Relative of Vimy Ridge soldier to trace his final footsteps

The oaks of Vimy: One man's mission to restore a natural treasure to the battlefield

A century ago, Dawn Morrison's great-grand-uncle John Arsenault set off on a journey that would lead to his death. He left the Cape Breton village of Chéticamp and enlisted in Sydney, N.S., on Oct. 5, 1916, to fight in the First World War.

Morrison will soon follow his trek from the United Kingdom, where he trained, to where he died on Vimy Ridge.

It's part of the cross-cultural event, called Odyssée de la culture in Cape Breton and France, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April.

Odyssée de la culture is a group of French citizens who want to highlight the historic ties between France and Canada. Its members organized Morrison's trip to the United Kingdom and France, and are in Cape Breton retracing Arsenault's steps from his homeland to his grave on foreign soil.

"There's been a lot of wonderful things about this whole project, but one thing is our family has been able to learn so much about John Arsenault that we never knew before," Morrison said.

Arsenault's Story

One mystery they were able to solve was the actual age of Arsenault. Some records suggested he was 28 when he died; others suggested he was 40.

"We found out that he was indeed 40. We feel very confident looking at the records that he lied about his age because he probably felt he was too old and they wouldn't let him go," Morrison said.

"He actually lied to go over there and fight, which makes, you know, his death over there all the more sad."    

Morrison will spend four days walking in the United Kingdom communities of Milford and Folkestone where First World War soldiers trained. She will then spend nine days walking in France to arrive at Vimy Ridge on April 8 where a celebration will take place. 

Road to the battlefield    

Born in Chéticamp, Arsenault moved to Glace Bay around 1900 to work in the coal mines.

He enlisted in 1916, bid farewell to his parents, Simon and Victoria, and sailed for Liverpool, U.K., as a Canadian Infantry soldier with the 85th Battalion.

As spring thawed the frozen battlefields, Arsenault joined a massive movement of Canadian soldiers to the front line in France, where they would try to take Hill 145 from divisions of the German Sixth Army.

The fighting started on April 9, 1917; Arsenault did not live to see the sunset. When that first day ended, the Nova Scotian was one of 3,598 Canadians killed in the brutal fighting. Some 7,000 Canadians were injured. Three days later, the Canadians achieved their goal and captured the hill — better known as Vimy Ridge — at the cost of 10,500 lives, helping to turn the war in favour of the Allies.

Today, French citizens who live in the municipality of Givenchy-en-Gohelle — home to Vimy Ridge — are in Nova Scotia following Arsenault's route to France. 

Catherine Staniszewski is president of the Odyssée de la culture, the group that organized the journey. She said they focused on Arsenault because of similarities between the land that birthed him and the one that buried him.

"We decided to put a face and a name in our event, but we really want to honour all of the Canadian soldiers who participated in the conflict," she told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton this week.

"This soldier, before the war, was a coal miner. And you know, Vimy Ridge is situated in a mining area. We thought it was a common point between our two territories."

Soldier from Big Baddeck

They are also honouring Percival Anderson of Big Baddeck. He served as commanding officer of companies C and D of the 85th Battalion of Overseas Nova Scotia Highlanders, which took Hill 145 where the Canadian Vimy Memorial now stands. Anderson died on Oct. 28, 1917, in the fight for Ypres. 

Staniszewski and the others are visiting Chéticamp, Baddeck, Glace Bay, Port Morien and the Fortress of Louisbourg.  

The group will return to France in April to join a walk with 1,000 Canadians and British people — including members of the Cape Breton Highlanders Association — to follow Arsenault's final trek to Vimy.

"It will be a wonderful day," she said. "We know Vimy Ridge and the first war are still very present in your hearts. I think it is a thing I will remember all the time."

Staniszewski hopes the bond forged between Nova Scotia and Givenchy-en-Gohelle, which is naming a street for Arsenault, will endure. "It's a way to communicate, to learn, to exchange and to meet people."