French village renames street to honour Nova Scotia Battalion from WW I

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French village renames street to honour Nova Scotia Battalion from WW I

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of VImy Ridge, the mayor of Givenchy-en-Gohelle village has renamed a street in the centre of the village after the 85th Battalion Nova Scotia Highlanders. 

The 85th Battalion played a key role in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, recapturing the highest point of the ridge, Hill 145, from the Germans during the First World War.

At the time of the battle, in April 1917, this small village, like many in northeastern France, had been captured by the Germans and had been completely destroyed.

Today, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial Park and monument is located on Hill 145, within the boundaries of Givenchy-en-Gohelle. 

Canadians liberated village

"Allée du 85emeBataillon des Nova Scotia Highlanders" or Avenue of the 85th Battalion of Nova Scotia Highlanders is in the centre of the village beside the village hall and a school.

Mayor Pierre Senechal said this street was chosen to be renamed after the 85th Battalion because of the young people who walk on it every day. 

"The idea is pass the torch of memory to younger people so that they are the ones who will continue to remember," he said.

"It was the Canadians who came and liberated the village, and thanks to the Canadian Forces, the village was able to redevelop and to have a rebirth and so that's why it's important to honour that memory," said Senechal through a translator.

The 85th was only one of the Canadian battalions that helped liberate the village, however the 85th has been in the spotlight for other reasons in Givenchy-en-Gohelle.

Walking in footsteps of Pte. John Arsenault

​Earlier this year, a cultural group from France, called Odyssey de la Culture, picked one soldier from the 85th Battalion as their focus for a special project. It's called "In the Footsteps of the Canadian Private John Arsenault"

Pte. Arsenault was a soldier from Chéticamp, N.S., who was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917.

For the past month, Odyssey de la Culture has been travelling in Pte. Arsenault's footsteps. First, to Cape Breton to see where John Arsenault was born and raised. From there, they visited Britain where he trained and since March 31, they've been walking more than 225 kilometres from Boulogne-Sur-Mer to Givenchy-en-Gohelle. 

Two relatives of Pte. John Arsenault joined the group on their trek: William Bates from Glace Bay, N.S., who is Arsenault's grandnephew and Dawn Morrison from Dartmouth, N.S., who is Arsenault's great grand-niece.

Morrison says the whole journey has been an incredible experience and she has learned a lot more about her relative, thanks to the people of France who researched Arsenault and her family's roots.

Each village has its own giant

She says every village welcomed the group with open arms, and she feels honoured to be related to Arsenault, and proud to be Canadian.

On Saturday, after nine days of trekking, and stopping in small villages along the way, Odyssey de la Culture arrived in Givenchy-en-Gohelle, and more than 3,000 people lined the streets to welcome the trekkers to the village, waving Canadian flags and cheering. 

Along with cheering, the trekkers were also welcomed with a brass band and a parade that included "geants" or "giants", which are large puppet-like sculptures on wheels. 

The geant is an ancient tradition in northeastern France where each village has its own giant, made in the image of a local hero. 

On Saturday, the two geants in the parade came from neighbouring villages because Givenchy-en-Gohelle did not have its own.

Unveiling the giant Soldier John

However, that changed on Saturday. The village unveiled its own 3.5 metre geant, "Soldier John," in honour of Pte. John Arsenault from the 85th Battalion. 

He will be brought out for celebrations for years to come, in this village and nearby villages to remind the people of northeastern France of the sacrifices made by Canadian soldiers to liberate their village.

Morrison was overwhelmed with the celebration in honour of her great-great uncle.

Standing in front of the large figure, a teary-eyed Morrison said "I am very emotional at this moment ... can you believe this? I mean I can't even believe what I am seeing here."

Later, the giant began to dance around in the crowd. 

"There's a huge giant, dressed like a handsome Canadian soldier who has the name of my relative, John Arsenault and he'll forever be the town giant in Givenchy-en-Gohelle ... It's wild!" she said.

"It's something the kids can look up to. They'll always know the name of my great-grand uncle John Arsenault. And not just that, it's a celebration of Canada and soldiers and the sacrifices they made. It's not just about John and my family. It's about all of the Canadian soldiers. Great day to be a Canadian!"