Victoria High School Great War Project Transcript

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

I'm delighted and pleased and honoured to be with you. Thank You Deborah for the kind invitation and thank you to Jonathan for suggesting that we might tell the story of Canada's unusual Victoria High School Great War Project.

You're looking at something that you possibly have never seen before. It's a banner with over 500 maple leafs on it. There are different colours. It's not perhaps easy to see the distinctive nature of these colours from this distance, but right at the top are the stars of the masters or teachers of Victoria High School who went to war 1914-1918, and the three in the middle that are in the red are the ones that did not come home.

Now on the great field you will see in blue the Maple Leafs of 500-plus students, male and female, there were seven nursing students who were either at the school at that time during the war or otherwise connected to the school before this time. And you will see it in the middle in red are those that did not come home. They're surrounded by the blue that did come home.

This banner, which is hanging from the top floor of the high school which is incidentally just below where the rifle range and drill, interior drill hall is under the roof of the school, because that existed. When you have a rainy climate like we sometimes do in Victoria, you need a dry place to drill.

That banner was first lowered from that window on the third floor of the east side of Victoria High School in 1919 and out in the forecourt below the banner were, was a vast parade of students in assorted arrangements to honour the memory of those who had either served or who did not come home.

And in among the people in that famous photograph, which I'm not going to show you but it'll be in the book and it will be on the website, are my father and my mother. So this is a personal association to me. Not only is it my parent's school but it's my school, my sister's school, my uncle and my aunt's, and not only am I a graduate of this school, but I'm a former teacher of the school. And now I'm the head of the Alumni Association that has got this Great War Project going.

And I might say that not all alumni associations are willing to put money into Great War projects, maybe it should be left the city to do, maybe it should be left to the province to do, maybe it should be left to Ottawa to do, and when you bring forth a project like this to your colleagues sitting around the table who are debating the questions of whether or not they should put up money for a new PA system or help under renovation of the track and memorial track or do other projects of this sort, you have to bring forth the argument of the value of commemoration.

Now this particular showing of this wonderful banner is from two years ago and then again on Remembrance Day 2012 we flew it again and lowered it again from the same, very same place that it had been in 1919. So for the last two years it has been on display.

In the intervening period from 1919 to 2011, this banner was in the vaults of the archives of the school, and when it was discovered, people said, "well what is this? What kind of memorial is this? Why have they put the maple leafs in blue and red in this great field?"

Well it's an example of the collective conscience of the school at that time to honour those who were there and went forward to the war. Now let's go to the other slides please. This is a story then of how the school's alumni association and archives are commemorating the First World War.

The school has an important history. It was founded in 1876. It's the oldest Canadian high school west of Winnipeg. In the year 1902, Victoria College and High School was linked to McGill University which is now a forerunner the University of Victoria. So it was a combined collegiate and high school and college. The building itself dates from 1914, the one that you saw recently. It's the fourth to house the school in succession.

Distinguished alumni of the school include Emily Carr, Bruce Hutchison, Henry Angus, the historian, Hutchison is the journalist, Roy Daniels, the poet and English critic, Bill Reid, the broadcaster and artist, Maria Tippett, our famed biography, and Richard Hunt, Kwakiutl artist.

Victoria High School Archives was founded about the year 1976 when we were commemorating the centenary of the school, and that's when we gathered all the information together and that's when we started becoming very serious about preserving its records. Very few high schools in Canada have archives.

The population of Victoria in 1914 was approximately 50,000, making it the 12th largest city in Canada. It was mainly of English and Scottish families directly from the British Isles with small First Nations, Chinese, and Japanese numbers. The Ontario component of the province's population was small but at the influence of the politics of the province, close educational ties with McGill University have been established, as I've explained.

Arthur Currie was a teacher at the feeder school, Boys Central School. I don't know whether he had a university degree. I think not, otherwise he might have been in the High School and Collegiate and that was why he was in the central feeder school.

Victoria is the seat of the provincial government. It's also prominent in shipping, commerce, a little second to Vancouver. The Panama Canal was opened in 1914 -- extremely significant in the evolution of the province. The nursing training hospitals existed in Victoria, the Jubilee Hospital and the Victoria General Hospital.

The statistical record, the school's roll of honour, that is, those connected to the school in one way or another, lists eight masters or teachers, five hundred students, and in a separate category, nine nursing sisters. The school's war memorial lists three teachers and ninety-two students who died in France and Flanders.

As a student there, I recall the photos of all of the fallen that were mounted individually in a long roll in the main hallway, a seemingly limitless roll from the east to the west side of the school. The school's secretary's hands were used as the model for the teacher-sculptor Mr. Earl Clark who designed the famed war memorial.

Imperial images were in our classrooms, notably one of Dreadnought's in line ahead with Tennyson's "One life, one flag, one fleet, one throne,” happily displayed in the grade eleven classroom. I think that inspired me to be a naval historian, perhaps.

