Vimy Oaks find new home on campus

Paul Mayne // Western NewsMichael Lunau, Manger of Landscape Services, shows off one of three Vimy Oaks to be planted on University College Hill Friday. The saplings were grafted from the limbs of the oak trees that once stood in the area of northern France where 3,598 Canadians were killed and 7,004 wounded during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.

With roots reaching back a century to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, three Vimy Oaks will now grow in the shadows of University College – all thanks to a customs issue.

Michael Lunau, Manger of Landscape Services, said the university is planting these saplings grafted from limbs that once stood in the famed area of northern France in honour of the sacrifices made at Vimy Ridge and in support of the Vimy Centennial Park Project.

“I really wanted to do this,” Lunau explained. “The significance of the trees, and the story behind them, I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. There is special meaning behind these.”

The story of how the oaks made it to Western begins in April 1917 with the Battle of Vimy Ridge, commonly highlighted as a turning point in Canadian history, where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a unified fighting force for the first time. The four-day battle saw 3,598 Canadians killed and 7,004 wounded.

Achieving the largest advance the Allied forces had seen during the war to that point, the victory over German forces is often cited as the beginning of Canada’s evolution from dominion to independent nation.

Following the battle – according to the Vimy Foundation (vimyfoundation.ca) – Ontarian Leslie Miller gathered up a handful of acorns as soldiers sought souvenirs following the victory. Upon his return from France, Miller planted them on a farm in the Scarborough area, where they still stand today.

With no original oaks remaining on the Vimy Ridge site, plans were made to repatriate these oaks back to France to help preserve Canada’s First World War legacy through the creation of a living memorial, planted for the 100th anniversary of the battle this past April.

In January 2015, the process began with professional arborists taking cuttings from the crowns of the oaks, then grafting them onto base rootstock. Like ice wine, this process had to be done in the cold weather.

But the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which controls the import and export of plants, said France, while appreciative, was worried about inadvertently importing Canadian plant diseases. Instead of the seedlings, acorns were sent to France and planted at a local nursery.

Organizers hope some of the trees will be large enough to plant on the ridge by April 2018, with the rest by the 100th anniversary of the armistice in November 2018.

“All the seedlings they had grown were now stuck in Canada,” Lunau said.

Because of that fact, the Vimy Foundation opened up applications to community groups and organizations interested in purchasing some of the trees.

“It was a pretty easy decision to make,” Lunau continued.

Proceeds from the sale of the trees will help fund Centennial Park, located on four acres near the Canadian National Vimy Memorial site in northern France.

UC Hill was chosen for the three Vimy Oaks as an homage to the iconic Middlesex Memorial Tower. Standing atop University College, the tower was funded, in part, by a donation given by the County of Middlesex in 1921 as a memorial to those from Middlesex County who died in the First World War.

The trees are also in honour of the 17 Western students and alumni who died during the four-day battle at Vimy Ridge.

Lunau said while there is no official ceremony planned, the trees are scheduled to be planted around 11 a.m. Friday. All are invited to be part of the planting.

HONOURING THE FALLEN

In April 1917, 17 Western students and alumni died during the four-day battle at Vimy Ridge, commonly highlighted as a turning point in Canadian history, where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a unified fighting force for the first time.

The four-day battle saw 3,598 Canadians killed and 7,004 wounded.

The Western students and alumni included:

  • John Brown (18th Battalion);
  • George Dunham (58th Batt.);
  • Aubrey Gomme (21st Batt.);
  • Alfred Goodman (18th Batt.);
  • James Kellestine (15th Batt.);
  • Fred Lewis (60th Batt.);
  • Ernest Lockey (21st Batt.);
  • Cyril Lowe (142nd Batt.);
  • Thomas Mason (44th Batt.);
  • Williis McIntyre (50th Batt.);
  • Joseph Muldon (5th Batt.);
  • John Paterson (15th Batt.);
  • Charles Perring (15th Batt.);
  • Leslie Sadler (58th Batt.);
  • Herbert Smith (18th Batt.);
  • Samuel Smith (15th Batt.); and
  • Stanley Stewart (11th Batt.).