Ghosts of Vimy

There’s something about Remembrance Day that really resonates with me.  I always felt like it resonated more strongly within my heart than my friends in high school.  As I got to university, I found myself watching the ceremony on TV instead of sleeping in on the extra day off (often preceded by a big pub night).

My grandfather was in World War II and my dad always gave the Remembrance Day speeches while he was Vice Principal at my high school.  He converted my boyhood closet to house his array of RCAF Flight suits and uniforms.

THEN, in the craziest turn of events, I somehow found myself playing the band of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and doing Basic Training to get into the military.  Let’s be frank: The Army was the LAST place I ever thought I would be – I was pacifist artist to the core.  Little did I know that playing the RWR Band would be the ensemble that would kick my musical butt into shape, probably moreso than university.  There’s something to be said for reading five-to-ten new marches AND concert repertoire EVERY rehearsal.

If we’re being frank, I should probably continue my candidness: I was an awful soldier.  I know, not surprising, and I eventually left the military band when my teaching career started up, but that experience never left me.

At my school’s 2010 Performing Arts June Planning Meeting, I asked if I could write a piece for the Senior Band and Senior Choir to perform together.  The idea took off and I began to research – the painting, “The Ghosts of Vimy” by William Longstaff was not only the most obvious choice, but by far the most emotional and gut-wrenching one too.

It always comes down to telling stories and Vimy Ridge is one story that will forever be etched in Canada’s history.  It was the underdog story of World War I: The French and British lost a combined 150,000 soldiers trying to take the German base and Canada, the unlikely little brother of the Commonwealth, had a plan… and they succeeded.  That victory was the seed from which the mighty oak of Canada would grow independent, strong and free.

… But then there are the ghosts: Those who didn’t survive.  From the liner notes…

Every soldier both on that field and in that painting had a family, had dreams, had aspirations… and had a story. We must not only remember sacrifice, but we must honor the stories of the men and women who protected our freedom and culture during the war.

“Ghosts of Vimy” tells the stories of three of the ghosts who scale the hill. The soldiers are represented by the choir, who sing to audience as their voice, pleading for the audience to learn from their message.

The first story is about a father leaving his child — the father needs to leave him, but his child (who doesn’t understand) begs him to stay.

The second story is about two lovers: The woman who accepts him for who he is and the man who needs to prove himself to his love..

The third story is of two friends, eager to pursue war, dreaming the glory they will receive as heroes, but are shocked when the horror of war is not the adventure that they anticipated.

As the story is told entirely by the ghosts, it is implied that none of the characters in our story survive, demonstrating that every friend, family and citizen was affected by the war.

I have the utmost gratitude to my colleagues (the thoughtful Michael Brandon, the amazing Maureen Bloodworth and the charismatic and creative Kris Diaz) for all of their hard work in bringing this together.  And, of course, our wonderful students who make every day worth while and give their all to bring both life and death to this story.

Memories pass through the night,
Let our stories be your light.
Through darkness, through nightmares,
Let this one word be your guide.

Remember, remember.

1st story:
My boy, I love you so,
Like the night loves the shining moon.
Sweet dreams, until I see you
Memories of just us two,
My boy, I’ll be home soon.

My boy I have to go (don’t leave me) 
But letters I will send. (please don’t go)
Be good ’til I return, (stay with me)
Work hard and always learn (and hold me)
Until we meet again (please don’t go, I need you)
Until we meet again (please don’t do, oh father)
Until we meet again.

Remember, remember…

2nd Story:
Please, my love, you do not need to fight,
To be lost among the ground, to be taken by the night.
Please, my love, don’t go or I will cry,
You cannot save them all, stay and let them deal with all their plight.
Hold on, it will be glorious
Come, men, we shall be brave!
Come, war! We’ll be victorious
Be strong so you can fight with courage, fight for justice
Fight for all – WE’LL FIGHT UNTIL WE DIE!

Remember, remember…

3rd story:
To war (My friend), My friend! (To war!)
And heroes we will be!
Adventure lies before us and rewards for victory!
In simply one more minute, our boots will hit the ground,
Our bullets will be shot and cheers of triumph will resound!
My friend, to war! To war, my friend! To war!

(Ready, men! 3-2-1!)

This is war…
This is war…
No glory, no adventure.

This must be the last great fall
The last great war to end them all,
O children, heed our final call
The last great war to end them all,


Memories pass through the night,
Let our stories be your light
Through darkness, through nightmares,
Let this one word be your guide…

Remember, remember…

2 thoughts on “Ghosts of Vimy

  1. I wish I knew of this piece when I taught high school. Such a pleasure to meet you in Banff

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