During the summer of 2017 I participated in an exciting professional development experience organized by the University of New Brunswick’s Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society. The course was titled The War and the Canadian Experience in France and Flanders.
For two weeks, participants visited the battlefields, cemeteries and museums of the first and second world wars in France and Belgium, met local people and learned about Canada’s contribution in both world wars. We walked in soldiers’ footsteps, paid our respects by visiting military cemeteries, asked tough questions about war’s causes and consequences and the morality of certain actions, and observed and questioned the landscape to identify continuity and change.
Prior to leaving for Europe, each participant was given the name of a specific Canadian soldier who had died during one of the two world wars and was asked to write a short biography after researching the soldier’s life. Once in Europe, we visited the different cemeteries where soldiers were buried. Participants read soldiers’ stories aloud while the leaders of the group created stone rubbings of the gravestones—using charcoal to rub the faces of the stones onto pieces of paper—as souvenirs to take home. This idea came from the Lest We Forget Project, the inspiration of an Ontario history teacher named Blake Seward, one of the leaders of the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society.
My soldier was Honorary Captain Walter Leslie Brown, a member of the Canadian Chaplain Service from Ontario who landed on D-Day on June 6, 1944 and who died some days after the successful landing.
Upon my return to Canada, I had my soldier’s gravestone rub framed by my school’s industrial arts teacher with the help of students, and it was put on display as the centrepiece during our school’s 2017 Remembrance Day ceremony.
Early in 2018 I was already thinking about what to do for Remembrance Day 2018, it being the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War and deserving special commemoration.
“Why not do a gravestone rub for all of St. Albert’s Great War soldiers who died in Europe?” I asked myself.
This meant do the research, go overseas to visit the cemeteries and rub the gravestones to bring back to St. Albert.
During the summer of 2018, I got another opportunity to be part of a two-week trip to France and Belgium with fellow teachers from across Canada, this time with the Juno Beach Centre’s Summer Institute and Battlefield Tour for teachers. When the course was completed, I stayed three extra days on my own and, equipped with paper, wax crayons, masking tape and maps of the area, I found the gravestones in the different cemeteries where the St. Albert boys were resting.
One challenge I had to overcome was how to commemorate the six St. Albert soldiers whose names are engraved on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial and on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, because their bodies were never found. How could their gravestones be rubbed and brought back to St. Albert for all to remember and honour?
The idea of a special gravestone rub came during a visit to a Belgian military cemetery, where many gravestones of unidentified soldiers can be found, bearing the descriptor “A Canadian Soldier of the Great War.”
I decided to rub the top of this gravestone, and I added the names later, after visiting the Canadian National Vimy Memorial and the Menin Gate.
This “two-step” process ensured that every St. Albert soldier had their own rub and would, therefore, be remembered and honoured with dignity and respect.
At the beginning of the current school year, I created a military club at my school and worked with students on writing a short biography of the soldiers.
Each one of the 14 St. Albert soldiers who fell during the Great War now has a personal rub in a nice frame, along with a biography of his short life.
The project is now completed, and it will be on display during École Sir George Simpson School’s Remembrance Day ceremony on Friday, Nov. 9. Veterans and other participants will be able to honor the 14 soldiers who gave their lives and their futures so that we may live in peace.
After the ceremony, the framed rubs will be donated to the St. Albert Legion Local 271, in the hope that everyone will be able to learn more about the soldiers’ lives, honour them and commemorate their sacrifice.
Social studies teacher Simon Pagé created a gravestone rub like this one for each of the 14 St. Albert soldiers who died in the First World War.
Simon Pagé is a social studies teacher and First World War enthusiast who teaches at École Sir George Simpson School in St. Albert.