The room was full of people, ready to hear the history behind the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. As the podium was set up retired Lt-Col. Shane Schreiber cleared his throat and began to tell the harrowing story of one of Canada’s greatest military victories.
The informative speech was part of the St. Albert Royal Canadian Legion’s day of celebration and remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
A total of 3,598 Canadians lost their lives and another 7,004 were wounded in the brutal battle.
Kathleen Maier’s father fought in the First World War and her husband fought during the Second World War. As the 89-year-old stood at the legion and flipped through pages of letters sent from soldiers to loved ones, tears began to fill her eyes.
“I remember when my mom got a letter,” she says tearing up as she recalls a childhood memory of when her father was fighting in the First World War. “We would bounce around the chair and she read it. You just can’t comprehend unless you’ve been through something like that.”
The letters communicated the daily life soldiers faced, from the weather to friends they had made in their camps. It also displayed various sentiments of love, and thanks for items received like cake and other goods.
Maier met her husband, Otto Maier, while living next to him in Grenfell, Sask. When he went to war, Kathleen would write letters to Otto from his mother, who could only speak German at the time.
Kathleen, who also spoke some German, would translate the letters and write a response to Otto. When he returned the two quickly grew closer and got married in 1947.
Otto fought with the Toronto Scottish Regiment as a machine gunner in Holland and Germany during the Second World War.
Kathleen says while Otto had been fighting across Europe, he found himself on the front lines in Vimy, bringing the celebratory day at the legion close to her heart.
“As I saw pictures of the tunnels from the talk, I was thinking about my husband and about my dad. I remember my dad talking about the trenches and the water and rats. He said you’d try to get some rest and you’d feel rats that would chew at your nose and ears, I just cried when I saw the pictures,” she says.
Maier was among 200 to 250 people who visited the legion throughout the day to hear Schreiber’s talk on the battle and to view various military artifacts in displays throughout the building.
The day began with a rededication of a Lockheed T-33AN Silver Star 3 (T-Bird) trainer jet outside of the legion. Mayor Nolan Crouse presented the jet to the St. Albert Lions Club in honour of the St. Albert Air Cadets, as well as the deceased Canadians and military personnel who fought at Vimy Ridge.
“The airplane is one of many symbols of war, but it’s equally now a symbol of peace,” he told a group of about 50 people who gathered around the parking lot of the legion. “Together we help rededicate it.”
The jet was previously stationed at the TachĂ© Street Circle in front of the Royal Canadian Legion No. 271, but was removed after being damaged in a car accident four years ago.
The city approved funds to fix it up and relocate the aircraft to the corner of the legion where it now stands.
Five days prior to the ceremony, Yvonne Sutherland walked into the legion with a photo in hand. The picture was of her late husband and an excerpt from a book.
The book featured various training days, and showed that Sutherland’s husband, John Murray ‘Sandi’ Sutherland, had trained in Gimli, Man., where he flew that exact T-Bird. As a result, she was seated as a guest of honour during the rededication ceremony.
“I just wanted them to know,” she laughs. “I wasn’t expecting to be sitting in that chair.”
Gerry Vercammen, president of the legion, says he was pleased with the turn out.
“It was a full house, I was very happy with the day,” he says. “This was well planned and it showed with the response we had.”
The day ended with a dinner for legion members, with Second World War veterans Don Murphy, William Horchuk and Ray Lewis being seated guests of honour at the head table.