Published: Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Randy Gibson was enjoying his retirement in Princeton after a quarter century as a police officer when a health scare made him reassess his life.
A prostate cancer diagnosis reminded the former constable with the New Westminster Police Service, who had retired at the end of May 2005, that there were dreams unfulfilled – one of which was to visit Vimy Ridge and the battlefields of France.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Gibson, who said Staff Sgt. Dave Locke reminded him of that, setting the wheels in motion for the trip this past November that coincided with the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” Gibson said afterwards. “I’ve always been interested in war history.
“I’ve read and read and read, and, after reading about it in books, I wanted to see the site, but I wouldn’t have gone if Dave hadn’t made me.”
Locke explained that what ended up as seven New Westminster officers and Doug Bollman, a neighbour of Gibson’s from Princeton, was dubbed the 2008 Bucket List Tour.
It was a reference to the movie The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, in which two terminally ill cancer patients try to fulfil the list of things they’ve always wanted to do before they “kick the bucket.”
Along with Gibson, Locke and Bollman, the group consisted of sergeants Neil Collins and Stu Jette and constables Ron Bryant, Chuck Fortier and Arthur Wlodyka.
Locke and Jette had been to Vimy Ridge before, but it was a first visit for the others.
Their 12-day run through France, Belgium and the Netherlands would encompass, among a number of sites, the official remembrance ceremonies at Beaumont-Hamel on Nov. 8 and Vimy Ridge on Nov. 9.
It was the trip to Vimy Ridge – where the towering monument of stone pillars carved with figures and the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France overlooks the Douai Plain – that meant the most to Gibson.
“The Vimy site was the most important,” he said. “The monument is something everybody should see. To see it on TV or in books does not do it justice.”
Collins described the monument at Vimy Ridge as “impressive. … It was quite a tribute.”
One could see its geographical importance for those fighting in the war, he said.
“You could see the entire region from that point.”
What Gibson saw in France went straight to his core.
“It was heart-rending to think that men fought in that kind of environment,” he said.
“Imagine they were standing in knee-deep mud, it just takes your breath away.”
It was emotional for all those on the trip.
“If you don’t cry when you’re over in France, … you don’t have a heart beating in your chest,” Locke said.
“Can you imagine fighting for four-and-a-half years in 22 square kilometres?”
“The majority of the soldiers (who died) drowned. If they were injured slightly by shrapnel, they would fall forward with 70 pounds on their back.”
Fortier commented on how memorable it was to see the tunnels and trenches at Vimy Ridge where soldiers had lived and fought for months and years.
“You could only imagine what these guys went through for four years,” he said, adding it was also educational.
“We tend to hear more about the Second World War than the first one. I didn’t know as much about the First World War.”
Collins has a personal connection to the First World War and jumped at the chance to fulfil his own dream.
“I’ve always wanted to go, and this was the catalyst,” he said.
His great-great-uncle, whom Collins had only known while he himself was a child, had fought in the First World War with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
A visit to Beaumont-Hamel, near Amiens in France, would be a personal pilgrimage for Collins.
The regiment’s emblem, a caribou, stands high at the memorial site in Beaumont-Hamel, which is near the front where the Battle of the Somme was fought in 1916 and commemorates all Newfoundlanders who fought in the First World War.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 780 members of the Newfoundland Regiment – it didn’t become “Royal” until later – fought at Beaumont-Hamel, and only 110 survived unscathed, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
“All I could think was, these poor guys who were there fighting,” Collins said afterwards of his visit to the site. “At that point, they weren’t even a part of Canada, they were a British colony.
“Because Newfoundland didn’t have that great of a population, World War 1 basically wiped out an entire generation. There were thousands who died there.”
Many of the soldiers from Newfoundland would have hailed from poor fishing villages and found themselves a world away in the war’s muddy trenches.
“They were fighting in the cold and dark in a part of the world they hadn’t seen before. (The visit to the memorial) was emotionally overwhelming, that’s for sure.”
The timing of the trip to the battlefields was opportune.
“Going for Remembrance Day, I thought it would be a neat thing to do,” Fortier said. “What happened in the First World War, I thought it would be neat to see.
“When you’re in Canada, you go to the ceremonies, but you’re not aware of where they fought.”
The visit made one of the defining times in Canada’s history come alive, Collins said.
“To see the cemeteries, the actual battlefields, the trenches where these guys fought – you’ve never been prouder to be a Canadian than when you’ve seen where they fought.
“I would go again in a heartbeat. I think every Canadian should go there and experience that part of history. They will never miss a Remembrance Day ceremony ever again.”
Fortier was struck by how the countryside around the battlefields has been preserved.
“That was the big eye-opener,” he said. “We have nothing to compare here in Canada.”
Being there with his friends and co-workers made the trip more memorable for Gibson.
“It wouldn’t have been half as good if I’d gone there by myself.”
The sentiment is echoed by the others.
“It was great,” said Fortier, noting they had their dress uniforms for the ceremonies. “It was way better than if I had been by myself or with (non-police) friends.”
Having the others there, showing their support, also meant a lot personally to Gibson.
“The effort they went through on my behalf is very touching,” he said.
“It was the trip of a lifetime.”
© The Record (New Westminster) 2009
Originally published Feb 25, 2009