History students experience wartime in Europe

Mikkel Dack will spend his summer vacation visiting battlefields where thousands of Canadian soldiers were slain in the name of freedom.

Dack, a fourth-year history major, and three other University of Calgary students have joined youth from universities across Canada to visit the European battlefields where Canadians fought in the first and second world wars. The students are winners of a Canadian Battlefield Foundation bursary, which is awarded to 12 students every year and has a two-fold aim of education and remembrance.

Selected students had to pick a battle on the route they would be exploring in the tour, learn about it in-depth, and present it to the group on-site. Prior to their departure to Europe, they also had to research the life of a Canadian volunteer who was killed in Normandy. Standing next to the slain soldier’s grave, they will share his life story with their peers.

“The students become very attached to the soldier, calling him “their” soldier,” said Shelagh Whitaker, widow of a WWII veteran and CBF spokesperson. “He was someone their age who volunteered to leave his family and home and who died for his country.”

Whitaker said the tour is physically and emotionally grueling.

“They will literally be walking where the soldiers walked,” said Whitaker. “They will examine the positions where the enemy was and try to put themselves in the position of the commander and analyze what strategy they would have taken.”

Tactical exercises and debates in the evenings are designed to teach students the responsibility of leading hundreds into battle, she said.

“The depth of the knowledge that students come out with is close to the knowledge of their professors,” said Whitaker, adding that most of the selected students, such as Dack, plan to teach.

Dack is a German historian who will be starting his masters in Berlin in the fall. The self-identified patriotic Canadian is interested in the psychosocial aspects of war, and said he will add a German perspective to the tour.

“I hope that I get close to feeling what it was like to be a soldier, to fight and die for a country,” said Dack. “I want to gain an emotional perspective to this part of history and apply that to my studies.”

CBF hopes to train a future “Olympic team” of war historians who will bring a more holistic and sensitive approach to academia.

“It is easy to carry out academic research at home, but in the tour, the young Canadians will be getting a realistic picture of war and they will start thinking hard about the sacrifices the soldiers made,” Whitaker explained.

To commemorate the 62nd anniversary of D-Day, the students will lay wreaths on a monument on Juno Beach built to commemorate the Canadian soldiers who died storming the beach on June 6, 1944.

The next day the students will lay a single maple leaf at the tomb of Canadian soldiers at the Abbaye d’Ardenne.

Dack said the group will also visit museums to learn about the wars.

The battlefield study bursary was initiated in the mid ’90s, with winners chosen on the basis of academic achievement and their interest in history. Though no U of C students won the bursary last year, this year, nearly all of the winners from western Canada come from the U of C.

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