon as it can with the latest updates. Until then…

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Posted by on November 5, 2016 in Hiking, History, Railway, Travel


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He’s almost here!

Who? You know silly! He shows up every year around this time; the big, fat, jolly guy! Can we say fat anymore…is that too politically incorrect? Metabolically challenged better? Maybe he’s like the guy from the Rudolph animated show that gains like a pile of weight for December 25-“eat papa eat, no one likes a skinny Santa!” In any case, we’ll be eagerly anticipating his arrival at our house; I’m sure the boys will be on the Santa Tracker this afternoon watching his progress.

The Christmas season has brought with it a welcome respite from work; it has been an insanely busy year since September. Every year I say how much busier it has been compared to the previous year and this time it was no different. I’ve already been able to spend some time relaxing and hanging out with the family and I look forward to doing more of that during the next couple of weeks.

One of the things keeping me occupied during the fall was football, and this year I received a very special surprise when the season ended. On November 19 a very unusual email (and tweet) showed up in my inbox; I had been selected as one of the ten finalists for the NFL Canada Youth Coach of the Year. I was totally shocked…I didn’t even know I was nominated! Turns out one of my fellow coaches, Shaun Berst, wrote a very flattering email that helped me earn the nod. In the end I was not the winner ($5000 for your football program), nor one of the two runners up, but I was honoured to be one of the finalists nonetheless. I coach because I enjoy it and try to make a difference our youth. Besides, in a hockey crazy town like Thunder Bay, it’s nice to get people thinking about some other sports for a change!

On the field, October 2014. (J. Mirabelli Photography)

On the field, October 2014. (J. Mirabelli Photography)

In other school related news, the pieces are beginning to fall into place for our 2017 trip to Europe. From our first student meeting in early October to now, we have come a long way in a short period of time. There are now 21 students enrolled on the trip, with a few more on a waiting list. We are hoping that our tour company, EF, can land us a larger bus so we can take those extra few students with us. Even though we are more than 800 days away from the trip, the excitement is building. Our tour will bring us together with thousands of other high school for this monumental event in Canadian history.

So with things having returned somewhat to normal, I’ve been trying to get back to some railway related matters. Interestingly enough, I’ve received a couple of emails in the last week that have helped me with that endeavour.

The first was a tweet rather than an email, but important nonetheless. The anniversary of Alexander Middleton’s birthday, who was the chief engineer and briefly president of the PAD&W, sparked some interest in his native Scotland. A number of back and forths later I had some new information about Middleton’s past before he began work on the railway.

A few days later I received another inquiry, this time related to my work on Leeblain. There is very little information about what occurred during its existence, but I may have gained a little more insight. The only know person to live at Leeblain was one Adolphe Perras, who previously operated a hotel in Port Arthur. The email I received from a lady in Winnipeg, who is descendant of Perras, has me looking in some new directions and might even lead to a photo of him.

While I’m away from school for a few weeks, I’m going to try and get back to some work on the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad. I still have quite a number of files (rather photos) from the Arpin Papers to transcribe, which I’ve started to pluck away at again. I’ve done a little digging on the internet, but I’m planning to get to the Thunder Bay Museum next week to do a little “ole fashioned” research.

Anyway, I gotta run, as there as is a lot to do before the big day. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and joyous New Year. I’ll be back in 2015 with more news and ramblings. Until then…


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Posted by on December 24, 2014 in History, Railway, Research, Travel


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Europe 2014 Day 6

Good morning Day six! We’re on the bus waiting to leave for Vimy. There is a bit of fog this morning, but mind you it is before 8am and maybe it hasn’t had a chance to burn off. Our journey should take us about an hour and a half. Can’t wait to get there!

So it’s hard to believe that we’ve already arrived at the halfway point of the tour already. Where does time go? It has been an awesome time so far, and there is so much more yet to come. Today is the transition from the WWI part of the tour (Ypres, Arras, Somme and Vimy) to the WWII part (Dieppe and Normandy). Many of the places we will visit are a contrast between tragedy and triumph, the proud moments in our history and the darkest days. In the end we will commemorate it all, and remember those who fell.

