Af­ter more than a cen­tury, oak trees are again grow­ing on the French bat­tle­field near Vimy Ridge. How this has come to be is a uniquely Cana­dian story span­ning the decades and the coun­try’s breadth. It be­gins with Leslie Miller. Grow­ing up on an On­tario farm, his goal was al­ways to be a teacher. He loved peo­ple and was gifted in lan­guages, even­tu­ally mas­ter­ing English, French, Ger­man, Span­ish, Greek and He­brew.

His first teach­ing job was in Wey­burn in south­east­ern Saskatchewan. Had the First World War not in­ter­vened, W.O. Mitchell, author of the beloved Who Has Seen the Wind would likely have been his stu­dent. But the war was sparked on July 28, 1914 with the mur­der of Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand, heir of the Aus­tro Hun­gar­ian empire.

Al­though a world away, Miller’s life along with those of the nearly 620,000 Cana­dian men and women who en­listed was dra­mat­i­cally al­tered. The young teacher signed on as a pri­vate in the 24th Bor­der Horse that Oc­to­ber. By De­cem­ber, he was in Win­nipeg as a mem­ber of the Sig­nal Corps as­signed to the 32nd Bat­tal­ion of the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force, which had only been formed a month ear­lier. His lan­guage abil­i­ties made him a prime can­di­date for de­cod­ing mes­sages in­ter­cepted from the Ger­mans.

Ter­ri­ble storms kept the bat­tal­ion stuck in Win­nipeg un­til Fe­bru­ary and it wasn’t un­til April 22, 1915 that they ar­rived in Shorn­cliffe, Eng­land. Omi­nously, it was the eve of the first gas at­tack in Ypres, di­rected against Cana­dian and French forces.

Miller was de­ployed to France near the Bel­gian bor­der six months later and on Easter Mon­day in 1917, the 26-year-old was en­gaged in the Bat­tle of Vimy Ridge.

It was bru­tal. At its end, 3,598 Cana­di­ans were dead and more than 7,000 were wounded — the ca­su­al­ties are equal to the cur­rent pop­u­la­tions of Nel­son, B.C. or Wey­burn.

“Peo­ple to­day have no real sense of that,” Vimy Foun­da­tion ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Jeremy Di­a­mond said ear­lier this week. “We were a coun­try of eight mil­lion when we went to war and 600,000 served. To­day, if the same per­cent­age en­listed, it would mean three mil­lion peo­ple.”

Miller’s war di­ary is mostly filled with sto­ries about peo­ple he met. But he also wrote about those ter­ri­ble days at Vimy.

“I was out over the top car­ry­ing wounded and I was up as far as Thelus vil­lage. It was ut­terly de­stroyed by our shell­fire,” Miller wrote.

He had climbed the ru­ined tower of the Abbey at Mont Saint Eloi — “It was by far the worst sight I have ever seen.”

Gi­ant oaks and al­most ev­ery other liv­ing thing were dec­i­mated.

But as he walked the bat­tle­field, Miller found a half buried oak tree and gath­ered acorns that he mailed in a can­is­ter to his fam­ily in On­tario — a hope­ful sou­venir from a field of death.

For health rea­sons, Miller was never able to re­turn to teach­ing. In­stead, he went back to the fam­ily farm near Scar­bor­ough where he planted the acorns along with sugar maples, black wal­nut and other hard­woods on 24 acres given to him by his fa­ther.

By the time Miller died at age 84 in 1970, his Vimy acorns had grown into tow­er­ing trees. But what he couldn’t have fore­seen is that their progeny would even­tu­ally be re­turned to the bat­tle­field to re­place the ones that had never re­turned.

From the 10 sur­viv­ing oaks on the land now home to the Scar­bor­ough Chi­nese Bap­tist Church, a non-profit called Vimy Oaks Legacy, has been grow­ing trees from cut­tings and acorns and pro­vid­ing them as liv­ing memo­ri­als across Canada.

But to mark the Vimy bat­tle, 100 of those saplings are now grow­ing at Cen­ten­nial Park close to the Vimy memo­rial in France, which was of­fi­cially opened Fri­day.

Al­though they’re al­ready nearly two me­tres tall, they won’t even be­gin pro­duc­ing acorns for at least 40 years and they won’t reach full ma­tu­rity for 80 to 120 years.

Miller’s oaks are the cen­tre­piece of the four-acre park.

Ex­cept for the peo­ple of Bri­tish Columbia, it might not have hap­pened.

As the park’s ma­jor spon­sor, Bri­tish Columbia pro­vided $360,000 of the $1.3 mil­lion needed to clear the site of un­ex­ploded or­di­nances and turn it into a place of quiet re­flec­tion. It was a de­ci­sion made by for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter Mike de Jong and borne out of his fam­ily’s own ex­pe­ri­ence with war.

His par­ents sur­vived the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Hol­land dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

They rarely talked about it and no war movies were ever al­lowed in de Jong ’s Fraser Val­ley home.

De Jong ’s fa­ther was one of the teenage boys who helped get downed Al­lied air­men to the coast so they could get on boats back to Eng­land.

One night, armed with a pis­tol, the 15-year-old was row­ing an air­man across the river when the Nazi search­lights blazed. The air­man threw him down and out of sight, then rowed like mad to the other side.

For three long days, the pair hid in the woods. Had they been found, de Jong ’s fa­ther would likely have been shot im­me­di­ately; the air­man would have been sent to a pris­oner-of-war camp.

When his mother’s vil­lage was lib­er­ated in 1945, she and her 11 sib­lings hadn’t had any­thing to eat for three weeks. A Cana­dian sol­dier nursed them back to health.

“The no­tion of what th­ese troops — young men and young women — did at a very early stage of their lives re­ally does af­fect me know­ing how war im­pacted my fam­ily, my im­me­di­ate fam­ily. I find it very emo­tional and dif­fi­cult to talk about,” de Jong said.

“You have to get be­yond the row upon row of head­stones to re­al­ize that each is a story cut short ... Then, it all be­comes very real and the fear is that in this coun­try there is a di­min­ish­ing re­al­iza­tion how ter­ri­ble that was.”

More than 1.7 mil­lion Cana­di­ans served in the First and Sec­ond World Wars. An­other 26,791 served in Korea.

In the two world wars, more than 110,000 Cana­di­ans were killed; 516 died in Korea.

Since then, 159 Cana­di­ans have died as peace­keep­ers and peace­mak­ers in Afghanistan and 23 lost their lives in Bos­nia.

All of those lives cut short. All of those loved ones left be­hind. And then there are the hun­dreds of thou­sands of wounded whose lives were for­ever changed.

As time passes, their sto­ries and our con­nec­tions to them grow fainter. But for the next cen­tury and more, the Vimy oaks will be liv­ing re­minders of lives for­ever changed by war, lest we for­get. dbramham@post­ Vimy Oaks Legacy pro­vides trees to Cana­dian or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­di­vid­u­als for a do­na­tion of $1,000. The Vimy Foun­da­tion is a Cana­dian char­ity that pro­motes aware­ness of Canada’s First World War legacy and is re­spon­si­ble for the up­keep of Cen­ten­nial Park in France.

You have to get be­yond the row upon row of head­stones to re­al­ize that each is a story cut short.

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