The Vimy Pilgrimage Award provides 20 Canadian students the opportunity to participate in a fully funded educational tour of France and Belgium. Cloverdale’s Joon Sohn stands fifth from the right. (Contributed)

Cloverdale student travels to France, Belgium to visit war sites

Joon Sohn, 16, received prestigious Vimy Pilgrimage Award

Cloverdale student Joon Sohn has recently returned from a trip through France and Belgium as part of the prestigious Vimy Foundation program.

As one of only 20 recipients of the 2019 Vimy Pilgrimage Award in Canada, 16-year-old Joon had the opportunity to take part in a fully funded educational program that took him to Europe to study the Canadian effort in the First World War for eight days in April.

Joon first heard about the program while researching a project in his Socials 10 class at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary. The Grade 10 curriculum has a heavy emphasis on the world wars, and he thought the scholarship would be the perfect opportunity to see the locations of the events he had been studying and supplement his learning experience.

From April 2 to 10, he toured historical sites and museums in France and Belgium, including the site of the Battle of Passchendaele, the Christmas truce site, the In Flanders Fields Museum and much more.

“Coming from a suburbanish, slightly rural community like Cloverdale, we don’t have the opportunity to see so many historic sites and artifacts.”

“I felt really, really grateful that I had the opportunity to see all of those things and experience it with such a great group of peers, students and mentors who facilitated a lot of critical discussions on issues of commemoration, how collective memory works and these kinds of things,” he said.

Cloverdale student Joon Sohn, 16, lays pins at the grave of Frank Donald Aish, a Cloverdale farmboy who died at the Battle of Vimy Ridge at 16 years of age.
Cloverdale student Joon Sohn, 16, lays pins at the grave of Frank Donald Aish, a Cloverdale farmboy who died at the Battle of Vimy Ridge at 16 years of age.


One of the larger discussions they had was in the lead up to the ceremony commemorating the 102nd anniversary of Vimy Ridge, held at the Vimy Memorial. The group talked about the meaning of the monument, the history of the battle, and “how the individual and collective memory of the event” had been influenced by time and socio-political factors.

Vimy is often mythologized in Canadian history as a kind of birthplace for national pride and identity. It was the first time that the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together.

More than 10,600 Canadians were killed or wounded during the four-day battle, but the advance was seen as a major victory.

The monument is “very, very powerful, and breathtaking,” said Joon.

The individual research projects that each student did before the trip — for Joon, research on Cloverdale’s Harry Triggs and Frank Donald Aish — helped the students gain a better understanding of the overall picture.

The monument has the names of all the Canadian soldiers missing and presumed dead from the First World War inscribed onto its surface.

“You think about how each individual name has their own history, family and connections,” he said. “It’s a really moving monument.”

Of the many historical sites, battlefields and cemeteries that he visited, it was difficult to choose one as being the most impactful. But one of the more fascinating experiences, he said, was visiting Maison Blanche, a series of caves used as a base for hundreds of Canadian soldiers leading up to the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

It’s not a public area, so it was a rare opportunity for the students to see the caves.

On the walls are hundreds of carvings left from the soldiers. “Some expressed how much they missed their families,” said Joon. “there were some who missed their hometowns, who mourned the loss of their brothers-in-arms.”

“One interesting thing the guide said was of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of carvings … there were none that actually opposed the war.”

It’s notable because the Battle of Vimy Ridge didn’t come at the beginning of the war, when “people were excited to join the war effort.”

“By that time, it had become a literal living hell. Most of them had been experienced soldiers, as they had been preparing for the battle for months, going on trench raids and other military preparations.”

“That really stood out to me.”

Upon his return to Cloverdale and to his Grade 10 studies at Salish Secondary, Joon got right back to volunteering for a student group he co-founded in October 2018. Hold High the Torch is a student-led group that works to “connect the individual stories and experiences of veterans to students, to honour the fallen, and support the troops who serve our nation today,” he said.

Joon said that a large part of the reason why he is so personally appreciative of veterans comes from stories passed down by his family.

“My great grandparents were on the front lines during the Korean War. My grandparents were three years old, five years old.”

Canadian and U.S. troops patrolled the area where they lived for around a year, he said. During that time, they “provided humanitarian aid and food and a lot of things that helped them survive.”

His family raised him to know that “freedom is not free, you can’t take it for granted.

“What [we] have here is a real blessing and it’s why we have to honour the sacrifices that veterans and others have made for their countries.”

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