By Army Cadet Sparsh Kapar
Summer vacation ... the most anticipated time of the year for many high school students, as school comes to an end. This is a time that most teenagers spend partying, playing video games, taking on a new job, earning high school credits through summer school, or even just relaxing at home. I, however, did something different: from July 19 until August 6, 2016, I took part in the first ever “Royal Canadian Army Cadets (RCAC) Voyage in History” in Europe. The purpose of this exchange was to have cadets witness, experience, and acknowledge the struggles Canadian soldiers faced in the Great War and the Second World War by visiting historical and battlefield sites related to these conflicts. Only 31 army cadets from across Canada were selected to participate in this exchange, and I am very honoured to be one of them.
Prior to the exchange, I was given an assignment. I was provided with the name of a WWI soldier, Private Island Bellwood Fish, and I was tasked to research information about his life both in and out of the war. Prior to our departure for Europe, I arrived in Ottawa to meet up with the other 30 cadets who had been selected to take part in this exchange. In preparation for our trip, we went to the National War Museum and Library and Archives Canada to gather more information on the lives of our assigned soldiers. We all had the opportunity to touch, smell, and witness the documents our soldiers had written during their time. I’m sure that for most of us, it helped to further develop our understanding and gain more insight on our soldier and their experiences.
Our Europe trip began with the first stop at Amsterdam, Netherlands. It was quite a shock to see the cultural differences from Canada. The streets were congested by bikers and pedestrians. I felt as if I was going back in time by witnessing the detailed, yet aged and marvellous architecture, as well as the city’s vast and gorgeous canal system. It was also quite an eye-opener to see how liberal the people are in Europe compared to Canada. Shops are open in later hours of the day, people are more relaxed with their work, and the cities are very festive at night from all the partying.
While we were in Amsterdam, we stopped by Anne Frank’s house and visited the Holten Canadian War Cemetery. I have read certain stories about Anne Frank in the past, but to see in person just how secluded she was from society by never opening her windows, living in another half of the house behind a bookcase, and even having a schedule to use the toilet gave me a reality check. I’ve complained about a lot of silly things in my life — from not being able to connect to Wi-Fi to not catching a strong enough Pokémon in Pokémon Go — but this experience gave me a new perspective. I, for one, can admit that I have taken for granted the numerous life-changing opportunities I have received living here in Canada. Sure, I may have had some difficult days, but I never had to endure hardships like Anne Frank did. Overall, I have gained a lot more appreciation for the life and the opportunities I get to experience every day.
The Holten Canadian War Cemetery was another powerful moment in the tour, and it was the first battlefield memorial we got to visit. I felt a really eerie presence as I walked alongside the rows of graves of the fallen soldiers with my friends. It was such an overwhelming feeling to see how many soldiers died in one battle, and that doesn’t even account for all the other soldiers who fought in the war.
After touring the Netherlands, our next stop was Bruges, located in Belgium. Bruges is filled with architecture that is over 400 years old and tourist shops, and is known for fries, chocolates, and their signature mouth-watering waffles. Unfortunately, for most of us, our wallets nearly blew out from all the souvenirs we had bought! While we were in Belgium, we were able to see a marvellous memorial, the Menin Gate, located outside of Ypres. The Menin Gate is one of the largest memorials we witnessed, listing over 54,000 names of unknown and unfound soldiers, 6,940 of them being Canadian.
The city of Ypres was occupied by the Germans in both World Wars, and the people of the city know not to take their freedom for granted. Since 1928, the last post ceremony takes place here every evening, and hundreds of people come to watch it. Our exchange group had the opportunity to be a part of the ceremony. We marched in with the Belgian cadet group along with a spectacular band and choir; we also laid a wreath in remembrance to the fallen soldiers who were never discovered after the war.
After our stay in Belgium, we headed into France and spent the remainder of our trip there. During our seven-day stay in France, our exchange group went all over the country, visiting both WWI and WWII battlefields and memorials. Some of the major monuments we visited were Beaumont-Hamel, Juno, Dieppe, and Vimy — sites that pay tribute to the sacrifices and contributions of Canada’s soldiers in various battles.
At Vimy, we presented our research assignments that had been given to us prior to departing on this exchange. I also had the chance, along with the rest of the exchange group, to find the name of my soldier engraved onto the awe-inspiring monument. I, for one, can say that each and every single presentation was outstanding! From letters and posters to speeches, and even telling a story with pictures, it felt as if the lives of these soldiers were really brought back to life! It was really inspiring to see all my friends recognize the efforts that our soldiers put into defending the country we proudly call Canada today!
The presentations were more than just honouring the lives of our fallen men; they were life lessons that each and every single one of us had learnt by looking at how our soldier endured his time in the war and the personal impact it had on his life. When I presented the story of my soldier I emphasized that I learnt that, no matter who you are, you still can achieve anything and make a big difference in people’s lives.
As our exchange neared its end, we were fortunate enough to spend the day touring the marvellous city of Paris! We spent our time seeing l’Arc de Triomphe, le pont Alexandre III, as well as the magnificent Eiffel Tower!
This exchange program concluded with a closing ceremony held at the National War Museum in Ottawa. I had the honour to be an emcee in front of honourable military staff from all over the country, such as BGen (ret’d) Romses, Colonel Commandant of the RCAC, Mr. Robert Gill, and many more! Each cadet received a commemorative coin engraved with their name as well as the name of the soldier whose story they had presented at Vimy Ridge.
Looking back at my life, I am greatly privileged and honoured to have joined the cadet program at the age of 12. I started off being hesitant to try new activities, but as time passed and I became more confident, I was given experiences I’ll never forget for the rest of my life! I had the chance to travel across the Rocky Mountains as part of a leadership course in Alberta; ski and snowshoe in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario; and spend the best summer of my life in Europe! It was such a pleasure to represent my cadet corps, 2990 Lorne Scots Army Cadets of Milton, as well as Canada, as I honoured the lives of our fallen soldiers by visiting monuments and presenting that information back home. I have forged inseparable friendships, tried a bunch of mouth-watering delicacies, and experienced a totally different culture, all thanks to the Army Cadet Program! It truly is the greatest youth program Canada has to offer, and I just can’t imagine my life had I not participated in it!