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North Lakeshore Chorus European Tour

June 27th – July 11th, 2015

Recollections of our great European adventure

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

There was a great feeling of excitement and anticipation as our Air Transat flight from Toronto to London, England touched down on a sunny Sunday morning at Gatwick Airport. We were a group of 68 Canadians from Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia travelling in two tour coaches, following in the footsteps of the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Our two-week tour was packed full with 100th anniversary concerts, visits to places of historical significance and just a bit of sightseeing thrown in for good measure.

Although jetlagged, many of us stopped at either Stonehenge or Salisbury Cathedral before experiencing our first taste of British hospitality and graciousness, which was to become the norm everywhere, we went. Netheravon in Wiltshire has a small village church dating back to Saxon times and it also has the distinction of having 11 Canadian burials from the Great War in its church yard. These soldiers died of either meningitis or pneumonia while training on Salisbury Plain in 1915 during one of the wettest British winters on record.

After a warm welcome from Rev. Tina Draycott and Richard Aubrey-Fletcher, churchwarden, the choir and colour party lead by Tony Pryor-Jones were piped into the church by Garret Rodgers, our 16 year old piper from London, Ontario, for a brief service. Captain Wayne Price, who was introduced by Col. Ian Blair-Pilling, Ret’d, presented the choir with a book which he had written about the 11 Canadians buried in the cemetery – a true labour of love. A brief ceremony followed in the cemetery with the Act of Remembrance and the placing of flags and crosses on the Canadian graves. Back in the church, choir members enjoyed getting to know our English hosts, sampling tea and delicious cakes, as well as stopping to look at a very interesting display of photographs from the Great War.

Netheravon certainly set the tone for the whole tour and the choir could not have wished for a more positive experience. It was the smaller places that gave us the warmest welcomes and left the most lasting impressions.

A short ride to our hotel in Exeter followed by a good meal and a good night’s sleep was the way many of us ended our first day in England. Our second day was not to be any less hectic!

Monday, June 29th, 2015

The sun and continued warm weather greeted us on Monday morning for the short coach journey from Exeter to Paignton, where we all boarded the South Devon Steam Railway for a ride down to Kingswear. Many sported their red choir shirts and before we pulled out of the railway station we all had our pictures taken. The journey on the steam train gave us some wonderful views across Tor Bay and a chance to enjoy some scenic Devonshire countryside. At Kingswear we boarded a ferry for a short trip across the River Dart to the small, historic town of Dartmouth, dominated by the impressive Royal Naval College. We had a couple of hours here, but sadly it wasn’t long before we had to return to Kingswear to board our coaches for our dress rehearsal at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Churston Ferrers.

Agatha Christie often attended church here in the summer time and proceeds from the sale of one of her books financed the purchase and installation of the beautiful east window. We were given a right royal welcome by Jill and Richard Burton, good friends of our own Kathy Teng from the choir. The Maple Leaf flag fluttered gently from the church tower in the afternoon breeze and inside the choir were treated to a delicious cream tea before being put through their paces by Ian Juby, our very patient and forgiving music director. Michael Korn, our producer, discovered, much to his dismay, that he had left his concert attire back at the hotel in Exeter. The church warden and organist both stepped in to save the day with extra clothing!

While we were rehearsing, the coach drivers scheduled for the remaining duration of our tour arrived at the church. The lead coach driver was replaced by Dean and the second coach driver was replaced by Liam. Our first two bus drivers had already impressed us with their skill at navigating narrow country lanes and backing into tight spaces, but Dean and Liam would blow us away with their skills. Getting us through the narrow streets of Brixham to the Berry Head Hotel was their first challenge and they certainly rose to the occasion. Our first group dinner was an incredible culinary experience with stunning ocean views thrown in. A one-hour concert was performed to a very appreciative audience and a full house to boot, the latter due in large part to Jill and her committee’s efforts. There were all kinds of Canadian touches on display in the church and again the choir had a wonderful experience. Several stayed up late at the hotel lounge to enjoy a drink and camaraderie, while others decided that sleep would be the best way to combat jet lag.

