The upcoming centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge resonates on an emotional level with a Kentville woman who feels that all Canadians should remember the sacrifices made by soldiers like her great uncle Art.
Janice Palmer said her family made a pilgrimage to Europe in 2015 to visit several sites associated with Canadian involvement in the First World War, including Vimy Ridge in France. Beginning on April 9, 1917, the Battle of Vimy Ridge is perhaps Canada’s most celebrated military victory.
“It was very emotional for all of us,” Palmer said. She recommends that all Canadians make a similar pilgrimage if the opportunity presents itself.
Palmer’s great uncle, Arthur Pearson, saw four years of trench warfare in the First World War. He fought in and survived several battles, including the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and survived mustard gas poisoning.
“Whenever I hear about Vimy Ridge, I think about my great uncle Art,” Palmer said.
She said the cemeteries there that serve as final resting places for Canadian soldiers are immaculately kept. She said it’s difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the monument to our fallen soldiers at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial without seeing it first hand.
Standing on its own, surrounded by vast shell-blasted terrain now grown over with grass, the visual is quite stark. Palmer said the sky was amazing on the day they visited, either bright blue or contrasted with black and white clouds.
“The sun lit up that white monument like it was on fire,” she said. “It was like there was a light within it. It was very impressive.”
Palmer’s daughter, Grace McCullough, took a photo as she approached the monument. Although there aren’t any trees, she found an unexpected symbol of Canadian sovereignty on the ground: what appears to be a single maple leaf.
Palmer said it’s possible that the leaf could have been from a plane tree but the family found the experience quite moving and took it to heart. It was like a welcoming message, a reminder that Canadians liberated this land.
Palmer’s parents bought their home in Montreal from her great uncle in 1963. She couldn’t believe growing up that her gentle, soft-spoken great uncle Art with his slight build could have been a fighting soldier.
She said Art returned from the war a changed man. He was of delicate health and was hearing impaired. Palmer said he stopped attending church but surrounded his home with a beautiful garden where she likes to think he found some solace. Palmer grew up playing in that garden.
One plant that “survived the rough and tumble” of Palmer, her siblings and the other neighbourhood children was a white peony with a blood-red centre that “had blooms the size of dinner plates.” The plant still blooms in the garden some 95 years later.
Palmer said that wherever she has lived across Canada, she has planted a root of this peony and it flourished. She has given root cuttings to others and always shares her great uncle’s story to help ensure that his memory lives on. Palmer said it seems a fitting plant to “remind us of the loss of innocence in a bloody and senseless war.”
Palmer said Canadians played a huge role in the First and Second World Wars and most families have been touched by this involvement. It’s important to keep the memory of these service men and women alive and to ensure that the stories of their sacrifices live on.