Vimy commemoration leaves powerful memories with Yukoners

Yukoners who participated in activities for the 100th anniversary of the famed battle in northern France talk about the 'intense' experiences they had there in April.

Yukoners say there were 'intense' moments during 100th anniversary of battle in France

Rod and Helen Dewell at the gravesite of Yukoner Herbert Lawless in the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery near Vimy Ridge in France. (Helen and Rod Dewell)

This year's Remembrance Day has even greater significance for some Yukoners.

They were among the thousands of Canadians who travelled to northern France to be part of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge this past April.

For Helen and Rod Dewell of Dawson City, Yukon, the trip was a pilgrimage of sorts to pay tribute to a Yukoner buried in the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, a short distance from the Vimy Memorial.

Prospector, and former member of the North West Mounted Police, Herbert Lawless, was killed while helping take the highest point of Vimy Ridge on April 11, 1917. He had enlisted in Yukon in 1914.

The rising sun illuminates the gravestone of Herbert Lawless on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Helen and Rod Dewell)

The Dewells brought a wreath for his grave on behalf of the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Dawson City.

"The legion members really took a lot of care in preparing the wreath, there was several symbols of the Yukon and the Dawson area attached to it, and a genuine gesture to thank him for his sacrifice," Helen said.

"We laid it on the grave of Herbert Lawless, it was a very emotional time, him having lived in Dawson in the early 1900s, and probably not far from where we are," said Rod.

The Dewells arrived at the cemetery just as the sun was rising.

"It was very beautiful, it was very tranquil, it was very ghost-like, it was quite something," he said.

The Cabaret-Rouge cemetery is the burial site of more than 7,650 servicemen from British Empire forces. (Rod and Helen Dewell)

"We could describe it as mystical," added Helen. "There were the shadows dancing around the gravestones that made it look like you were visiting the spirits that were there and then when you looked at the side of the tombstones that were lit up by the sunshine," she said.

Career highlight

The Dewells crossed paths with Cpl. Cam Long, part of the Yukon RCMP's canine unit, at their hotel in France.

He was part of the RCMP's ceremonial troop that included members from every territory and province.

Cpl. Cam Long represented Yukon in the RCMP ceremonial troop that participated in events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (RCMP)

"It was certainly very intense, very hard to put into words the effect it had on all of us, but it was quite an experience," Long said of his trip to the commemoration.

"At the end of my career I'll probably look back at that and it'll certainly be one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of my RCMP career," he said.

Walking the battlefield and visiting cemeteries and preserved trenches was overwhelming, said Long.

The RCMP troop lined the hillside during the official ceremony at the Vimy monument. (RCMP)

"To realize that so many people made the ultimate sacrifice on such a small area, and the courage that was demonstrated on those few days is truly extraordinary."

Long says he'll never forget an evening event he attended in the town of Arras for a military concert and light demonstration.

"We were asked to make a presence, there might be a few hundred people there, and it turned out to be about four or 5,000 people showed up, and right in the middle of the light display the whole crowd started singing O Canada," said Long.

"You're in a foreign country and they're singing your national anthem, that was a pretty surreal moment," he said.

Long says he'll never forget an evening event he attended in the town of Arras for a military concert and light demonstration. (Serge Gouin/RCMP)

About the Author

Dave Croft

Reporter, CBC North

Dave Croft is a reporter in the CBC Yukon newsroom in Whitehorse. He has been been covering Yukon stories since 1990.