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

After a brief stop to refuel our coaches on Tuesday morning, we were soon on our way from Exeter to Plymouth, Devon, where the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had landed in October 1914. Although the intended port of disembarkation had been Southampton, the threat of a German U-boat attack in the English Channel necessitated a change in plan. It took about a week for the 33,000 Canadian and Newfoundland soldiers to board their trains for Amesbury, Wiltshire and the short march to their training camps on Salisbury Plain.

A beautiful summer’s day greeted our arrival in Plymouth and after a break for lunch, two guides joined our respective coaches for an informative tour of this historic city, a city that was devastated by German bombing raids in the Second World War. We stopped to see where the Pilgrim Fathers and their families boarded the Mayflower for a new life in the new world, and walked across Plymouth Hoe to admire the beautiful ocean vistas, Smeaton’s lighthouse and several impressive war memorials. The wind tugged playfully at our song sheets as we sang “The Maple Leaf Forever”, in tribute to the Canadian and Newfoundland Armada, which had sailed into Plymouth Sound over 100 years before.

A dress rehearsal followed at the historic Minster Church of St. Andrew. Afterwards we enjoyed a delicious meal in the parish hall, itself a memorial to those who sacrificed their lives in the Great War, with members of the Plymouth Phoenix Chorale, Marcus Alleyne, Musical Director. Our joint concert was an artistic success with a large representation from members of the Royal British Legion in our colour party. The Lord Mayor of Plymouth and his wife were in attendance and the Rev. Joe Dent, Minister at St. Andrew’s lead us in a prayer. It appeared that the audience was sadly outnumbered by members of the choir, a point eloquently made in the Plymouth Herald newspaper the following day. It was dark by the time we headed back to Exeter for our last night’s stay at our hotel there.

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Canada’s 148th birthday was an opportunity for the choir to sing a short programme in the architecturally stunning wonder that is Exeter Cathedral. We loaded up the coaches in the morning and were dropped off at the bus station before heading over to the Cathedral for a delicious cream tea and tour. An appreciative audience enjoyed our performance and then we headed back to our coaches for a short drive to the Buckerall Lodge Hotel. This was the second group dinner and the food was excellent.

Then it was off to Honiton and Wolford Chapel, where John Graves Simcoe, the first Governor of Ontario, and his family are buried. The coaches made their way up a narrow country lane with a dense canopy of trees. The choir was dropped off at a track that was flanked by foxgloves on either side. Keith Luxton kindly drove choir members with mobility issues to the chapel and waited for the rest of us to catch up. It was a beautiful summer’s evening and there was the occasional sweeping vista across some rolling Devon countryside.

We were greeted by the Very Revd Patrick Mitchell and his wife Mrs. Pamela Mitchell and Mr. Jim Kennedy. A selection of songs took place inside the chapel and Mr. Jim Kennedy shared very moving stories of his Canadian great uncles who both died as a result of their service in the Great War. Our trip to the Chapel proved to be a very emotional one. All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to our gracious hosts and head off to our overnight stops. Those on Coach 1 went to the modern Stonehenge Holiday Inn Express, while those on Coach 2 went to the historic Rose and Crown Legacy in Salisbury. It was to be a short night as the following day was to be another full one.

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Our two coaches always drove in tandem and Thursday was to be no exception. However, Coach No.1 had to wait at the Stonehenge Hotel until Coach No.2 arrived from Salisbury, before making the 1 ½ hour trip to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Bramshott and the annual Canada Memorial Service. The choir was very fortunate that the service had been moved from June 23rd to July 2nd to accommodate our tour schedule. This was due in large part to the efforts of Kate Llyod-Jones, Parish Administrator and Lynne Johnson and Michele Frost from Liphook Church of England Primary School.

