A Canadian remembrance foundation
Cassandre Onteniente, a final-year student at Lycée Pierre Bourdieu, in Haute-Garonne, talks about her participation in the Vimy Foundation’s Beaverbrook programme and how it contributes to remembrance.
Can you tell me a bit about the Vimy Foundation and the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize?
Cassandre Onteniente: The Vimy Foundation is a Canadian foundation concerned with young people’s “duty to remember” the First and Second World Wars. It has put in place a pilgrimage programme that offers Canadians the opportunity to come and discover remembrance heritage in Europe. It has also set up the Beaverbrook programme, which I took part in alongside 14 young Canadians and one Briton. We were chosen on the basis of a history dissertation, an essay about a work of art, a letter of motivation, a CV and a letter of recommendation. The 16 young participants go on a two-week trip, with the Foundation and chaperones, to England, Belgium and France. On the programme are museums, cemeteries and a series of testimonies and talks from history students from Oxford and Paris-Nanterre.
How did you find out about the Foundation and its programmes?
Cassandre Onteniente: By chance, through an ad on Instagram. None of my friends or family had heard of the Vimy Foundation, nor had my school.
Why did you decide to apply?
Cassandre Onteniente: I have loved history ever since I was a little girl. My history teacher in troisième [age 14-15], Fabrice Pappola, was project officer for the First World War Centenary at the Haute-Garonne academic services department, and he really inspired me to love First and Second World War history. I asked him if he thought I should apply and he said yes and encouraged me. So I did. Later on, I spoke to my history teacher at the lycée, Benjamin Besnard, and he also encouraged me to apply.
Can you tell me about the subjects you chose for your application and the different resources you used?
Cassandre Onteniente: For the dissertation, you don’t have a choice of subject. The year I took part in the programme, the theme was post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers from the First World War to the present. The dissertations aren’t like in France, with a plan split into a number of sections. Applicants are provided with the ideas they need to bring out in their writing. I was a bit lost as far as methodology was concerned, so I asked my middle-school and high-school teachers. I used websites like that of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, and also the centenary website, in particular an article by the reporter Jean-Paul Mari, as well as books recommended by my teachers. Post-traumatic stress disorder is not a theme that is covered in the history course at the lycée, but we have heard of it and it echoes some parts of the course programme. For the art essay, you had to choose from a series of war-themed works, analyse it and say how it made you feel and what it might represent. I managed to write a letter of motivation and CV, with a little help from my mum. My history teachers wrote me a letter of recommendation. Those who were selected then had to write either a speech or a song in honour of a soldier. I used the national archives to choose a soldier at random, and came upon Émile Sautour. Next, each awardee visited the cemetery where the soldier is buried, to pay their tribute.
How was the trip to the remembrance sites?
Cassandre Onteniente: We spent four days in England, where we stayed at Harrow School. We mainly visited museums, including the Imperial War Museum’s Churchill War Rooms. We also had to give presentations on a given theme. My group worked on radio. Next, we went to Oxford, where we attended conferences, one on propaganda and another on commemorative monuments. Then we moved on to Belgium and France. We went to Ypres, to the cemeteries and memorials. We went to Menin Gate, where we took part in an official ceremony at the In Flanders Fields Museum. We went to the Canadian cemetery of Saint-Julien, and the British cemetery of Tyne Cot. We went to Beaumont-Hamel in the Somme, and to Thiepval, to the First World War History Museum. We also went to the Vimy ridge to see the memorial, and to Maison-Blanche. Because of the Vimy Foundation, we had access to the tunnels where the soldiers took refuge a century ago – they are usually not open to the public. We also travelled to Dieppe, where the Canadians landed in 1942, and had the honour of talking to Jean Caillet, who fought in the French Resistance. This is all the more important given that we are the last generation to be able to speak to these war heroes. We went to Juno Beach, where the Canadian soldiers landed on 6 June 1944. Our remembrance trail was rounded off with two conferences at Paris-Nanterre University: one on the battles of Verdun and the Somme, the other on the many faces of the war in the East.
What did you get out of this trip?
Cassandre Onteniente: First of all, it was a cross-cultural, human experience. We spoke in English (you don’t have to be bilingual to apply). We were able to share our points of view, especially since we did not study the two wars in the same way. Coming from Toulouse, which lay in the civilian zone, it was interesting for me to visit the front line in northern France and realise the scale of these two wars. Visiting the battlefields and cemeteries, with the commentary from our chaperones, made a big impression on me. I learnt a lot and tried to pass it on in talks which I gave at my high school and my old middle school, to share my experience with my classmates, raise awareness among younger children and encourage other students at the lycée to apply to the programme. Former participants in the programme become ambassadors for the Foundation and must keep alive the “duty of remembrance” and disseminate the programme. That is why I emailed you. It would be great for other young people to have access. It is an unforgettable experience, you make friends, and the Canadians are really nice people. I hope I have the chance to go to Canada and see them all again one day.
You also took part in the Remembrance Day ceremony in your village, one of 11 days organised by the Ministry of the Armed Forces. What did that mean to you?
Cassandre Onteniente: The day of the ceremony, I made a speech about my participation in the Foundation’s programme, and also about our duty to remember the First World War. It meant a lot to me, precisely because, with history, there are times when we must come together to remember all these conflicts. It was a memorable ceremony, full of emotion. I would love to take part in future official ceremonies and have applied to the departmental authority in Toulouse to do so.
Was taking part in the Foundation’s programme the first time you have been involved in remembrance?
Cassandre Onteniente: I didn’t have the opportunity to get involved before, but if I had, I think I would have done. Actually, I hadn’t really thought about it; it just happened. I was keen on history, but my parents are scientists, so this interest in remembrance isn’t something that runs in the family. It is very rewarding to do something for yourself and develop your own personal experience of the duty of remembrance.
How did you find out about the Les Chemins de la Mémoire magazine, which you contacted to talk about your experience?
Cassandre Onteniente: At the lycée, we have lots of magazines on display, and yours was one of them. I thought it would be a nice idea to spread the word about the Foundation’s activities. It’s a good thing too that the magazine is promoted by my school, otherwise I wouldn’t have known about it.
Is there anything more you would like to add?
Cassandre Onteniente: I would like to thank the Foundation, in particular the chaperones who accompanied us, and also your editorial team for giving me the opportunity to share my experience.
La date limite pour soumettre une candidature est le 3 mars 2019
Ministry of the Armed Forces/DPMA/SDMAE/BAPI (Office for Educational Actions and Information) – Text by Enola Dallot