How walking among graves changed a young Torontonian's view of the World Wars

Caroline Tolton, a history buff and high school student in North York, spent the last two weeks learning the personal side of the First and Second World Wars with 15 other students with the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize provided by the Vimy Foundation.

Caroline Tolton visited sites and museums in Europe as part of the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize

Caroline Tolton, 17-year-old student from Toronto, is a history buff and particularly passionate about the First and Second World Wars, she says. (Provided by Lindsay Fraser)

Caroline Tolton is used to hearing about influential historical battles in the classroom. But when she was walking up the rows of graves at cemeteries from the First and Second World Wars, she said she found a new way to understand history.

"I've learned that the World Wars isn't just something we read about in textbooks," said Tolton, 17, who goes to St. Clement's School in Toronto.

"These were real people doing these real things and fighting these battles."

Tolton has spent the last two weeks in England, Belgium and France as part of a scholarship provided by Canada's Vimy Foundation. The Beaverbrook Vimy Scholarship sends 16 students between 14 and 17 years old from Canada, the UK and France to Europe to study the First and Second World Wars.

The program takes the students to major sites from the wars, like Ypres, Passchendaele, Beaumont Hamel, Juno Beach and Dieppe, and to lectures from local historians.

The Vimy Foundation's goal is to inspire the younger generation to see history as real life, not just words and numbers in a book, said executive director Jeremy Diamond.

"This is a way for the textbook and those stories to come alive," said Diamond.

He said the program was created with the Beaverbrook Foundation 10 years ago because the organizers were concerned Canadians were losing touch with their history. So they started up this trip to keep history alive in the eyes of those he believes are Canada's up-and-coming leaders.

"We have found that Canadians traditionally don't know enough about their history, and are somewhat disengaged with the stories of our past, and so we wanted to look at our young people as the ones that we wanted to educate," said Diamond.

Putting 'a face' on history

The organizers attempt to keep history alive by putting "a face" on the wars, said Diamond, by making the stories personal. Before the students arrive in Europe, they're tasked with finding a soldier close to them who died in the First World War in one of the countries they visit.

Tolton chose Edwin H. Utley, a 22-year-old who was wounded and then went missing-in-action in the First World War. His body was never found, so there is no gravestone bearing his name, but he is commemorated by the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium.

Tolton said she chose him because he lived so close to her home. According to a newspaper article she found, he lived on Front Street (at what is now the Hockey Hall of Fame), and she walks by there every day to get to the subway.

"Just the fact that he was so close to me, I just felt such a personal connection. If he'd been born 100 years later, he could have been a classmate of mine," said Tolton.

Caroline Tolton points to the name of a soldier she studied before the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize trip. (Provided by Lindsay Fraser)

The students visited the Menin Gate Memorial, where the names of soldiers who were missing-in-action are carved in the stone. She found Utley's name, and said she read out to the crowd of students and other onlookers a poem she'd written for him.

"It really meant a lot to me, just to be there not only for his memory but also to tell others about the soldier and his life," she said.

'It's the way we stay connected to our past'

Both Tolton and Diamond mentioned the disappearing personal connections to the World Wars. The last known veteran from the First World War, Florence Green, died in 2012 at the age of 110. Veterans from the Second World War are well into their 90s and 100s by now.

For Diamond, and now Tolton as well, keeping the stories alive through personal connection is vital to understanding history.

"It's the way we stay connected to our past," said Diamond.

The Beaverbrook Vimy Prize, provided by the Vimy Foundation, sends 16 students from Canada, the UK and France to Europe for two weeks to get a better understanding of the First and Second World Wars. (Provided by Lindsay Fraser)

Tolton said that after this trip, she's feeling a new inspiration to connect others to Canada's past, and to teach other young people about Canadian military history.

"I think it's really important to carry on the torch and keep people informed because the World Wars are something that really changed the course of Canadian history and the history of the world," said Tolton.