Human Library: A Boy's Pilgrimage to Vimy by John Bradley

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of Human Libraries here's a primer. In a Human Library the books are actually people. The reader may check out a book for twenty minutes of one-on-one conversation. If both parties are willing you may renew the book for an additional twenty minutes. The reader may not take photographs, video or record the book. The reader must be respectful of the book and if the book feels the reader is not being respectful they may end the session. The reader may not ask the book for their personal contact information.

January 28 was the first time that the Ottawa Public Library has participated in the Human Library project. They partnered with CBC Ottawa and the Canadian War Museum. There were six locations with varying numbers of books, the Canadian War Museum having the most. My home branch was participating and I felt a bit guilty not attending that one but as everyone knows my heart is in history and the War Museum was really the place to be for people like me.

I got there shortly after 11 and some of the books almost fully reserved! By the end of the day all the books would be fully reserved. Yay!

The first book I checked out was A Boy's Pilgrimage to Vimy by John Bradley. For those that don't know, Vimy Ridge plays an important role in Canada's history. It's been suggested by some that it was on that hill that Canada became an independent nation. In WWI Vimy Ridge was the hill that could not be taken. Allied companies had tried and failed. In April of 1917 it was the Canadian's turn. For the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in battle together under Canadian command and they took the hill. It came at a cost. At the end of the battle there were 3,598 dead and 7000 wounded men.

In recognition of the sacrifice made by Canadians during WWI, the government of France granted perpetual use of Vimy Ridge to Canada to use as a site of memorial to the fallen Canadian soldiers. Construction of the site started in 1925 and was not completed and unveiled until 1936. And that's where John Bradley begins his story.

John was just 12 years old in 1936. The 1930s were not an easy time in Canada. They were the years of the Great Depression and most people struggled. John's father was a British immigrant and was part of the Canadian Legion. It was announced that veterans and their families could travel to France for the unveiling of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial for $165 per person (or possibly $160?). That included everything -- travel, billeting, meals, etc -- except for lunch and dinner the three days they were in England. The cost was both a fabulous deal and a great deal of money in the 1930s. It was also too great an opportunity to pass up for John's father to return to Europe. They found the money and John, his parents and another family member found themselves in Montreal boarding a ship to France in July 1936.

As someone who has taken a direct flight from Montreal to Paris in a whooping eight hours, nine days by ocean liner seems a bit hard to comprehend. There were five ships in all that travelled from Montreal to France. It was not an easy crossing and the roughness caused more than a little seasickness among the travellers. While at sea the travellers were issued a button and medallion to wear. They were, essentially, divided into companies. John's group was M-8 and that group were billeted together as well as travelled together and were seated together at the Vimy memorial.

When they arrived in France they were billeted near Arras. The billets were schools and hotels, not with local families. Civilians did not take part in hosting the Canadians.

They had a couple of days in France before the unveiling. They did some travelling around the area and one of the things that they were able to do was locate his uncle's grave. His father's brother had died in battle in WWI and was buried along with many others in a civilian cemetery. By 1936 the original wooden crosses, made famous in John McCrae's poem, had since been replaced by white headstones. John had pictures of both himself and his father standing at his uncle's grave.

John saw little evidence of war damage during his travels in France. Granted it had been close to 20 years since the declaration of peace. There was just one wall that looked as though it had been hit by a few shells. There was a picture of John standing in one of the holes in the wall.

On the day of the unveiling, they were bussed to Vimy Ridge. Due to the need to transport they had buses and drivers from all over France come in. Some of them didn't know the way that much but seeing as the passengers were soldiers who had walked all over the area and knew their way pretty well. The whole trip was well organized, expect perhaps just after the ceremony when everyone was trying to leave at the same time.

Vimy Dedication - aerial shot of ceremony
Credit: McMaster University Libraries, via WikiCommons (public domain). John was seated in the area to the left of the photo. 

At the ceremony the unveiling of the center figure, Canada Bereft, was done by Edward VIII, who at the time was King of Canada (as we are part of the Commonwealth). It was just a few months before he abdicated the throne.

They had another day or two in France and then they travelled to England. In England they toured around London, the soldiers did a walk by and salute of the cenotaph. The big event for young John though, was being invited to tea on the lawn at Buckingham Palace. During the tea it started rain. Many of the guests took shelter in the outdoor pavilions but John's family took shelter inside Buckingham Palace. They were able to tour around a bit before the rain cleared.

The official tour left England for France, and then back to Canada, shortly thereafter. By that point the French government had offered anyone on tour an extra three days in France, all expenses paid. It was a tempting offer but John's family had long decided to remind in England for several weeks to visit their relatives. Getting to visit with his relatives was the almost the best part of the trip for John, perhaps only surpassed by going to tea at Buckingham Palace.

Of course, WWII was all too close to 1936. Just years after returning to Canada John would once again find himself in Europe -- this time as part of the Canadian Army. He served in a signal division. Following WWII he finished his college degree in Toronto and then joined the Canadian Army once again. He served as part of the Canadian Army for 26 years before retiring. He now volunteers at the Canadian War Museum.

John and his wife Connie (I hope I got her name right!) were a delight to speak with and I hope that I happen upon John during one of his volunteer shifts at the museum.

I checked out another book that day, but that will be a post of its own soon.

A big thank you the Ottawa Public Library, CBC Ottawa and Canadian War Museum for hosting this event. I hope that it will happen again.