We’re back on the bus now on our way to Dieppe. Again it was another amazing visit, and such a huge part of Canadian history. Even though I was at Vimy in 2012, it was still a very emotional event.

We started off at the visitor centre, and then made our way up the ridge to the memorial. It is really something that you cannot describe to ascend that hill and see that amazing sight. The memorial itself is massive and fills one with pride to see this towering tribute to the success and sacrifice of our nation. There is also undeniable sadness, especially when one sees the statute of Mother Canada, her eyes and head down in sorrow.

At the memorial we met Jessica, who is with the Vimy Foundation (which works to educate young Canadians about this part of our history). She did a little ceremony, and then presented us with our with our Vimy Pilgrimage medals, which are given to all young Canadians who visit the memorial). Following this we had a another short prayer service led by Ms. Papich.

We had an appointment to visit the tunnels and trenches at 10:40, so there was a little time to look around the memorial. This is always a time for quiet reflection. I spent a bit of time taking in the Statute of Mother Canada; as I mentioned earlier it always gets me. Maybe now as a parent it takes on a lot more meaning and makes me think of my own boys (we were able to Facetime with them last night). I truly can sympathize with the sorrow of the parents and the nation as a whole; 60,000 Canadians represents a huge sacrifice on the part of an entire generation.

Statute of Mother Canada, March 2014.

Statute of Mother Canada, March 2014.

The tour of the tunnels and trenches was amazing! In 2012 we were able to see the trenches, albeit very rushed and the tunnels were closed. I had seen video of the Grange Tunnel before, but it was something to experience it firsthand. This piece of Canadiana really puts you in the place of the soldiers preparing for battle. Carved into the soft chalk, it allowed supplies to be brought forward safely and sheltered the men before the battle. I can’t wait to watch the video I shot when I get home.

Grange Tunnel, March 2014.

Grange Tunnel, March 2014.

As I just mentioned, we literally had to run through the trenches the last time because of time constraints. This time was much more leisurely, and really allowed to experience what they were like. I shot a lot of video here as well, and I’m sure it will be a lot more detailed than my one from two years ago.

On our way out of the area, we stopped at a German WWI cemetery. I had seen and read that they have a very different feel than the British Commonwealth ones. The Neuville-Saint-Vaast Cemetery contains nearly 45,000 burials, usually with four soldiers to a headstone. The huge number of interments and the rows of crosses stretching on and on really make it much more sombre place. I think it made a big impression on the students.

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Cemetery, March 2014.

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Cemetery, March 2014.

It seems as though the sun is trying to poke out now; it has been very foggy this morning and as a result been very chilly. I hope it get warmer and goes up to the 15C or so it was supposed to be, since Dieppe is on the sea and will be a lot winder. Well, I’m going to have a nap for a little bit.

We’re on our way out of Dieppe now. Unfortunately we did not have a lot of time in Dieppe, basically a little of time to wander around on the beach. I think it did give the kids an appreciation of the difficulties faced by the soldiers as they stormed up the beach. The headland cliffs are quite prominent, and the distance across the beach to the town is very far. The tide was much farther out than the last time I was here, and the climb up the beach was very steep. The sun refuses to come out and it is quite windy and cold on the beach. Too bad I don’t have my parka here!

Dieppe beach, March 2014.

Dieppe beach, March 2014.

It’s late now and I’m just getting down to finishing the day’s entry. I’m a bit tired; we’ve travelled very far in a short period of time and saw a lot of things. We are settled in our rooms and the kids are in bed for the night.

So after a drive of a couple hours, we arrived in Caen and turned south toward Falaise. Not quite halfway between the cities, near Cintheaux, lies the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. It is one of the two cemeteries in the area (we are going to see Beny-sur-Mer tomorrow) and contains the graves of nearly 2800 Canadians killed in the fighting in the area. We made a special request to visit this cemetery, since it wasn’t originally on our schedule.

This cemetery holds some special significance since it contains the graves of soldiers from the Thunder Bay area, and also graves from those who served in the Lake Superior Regiment. In my Gr. 10 History class I teach my students about the Battle of Verrieres Ridge, which was a very tragic event in Canadian military history, but which remains unknown to many people. In that battle the Black Watch, the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada based in Montreal, was decimated during their portion of the attack on the ridge. Only 20 men survived unscathed from the 325 that began the day.

