Day 6

How a handful of acorns taken from the ruins of battle are repopulating Vimy Ridge with oak trees

When the Battle of Vimy Ridge ended in April 1917, Lt. Leslie Miller grabbed a handful of acorns from fallen trees. Over the past century they've grown in Canada, and now close friend, Monty McDonald, is returning them home.

'They're the spirits of those people' who fought in First World War

Monty McDonald spent four years on the Vimy Oaks project to repatriate acorns back to France. (Submitted by Monty McDonald)
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When the Battle of Vimy Ridge ended in April 1917, soldier Leslie Miller scooped up some seeds from a fallen oak tree.

The area was once covered in the hardwoods, but the battle took its toll on the environment. An estimated one million shells landed on Vimy Ridge over the four-day battle and decimated its flora.

When Miller returned home to Canada, he planted the acorns on a farm in Scarborough, Ont., and appropriately named the spot Vimy Oaks.

Now, thanks to a Canadian man, acorns from those trees have made their way back to France.

"The oak trees that grew up in Canada descended from Vimy Ridge are sending their own descendants back," said Ralph Coleman, a vice-president for the Vimy Oaks Legacy foundation.

Monty McDonald, who spearheads that group, has spent the last four years devising a plan to return the Vimy Oaks to their original home. On Friday, his dream came true.

An artist's rendering of the newly built Vimy Foundation Centennial Park in Vimy, France. (Vimy Foundation)

Vimy Oaks Legacy inaugurated the Vimy Foundation Centennial Park where 100 of those oak trees are now planted.

"There's such symmetry to it," Coleman said. "Out of death comes life and regeneration, and it comes full circle."

Father-figure

McDonald met Miller by chance on a family road trip. The veteran shared war stories — and the origin of his towering trees — with McDonald, who ended up spending years working on the farm.

"He was a very influential man in my life," McDonald told CBC Radio's Day 6. "My father died young and he sort of stepped in as a grandfather; a mentor figure."

Lt. Leslie Miller was a soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. (Submitted by Vimy Oaks Legacy)

McDonald dreamed up the idea to repatriate the oak trees 15 years ago during a visit to the Vimy Memorial in France. He was surprised to find that the area had no oak trees.

"I thought, wouldn't it be neat if I could take acorns from these trees that are growing in that woodlot, and plant a few of them there with a little plaque," he said.

But two years ago, the project grew much larger in scope.

"I ended up gathering up acorns with the help of my grandchildren and my daughter and I took 500 of them, I took them to France and contracted with a nursery to grow these trees," he said.

After a disease outbreak affecting oak trees in France banned the 'Vimy Oaks' from import, McDonald sent acorns to a nursery in France. (Monty McDonald)

'Spirits of those people'

The park sits on a plot of farm land near the Canadian National Vimy Memorial and celebrates the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

One hundred of the trees grown in France, each one-to-two metres tall, surround four concentric circles in the newly built park at Vimy Ridge.

Each circle represents a different division that fought in the battle, and a path down the centre points toward the memorial.

"On November the 11th, the sun rises behind that memorial when you stand at the end of the view corridor. That wasn't planned," McDonald said.

The Vimy Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that educates about the battle, sponsored the project.

An artist's rendering of the Vimy Foundation Centennial Park in Vimy, France. (Vimy Foundation)

While it took McDonald four years to finish the project — the same length of time as the First World War — it's given him plenty of time to reflect on the life of Leslie Miller.

"If I ever face him again, I'll be able to say, 'We got your acorns back,' because I think he would see it as a very fitting memorial to him and all the soldiers like him," he said.

"They're the spirits of those people."

With files from Canadian Press and Havard Gould


To hear more from Monty McDonald, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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