There was a Canadian Army Camp housed close to Bramshott village in the Great War and there are over 300 Canadian soldiers buried in the local churchyard. Tragically, most of these men died after the war was over and they were waiting to go back home to Canada; they succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic which was to sweep across the globe.

As Church Lane in Bramshott was too narrow for a modern day coach to travel down, choir members had to disembark for the short walk to the church. The Year 4 classes from Liphook Primary School were most involved in the church service and enthralled members of our own choir. We were honoured that Kathie Wagg and Jane McGrath from our choir were asked to join members of the Royal British Legion Colour Party both during and after the service to carry our 1914-1918 Canadian Red Ensign and Union Jack flags. They followed Garret, our piper, down a winding tree lined path to the Cross of Remembrance, along with dignitaries, school children, choir members, parents and other guests. Wreaths were placed at the cross and the school children placed maple leaves and flags at the base of the graves of Canadian soldiers whom they had researched as a school project.

Our choir was treated to a delicious lunch in Liphook Parish Hall, which was decorated with Union Jacks and Maple Leaf Flags and special “Canada” place mats. Speeches were made and the choir was presented with a beautifully framed picture of Bramshott Church drawn by one of the school children. The Year 4 children came back from having lunch at their own school and were now dressed in period costume from the time of the Great War. We will never forget their enthusiastic renditions of “O Canida” and “Run rabbit, run, run, run” and the reading of poignant letters written by a soldier and his family in Ontario. An experience that all in the choir will treasure.

All too soon it was time to say our goodbyes and board our coaches for the trip back to Amesbury Abbey and an evening concert with the Amesbury Church Choir, Alison Malcolm, musical director and the Winterslow Singers, Gary Turner, musical director. It was in Amesbury that Canadian soldiers detrained after their journey from Plymouth and marched off to Salisbury Plain for their four months of training before crossing the English Channel to France in February 1915.

Lord Lansdowne, Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire was our Guest of Honour and we were delighted with his Canadian connection. His great grandfather was Governor General of Canada in the late 1880’s and was the recipient of the hammer, which drove in the last spike that completed Canada’s Transcontinental Railway in 1885. It is still in the family’s possession. The church was full, and members of the choir rather enjoyed the wine served at intermission. A wonderful way to end another very full day of activities.

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

The morning came all too soon and we had to load up our coaches for the journey to Canterbury, Kent and a noontime concert on the steps of the High Altar of Canterbury Cathedral. On the coach journey we learned that the UK was to hold a national minute of silence at noon that day, to honour the victims of the horrific beach massacre in Tunisia the week before. Adjustments were made to our concert programme to reflect the more somber mood of the day.

The choir was given a very warm reception at the Cathedral and was deeply moved by the prayers that were read at twelve noon. Singing at Canterbury was an incredible experience, a place so full of historical and architectural significance. We later learned that our singing had been transmitted to all parts of the Cathedral.

A break for lunch was a tight squeeze for many, as pub service was slow. Many choir members availed themselves of a tour of the Cathedral and all its wonderful treasures. Some came back for Evensong and in the evening we all met up for a group dinner at a wonderful restaurant close to the city wall and the St. Dunstan Gate. As in Salisbury, our group had to be split up due to our large numbers. Some of those staying out of town had an interesting taxi ride back to their hotel, but fortunately all was well in the end.

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

Another beautiful sunny day greeted us for our short coach journey to Dover and a tour of the historic castle, the traditional gateway to England. There were wonderful views from the top of the keep across the Channel and Dover Harbour and there were so many places of interest to see and visit including some wartime tunnels. Onsite cafes and kiosks served wonderful food and ice cream, and for those who had difficulty walking there was a shuttle service around the extensive grounds. The cost of admission was certainly worth it!