Like our other cemetery stop, the students were assigned graves to visit. We began with a prayer service at the entrance to the cemetery and then proceeded into the site to view the graves. I assigned myself Major Phil Griffin, who took command of the Black Watch during the battle and was killed leading his men forward. In addition to their own soldier, I gave all the students a special task; they were to visit the grave located at XVI G 11. Buried at this location was Private Gerard Dore, who was killed on July 23, 1944 serving with Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal. He was only 16 years old. I thought that this would help to emphasize the tragedy that is war.

Grave of Maj. Griffin, March 2014.

Grave of Maj. Griffin, March 2014.

Grave of Pte. Dore, March 2014.

Grave of Pte. Dore, March 2014.

After our visit we drove back through Caen and turned northwest toward Colombiers-sur-Seulles and the Chateau du Baffy. It is too bad that we arrived after dark and we really could not see much of the buildings and the grounds as they are sure to be quite amazing! The chateau was constructed in 1735 and served as a German Headquarters during WWII. I’m sure we’ll have a chance to look around tomorrow during the day.

Anyway, I better get rolling…it’s almost midnight here. Tomorrow we are off to the Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery and Juno Beach. It should be a great day and hopefully the sun will come out and warm us up! Until then…

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Posted by on March 11, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing


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Where did spring go?

Today the temperature sits at -4C and there is snow on the ground; it seems as if Mother Nature cannot make up her mind. This is a far cry from the nearly 20C temperatures we were enjoying three weeks ago. I’m sure it will sort itself out soon enough, I hope.

Anyway, a week ago I was standing in the pouring rain at Vimy Ridge; it’s hard to believe a week has already passed. It is good to be home and I’ve finally recovered from the jet lag. It was kinda touch and go there…I nearly fell asleep in class a few times on Wednesday. The pictures have all been downloaded from my camera, all 1316 images or nearly 6gb worth. Wow, I am shutter happy! All video I took is now on my computer too, 24gb of HD content. I was down to the last 10 minutes of recording time on the camera, so that 24gb is about 3 hours of video. I haven’t had time to sort through it all, but I did upload a few highlights to YouTube (From Ypres and Vimy). You can see them by clicking on the following links: Menin Gate CeremonyVimy Song by Lizzy HoytVimy Ceremony Last Post.

In front of the Eiffel Tower, April 2012.

I can honestly day that it was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on, and certainly one of the most special. I’ve already spoken to my classes about it, but I cannot wait to share

more of my experiences and photographs with them. We are already planning ahead to Vimy 2017 and are really hoping that there are similar tours that will be organized by EF. Now having experienced a student tour for the first time, I know what to expect and how to better prepare. Not that I wasn’t ready, I didn’t lose anyone, but there’s always those little things that you cannot anticipate unless you’ve actually done it.

So needless to say I did not get any railway related work done in the last week. I spent my time getting caught

up on all the things I left behind while I was gone and making YouTube videos. I’m sure I will make some time this week to get back to my other life. I still have a few tweaks left to do on the MN History article and then maybe I’ll starting on the Leeblain article for the Thunder Bay Historical Society.

If the weather cooperates, I’m hoping to get into some hiking soon. If the snow goes away this weekend, I’ll try and get out next weekend. I still need to get back to Rosslyn and the few remaining pieces of railway and shoot some video. With those rails obscured by the brush, it’s best to get at them now before everything leafs out and they are even harder to see. It will be May in a few weeks and that marks the beginning of hiking season. I know that it will be a busy spring and summer, but I am going to try and get out as much as I can.

Anyway, I must run. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite pics from the trip. Until then…

Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium April, 2012.


Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Miscellaneous, Research, Travel, Writing


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Vimy Day Eight

Well, we’ve started the journey home. I am sitting here at Charles de Gaulle airport waiting for our flight to Toronto listening to some classic rock. Our wake up call was at 4:00 today…thank God this is the last early morning we have. That obviously means though that our trip is over. The past 7 days have been a whirlwind of events, but it was such an awesome experience.

