Eaglesham students survive trench warfare history lesson

A group of 27 students from Eaglesham, Alta., left school Friday, marching single file carrying picks, shovels and backpacks to spend a night fighting mock battles and sleeping in frozen trenches.

Remembrance Day lesson offers students a taste of life in First World War trenches

It was an unusual history lesson, one that traded the classroom for a frigid night in a shallow trench scraped from a northern Alberta field. But for some, it would be life changing. 

On the eve of Remembrance Day, a group of 27 students, some not much younger than the First World War soldiers who lived and died in the trenches, left Eaglesham High School, marching single file carrying picks, shovels and backpacks.

"You guys are going to be humbled," teacher Mike MacKay warned the 10 girls and 17 boys as they headed out.

McKay created the living history exercise to help his students in the small community, 500 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, to better understand the day-to-day struggle of Canadian soldiers in the Great War.

"There are still some times I can't believe I'm doing this," said 15­-year-­old Matrim Davis as he shovelled out a trench five feet deep, which he would share with two others for the night. "I can only imagine what they went through."

Like most others on the mission, Davis has spent the past week learning about the First World War.

For Casey Layton, 17, this is the second time she's come out for the annual event.

"My grandfather served in the [Second World] War, so I thought maybe I would honour him," she said.

CBC's Briar Stewart on how students dealt with trench life

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Re-create battle

The students spent four hours digging their trenches before marching off to a community hall where they were served stew, a typical meal for many soldiers.

They practised for the local Remembrance Day service, then returned to the frozen field to re-create a scene from the Battle of Mont Sorrel, in which 8,000 Canadian soldiers died in Belgium in June 1916.

Barry DeFord, a teacher and history buff from Ridgevalley School, led the students from their trenches, crawling through ankle-deep snow under mock machine gun fire.

Then it was back to the trenches for the night as the temperature hovered near –­30 C.

As the sun rose, the students were drawn again from their trenches for one last assault.

"I really think it's important that we remember how hard it was for our troops to do this," Layton said. "We do it for one night and go home to our warm beds. The troops did it day after day."

Life-changing experience

McKay, a former reservist, has been leading students through this Remembrance Day ritual for the past six years. This is the first time students from neighbouring high schools have joined in.

As they wrapped up, MacKay gathered the students around.

"It's my hope that none of you ever have to go off to war," he said.

For Davis, whose grandfather fought in the Second World War, it was a life­-changing experience.

"Tonight I'm going to enjoy the bed I sleep in a lot more," he said. "Also I'm not going to think of [Remembrance Day] as a day off school anymore.

"Looking back at the night, you see what they had to go through, and the deprivations they suffered, and I'm going to look at Remembrance Day in a whole new way."

Davis said he'll be back next year and he hopes to recruit some friends to join him for the night in the trenches.