They were just teenagers when they made their way onto no man’s land.
Climbing out of the trench in what was once farmland at Beaumont-Hamel, France, it took about three minutes for the tightly packed group to make their way to the halfway point between Canadian and German trench lines.
Carson Jones, 17, was among the small group that paused at the “danger tree” – a landmark which had stopped many others.
It was shell-fragmented stump known to be in full view of German artillery spotters and machine-gunners.
It wasn’t long before it hit her.
The North Delta student realized it was on that ground, 99 years earlier, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme during the First World War, that almost the entire Royal Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out in just 20 minutes.
Only 68 men answered roll call the next day. Nearly 800 had set out.
Jones, who this past August visited Canadian and Allied battlefields from both world wars in Europe, compares the event on July 1, 1916 to a decimation of her peers at Delview Secondary.
“(My great-grandfather), along with thousands of others, were teenagers just like me,” she wrote before going to the battlefield. “It is unimaginable for me to think about losing my entire graduating class to war.”
Jones was one of 16 winners of the Vimy Foundation’s Beaverbrook Vimy Prize, a two-week educational program that took her to historical sites from both World Wars throughout France, Belgium and England.
Jones was joined by 14 Canadian students (among about 250 applicants) and one each from Britain and France.
“We learned a lot on the trip that they would never talk about in high school,” says Jones. “I don’t think many people can actually picture how many soldiers there were (in Europe), but we went to cemeteries and we could see that.”
There were cemeteries, memorials, beaches, museums and historical landmarks that included the remnants of a Mulberry harbour on Sword Beach (a temporary harbour used to offload cargo), Winston Churchill’s War Rooms (complete with the prime minister’s maps), and location of the 1914 Christmas truce – the first and last of its kind (an unofficial ceasefire) during the First World War.
She visited John McCrae’s dressing station in Essex Farm, Ypres, where the Canadian doctor was inspired to write the iconic poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915.
At left: The danger tree.
In one isolated archaeological dig at Maison Blanche Souterraine just west of Vimy Ridge, Jones saw 100-year-old graffiti that would have made any soldier’s mother blush.
“The guys in our group found them hilarious,” she says with a chuckle.
More serious was a visit to a garden where the late owner, a Frenchwoman, found the bodies of 27 Canadians massacred by German soldiers during the Second World War.
While many of the stops – sometimes five a day – became a blur, Vimy Ridge was a big one Jones remembers well.
“It was just crazy going up this giant hill and trying to understand why (Canadians) wanted it so badly. (But) when you go around the front side of the monument, you can see everything in the area.”
The battle of Vimy Ridge, which took place in April 1917, is said to have forged Canadian identity – it gave the country an unprecedented sense of pride after its four divisions took the heights that their allies didn’t in the previous two years of battlefield attrition.
The monument itself is beautiful,” Jones says. “There are so many intricate little details carved into it, including a list of names.”
One name not on it, nor on any Canadian memorial, is artilleryman William “Poppy” Janes (sic), Jones’ great-grandfather, who survived the war and lived until 2002, when Jones was four years old.
“He very, very rarely talked about the war,” says Jones’ mother Kim. “He was a Newfoundlander, so when he had a beer or two, his stories would come out, and he would often end up crying.”
Poppy once told his family how a German soldier, dying on a battlefield, showed him a picture of a woman – Poppy assumed it was his wife, as he didn’t understand what the German was saying.
After some battles in the First World War, the Canadians scavenged the fields, Kim says.
“They used to take the bullets and whatever they could. My grandfather said that if the Americans hadn’t come, they would’ve lost the war. They were running out of shoes, they were running out of bullets, they were running out of everything.”
“(Poppy) did say once that we never should have been there, we were just children,” adds Kim.
But mostly, he kept quiet about the war.
“The same thing happened when we talked to veterans at Dieppe,” recalls Jones. “We would try to ask them questions and they wouldn’t (answer) – they’d talk about it for a second and then they’d change the subject.”
Jones came home with photos, trinkets and a heap of knowledge of history she plans to share with high school students – even while going to SFU this fall. (She hopes to become a teacher).
“(The soldiers) gave up their lives,” she says. The least we can do is remember them.”
Jones also brought home three jars filled with sand from Juno and Omaha beaches and stones from the beach at Dieppe, sites of Second World War battles.
Her great-grandfather, Poppy, “would’ve been so proud of Carson going,” says Kim.
For more information about the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize or to apply for 2016, visit www.vimyfoundation.ca/Beaverbrook