The streets of Paris were amazing, filled with great European culture and architecture. I wish there was more time to explore and take pictures. Two days are not enough in such a great city, but we were on a schedule. I never did see the inside of the Notre Dame Basilica, but the cathedral in Rouen was very impressive as well. I must get back someday, maybe with the family.

Having this time before our flight gives me some time to reflect on the past week, especially on our visits to the battlefields. I think that this was tremendous trip for the students that they won’t soon forget. I am glad that I decided to lead this journey/pilgrimage to France. It took me away from my family for a week, so I too had to sacrifice. However what I gave up pales in comparison to the blood several generations of young Canadians spilled for their country.

We’re in the air now; in the beauty above the clouds my reflection continues. It’s funny how you always think of things after the fact, like how I am right now remembering a few things that occurred yesterday that did not make it into my blog. The one I want to mention was probably the most poignant, which took place during our silent march from Givenchy to Vimy. As our group passed by the Vimy Memorial, we were jolted by a sudden gust of wind from our right. It was almost as if some force was trying to direct our attention to the left, towards the memorial. I’m not sure if everyone else was struck by this occurrence, but it certainly had me looking to the heavens. Someone wanted us to remember.

Now my thoughts drift to our first visit to a Canadian war cemetery, the one at Dieppe. Since the bodies were originally buried by the Germans, the headstones are laid out in German style, back to back and close together. Probably because of the close internment of the dead and because it was our first, the visit was so moving. We had a lot more time to spend there, so you really had a chance to read the names and inscriptions. I won’t soon forget how overcome I was.

After some lunch and a much-needed nap, I am a bit more refreshed. While I was dozing, I thought of our visit to Juno Beach. It was another occasion that needed way more time to fully absorb and explore, but we did our best. I was glad that we got to Bernieres sur Mer where the Queen’s Own Rifles landed at Nan White Sector. Seeing that bunker that I’d taught my students about so many times and walking those blood stained beaches was amazing. The bag of sand I brought home is not some sand from a French beach; it is a piece of Canadian history, purchased with the blood of our youth.

On the last leg now after a hectic connection stop in Toronto. It will feel good to be at home; I know my wife and boys will be waiting for me at the airport. I am excited to see them as this is the longest I’ve ever been away from them. Maybe my homecoming is part of this journey. We get to go home while there are those who never got that opportunity. I should mention this to the kids, that our ability to go back to our families and loved ones is part of their sacrifice. We definitely take our freedom for granted.

Well, I need to wrap things up as I’ve been awake for the better part of 24 hours. I need to get some sleep as I am back to work tomorrow…with a new perspective on what I teach. I will definitely have some great stories for the kids. I know I will enjoy relating my experiences to them and hopefully this has made me a better teacher. And hopefully it will teach them the importance of remembrance. I will end today with one of my favourite poems from the war, written by A.E. Housman. I will be back in a week after a much needed break. Until then…


Cross of Sacrifice, Bretteville sur Laize Canadian Cemetery.

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,

But young men think it is,
And we were young.


Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Miscellaneous, Travel, Writing


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Vimy Day Seven

Five a.m. wake up call…3 hours of sleep…should be epic! Wow am I tired. This is going to be a long day, but it will be an awesome experience. This will be a once in a lifetime event for students and teachers alike. We will be at Vimy in a few hours, so I need to sleep a bit.

It is six o’clock p.m. and we are finally in the bus. I have been a soldier and I am a teacher; I have prepared for and taught about war. For the first time in my life I understand what it means to be a soldier. Standing in the shadow of Canada’s greatest military monument in the pouring rain and wind, I went to school. It is amazing how it takes a journey across the ocean to fully comprehend what sacrifice really means. I’ve always remembered…now I know I’ll never forget.

This was one of the greatest events I’ve ever experienced in my life. When we arrived at Vimy we went through quite the process. We had to be issued special Vimy medals, arm bands and meal tickets. From there it was into a large building to receive candles and our lunches. We then marshalled for a 2.5km parade from Givenchy to the Vimy Memorial.

