By Tania Moffat
Holly and 22 other Winnipeg high school students from Westwood Collegiate had just returned from a week-long trip through Europe with four of their teachers, exhausted but excited. They were gushing about Paris, what they liked best, and how the McDonald’s in Paris sold these amazing little pastries. It sounded intriguing; the question longed to be asked…what did they go to Paris for?
“We were on a historical tour of the Canadian Battlefields from World War I,” Holly explained.
Oh…this was not the expected reply.
So, what exactly did the tour entail? According to Holly their tour started in Brussels, where the priority was to stop at a chocolate factory…strictly to refuel themselves of course.
From there, the tour took a more solemn tone as it led them along the Western Front, which forms a winding line from southwest Belgium to northeastern France. While in Belgium they visited the infamous village of Passchendaele, a battlefield on which Canadians fought in both 1915 and 1917.
The following three nights were spent in a small town in northern France, close to the Vimy Ridge battlefield. “The experience was haunting,” says Holly as she offers me her first impressions. “Vimy was really, really big. It was clean and well maintained, but it was so sad and quiet. The battlefield was really weird. You could see all these holes and craters on the ground from the shells.” The craters are now filled with lush grass, kept short by sheep. “People are not allowed to walk on the battlefield because of the possible danger of land mines,” she explains. Looking over the hallowed field, uncertain if a sheep was going to be blown to smithereens right before her eyes, was unsettling to say the least. She wasn’t sure if any sheep had undergone the misfortune of discovering mines in the past. Further investigation confirmed that unfortunately they had. There are still a multitude of unexploded shells buried on the battlegrounds.
Their last stop was the Somme battlefields, where in 1916 the largest and one of the world’s bloodiest battles took place on either side of the River Somme. “We saw a lot of battlefields, monuments and graveyards. Like a LOT of graveyards. The experience was really emotional. It put the war into a perspective we could physically see and feel,” she says. More than a million men were wounded or killed at Somme, 66,000 of them Canadians.
After four days of solemnity, the group headed to Paris, for a whistle-stop tour of the city of love. This was Holly’s favourite part of the trip. They toured the Louvre, one of the world’s largest museums, which houses over 380,000 objects and displays 35,000 works of art in over 60,600 square metres! From sculptures, paintings and archeological finds the students were blown away. “I took a picture with the Mona Lisa,” says Holly, “It’s actually pretty small.”
While the group wasn’t able to ascend the Eiffel Tower, they did take a ton of photos. “We went on a river cruise along the Seine at night and got to see the tower all lit up. It was beautiful,” she said.
“We used the metro a lot, which was cool, and went shopping on Avenue des Champs-Élysées. I bought some neat stuff there,” she says. “We also went to Montmartre at night and saw Sacré-Coeur. Walking around Versailles was amazing and we also toured inside Notre Dame. It was definitely a whirlwind couple of days but it`s something I`ll never forget.”