Touring the Royals Through the Tunnels of Vimy

The Haunted Walk recently shared a post I had written about the ghost stories I came across during my time working at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Northern France. Although those stories were truly incredible, they weren’t the only memorable experiences from my time France.

Being a guide during the 100th anniversary year of The Battle of Vimy Ridge meant getting to speak to many families who were traveling to France to follow in the footsteps of relatives. Seeing these families take the time to remember and show their respect for their ancestors was always a moving experience. I remember one particular guest who came to the site in mid-March to retrace his grandfather’s steps. We had a lengthy conversation and I will always remember him telling me how special it was for him to spend this time with his grandkids, as he never had the chance to know his own grandfather, the man they were honouring on this family trip.

I had the pleasure of meeting another family during my time at Vimy: the British Royal Family. On the day we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the battle last April 9th, we were pleased to be joined by the Governor General of Canada, the President of France, the Prime Minister of Canada, and their Royal Highnesses, Charles, the Prince of Wales, William, the Duke of Cambridge, and Prince Harry. I had the honour of being picked as the guide for the Royals and the Governor General and his wife Sharon. I had the pleasure of giving them a 25-minute tour of the preserved tunnels and trenches that are on the site of the memorial.

Personally, I am of the opinion that every visitor to any memorial site or any museum is as important as the other and that every person I deal with as a guide is a VIP. However, some of these VIPs require a bit more prep work than others. In anticipation for the princes’ visit, I gave tours to staff of the Prime Minister’s Office and Clarence House (the Prince of Wales’ Private Office) on three different occasions. The goal of these visits was to get an understanding of where the tour would take place, how long it would last, the type of information I would cover, and of course to insure proper security would be possible at all times.

Prior to meeting the Princes, we were told how we should address them and how to act in their presence. I learned that a Prince must be referred to as “Your Royal Highness” and that one should not initiate a handshake with them but rather wait for them to do it, and of course, to avoid any sensitive topics. Learning these little tips and tricks of royal etiquette was rather nerve-racking. What if I accidentally said the wrong greeting or extended my hand for a handshake, out of habit?

Once the tour started, the Royals acted as ideal visitors, asking relevant questions to show they were listening and interested, but easy enough for any experienced tour guide to answer. For example, upon hearing that Welsh tunnellers dug a system of 10km of underground subway tunnels in the sector, Prince Harry remarked how much work that would have taken and asked how long the construction lasted (approximately 6 months). His Excellency the Governor General, David Johnston, wasn’t any less exemplary but asked questions that lead to more discussion and thought. I would have expected no less from a career academic and intellectual!

In the end, giving a tour surrounded with such pomp and ceremony was truly an unforgettable experience. My years working as a guide at the Haunted Walk were a huge help to me, having allowed me to tell so many different stories to so many types of people. I didn’t get the chance to tell any of the spooky stories I came across, but I did tell the Governor General about the Haunted Walk and invited he and his wife to join me for a tour in Ottawa!

Written by Louis Lebel
Tour Guide
The Haunted Walk of Ottawa