Having worked at the Haunted Walk for the past five years, I’ve grown accustomed to having strange feelings when entering a building or a site; be it the first time I gave a tour in the old Carleton County Gaol, or when strolling the darkened pathways of the Mackenzie King Estate in Gatineau Park. However, when it comes to the uneasy feeling of something happened here, nothing compares to the first time I drove up to the site of the Canadian Vimy Memorial, in Northern France. The landscape is battered to this day from tons and tons of artillery shells that fell. Seeing cemetery after cemetery, grave after grave commemorating the seemingly countless dead of the First World War is truly an unsettling experience.
As I began my work, I started to notice I was coming across a number of unexplainable stories; stories that I would expect on a Haunted Walk rather than in a history book! First, I came across the familiar story of Will Bird, a story featured on the Original Haunted Walk of Ottawa that took place in the village of Petit-Vimy, near the site of the memorial. Having given that tour countless times, I was well acquainted with the story, which features Bird being lead away from his foxhole in the middle of the night by his missing/deceased brother. He discovers in the morning that his foxhole had been decimated by enemy shelling during the night and many thought him dead. While I have always found that story compelling, visiting the area where it took place really put a chill down my spine.
I spent my winter working as a guide at the Vimy Memorial, and that feeling never really left me. The Memorial is on the site of the battle of Vimy Ridge, to this day the bloodiest day in Canadian history. It has become an important site for Canadians interested in history and remembrance. For a history student (read: history nerd) like myself, this was an amazing opportunity not only to immerse myself in the study of the Great War, but also to be part of the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the battle last April 9th.
(Read a second post from Louis about giving a tour of the Vimy Memorial to the Royal Family!)
My travels also took me to Mons, the site of the first British battle of the war, as well as where the last allied soldier, a Canadian, was killed before the armistice in 1918. There I came across the story of the Angels of Mons. In 1914, the British expeditionary force came across the sweeping right flank of the German army, rushing through Belgium towards Paris. Out gunned and out manned, the Brits attempted to stop this massive army from crossing the bridges at Mons, but suffered enormous casualties. During the fighting, one soldier took the time to call upon St-George for help, a call that was answered by phantom archers from the battle of Agincourt (which took place in 1415!). According to the tales of soldiers, these bowmen helped slow the German attackers long enough for the British to safely retreat from their positions. This was not the type of story I expected to be hearing in the Mons Memorial Museum!
Perhaps the eeriest story I came across is one I found whilst reading Shock Troops by Tim Cook. This book deals with the Canadians at war from A to Z, and has a chapter dedicated to superstitions and supernatural occurrences. One of the stories described in that chapter is that of Private Rex. Cook tells the tale of a platoon of men heading away from the lines after days of fighting. The lieutenant, leading his men, noticed a soldier, Private Rex, lagging behind the group. The officer went to tend to the pale looking private and offered him some food, which the man took with “icy cold hands”. Upon returning to camp, the Lieutenant could no longer find his ill companion, as he was no longer amongst his men. After asking around, he was told by a fellow officer that Private Rex had been killed in action a few days earlier, that officer having himself attended Rex’s burial.
All in all, my time at Vimy Ridge is something I won’t soon forget. The stories I learned and read about while I was there will stay with me. My experience does leave me with a question though, if Will Bird says ghosts have warm hands, but Private Rex had “Icy cold hands”, what is the real temperature of ghosts’ hands? I guess I’ll have to find more stories to break the tie. Luckily, I will be heading to Juno Beach this fall to lead the tour guide program and hope my research will uncover more of these stories to share.
Written by Louis Lebel
The Haunted Walk of Ottawa