John Newell Sr. is going to Vimy Ridge, again, to take part in the centennial commemoration of Canada’s iconic First World War battle. At 94, it’s liable to be his last journey to the forbidding site where, from April 9 to 13, 1917, the Canadian Corps suffered 10,000 casualties in a costly victory. Even so, it’s not liable to be Newell’s most memorable visit. Newell was there in 1936 too, when King Edward VIII unveiled Walter Allward’s stunning memorial to Canada’s Great War dead.
Newell, 13 at the time, his younger sister Jocelyn, his mother Mary Frances and his combat vet father Henry were among the largest peacetime crowd ever to assemble at Vimy, 100,000 strong. Among them were 6,200 Canadians—veterans and their families—who had come on what forthrightly was called the Vimy Pilgrimage and who welcomed their still popular new king, on the throne for only six months, with “such a roar you never heard in war or peace,” as one vet put it.
This time around, John Newell will be joined by his son John Jr., granddaughter Jennifer and great-granddaughter Jordan—13 years old herself. And, 81 years later, Newell is one of the stars of a show that will also feature the prime minister, the Governor General, Princes Charles, William and Harry, the president of France and 30,000 Canadian onlookers.
In addition to its deep fondness for the initial “J”, laughs John Jr., the Newell family was raised in an atmosphere of reverence for Vimy, “as the birth of a nation.” Despite spending most of his life in the U.S., John Jr., 72, regularly comes to Ottawa every April to visit his father and to attend the annual Vimy commemoration, now held in the Canadian War Museum. “But it wasn’t until dad and I went to the 90th anniversary,” both guests of former prime minister Stephen Harper, “that it really hit, what happened, what it meant.”
The younger Newell, an ordinary visitor this year, will certainly have more free time in France than his father, a guest of the Department of Veterans Affairs. John Sr., who served in the air force during World War II but did not go overseas, figures on being busy his entire stay. “Let’s see,” he says cheerfully, in addition to attending the commemoration ceremonies, “there’s the second part of that movie the French film crew is making about me, and all the dinners and, oh yes, the video for English TV.” All that, though, will be capped by the unveiling of Newell’s treasures, mementos gathered by a souvenir-fixated teen on his first journey abroad, in a display at the new Vimy Visitor Education Centre.
The centre, says Jeremy Diamond, executive director of the Vimy Foundation, which raised $5 million for the project—funding matched by the federal government—will offer visitors an “entry point to the battle and, by extension, to the whole war.” For eight decades there has been little at the site to integrate the battlefield and the monument, Diamond points out. Now a visit to the education centre “will tell you why Canadians were there in the first place, prepare you to go out into the trenches, and then into the tunnels and then to the monument itself.”
Thanks to John Newell, a visit will also offer a window into the thoughts and feelings of the pilgrims of 1936. There are pictures of his mother and father in Canadian war cemeteries, pressed poppies gathered in Flanders fields, menus from the RMS Ascania (the ocean liner that brought the Newells to France) and the three prizes that Diamond is very pleased indeed to have in the Foundation’s centre. “He’s given us his Vimy Pilgrimage Medal,” exclaims the executive director. “There aren’t a lot of those around. You had to be there to get one.” Also on display will be the formal response from the Canadian Legion Vimy and Battlefields Pilgrimage to applicant 336, Henry Newell: “Pilgrimage Headquarters is pleased to acknowledge receipt of your application to participate in the Pilgrimage and to advise that the same has been approved.”
Then there’s the remarkable Newell family passport, evidently years in the making, since John is listed as nine years old. It was issued by Governor General Baron Tweedsmuir—formerly the Scottish writer John Buchan, author of the classic thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps. Its cover looks much the same as a contemporary Canadian passport, save for one addition. The words Vimy Pilgrimage/ Pèlerinage de Vimy are stamped right on the cover, an indication of the symbolic importance of the site in 1936, a high-water mark—like this year’s centennial—of the place Vimy holds in Canadian consciousness.
Check out archival images from the battle:
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