It was 1916 when 497 students and graduates from Victoria High School packed their bags and set off for Europe to fight for their country in WWI.
Many of the students were Victoria-born, between the ages of 18 and 22, and came from professional and merchant families when the call came for them to enlist and fight against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. For many, going to war was an adventure. For others, it was a sense of duty and obligation to serve their country.
After they enlisted, students journeyed to England and trained at Shorncliffe in Kent. Then they were sent to different battalions, usually joining the artillery and infantry, and were sent to fight on the Western Front, which stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. Eventually, many students were sent to fight in the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 in Northern France.
During the four-day-long battle, some students led troops over the battlements, through barbed wire and fought the enemy. In the end, Vic High school students played an integral role in the victory at Vimy, in which Canadians reclaimed the ridge from German control.
The victory was a turning point in Canadian history, and was seen as Canada’s arrival on the world stage.
“I always cry when I think about it. People were doing their duty. I’m always struck by how innoncent those young people were and how they were called to arms in those horrific cicumstances. It’s a horror story,” said Barry Gough, historian and author of From Classroom to Battlefield.
But the victory didn’t come without sacrifices, as roughly 3,590 Canadians lost their lives. One of the most prominent Victoria students who died was John Dowler, an officer who was the “heart and soul” of the high school’s cadet battalion. His father was the City of Victoria’s chief administrator at the time, according to Gough.
When the war ended a year-and-a-half after the Battle of Vimy in November 1918, of the 497 students, 95 never returned to Victoria.
On Wednesday, April 12, Gough will be narrarating stories from the school and individuals to students and the public as part of an event titled Defining Canada: Victoria High School Students and Graduates in WWI, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
As part of the event, a seniors choir, the Songbirds of Brentwood Bay, and an orchestra will perform Canadian songs of the war. There will be two programs — the first from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. for Vic High students and the second from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. open to the public.
To commemorate those lost, a bronze memorial tablet sits in the main hallway of the high school, which lists the names of the three teachers and 82 students who died on the fields of France and Flanders.
Vic High principal Aaron Parker said even to this day when he walks through the school’s hallways, he can feel the presence of the teachers and students who fought and died for their country. He hopes the memorial gives students a chance to connect with those who went off to the war 101 years ago.
Vic High isn’t the only one commemorating the anniversary of Vimy.
On Saturday at 11 a.m. soldiers of the Canadian Scottish Regiment will march to Victoria City Hall and seek renewal of the Freedom of the City they earned in 1974. That ceremony will end at the parliament building lawn.
The Bay Street Armoury is also hosting an open house and music program on Sunday with local military units and roughly 35 community organizations. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.