Virden student's passion keeps soldiers' stories alive
'I knew that a family member died in my eyesight. It was the same water, the same sand,' teen says about Vimy
Jane Harkness admits some of her passions are unusual for a 17-year-old: She is fascinated by the history of Canada's involvement in both world wars.
Harkness, who wants to become a museum curator, has worked as a junior tour guide/curator at the Virden Pioneer Home Museum for the past three summers and is a winner of the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize. The two-week intensive scholarship took her to England, France and Belgium in August, where she visited museums, spoke with curators and academics and, most moving for Harkness, walked the paths of soldiers on the battlefields.
It also inspired her to become her community's unofficial world war chronicler.
"It's not like a cemetery where you know that they're at peace, they've had a proper burial, they've had a stone, people know where to find them," she said.
"These are bodies that are missing; these are bodies that were left behind. You know when you're in a cemetery you want to be respectful — walk between the rows, don't step on the graves if you don't have to — but you have no idea when you are on the battlefields, because there's so many soldiers that are still unfound."
"My great-uncle died on Juno Beach on D-Day," she said. "He was with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and I didn't know we were going to the cemetery where he was buried."
She searched the directory and found the grave of Rifleman Gilbert Herbert Laverne Harkness in the Bény Sur Mer graveyard. He was 20 when he died.
"Actually, where the main Juno Beach Centre is located is the portion of the beach where the Royal Winnipeg Rifles came in," she said. "I got that sense of feeling like I did at the battlefields, but it was different, because I knew that a family member died in my eyesight. It was the same water, the same sand. It was just the connection, and it was really emotional."
Before leaving home, scholarship winners had to research a local soldier who died in the First World War. Harkness scanned the Virden cenotaph and chose a name. Through archives and records she learned a lot about Pte. Lorne Edgar Carscadden, who was 26 when he died on Aug. 21, 1917, at the Battle of Hill 70.
"He was older because he couldn't enlist at first. There was restrictions on height and weight, and he was a pretty thin guy. There was not much meat to him, if you want to put it that way," she said, adding she learned through archives that he was five-foot-seven and 125 pounds. He enlisted in 1916, when restrictions loosened.
Harkness also discovered Carscadden didn't have a grave. He had been declared missing in action.
His name is engraved on the Vimy Memorial, but as is the practice there, no other information about him is included.
"All he wanted to do was to fight for his country because he knew it was the right thing to do," she said. "I found it really upsetting that his whole life was summed up by 12 letters on this huge memorial. It was 12 letters."
Harkness's overseas experiences inspired her to do more research when she got home.
"I decided to start researching all of the soldiers on the cenotaph in town, which is 103 names, and create a book so that people can make connections with family members they didn't know about, can find interest in some of these soldiers' stories, kind of like what I did with Lorne," she said.
"I wanted to share this passion once again and keep it in the community. Because I can't do it for the whole country, I can't do it for the Vimy memorial, but I can do it for my community."
Action at home
She also tackled the war exhibit at the Virden museum.
"It's fairly small given the size of the museum, but we still have a lot of objects there," she said.
She organized the uniforms based on dates and created a little display about the home front in Virden and the RCAF training centre.
The goal is always to make stories real.
"We tried to get all the photos of soldiers that we could and line them up together, so it's really personal, because a lot of them are still in picture frames from people who have donated them, and so it kind of brings it a homier feel," she said. "It lets you connect with it more, because everybody has pictures framed in their house and it's loved ones.... It makes these people special. They're not just blank faces — they each have their individual story to tell."
Harkness plans to get a bachelor of arts degree in history, then a master's degree in museum studies, then possibly PhD. She is applying to the University of Ottawa because of all the historical resources in that city.
Roots of passion
Harkness traces her interest in war history back to when she discovered the Dear Canada series of historical novels when she was 10.
"I always found particular interest in the ones about the world wars," she said.
During the week of Remembrance Day, she's presenting at both elementary schools in town and at her own school, Virden Collegiate Institute.
On Nov. 11, she'll take advantage of free access to military records on Ancestry.com to do research on her cenotaph soldiers, but not until the afternoon. The morning is for respect and remembering.
"I can remember the people that I've researched, those ones that I've heard about," she said, struggling to explain what the day means to her. "It's a solemn holiday but it's very special for me because it's … being so passionate about it … there are no words."