John Hetherington is no armchair historian. Rather than reading about the First and Second World War battles in Europe, the North Bay teacher and self-proclaimed military history prefers to visit in person.
He’s also brought a tour group with him, including many people from northern Ontario.
This isn’t Hetheringon’s first trip overseas.
Earlier this summer, he travelled to Juno Beach in Normandy, France, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. He’s also been a tour guide for Canadians at Vimy Ridge in northern France, the area that hosted the defining battle for Canadian troops.
This week, Hetherington is back in Europe to mark another anniversary. On Thursday, he’s in Mons, Belgium, the city where, a century ago today, the first British soldier died in action.
“When I was planning this year’s itinerary, I started looking at some of the dates, and this date worked out,” said Hetherington, from a cell phone in Mons. “We’re about five or six kilometres from the point where that soldier fell.”
Official ceremonies marking the start of the Battle of Mons – the first major action for British forces — happens on Saturday.
Battle site tours
Part of Hetherington’s trips is about teaching other people from northern Ontario about their links to the Great War.
“It’s about finding the personal connection with people who come on these tours,” he said. “Lots of people are looking for the sites of a fallen relative or friend.”
One example on this current tour is of a North Bay woman whose great uncle fell in the Second Battle of Ypres. That battle is in the infamous Flanders district where Canadian John McCrae wrote his now iconic poem, In Flanders' Field.
Hetherington said the body of the woman’s great uncle was never found.
“Many of these soldiers just disappeared into no-man’s land, in the mud and the shell holes, and their bodies were never recovered,” Hetherington said. He added it’s nice for family members to see the memorial and the place where their loved ones fought and died.