History of the Legion Pilgrimages
What is a Pilgrimage?
What are pilgrimages? Prior to WWI pilgrimages rarely existed. In the years following WWI the idea of returning to a battlefield became more prevalent. But why return to a battlefield? There were numerous reasons for veterans, war widows and families to return.
During WWI Canadian fallen were not returned home but rather buried where they fell or close to it. The Pilgrimage provided widows and families the opportunity to visit their lost loved ones and to pay their respects. For many it was the closing of a chapter of their lives, for most it was the beginning of Remembrance of lives lived, lives lost and the sacrifices that were made at home and abroad.
For veterans, the return to a battlefield allowed them the opportunity to visit their fallen brothers in arms and comrades. Strong bonds were forged on the battlefield between comrades, bonds that were probably never possible in a peacetime environment at home.
A pilgrimage also permitted veterans the opportunity to make sense of the carnage, destruction and mass confusion that war brings to a battlefield, but only this time in silent reverence. All of these things marked generations of our forefathers and are still very much a part of their daily lives.
But what about us, the younger and non battle tested Canadians of today? Why do we conduct pilgrimages? To answer this question, let us take a brief look at the history of Legion pilgrimages.
In reality Legion pilgrimages started in 1928 when at a Dominion Convention, a resolution was passed for the Legion to commence investigating and possibly organizing a pilgrimage to Vimy France for the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial scheduled for 1931 or 1932. Even through the initial stages of the Great Depression of the ‘30s the difficult and demanding task of organizing such a venture continued. In total, 6,200 veterans and members of their families made the voyage to Vimy on five ships from Canada. A further 1,500 Canadians who were living in the United Kingdom also made the trip.
The total cost per person for a return trip to Montreal was $160.00 (Ocean fare, $119.60; land tour, $36; and equipment, i.e., beret, armband, guide book and badge for $4.40). On 26 July 1936, there were an estimated 100,000 Canadians, British and French at the memorial site to commemorate the unveiling of the monument.1
In the interwar period and during WWII there was no pilgrimage activity. However, in 1962 with the assistance of the Netherlands War Graves Committee, the Legion organized a pilgrimage to Holland for 79 persons. Total cost per person was $200 of which $50 was paid by the Netherlands War Graves Committee. This was the first of 17 such trips conducted in the following 10 years and more than 2,000 Canadians made the voyage and were hosted by Dutch families.2
In 1986, a proposal was put forward to send 10 younger Legionnaires, representing each Command, to Vimy for the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial. This program was intended to spread the concept of Remembrance to generations that were untouched by war. One of the criteria for the trip was the ability to pass on the experience to younger Canadians; several of those on the first trip were teachers. 3
The Legion’s Pilgrimage of Remembrance
After a three-year gap, the program resurfaced in 1989 as the Legion’s Youth Leaders’ Pilgrimage of Remembrance. This program continued as a yearly event up until 1997, when due to costs, it was decided that the program would be conducted every second year. Initially the Pilgrimage started out with a veteran tour guide who was able to relate events to specific areas along the voyage. However, over the years, that has changed due to the advanced years of the veterans.
Today’s Pilgrimage now encompasses some of the most important, as well as some of the least known events of both WWI and II and is conducted over a 15 day period. In 2013, the Pilgrimage was renamed the Royal Canadian Legion’s Pilgrimage of Remembrance to better reflect its objective. Pilgrims will experience and be guided through the trenches of WWI and the beaches of Normandy. They will also be able to experience the emotions of the veterans and of those that they liberated. As well, the Pilgrimage will conduct ceremonies of Remembrance at the cemeteries where young Canadians have found their final resting place.
1 For more information on the Vimy Pilgrimage see Bowering, Clifford H., SERVICE, The Story of the Canadian Legion, (Ottawa: Dominion Command, Canadian Legion, 1960), Chapter VI, pp. 83-102. See also Hale, James, Branching Out: The Story of the Royal Canadian Legion, (Canada: WEBCOM, 1995), pp. 52-55.
Why Conduct Pilgrimages?
All this leads back to one of the original questions: Why do we conduct the Pilgrimage of Remembrance?
Leaders in communities across Canada and in keeping with the spirit of the program developed in 1986, the Legion selects one Legion members from each Command to go to the battlefields where many Canadians have paid the supreme sacrifice, to learn and to perpetuate Remembrance to those Canadians who may not be as fortunate as you to have the opportunity to visit these areas themselves. These Command Pilgrims need no other reasons as to their role on the Pilgrimage but to look once again at the purposes and objects of The Royal Canadian Legion and to our Articles of Faith. It is up to these Command pilgrims as Legionnaires to never forget and to pay homage to those who paid the sacrifice for our freedoms of today. For if we do not learn and teach our younger generation, we may possibly repeat some of the horrors of our past.
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM.