PENTICTON - Thousands of kilometres from their respective homes, an Ontario high school class and an Okanagan couple found common ground in remembrance following visits to a nearly century old Vimy gravesite, missing each other by less than a week.
Mike and Christine Gane, recently retired, had planned a trip to France last April as part of a gift to each other for the completion of their working careers.
On the Kaleden couple’s wish list of things to see was the cemetery at Fauberg d’Amiens, where one of Mike’s two great-uncles, killed in World War I, lay buried.
It wasn’t in the Gane’s itinerary to take part in the Vimy commemorations, as their trip had been planned without the 100 year anniversary in mind.
The Ganes arrived at Vimy on April 13, following the April 6, 100th anniversary commemorations at Vimy Ridge, which involved a number of school students across the country travelling to France to take part in the observances.
What Mike found on his uncle’s grave following the Vimy commemorations left him moved and grateful.
On the grave was a marker, made from a slice of tree trunk, with the name of Brysen Watters, a high school student from Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School in London, Ontario.
A second token read “Thomas Watt, 29/08/1918, 19 years old."
Mike later contacted the school to thank them for the interest shown in his uncle’s life. He included some biographical information about his uncle and some photos and expressed an interest in learning what they had researched of his uncle.
High school teacher Melissa MacIntyre, the teacher that organized the trip of 60 students and 13 teachers to Vimy Ridge, responded to Gane’s email.
She told Gane one of her Grade 11 students had researched the grave and had the honour of decorating Gane’s uncle’s grave with one of the tokens. Each student was partnered with a known soldier buried and researched the soldier’s life.
“I am teary even typing this because you reaching out speaks to the beauty and serendipity. I have shared your email and photos with my students and they are amazed to know that their visit to Arras has made a connection to another person’s life,” she wrote back.
“Thank you so much for reaching out to us… you have brought a smile to our faces and a few tears to our eyes," she wrote.
MacIntyre said Gane’s inquiries had stimulated further curiosity from the students, who wanted to know where the Ganes were from in addition to finding out more about Mike’s uncle.
Gane says his uncle, Thomas Watt, lied about his age, enlisting in the war at the age of 16.
Originally from Lethbridge, Alta, he was of Scottish descent.
“Unfortunately, lying about one’s age to enlist was common for many men his age at the time,” Mike says.
His other uncle is buried in another cemetery just outside of Vimy.
Both were killed by enemy shell fire.
The war took a toll on Gane’s family, killing the two great-uncles and wounding both his grandfathers.
“I’m glad they survived, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he says.
Gane says he contacted the school to express his thanks and gratitude for their efforts to memorialize the fallen soldiers.
“I commend anyone who attempts to teach youth about history,” he says, finding it ironic he and his wife should pay homage to the nearly century old site within days of the high school class.
"The student’s visit was particularly poignant to me,” he says.
- This story was updated May 18 at 8 a.m. to correct the photo caption of Mike Gane's great uncle and grandfather, who served in WW 1.
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