Keeping WW1 history alive for generations who have never known war

Canadians identify with the First World War - it's part of our identity. But with the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge approaching, many no longer know the details of this devastating war.

'Most people, older than me or my age, would be going off to fight,' says Manitoba student studying WWI

Brynn Clifford, far right, leans over to study a map of France as teacher Kevin Lopuck, left, explains locations of First World War battlefields to Zachary Adams (in red) and other students at Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC News)

In Selkirk, Man., 29 students are in the library of the local high school, shuffling their socked feet on a giant map of 1917 France.

They're not much younger than the soldiers that were sent off to France a century ago and they're getting their bearings for a trip next spring to the site of one of the First World War's most famous battles.

"If the war was still going on, most people...older than me or my age, would be going off to fight," says Zachary Adams, 17.

It's a point that resonates with many of these students, who will be travelling to France in the spring to participate in the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge.

You see the gravestones with the names and inscriptions. Those numbers, those statistics come alive- Kevin Lopuck, teacher

As the students at Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive learn the place names on the map, that history calls out to Grade 12 student Brynn Clifford.

"I actually had a family member, my great great great uncle, is actually on the Vimy Ridge memorial, so I think it's really important for me to go see that," she said.

Teacher Kevin Lopuck has taken students on trips overseas before, but sees the opportunity to participate in the centennial of Vimy as something really special.

"You see the gravestones with the names and inscriptions. Those numbers, those statistics come alive," he explains.   

"To realize that when we talk about casualities in war they are not just numbers — they're actually people with families and friends, that's what I'm trying to do."

Canadian knowledge lacking

It's said Canada came of age in the First World War. An international poll shows among participating nations, our connections to it are still strong 100 years later.

Ipsos surveyed 5,521 people in Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, France, Belgium and Germany from Sept. 23 to Oct. 7 about their perceptions of the First World War. The online survey found Canadians have positive impressions of the conflict. 

"It's on our money, it's in our passport, it's part of our identity," said Jeremy Diamond, executive director of the Vimy Foundation, which commissioned the research.

Sure we want to go to Remembrance Day services, sure we want to teach our young children about the importance of the conflict. But do we know enough about it?- Jeremy Diamond, Vimy Foundation

Yet overall knowledge of our war history is lacking, he says.

While Canadians were most likely to say they would attend a Remembrance ceremony, they also ranked second lowest when trying to recall anything they learned in school about the First World War.

"Sure we want to go to Remembrance Day services, sure we want to make sure we teach our young children about the importance of the conflict," said Diamond.

"But do we know enough about it? Not really."

Not mandatory in high school curriculum

Only four Canadian provinces have mandatory history in high school. 

Rory Cory, senior curator of the Military Museums in Calgary, would like to see that change. 

"It's frustrating to us, because to a large extent the First and Second World Wars are largely out of the curriculum," said Cory. 

Like many historians, Cory fears the relevance of the war could soon be lost on future generations. Canada's last First World War veteran died six years ago.

He's encouraged by a finding that 48 per cent of Canadians feel we should be doing more to remember. 

His museum is working on ways to connect with millennials and school-aged children.

 "It is really your own history, so many Canadians are connected with someone from the First World War.  It's just a matter of reconnecting them with their history." 

Respect and awareness

In Winnipeg's west end, history is easy to find along Valour Road.

Once known as a Pine Street, it was renamed in the 1920s in honour of three residents who won the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth's highest honour for bravery.
Valour Road mural depicts three Victoria Cross recipients who grew up here, Sgt. Maj. Frederick William Hall, Cpl. Leo Clarke and Lt. Robert Shankland. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC News)

Today a large mural depicts the faces of Cpl. Leo Clarke, Lt. Robert Shankland and Sgt.-Maj Frederick William Hall.

Over the last several years, a small Remembrance Day service here that used to draw a few dozen is now drawing a few hundred.

"It's amazing really, it's standing outside and it's -20 C below and we're all still there. There's a lot of loyalty in people," says Leo Clarke, the namesake and nephew of Cpl. Leo Clarke.

Many who attend or the hundreds that drive past that mural everyday, would be hard-pressed to name the soldiers or explain their achievements.

For Clarke, it's the awareness and respect, not the details, that are important. 

"It's surprising when you get something with meaning behind it, people will listen."

The next generation 

Back on that giant map, students are listening, as they trace out the steps they'll take when they arrive in France next year.

These students are the first that can't speak to a veteran of the First World War. Opportunities like their trip to France and the history they learn preparing for it mean they could end up knowing more than their parents and maybe even their grandparents.

Most have researched a family member, or a local soldier.

The students have a level of engagement that goes beyond preparing for a big trip.

"No one really knows it, unless they take an interest in it," Adams says.

Lopuck is encouraged that history will be taken up by able hands. 

"It's important to preserve those links, so we can understand where we were, where we are, and where we're going." 


Cameron MacIntosh

Senior reporter

Cameron MacIntosh is a senior reporter with CBC national news based in Winnipeg. He has spent most of his career in Western Canada while covering stories across the country and abroad for CBC News.