And Group of Seven paintings were just only becoming introduced in the school in the 1950s but Remembrance Day observances were always solemn and a memorial poppy that became the hallmark of the school's auditorium became one of lasting memory. It was designed by Mr. Clark as well.

In a school you have to generate the funds yourself for memorialization. That won't come from the city and it certainly won't come from the school. So what I'm talking about is internal memorialization by the school itself.

Tragedy struck these famed trees in the year 19-, I mean the year 2011. These trees were planted in April of 1917, at the time of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, but they commemorate, there were fourteen of them, they commemorate essentially the Second Battle of Ypres, which was the great tragedy.

And ladies and gentleman I'm reminded of this central fact. We now know the end result of that war. We now know the total casualties. We now have all the lists and we now have all the names. But this memorial tree tree avenue was put up before we knew that the war could be won, and indeed, there was some great doubt that it would not be won.

So all of a sudden, in 1917, in commemoration of the Second Battle of Ypres, the second anniversary of the Second Battle of Ypres, the Canadian Women's Club, the precursor of the IODE, the Red Cross associations, various community groups, and patriotic funds decided it was time to commemorate those who had already fallen, not waiting, you follow me, until the end of the war.

When a new wing, a technical wing was put on the back of the school, right beyond, along that road there, the bright sparks in the School Board decided to bring in the landscape architects, and I think you can imagine what I'm going to tell you next. The landscape architects said, "well this is quite old-fashioned in the way of landscape. We're going to put in a much better approach to this because the new school wing deserves far better than that."

So those trees were destroyed. Those silver maples which had been planted in April 1917 were incinerated and cut out. It was done without very little discussion in the city, although the school board claims it was widely discussed but it was a hue and cry.

I felt to some degree personally responsible for this as the resident historian in Victoria and personally connected with the school. I'd always thought if we have some sort of memorial plaque that would be a remembrance, a reminder of these trees, that maybe they would be saved. But I took something for granted in that ladies gentlemen. I didn't think that the school board landscaping types would be so foolish as to do this. I was wrong.

But out of this was born the Great War Memorial Project because I determined at that point in time that we were never going to let that happen again. The next year following then, we had a new avenue of trees planted. We had a beautiful, new, approachable school.

I'm going to skip over this. I'm going to skip over to it now.

We decided we would commemorate the new trees with a marker, with a plaque. And in April 1917, another great tree had been planted, this was to the death of Earl Kitchener, who had died in the previous year in 1916. The imperial links of Victoria to the Boer War and even in two earlier campaigns in Africa, that Kitchener had been responsible and engaged in was sufficient for them to memorialize that tree on occasion as well and that tree, that great oak still stands.

So here we are, we're opening the unveiling the new plaque and to commemorate the mentality, the thoughts, and the requirements of that age, this is the caption which was written.

"For king and country lest we forget, with the years, trees of remembrance were first planted here in April 1917 to honour students and teachers of Victoria high School who paid the ultimate sacrifice in World War I. New planting and rededication, November 2011."

That is right on the school building now and they are not going to be able to haul it away.

Here is the Kitchener Memorial Oak, school crest in the middle, 1917.

"This tree commemorates the life of the British Empire's famous soldier, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, Secretary of State for War, who died, while on service 5 June 1916. Planted and dedicated 20 April 1917."

In conclusion, the project is now going forward, not only to maintain these trees and to make sure that they're not taken down again, but to forward the list of the 500-plus persons who are on that famed banner, to run down their individual histories, but also to run down their individual obituaries, and to determine the locations of their burial, and to make sure that we have photographs of those burial markers. They are scattered to the winds as you can imagine, but collectively it's a very important story.

In addition to this, because the digital website of the project will be available worldwide, in addition to that there's going to be a commemorative book which will be published in August of 1914 to recount the school's history, to recount some of the notable achievements of various persons who were in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, also in the Royal Flying Corps, also in the Naval Services, because it's a naturally a tri-service activity being Victoria.

And we're tying it in naturally and hopefully with other projects that exist in Canada, and first and foremost, is the CEF 100 project because we're giving advice, we're getting in the lessons and the experiences out to other schools, we've got memorial trees and memorial projects, and memorials that need to be remembered, so that this thing that happened to our original trees, is not replicated in other locations. So we're standing by as a resource to help everybody else.

But we're very fortunate that we've got this great school archive. We're the only one in the city of Victoria among the high schools that have such a reservoir of material. And given the fact that the school is so old by British Columbia standards at least, its natural with people are coming to us for information and advice and we're very happy to be able to supply it on demand.

So I would like to thank Yvonne van Ruskenveld, who's with us today. She's the researcher and editor on this project, John Azar, with us today from CBF 100 the Western Front Association Pacific Coast branch, Alan MacLeod, photographer, Brian RD Smith, Debbie Blackie, of the archives team, Principal Randy Falls has got behind us. You need a principal to get by on project like this. Charles and Eric, formerly of Veterans Affairs, Victoria High School Alumni Association, and members of the VHS War Project, staff and students in high school.

Thank you very much.

Audience applause.)