Under the northern stars, students remember the fallen

Night in the Trenches is a Remembrance Day event 
that gives students a glimpse into what war is really like

On the evening of Remembrance Day, 15 students from Eaglesham School will march to a field on the outskirts of their hamlet to dig chest-deep trenches.

Then they’ll pull their blankets around themselves and try to sleep.

The Night in the Trenches — a tradition at the K-12 school since 2008 — is the brainchild of teacher Mike McKay, who spent eight years in the military as a reservist.

“When kids found out that I was in the army, they had all these questions that were basically generated by playing video games and watching violent movies,” said McKay. “They asked how many people I had killed and what kinds of guns I had used. I would try to tell them what military life was like and it didn’t really affect them.”

So after the umpteenth such question, McKay asked the students if they would like to dig trenches and stay in them overnight.

“They were all for it,” he said.

Mike McKay and some of his students are crouched in a trench for their annual Night in the Trenches to honour war veterans.

Mike McKay and some of his students are crouched in a trench for their annual Night in the Trenches to honour war veterans.
photo: Supplied

The temperature fell to -15 C that night and any sleeping was fitful, with the students dozing off in class the next day. McKay thought that would be the end of it but the next year, students asked if they were going to do it again.

McKay saw this as an opportunity to revive dwindling interest in Remembrance Day ceremonies at the hamlet of 120 people, which is located 90 kilometres northeast of Grande Prairie.

“There weren’t many people coming to it, and no one wanted to organize it,” he said.

So McKay asked the students to go home and research family members who had been in the war. The students organized a slide show and took over the Remembrance Day ceremony. Now the community hall is filled with residents and visitors from Grande Prairie and other surrounding communities.

For the past eight years, Eaglesham School students have been digging trenches and sleeping in them for a night as a part of their Remembrance Day activities.

For the past eight years, Eaglesham School students have been digging trenches and sleeping in them for a night as a part of their Remembrance Day activities.
photo: Doug Greenfield

Night in the Trenches is open to students from Grades 7 to 12 and follows a similar format each year. At 3:30 on Nov. 10, students bundle up in their winter gear and are handed two wool blankets — the standard issue for First World War soldiers. By 8, the deep trenches are dug and they march to the nearby community hall, where the Eaglesham Royal Purple of Canada is supposed to serve them a watery stew similar to soldiers’ fare a century ago.

“Of course, they usually make something totally delicious instead,” said McKay.

After setting up the hall for the Remembrance Day ceremonies, it’s back to the trenches to sleep. In some years, the students have conducted practice drills that the soldiers would have done, such as loading people on stretchers. Sometimes firecrackers are set off in the vicinity. Last year, the Eaglesham students were joined by students from two other schools, so they did a co-ordinated attack, charging out of the trenches.

The trench inspection is no longer conducted as the two Second World War veterans from the community who used to do them have passed away, but sometimes military personnel from Edmonton come by for a visit.

The students must keep digging in the dark if they haven’t completed their trenches.

The students must keep digging in the dark if they haven’t completed their trenches.
photo: Doug Greenfield

Morning finds a tired and dirty group of kids who hasn’t slept very much. The Royal Purple visits them to serve a bland, tasteless porridge. Then it’s time to fill in the trenches and march back to the hall to conduct the Remembrance Day ceremonies and enjoy a lunch provided by the Eaglesham Agricultural Society.

The yearly tradition has changed the students’ view of what Remembrance Day is all about.

“One student said, ‘I’ll never look at Remembrance Day the same way again,’” said McKay. “Another kid said, ‘Remembrance Day used to be a day off school to us. Now it’s really worth remembering, especially when we think about members of our family who have served.’”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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