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Norval trench-digging trip exposes hardships of First World War

A dozen Upper Canada College boys had a creative lesson about front line life in the First World War at the Norval Outdoor Education Centre on April 12 as part of the school’s military history immersion program.

“I like role-playing as a part of learning history,” says Fiona Marshall, an Upper School history teacher and director of its military history immersion program.

“I thought it would be a really neat experience for the kids to build a trench and see how physically demanding it was for the soldiers, and then to experience a day in the trench building and eating Spam and corned beef hash out of a can.”

The day began with Norval staff leading war-themed team-building activities for the Foundation Year and IB1 students, and then the hard work began.

Kohilon digging trench

At work in the trench.

The boys carried shovels, pickaxes, safety equipment, water, food, chart paper and markers to a strategic location and began digging through hard clay to create a trench that was four metres long and a metre-and-a-half deep (with the dirt dug out providing an additional half-metre barrier in front) that accommodated them and Marshall. It was a four-hour process that was broken up with the reading of war poetry and a lunch comprised of canned meat and vegetables, crackers, cheese and water.

“This activity was very valuable in terms of not only imagining what it was like for soldiers on the front, but also thinking about how well we could have fit into such a lifestyle,” student David Niddam-Dent says of the experience. “Digging was of course difficult, and unlike many soldiers we did not have to deal with frozen ground, heavy rain or bullets and shells whizzing by.

“While our trench was comfortable enough for standing or sitting with your knees up, living in one — with your only other option being in the path of enemy bullets — would be a whole other experience. Adding lice, rats, flooding and dead bodies to that experience is unfathomable, and yet that’s what millions of young men our age did.”

After the fortifications were complete, the boys were split up into two teams and took part in a charge and defend exercise to test the results of their efforts.

Battle sim from the trench

The battle simulation begins.

“Perhaps the highlight of the day was our simulated battle, where one team attacked the trench as the other team defended, using rolled up mittens as ammunition,” says Niddam-Dent. “While unleashing our inner general and pegging each other with mittens was lots of fun, I don’t think that any of us were under the illusion that this was what war was really like.

“Yet even as we defenders sat in the trench with considerable anxiety waiting for the first glimpse of our attackers, or charged into what we were pretty sure was a futile offensive, we got a window into the experience of a soldier. Before building the trench I think that all of us knew that living in trenches was miserable, but by actually digging and being in it, even without the other unpleasant elements of day-to-day life, we were able to get a literal grasp on what trench warfare meant.”

The fun ended when the boys had to fill the trench back in, but they got so much out of the experience that they concluded at a debriefing session afterward that they would have liked it to last longer and include an overnight stay in the trench.

The same 12 students will take a program-funded trip to northern France and Belgium from June 17 to 23, where they’ll visit Canadian battlefields (including Ypres, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, Dieppe and Juno Beach) and lay wreaths on the graves of Old Boys who fought and died in the Great War. Each of them have already gone through UCC’s archives to help them research one of the 179 Old Boys who gave his life in the First World War as part of the military history immersion program.

“They’ll do a presentation on their Old Boy to the rest of the group when we’re in Europe and when we get back all of the stories of the individual Canadian soldiers will go on the Year 2 curriculum Haiku page,” says Marshall. “It will become part of their curriculum and our guys will go into Year 2 classes next year to talk a little about their soldier and what they learned about World War One from their experience.”

Niddam-Dent says the program has been enlightening so far, lived up to the expectations he had when he signed up for it last year, and has further whetted his appetite for the European trip.

“It’s been a very interesting experience to track the lives of graduates of UCC who, when they were not much older than us, went off to Europe to fight — and eventually die — for their country. My Old Boy, Captain Trumbull Warren of the 48th Highlanders, was the captain of the UCC football team, played cricket and was involved in the Glee Club.

“Being able to research an Old Boy really connects us with those who fought and died in the war, as we are able to look past the horrific statistics and see who some of these boys actually were.”

UCC’s military history immersion program was created a year ago and will run until 2020 to overlap the commemoration of the First World War’s centenary and the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. It’s funded through a gift from John and Pattie Cleghorn (the grandparents of Year 2 student Jamie Cleghorn) and their family.

Foundation Year and IB1 students were selected for the program through submitting the best entries in an essay/film contest.

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