Yesterday I found myself sharing a narrow edge of parking lot marked “Taxi” at the train station in Ypres, Belgium, with a Flemish man who was pacing back and forth. He was late and clearly ahead of me. I was feeling defeated at the prospect of finding my way to a small cemetery outside of neighbouring Poperinge, 15 minutes away to visit the grave of my great uncle, Vincent Mulligan, who at the young age of 21 had lost his life working as a stretcher bearer for the Canadian Field Ambulance at The Battle of Passchendaele. I had one hour to meet back up with my group of touring educators and at that moment I realized that it was not going to happen. That is when “it” started.
“It” is the deep thanks and appreciation that the Belgian and French people hold for Canadians, whose soldiers fought alongside their countries not once but twice in the past century. You read about it or see news clips that sound interesting for fleeing second then disappear in seconds for the next story but it is another things to experience how authentically and demonstrably they want us to know what the efforts of the Canadian Corps means to them. The feeling remains strong even removed by a few generations.
My friend Katy meets me at the adjoining Belgian Fries shop where she asks, in French, about how to book a cab. The woman across the counter realizes we are Canadians and drops everything to place a phone call. She waits with us by the curb to ensure that we connect with the driver, all the time reassuring us that he won’t be long. She understood our task and it becomes her mission to get us to the cemetery.
The cabbie pulls-up and the pacing man immediately jumps to the back door. When he realizes that the driver motions for us to come I brace myself the the backlash. Instead, the driver calmly suggests that he drop of the other man first, then take us the 16 km to Poperinge to find my great-uncle’s grave. Both men were very interested in our trek. En route, he driver explains that his great-grandfather had been gassed during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 but somehow survived. Immediately we made a connection with him. By the time we arrived at the Nine Elms British Cemetery out in the Flemish farm lands, he insisted on joining us our the search for the headstone. It became his purpose to make sure we were successful.
We when we finally found Row 9, plot F.1 our driver took all the pictures so that Katy and I could make a grave marker rubbing. I felt badly that we were consuming all his time but he reassured me that this was what he would rather be doing. I could see it in his face. He drove us back to Essex Farm, where John McRae wrote In Flanders Fields, to meet up with the rest of our tour group. When he dropped us off, he asked if he could use our trip as the subject of his daily blog. It was important to him to have my permission to share my personal family moment even though I would never know or see his post. He was quite a guy.
It is hard for us as Canadians to feel the deep sense of appreciation that the Belgians feel towards our nation. Even 3 generations removed from the First World War, their thanks is strong, authentic and palpable. It was a good reminder to me that the First and Second World Wars were fought on these people’s land. Those battlefields were their farms, villages and town. The memories, history and family members form both our nations are embedded in the landscape.
Can mobile media enrich an act of remembrance? Can visitors to memorials, cemeteries and historically significant sites use it to connect with people from past generations and gain perspectives on their lives? There is no question that mobile phones can be a distraction and an unwelcome annoyance. They inform, entertain and connect us, but in the process also interrupt and even intrude into our time for quiet thought. In the next few days, I hope to get a clearer answer to these questions.
Today, I join 36 educators travelling to France and Belgium for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. It will be a five day First World War time shift to Flanders and the Arras region. The highlight will be the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial on April 9th. Vimy’s significance is controversial. It has meant different things to different people over the past century. Pivotal battle, legend or myth?: the impressive monument in northern France is said to leave an impression on visiting Canadians that is hard to put into words. I am looking forward to experiencing it for myself.
My Social Studies 10 classes and I have been researching members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who died at Vimy Ridge between April 9-12, 1917. There are many excellent lessons and resources online that can be used to investigate the records and correspondence of Canadian soldiers. We have been using The Canadian Letters and Images Project from Vancouver Island University and Veteran Affairs’ Canadian Virtual War Memorial to collect digital artifacts from soldiers across the country to create a Walk of Remembrance app. These digital artifacts have been loaded into an interactive app using the ARIS Games platform (Augmented Reality Interactive Storytelling) to be used by visitors on educational tours to Vimy.
The app is intended to enrich the experience of visitors to the area in and around Vimy Ridge as they walk through commemorative spaces like cemeteries, countryside and villages. When the user opens it, they are presented with a short bio, photo and selection of personal correspondence, such as a letter, poem or postcard from a family member. The goal is to introduce a “welcomed interruption” while visitors walk through a memorial space that evokes a connection with the soldiers across time. The men featured in the app will not necessarily the those memorialized at any given site, but their artifacts reflect the the shared dislocation of family members between the Western Front and home.
I am interested in how this app could be used as a place-based learning activity in future educational tours. In particular, I am curious to see how students experience the past in an environment where the location - rather than a textbook, website or teacher - mediates the experience.
Each soldier’s information is brief and is delivered at timed intervals of 45-90 seconds so that the visitor can continue their walk without having to become engrossed in their phone. The artifacts are collected into the app inventory and linked to an ESRI ArcGIS Story Map Journal that plots each soldier's information and media to their home town using geographic information system (GIS) technology. Users can revisit and explore the artifacts at a later time.
I applied many of the lessons that I learned authoring the First World War learning game, Though Poppies Grow. My technical challenges were to create an app that was easy on power and data, functional in areas with unpredictable connectivity, and unobtrusive for the user. ARIS includes the flexibility to use a timing function rather than rely on locational triggers like GPS. It also allows players to download the media beforehand to reduce data usage. The limited number of soldier profiles delivered at intervals will hopefully allow users to stay present in the walk while still perceiving the media as enriching rather than distracting.
My students enjoyed the research process which we connected to The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts. They also like the prospect of creating a learning resource that can used by students abroad. I anticipate a range of feedback from my educator friends who are willing to do The Walk of Remembrance activity at Vimy Ridge. My hope is that mobile location-based apps can increase empathy, enrich meaning and provide historical perspectives for people while they reflect on collective memories in the future but that remains to be seen. I am looking forward to finding out.
Download ARIS Games from the Apple App Store, then search "Vimy Walk of Remembrance" to begin.