So here's a challenge: How do you engage a new generation with an old story about a military battle thousands of kilometers away? That's what we had to consider when we decided to re-tell the story of Vimy Ridge.
Vimy is one of those names that Canadians mention when they talk about their country's military past – names like The Plains of Abraham, Ypres, Dieppe, Normandy and many, many others. But what do they really know about what happened a century ago now on that towering ridge in northern France? Did we win, did we lose, did it really make a difference? And perhaps most important of all, why do some historians say it was in that bloody, horrific battle that Canada forged its soul and became a nation? All good questions, but how in today's world of short attention spans and handheld technology can we find new and captivating ways to answer them.
That's why a seemingly odd pairing - a new age tech giant: Google Canada, teamed up with the supposedly staid old Mother Corp (and it's aging anchor!) and headed off to the battlefield just last month. And within hours of arrival there I found myself with a Google "Trekker" strapped to my back, walking through the restored trenches of Vimy Ridge.
Trekker in the Trenches
The "Trekker" is the same piece of technology that takes those Street View pictures of downtowns across Canada It isn’t that heavy – it weighs about twenty kilograms – but it does make you a bit top heavy and you have to be careful not to topple over! But the benefits for the viewer are terrific – the "Trekker" puts you right there, walking through history along the same paths our grandfathers and great grandfathers did exactly one hundred years ago during the Easter weekend of 1917. That's when the 100,000 soldiers of Canada's four divisions, for the first time together, launched an attack on what was seen as the most strategic ridge the Germans held in France.
Beneath the trenches, the tunnels that shuttled the troops to the front lines. Today they too are restored and safe – a far cry from the muddy, rat infested and highly dangerous subways that our forefathers used to get to the fight. And here again, we bring you right there. This time using The Odyssey - 16 interconnected GOPRO cameras - created a 360 degree video of your surroundings, to give you the ultimate feel. When watching through virtual reality goggles you can point the picture where you want to go, see what you want to see. The tunnels were an engineering feat - able to keep the soldiers and the officers safe, but right at the frontlines of the battle as it raged above.
Canada won the battle, and at home, that became a source of considerable national pride. And for the soldiers who did the fighting, a source of considerable and justified boasting. They had done what neither the French nor the British had been able to do over months of intense fighting. But Canada paid a very heavy price. Over four days of sometimes hand to hand combat, we lost nearly four thousand soldiers, and more than seven thousand wounded. In the Canadian Vimy cemetery thousands lie side by side – they're young, sometimes very young, ages paying testament to the generation we lost.
Monument at Vimy
The Vimy monument sits high atop the ridge that so much Canadian blood was lost to win. It is tribute to all those who died in the Great War but whose bodies were never found --- all their names, more than 11 thousand of them – are carved into the monument's walls.
Every name a compelling story of a Canadian who had travelled across the oceans to fight for "King and Country". They were fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, farmers, teachers, lawyers, labourers, hockey players, artists, preachers …. and there were kids, school students who lied about their age to do what they thought was right.
In the classroom
In the past few days the results of the Google-YouTube-CBC partnership have started to hit some select Canadian schools. Last week a grade eight class in Harriston, Ontario watched in amazement. It can be disconcerting – you really DO feel like you're there, almost reaching out to touch the trenches, the tunnels, the carved names.
And really, that's what we were hoping would happen.
Letting that new generation to virtually reach back a century and touch a moment that helped make all us, and our country, who we are.