As the parade time neared, the gavity of what we were going to be part of started to sink in. As our march began, it was something to behold. I’ve never been part of anything like it. Picture thousands of high students and teachers walking in total silence along a route that Canadians fought on nearly a century before. What really struck me was how reverent and respectful the students were…I couldn’t have been any prouder than them.

The walk also epitomized what Vimy Ridge was all about; Canadians together as a nation. The students and teachers of St. Patrick and St. Ignatius Thunder Bay, and Ridley College St. Catherines walking side by side with a high school from Newfoundland. Just as all 4 Canadian Divisions fought together that day, we marched in solidarity as Canadians wherever we were from.

It was fantastic to witness the reaction of the French people, who lined the streets smiling, waving and holding Canadian flags. They understood so well what is this event was all about; I was so proud to be a Canadian and a teacher. I would put this march near the top of all the trip moments.

Vimy Ridge National Memorial

When we crested the ridge and saw the wide Douai Plain stretch before us, you really understood why the ridge was so important. Even though it was overcast, the panorama was spectacular. It was then that we saw the memorial up close for the first time. It was a sight to behold and more breathtaking than I ever imagined. We had arrived.

We then moved past the memorial towards Vimy Canadian Cemetery Number 2 for a special EF Tours service. Our route took us past the preserved battlefield of the park, pockmarked with an unbroken sea of shell craters. The fences and signs warning of unexplored ordnance made it so real. The story of the park states that there are 60,000 trees on the site, one for every Canadian killed in the war.

The service was nice, as they lined up everyone in front of a grave. There were readings by students and the playing of the Last Post and Reveille. From there we proceeded to the memorial for pictures and a visit. The only unfortunate part was that we were pressed for time and we couldn’t spend a lot of time looking around. We did get some group photos with the memorial and were able to get on the monument to look around for a bit (they kicked everyone off to prepare for the VIP’s).

I really wanted to get some photos of Mother Canada or the Spirit of Canada weeping for her fallen sons. It is the heart of the monument and sits right in the middle, by herself looking over the Douai Plain. What a moving sculpture…it would have been nice just to have some quiet time there and reflect. We then had to hustle to eat a quick bite before we were off again.

One of the biggest attractions at the park are the preserved trenches. When the park was being created, veterans help to reconstruct part of the trenches along what was called the “Crater Line.” Both sides dug underground shafts in the soft chalk and tried to blow up the other’s trenches. It left massive craters all along the ridge. This area shows the German trenches on one side of a crater while the Canadian trenches are on the other side 50 feet away. The veterans filled sandbags with cement to create the walls, which gives it a very authentic look. Near the Canadian trench is the entrance to the Grange Subway, which was an underground tunnel that led from the trenches to the rear areas. Too bad it was closed because of the volume of traffic.

The next event on the agenda was a ceremony at the monument with all 4000+ students attended by the Governor General, His Excellency David Johnston. We did a lot of waiting and the weather turned very nasty; I Tweeted that it was almost as if the heavens were weeping for Canada’s fallen too. The rain was pouring down and coming in at times sideways. Last night’s honour guard was there again, along with the 22é Regiment band, this time in full dress with Bearskin hats and red tunics. There were speeches, along with a beautiful song by an Alberta woman whose name escapes me now. Then there was the Last Post, Reveille and the Lament. For a while I forgot how cold, tired and sore I was. When I have time, I will post clips to YouTube.

After the ceremony we headed back to the bus; we were supposed to go to a concert a nearby stadium next. However, given the fact that everyone was drenched and exhausted, we decided to forgo the concert in favor of returning to the hotel. We would have liked to have stayed, but because of early flight, we would have to have left by 9:00 for the bus ride to the hotel. Everyone managed to get in a shower and then head off to get some food.

Since I’m up in 5 hours, I’ll sign off. Until then…

The Spirit of Canada (Mother Canada)


Posted by on April 9, 2012 in Miscellaneous, Travel, Writing


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Vimy Day Six

Happy Easter! This is the first time I’ve spent a major holiday away from home, so I’m really missing my wife and kids. I’m sure they went to mass in the morning and then enjoyed the goodies the Easter bunny brought.

