Teacher takes in emotional tour of world war historical sites

John Brannen
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NEW GLASGOW – After decades of teaching about Canada’s contribution during the First and Second World Wars from a textbook, this year’s history classes at Northumberland Regional High School are about to become more in-depth and real than ever. 

A century after the “war to end all wars” began, teacher Sherry Cheek undertook the trip of a lifetime to the battlefields, cemeteries and towns in Europe that were touched by the conflicts.

After two weeks overseas, she has returned to Pictou County a changed woman.

“I’ll never forget all that I saw,” she said. “I see things differently, that’s for sure.”

Cheek, an educator for 30 years, applied for and was accepted for the 2014 Canada and the Experience of War Teachers Professional Program tour of Europe. The tour, offered through the University of New Brunswick and Wilfrid Laurier University, offers teachers a glimpse into the history of Canada in two world wars and the potential for using the subject as a vehicle to foster critical-thinking skills in today's young people.

“I always wanted to see these places that I teach about for myself. Visiting these sites was something close to my heart and a life-long dream. When the opportunity came up, I knew I had to go for it.”

Cheek was the only Nova Scotian teacher in a group of about 20 from across Canada. The 14-day trip from July 7 to 19 took the educators from the Somme to Beaumont-Hamel, to Dieppe and Juno Beach, to name a few sites of interest.

A typical day lasted 13 hours and included lectures to start the day with museum, monument or city tours as the days went on. While the trip was educational, it was also profoundly emotional.

“I don’t think there was a day that went by that I didn’t cry,” said Cheek. “It rained an entire week we were there but our guides told us to suck it up, since at least we had a warm meal and bed to go to that night. The soldiers in the trenches didn’t have that.”

The scope impact of the war hit home for Cheek when she delivered a 15-minute presentation on Pte. James Robertson, a Victoria Cross winner born in Albion Mines (now Stellarton). He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Medicine Hat, Alta., in 1915 and was killed in action on Nov. 6, 1917, while rescuing two badly wounded fellow soldiers under severe fire. The memorial park in Stellarton bears his name.

Cheek spoke of his exploits at his graveside in Passchendaele, Belgium.

“As I read his biography, a rubbing of his grave was given to me,” she said. “I plan to hang this on the wall at NRHS.”

She also poured some soil from Stellarton over his grave and left a piece of Nova Scotia tartan there for him and sang a WWI song written by Stoddard King entitled “There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding.”

She also found the local connection to Canada’s efforts at Juno Beach. On June 6, 1944, 359 Canadians were killed in action on the beaches of Normandy. One of them, Cpl. Lloyd Elmer Bishop, was from New Glasgow. The Town of New Glasgow commissioned the plaque near the Juno Beach Centre for $500 that was installed in May 2014.

Many, including her students, supported Cheek in her quest for knowledge.

“My global history students were almost as excited about my going as I was.” Many said these were things they would never get to see, but they would see them through her eyes.

In her travels, she saw fields with unexploded bombs, burnt out churches and large memorials such as the Vimy Ridge monument. Despite these constant reminders of the wars that have taken place, she feels that Canada is doing well in remembering the fallen.

“We’re on the right track,” she said. “I know myself and the other teachers who experienced this journey will be doing our part to keep this part of history alive.”

 

john.brannen@ngnews.ca

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn

 

A TRIP BACK IN TIME:

Day 1 - Group meets in Paris

Day 2 - Drive to Ypres and Introduction to the Great War

Day 3 - Canada's experience in the Ypres Salient in 1915-16

Day 4 - Passchendaele 1917, Drive to Arras

Day 5 - Vimy Ridge and the Arras Sector, 1917

Day 6 - The Somme 1916, Beaumont-Hamel, The Hundred Days Campaign 1918, drive to Dieppe

Day 7 - Introduction to Canada and the Second World War, The Dieppe Raid, drive to Bayeux. Our home for the next week is Le Moulin Morin, west of Bayeux in Calvados, Normandy.

Day 8 - Wrap-up workshop on the First World War in the classroom, introduction to the Normandy region.

Day 9 - Canada on Juno Beach, 6 June 1944

Day 10 - British and American beaches and the wider Overlord plan

Day 11 - Canada's Defence of the Normandy Beachhead, June-July 1944

Day 12 - Verrières Ridge, July-August 1944

Day 13 - The 'Falaise Gap' Climax to the Normandy Campaign, Wrap-up discussion on the Second World War in the classroom.

Day 14 - Return to Paris for return flights to Canada.

Organizations: Wilfrid Laurier University, Juno Beach Centre, BACK IN TIME Normandy Campaign

Geographic location: Canada, Europe, Dieppe Juno Beach Stellarton Beaumont-Hamel Pictou County New Brunswick Normandy New Glasgow Vimy Ridge Medicine Hat Passchendaele Belgium Paris Nova Scotia Bayeux Ypres Calvados

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