The short coach ride to the Church of St. Martin’s in Cheriton gave us an opportunity to see first hand the trucks that stretched for miles along the highways around the port cities of Dover and Folkestone. Industrial action in France had shut down ferry service across the Channel and the Channel Tunnel had also experienced closures because of attempts by migrants on the French side to break in. One could not help but feel for the truck drivers who often had to wait for days before they could board a ferry.

We had another warm welcome at the church in Cheriton and were treated to a very tasty supper prepared by ladies from the church. We sang a concert to a full church and were delighted that a member of the Royal Ghurka Rifles played the Last Post and Rouse. It was also great to see our coach drivers in the audience again. St. Martin’s Church was the church attended by many Canadian soldiers who were stationed at the Shorncliffe barracks during the Great War, which was also the Canadian Army Headquarters in England.

A house fire in Canterbury necessitated a major road closure and resulted in Coach No.2 having to travel down a dead end street for several hundred yards. Skillful driving got us out of a tight situation and we soon continued on our way. The next morning one could still see the smouldering ruins and smell the smoke at the early Sunday morning service in the Cathedral.

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

The weather broke on Sunday and there was rain for our short journey from Canterbury to Dover, where we were to board our ferry for the Channel crossing to Calais, France. Getting to Dover on time was imperative for securing our place on the ferry; however, our departure time was by no means guaranteed. Everything seemed to be going well until just before Dover when Liam, the driver of Coach No. 2 announced that he thought that the clutch or gearbox was done for. Fortunately, he was able to pull over to the side of the road. Dean, the driver of Coach No. 1 came to the rescue and with some difficulty was able to get our coach down to the Dover Docks. Liam resumed the helm of Coach No. 2 and coaxed our coach onwards. Fortunately, a second scare was narrowly averted when one of the passengers on board Coach No. 2 was able to locate their passport, just as an inspector came on board.

The sea crossing to France was a bit bumpy; however, many choir members enjoyed a bite to eat, before being called back down to our respective coaches to continue our journey. The weather on the Continent brightened and we were able to see first hand the high metal fences along the edge of the highway and the squalor of the makeshift migrant camps behind them. As we pulled away from the coast and headed in the direction of Ypres, the countryside flattened and was marked by the distinctive avenues of poplars that one associates with Flanders. Everywhere one could see small towns and villages dominated by church spires and the occasional sails of a windmill.

We soon reached our destination, having lost an hour by travelling from England to the Continent. Our coaches stopped near the Menin Gate next to the moat that surrounds much of the city wall. There was time to explore and eat before heading back to the Menin Gate for the 8 pm Last Post Ceremony at which the choir had been given permission to sing “The Maple Leaf For Ever” and “In Flanders Fields”. Garret, our piper was allowed to play “Flowers of the Forest” during the Act of Remembrance and Claire and Michael laid a wreath in memory of The First Contingent of The Canadian Expeditionary Force. When the ceremony was over, the choir sang a few more pieces to a very appreciative audience before boarding our coaches for the half hour ride to our hotel, the Ibis, in Kortrijk.

It had been a long day and Liam and Dean found that they could not park close to the hotel. This meant a long walk with luggage, checking in at a desk that was manned by only one person, boarding an elevator which had a floor in it that seemed to indicate that it would give way at any moment and finding rooms that were not quite as expected. There were also delays, due to staffing issues, in obtaining much needed drinks; however, the group maintained its usual positive attitude, stayed calm, and took things in its stride. After all, we had arrived on the Continent!

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Members of the choir were enjoying a sumptuous breakfast when word was received that one of the choir members had had a serious fall stepping out of the shower in their room. An ambulance was called and the paramedics on the scene determined that hospitalization was required. Two other choir members accompanied “the wounded soldier” to hospital and were very impressed by the level of care given to the patient and the high standard of English spoken. Surgery on the hand was required; however, later that the day the patient was discharged, and to the great relief and joy of all concerned, rejoined the group at the hotel.

