How to teach a new generation about Vimy: Peter Mansbridge

How do you engage a new generation with an old story about a military battle thousands of kilometres away?

CBC News and Google create an immersive experience at Vimy Ridge

Visit Vimy with Peter Mansbridge

6 years ago
Duration 13:00
What made Peter Mansbridge walk through the battlefields of Vimy Ridge wearing a Google Trekker? You have to go back 100 years for the answer

So here's a challenge: How do you engage a new generation with an old story about a military battle thousands of kilometres away?

That's what we had to consider when we decided to retell the story of Vimy Ridge.

What do Canadians really know about what happened a century ago on that towering ridge in northern France? Did we win, did we lose, did it really make a difference?

And perhaps most important of all, why do some historians say it was in that bloody, horrific battle that Canada forged its soul and became a nation?

All good questions, but how in today's world of short attention spans and handheld technology can we find new and captivating ways to answer them?

That's why Google Canada and CBC News teamed up on the Vimy battlefield last month. Within hours of arrival there I had a Google Trekker strapped to my back and poised over my head, walking through the restored trenches of Vimy Ridge.

Trekker in the trenches

Mansbridge walks the Vimy trenches of Vimy wearing the Trekker, a backpack outfitted with a camera system on top. It has 15 cameras that snap photos every two to three seconds as you walk. (Lara Chatterjee/CBC)

The Trekker is the same piece of technology that takes those pictures of your street for Google Maps and Google Images. It weighs about 20 kilograms and makes you a bit top heavy, so you have to be careful not to topple over. But the benefits for the viewer are terrific.

The Trekker images put you right there, walking through history along the same paths our grandfathers and great-grandfathers did exactly 100 years ago during the Easter weekend of 1917. That's when the 100,000 soldiers of Canada's four divisions, for the first time together, launched an attack on what was seen as the most strategic ridge the Germans held in France.

The tunnels

We took the GoPro Odyssey underground to capture a 360-degree view of the tunnels. (Lara Chatterjee/CBC)

Beneath the trenches, there are tunnels that shuttled the troops to the front lines. Today they are restored and safe, a far cry from the muddy, rat-infested and dangerous passageways our forefathers used to get to the fight.

The tunnels were an engineering feat, able to keep the soldiers and the officers safe, but right at the front lines of the battle as it raged above.

We take you there using the GoPro Odyssey with 16 cameras that provide a 360-degree view. With virtual reality goggles you can choose where you want to go and see what you want to see.

Cemetery Trekker

Thousands of Canada's fallen soldiers are buried at the Vimy cemetery. (Lara Chatterjee/CBC)

Canada won the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and at home that became a source of considerable national pride. For the soldiers who did the fighting, it was a source of considerable and justified boasting.  They had done what neither the French nor the British had been able to do over months of intense fighting. 

But Canada paid a heavy price. Over four days of sometimes hand-to-hand combat, we lost nearly 4,000 soldiers, while more than 7,000 were wounded.

In the Canadian Vimy cemetery, thousands lie side by side. The soldiers were young, sometimes very young, a generation we lost.

Monument at Vimy

Google's Trekker camera has travelled to some of the world's most interesting landscapes, including the Pyramids at Giza, the Galapagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef and, now, the Vimy Ridge Memorial. (Lara Chatterjee/CBC)

The Vimy monument sits high atop the ridge where so much Canadian blood was lost. The monument pays tribute to those Canadians who died in the Great War but whose bodies were never found. All of their names, more than 11,000 of them, are carved into the monument's walls.

Behind every name is a compelling story of a Canadian who travelled across the ocean to fight for King and country. They were fathers, sons, brothers and cousins. The troops included farmers, teachers, lawyers, labourers, hockey players, artists, preachers, and there were kids, school students who lied about their age to do what they thought was right. 

In the classroom

A student at Minto-Clifford Public School in Harriston, Ont., watches the 360-degree tour of Vimy using virtual reality goggles. (Jill English/CBC)

In the past few days, the results of the partnership between Google, YouTube and CBC have started to reach some select Canadian schools. Last week a Grade 8 class in Harriston, Ont., watched in amazement. It can be disconcerting — you really feel like you're there, almost reaching out to touch the trenches, the tunnels, the carved names.

And that's what we were hoping would happen — enabling a new generation to virtually reach back a century and touch a moment that helped make us, and our country, who we are.


Peter Mansbridge

Former Chief Correspondent CBC News

Peter Mansbridge is the former chief correspondent of CBC News and Distinguished Fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.