Right now we’re on our way to the Nine Elms Cemetery in Thelus for our cemetery visit. Each student was assigned a soldier to research at a specific cemetery as part of the tour. Should be an interesting event. 

While I have a moment, I thought I would comment on the experience of eating breakfast in France. I normally eat a bowl of cereal in the morning, so this is quite novel for me. Breakfast has been buffet style, with the usual fair of cereal, fruit and yogurt. What is interesting is all of the cheeses, meats and various breads available. Not a good meal if you’re watching your carbs!

After a two hour drive, we arrived at the Nine Elms Cemetery (which is about a 10 minute walk from the Arras Road Cemetery where we parked). It is a pretty little cemetery right beside the highway. Before we visited the graves we held a small service by the cross of remembrance to pay tribute to those that fell. 

Grave of Private Ecobichon, 15th Battalion, CEF.

We were given enough soldiers that I also had one to research. Sidney Ecobichon was born on Jersey in the Channel Islands in 1897. He lived with his parents in Peterborough before enlisting and being assigned to the 15th Battalion. Ecobichon was killed in action on April 18, 1917. I believe he was originally buried in the Arras Road Cemetery, but was transfer to Nine Elms and rests in an area called the Arras Road Memorial.

While we waited for the bus, I decided to look in the adjacent farmers field to see if I could find anything. Almost instantly I found a shrapnel ball; very quickly I was joined by several other treasure seekers. It was the most excited I’d seen the kids! We turned up many more shrapnel balls, bits of metal, a German cartridge and I found the base of an artillery shell. Sadly we had to retire to the bus! 

An hour drive later we arrived at the Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery near Ypres, Belgium (or Ieper). It holds 30,000 burials! The size of this cemetery is just staggering…it almost beyond comprehension. The headstones stretch on and on. It really gives you an idea of how massive the loss of life was during World War One.

On the ride to the cemetery my fellow chaperones Riley, Kerry and I decided that we would do

Grave of Lieutenant Drummond, 13th Battalion, CEF.

a little investigation. We wanted to look up some Canadians who were buried there. Our collective brainstorming recalled that two prominent Canadians we interred there, Drummond and Norsworthy. Lieutenant Guy Drummond and Major Edward Norsworthy were both members of the 13th Battalion, the Black Watch. They were both killed on April 22, 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres when the Germans first used chlorine gas. The gas devastated the Algerian troops beside the Canadians, and both officers realized that their entire left flank and the road to Ypres was wide open. They charged into the gap with members of the Watch and surviving Algerians; they were killed holding the line.

Grave of Major Norsworthy, 13th Battalion, CEF.

Supper was in Ypres, at a place called Gasthof Zweerd. There were many other Vimy travellers there, and the square was a sea of black and red jackets. For the first time I left a restaurant full, after our meal of meat salad? and chicken/sausage pastry with fries. We then had a bit of free time, so I headed across the square to buy my wife Jo-Anne some Belgian chocolates. I know she’d rather have something from Tiffany’s but, I did my best.

As I walked around, I noticed a sign with the name of the Governor General on it. I then noticed a large Canadian military presence in the square…something was up. Soon a military honour guard assembled, made up of what seemed like infantry reserve members from many units (including the LSSR). I had to leave as we had to head to the Menin Gate for the Last Post…in retrospect I wish I had left earlier. The area around the Gate, which is a Commonwealth Memorial was already filling with people. The Menin Gate is inscribed with the names of nearly 55,000 men who are missing around Ypres, more than 6,000 of whom are Canadian.

Since 1928 they have held a Last Post ceremony everyday at 8:00 at the Gate (with the exception of WWII). The Governor General, His Excellency David Johnston arrived at the Gate preceded by the band of the Royal 22é Regiment and the honour guard. The ceremony was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed, well other than my wedding and the birth of my children. I spent the entire time taping the ceremony; when I have time I’ll make a highlight video and post it to YouTube.

Anyway, I have to get rolling since tomorrow we have to get up at 5:00 and it will be a very busy day. I will leave you with another poignant photo…the age of this young boy from Newfoundland will shock you. Until then…

Grave of Private Barter, RNR.

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Posted by on April 8, 2012 in Miscellaneous, Travel, Writing


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