Thursday, May 13, 2010
The students, from Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute (OSCVI), had gathered at this Canadian war cemetery outside Bergen Op Zoom around the grave of Signalman Hugh Verdon Webber— an alumnus of their high school.
Prior to an official commemorative ceremony featuring the prime ministers and chiefs of defence staff of both Canada and the Netherlands, these students had come to this specific grave to lay flags, pins and poppies at the eternal home of a boy who roamed the same high school halls they now walk.
The school is on a custom-built tour to various war cemeteries where some of OSCVI’s alumni are buried, part of a larger 2,000-student tour organized by EF Educational Tours.
Grade 12 student Emily Bass told QMI Agency that Webber had signed up for war in 1942, arriving overseas in 1943. He would be among the subsequent waves of troops who crossed the English Channel to fight in the Normandy campaign in 1944. As the campaign progressed and Belgian City of Antwerp was taken by the Allies, the Scheldt campaign began as Canadians and other forces pushed the Germans back up the various arms of the Rhine River delta.
It was during this campaign on Oct. 28, 1944 that Webber died, like many of the over 900 Canadians buried at this cemetery that today lies adjacent to a busy highway.
“We left behind a wife and his daughter to mourn his death,” Bass said. “Without his efforts, his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren wouldn’t have all graduated from our high school.”
Webber’s name is one of many memorialized on a plaque that lies in the hallways of OSCVI – a familiar sight in countless elementary and high schools across Canada whose alumni fought in wars and didn’t return home.
“To us, he was a guy who went to our school— we had to be here to thank him for everything he did for us,” Bass said. “I’ll look at that plaque differently now because we’ve been here and we’ve seen all these graves. I’ll actually look at that plaque now.”
That was a theme picked up on by Natynczyk, who casually walked up to the students with his Dutch counterpart and struck up a conversation to thank them for having made the effort to commemorate their graduate and Canada’s role in the Scheldt campaign.
Dutch Chief of Staff Gen. Peter van Uhm told the students it was important for them to be at Bergen Op Zoom this day so they could share what they experienced with others back home. He called the trip, “more important than an iPod or a cellphone.”
“To come here, on the other side of the world, and see people from Owen Sound, Collingwood, Meaford… is great and so important that you’re here,” Natynczyk said. “Anyone here 15? Sixteen? Seventeen? This really hits home for you when you think these Canadians here were just like you…
“I just wanted to say thank you very much for coming.”
Written May 6.