Today is Remembrance Day in Canada. It is the day where we take time to remember the service men and women who fought in Canada’s military to protect the peace and freedoms that we hold dear.
I’ve always felt reasonably impacted by Remembrance Day. Maybe it was because my grandpa fought in World War 2, or that my Afi (Icelandic grandfather) was supposed to, but had a very fortunate bout of pneumonia that kept him sidelined. Maybe it’s because my dad is still still very interested in the World Wars and we’ve talked at length about Midway, Juno Beach, and Normandy, among other things. Maybe because I played in the military band and got to see Remembrance Day from inside the ranks of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.
Even while in high school, standing for O Canada during a Remembrance Day service felt different than doing it at 8:55am every other week day.
But, it didn’t really affect me until I started writing Ghosts of Vimy.
It started in June 2010, when the Performing Arts department was having its planning meeting for 2010-11. When Remembrance Day came up, we really wanted to collaborate Band, Choir, and Drama in a way that was meaningful and authentic, not just each doing different things for the service.
We are all very motivated by storytelling and Kris, our drama teacher, took the lead on the idea of writing about people, and separating the lives of the soldiers with the statistics of war. That idea really resonated with me and I wanted to write something for Band and Choir, while Kris made a positively visceral slideshow and led her kids’ dramatic performance.
I knew that the work was going to be big and I got to work right away, but I made sure to start researching long before I set pencil to paper.
The content really needed to reflect the price of human life and the human cost of war. That’s why we remember, isn’t it? I found a painting by William Longstaff called “The Ghosts of Vimy,” where ghosts of soldiers were scaling the hill at the Vimy Memorial. It’s a powerful juxtaposition of a symbol of Canadian victory and unity, with those who paid for it with their lives. They were the choir. They needed to be the ones telling the story. And with that, the first seeds of “Ghosts of Vimy” were planted.
When I was growing up, there was an initiative on Canadian TV to run 1-minute slots of Canadian history stories, called “Heritage Minutes,” and I started with those, especially the military ones.
Even watching them as I write, I feel my throat close and eyes water. There is a consistent resonance there – an intense emotional response every time I watch them. They’re about people and their stories, their loved ones, their comrades, and their families.
As I did more research about Canadian involvement in World War I, there were three angles that really stuck out to me: Saying goodbye, doing what’s right, and (surprisingly) the thrill of adventure. The last one struck me as incredibly out of place, but the more stories and letters I read, the more that I understood that the young kids who were going off to fight had no idea what they were getting themselves into. I tried to imagine myself graduating from high school and going to fight for my country and be a hero, only to find No Man’s Land, machine gun fire, and mustard gas.
But what about the more mature angles? What if you had a family and you had to say goodbye, knowing full well that you may never see them again? How do you tell your child? What do you say? And what do they say to you? I knew that was the first story:
The first story (1:56) was saying goodbye. It was heart-wrenching to compose, but that’s because it must have been heart-wrenching to go through.
The second story (3:13) needed to be about saying goodbye as well, not only to another person, but to an age of innocence and youth. This section is about two lovers parting ways. They’re young and don’t have a family yet, but they have each other. She implores him not to go, but in young arrogance (an emotional with which I’m quite familiar), he needs to prove himself to her, himself and his country.
The third story (4:56) is of two friends who leave for adventure to become heroes – a surprisingly common sentiment among Allied youth during World War I. They had no context of war, the experience, the battlefield or the enemy. “To war, to war, and heroes we will be. Adventure lies before and rewards for victory.” During the third story, they dispatch with a tenor calling “Ready, men! 3-2-1…” and then into a section of unexpected darkness.
Then, like the beginning, the ghosts complete the story. “This must be the last great fall, the last great war to end them all.” And, of course as history notes, it wasn’t and the next one was even worse. We try and learn from past mistakes, but those who don’t learn from history…
While I am hardly an advocate for war or military force, I understand the irony that sometimes peace needs to be fought for, though it took me a long time to wrap my head around. Two years from now will be the 100th anniversary of World War I’s beginning. That’s a long time ago. It was fought across the Atlantic Ocean from where I lived in small town Canada. That’s a very long way from my home in Gimli, MB. But even as I kid (and moreso as an adult now), I understood to weight of my ancestors going to a far away land to fight for my freedom.
Watching 1100 kids at my school’s Remembrance Day service be quiet and respectful reminds me that the impact is still there. Seeing students act, speak, sing, and perform about the cost of war touches my heart very deeply and it reminds me that, as the adage goes, the kids are alright.
Remember not to forget and don’t forget to remember,