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Love among the ruins

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

ARRAS, France — There are expected to be 25,000 of us here this weekend to honour a young country's great losses and the generation of brave men who gave up their lives on the hills and swamps of Pas-de-Calais for the "war to end all wars."

Among the fallen were two of my relatives: a young Newfoundlander whose name I bear and a young Prince Edward Islander who also answered the call to arms and died here.

In life, they shared only the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In death, though, these men became the link between the doctor and nurse who were to become my parents.

So, in addition to exploring the powerful forces and loyalties that led them to this corner of northern France, I have come to honour a different sort of mythology — a story of beginnings instead of endings.

I could say, in fact, that I owe my start in life to the gleaming marble of the Vimy Memorial.

In the summer of 1936, the Canadian Legion invited anyone who had served in the war or had lost close relatives in it to join what was dubbed the "Vimy Pilgrimage" to France and Britain.

This sparked widespread public interest and saturation news coverage. After all, the monument had been 15 years in the design and assembly, ran over budget and was the subject of official inquiries and fact-finding tours.

Finally, it was to be unveiled with all of the fanfare Canada, Great Britain and France could muster — including a dedication by Edward VIII (one of his few international engagements before he fled into the arms of divorcée Wallis Simpson).

And hey, it was also fun. The Legion was organizing transportation, hotels and tours, making it the affordable adventure of a lifetime for those who had never travelled overseas before. In addition to Vimy, Paris, London and Stratford-on-Avon were on the itinerary.

Not surprisingly, the expedition was oversubscribed. And when the ocean liners slipped their lines on July 16, the docks and the banks of the St. Lawrence were lined with well-wishers. Almost a dozen bands played, planes of the fledgling Royal Canadian Air Force swooped overhead and the air was filled with a cacophony of ships' horns.

On board, first-class cabins were filled with military and political elites. Many returning veterans of the Canada Corps travelled as a unit, complete with regimental bands. And there were the mourners: women wearing loved ones' decorations, mothers with silver crosses for each son.

Mrs. C.S. Woods from Winnipeg had 12 sons in the war — five of them were killed at the front and three died later from their war wounds. She was the poster image of bereavement and would be presented to the King.

Among the passengers on the Cunard White Star steamship Antonia were my parents-to-be.

A. Lacey Winsor, a 31-year-old family physician from Norton, N.B., was going to Vimy to pay tribute to his brother, Willie. Willie was the oldest son in the family, with all the makings of leadership. No one blinked when he answered the call of duty, breaking off his pre-medicine studies to sign up for the Canadian Field Artillery. It was just something one did.

Lacey had other reasons to go to Europe too. After Vimy, he was taking a refresher medical course at a hospital in London. And — something of a rake at university and as an intern — the eligible bachelor might also have been looking for a solution to the shortage of appropriate candidates for socializing in his tiny town.

Jean Mildred Townsend was a 29-year-old health nurse (and something of a fashion plate) from Summerside, PEI. She qualified for the pilgrimage because her first cousin, Gunner Arthur Johnstone, was killed at Lieven.

Although she had not been particularly close to him, when Arthur's younger brother, Edwin, invited her to accompany him on the Vimy Pilgrimage, she jumped at the opportunity. Jean was independent-minded — and in addition to family fealty, it was whispered by the relatives that she was taking the opportunity to get away from an engagement to a young United Church minister.

Of course, the passengers on the Antonia shared a noble and serious common purpose. Participants were given a special beret — with a Vimy medal pinned to the cap with images of the monument and the sculptures — that became a uniform for the trip. As the official inscription on the memorial put it, the journey was an official salute "to the valour of their countrymen in the Great War and in memory of their 60,000 dead."

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