Rowing Club Wreath at the Vimy Ridge Monument
The Great War, at least the physical part of it, was brutally simple. “Rolling Barrage” is an elegant way of saying “They blew everything up, sent men in to carve up anyone left over with bayonets, then set up and did it again. Do it right, and do it enough, and you’ve gained a square of bombed-out mud covered in bodies of people who, until recently, worked at jobs and wrote letters home and played rugby.
Restored Trenches at Vimy Ridge

Behind all of that messy simplicity, ran a complicated machine that managed the logistics. It leveraged enormous amounts of toil from the people back home to keep their recently departed and newly endangered men fed, clothed, and medicated to the point they stayed alive long enough to die usefully. The management layer, in turn, responded to a larger and more complicated political and financial machine that knew something about the why of it all. Reasons were probably abstract concepts to people who’s feet were rotting off. They were past the “why’s” at that point.

So the Rowers went to Vimy Ridge to learn about it. We saw underground tunnels where thousands of Canadian kids gathered in silence for 36 hours before being sent in across a smoking mud patch to be used as human weapons. We saw where messengers got thin sleep between high-speed trips back and forth from the front – white armbands keeping them from being shot as defectors as they ran back. The tour guide said a messenger’s average life span was five days.
Military Cemetery in France

The monument on the ridge is beautiful and very large. It has to be to fit all of those names. The team laid a wreath for Russell Kerfoot Johnston, a VRC member, and Cam Tompkins read the first of many biographies by grave sites. Johnston was a stockbroker who lived on Harwood Street in the West End. The 33-year-old came from Manitoba and worked in an office and played rugby.

The military cemeteries of Northern France and Belgium are neatly maintained. They dot the countryside among farms and very old brick buildings. White headstones of soldiers are marked: name, rank, crest of country, year born, year buried. Sometimes there’s an inscription. Sometimes there is no name or year of birth. The inscription on those ones read, “Known unto God.”
Steve Somers lays a poppy

In Ypres, the war memorial monument is at the town’s gateway, a grand archway over the main road. Like Vimy, it has to be big. We found the names of the guys who played for the club. They probably chased geese off Brockton and hated conditioning drills but went hard at them anyway. They probably looked forward to jars at the club on Thursday nights. They definitely left it all out there on Saturdays, because that’s the way it’s done, like they left it all out there in Ypres, too.

We laid the Ypres wreath at the war memorial as part of the nightly last post ceremony. Rowing Club players read the simple bios of players who didn’t get to come back, and didn’t get to be veterans, and didn’t get to be alumni. I took pencil rubbings of their names from the monument wall and went out to enjoy Ypres with my friends.

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