"It was the greatest gift," says Jason Prince, great-nephew of John Patrick Teahan, an officer who served in World War One, "to have the opportunity to experience the absolute brutality of trench warfare." Prince was one of 150 Canadians who were chosen to participate in a recreation of the battles of World War I.

To prepare for the battle scenes Prince and fourteen other descendents first traveled to Europe to trace the Canadian soldiers' footsteps.

"We arrived in England and were immediately sent to a three day boot camp." After a quick cup of tea Prince and fourteen others were handed wool army uniforms, rifles and ordered to march around in huge boots that didn't quite fit. Like his great uncle, Prince recorded his experiences in a diary for posterity.

"The light has gone out and I am writing by the thin light of a lantern. I am quite frankly in shock from the arrival here: why am I doing this?" - Diary Excerpt

Jason Prince at boot camp
Photo: Jan Thijs

During boot camp, Prince slept on the ground and took turns keeping watch for the enemy. "In the middle of the night, we were woken up, marched out into the field and ordered to dig trenches with a dull shovel. Our bodies were aching with pain," remembers Prince. Galafilm, the production company that made the documentary series had hired several World War One historians who made sure that the experience was as ‘authentic' as possible.

An urban planner, now working on Montreal, Prince has done his share of traveling. He spent five years working in Cape Breton and the Canadian Arctic on long term community planning. But it didn't prepare him for the brutality of living in the trenches.

After boot camp, Prince and the others went on a whirlwind tour of European battlefields and monuments to learn as much about the Canadian soldiers who served overseas as they could.

His great-uncle, Teahan died in France during the battle of the Somme, and in an emotional moment Prince spots his name on the Thiepval Memorial dedicated to the soldiers who went missing during that battle.

Recreation of World War I battle
Photo: Pierre Dury

Months later, Prince joined the others in camp just outside Montreal to finally re-create some of the war's most famous battles.

It was during one of Montreal's worst heat waves on record and Prince says, there was little protection from the sun. "We had to march around in those wool uniforms. It was absolutely brutal, but at least, the food was excellent."

"We are now in full swing, some 30-50 soldiers, in uniform, knitted out, no longer with anything modern, and our training has started. I am amazed that John Patrick Teahan could write so much every day and not mess up his diary with water and mud. Even today, I am wondering how I will keep my diary from getting so wet with sweat that it is illegible." - Diary Excerpt

Dozens of volunteer medical staff were on hand to make sure that nobody suffered from heat exhaustion. "It was lots of fun, but by the end, I was absolutely staggered," recalls Prince.

Playing a soldier, made the war experience much more authentic. "I can't imagine being a field and being hunted (like an animal) like that for weeks and months on end," he says, "I have a visceral respect for the job that any soldier does now." He also came to respect the Canadian soldiers who were among the most feared crack troops in the Allied forces. "They were completely undisciplined and toughened by years of heavy farming. They would just run over the top and keep going."

"A highlander broke today in the late afternoon. Not sure what will become of him. He has been trotted off to the medical tent. Just a few minutes before, I head the highlander's corporal exhorting his men to be SNAPPY and to respond immediately to orders. It seems that these guys are being encouraged to be the camps' best. The crack troops, in keeping with their wartime reputation." - Diary Excerpt

Throughout it all, Prince read and re-read his great uncle's war diaries, now published as a book, Diary Kid. For the first time, he actually began to feel Teahan's words.

"I'm glad to have participated in the film," says Prince, "I was deeply effected by it, we all were."

 

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