The rest of the choir travelled on to Ypres to pick up their respective tour guides, Steve Douglas and Lucas Catteeuw for the scheduled cemetery tour of the Ypres Salient. The first stop was at Essex Farm, where Lt. Col Dr. John McCrae had written his iconic poem “In Flanders Fields” on May 3rd, 1915. Choir members toured the area and had an opportunity to sing “In Flanders Fields” in a field resplendent with wild poppies, whose heads danced gaily under blue cloudless skies in the morning breeze. A truly moving experience that will never be forgotten by those who were there.

The next stop was at the St. Julian Monument, where the brooding Canadian soldiers pays silent testimony to the 6,000 Canadian casualties of the first poison gas attack of the Great War on April 23rd, 1915. Canadian soldiers earned a reputation for their tenacity, perseverance and ability to overcome overwhelming odds. Just over 100 years later, the choir was able to pay its own tribute in song. A delicious lunch at the Koklikoo Restaurant in Passchendaele was an opportunity to refuel before the final stop at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Grave in the world, with 11,953 burials. Again, the choir sang at the Cross of Remembrance and enjoyed the tranquility and peace of a place that saw so much horror, tragedy and human suffering during a war that was to end all wars.

The coaches returned to Ypres where the tour guides said their good byes to the group and there was some time to wander around the historic town, which was lovingly restored to its former grandeur after the war. Coach No.1 returned to the hotel in Kortrijk with a full compliment of people, while Coach No.2 headed off for repairs. The producer was able to take a trip to Tyne Cot to sprinkle some Canadian soil on the grave of Private Thomas Clifford Wilson, who had been born on his Prince Edward County farm in 1894, and who had sadly lost his life at Passchendaele on November 4th, 1917. Coach No.2 stayed in Ypres for those interested in observing the very moving and meaningful Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, quite a different experience to being a participant. A drink, a time for sharing stories and an evening walk around Kortrijk to admire the illuminated buildings were wonderful ways to end the day before a well deserved rest.

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

There was a great feeling of anticipation as we boarded our coaches on Tuesday morning for the short journey across the French border to the Canadian National Monument at Vimy. It was a fair walk from the coach park to the Monument and on the way over, tour members encountered students from a school in Wales returning to their coach. When the students realized that a Canadian choir would sing at the monument they headed back to hear us sing. It was wonderful to have such an appreciative audience.

It is really hard to describe the emotions that we felt as we stood on the steps and sang. Garret probably embodied them best – he dissolved into tears when he had finished playing Flowers of the Forest at the end of the Act of Remembrance. Here was a man, the same age as so many of those who fell, who seemed to symbolize that gut wrenching sense of loss that the parents, spouses, relatives and friends of those who were killed must have experienced when they received the horrible news about their loved one. Young lives snuffed out in an instance, never to reach the potential that had been intended for them. One cannot begin to imagine the scale of human suffering that war causes – the 11,285 names of Canadians on the Vimy Monument with no known grave are just a beginning…

Many of us enjoyed a packed lunch on our coaches before stopping to wander through the Vimy Cemetery and pause to look at the rows of tombstones and their sombre inscriptions. The Vimy Visitor Centre was an interesting place to explore and the guided tour of the tunnels and trenches brought the history of the place to life. It was incredible to think that German and Canadian soldiers were almost within spitting distance of each other for several months. The pock marked landscape was a fitting reminder that the scars of war are not always that easy to heal and erase.

Our coaches were subdued as we journeyed back to St. George’s Memorial Church in Ypres for a dress rehearsal and evening concert. Stephen Métivier performed a miracle for the choir by borrowing a keyboard from a visiting school choir, as the church did not have one, and we were fortunate to have Mr. Paul Agnessons, the Honorary Canadian Consul to Flanders as our special guest. The walk back through the almost deserted streets of Ypres to the Menin Gate, where we boarded our coaches, seemed a long one that evening; however, not really that surprising considering we had been wearing our emotions on our sleeves for most of the day. Many of us were probably too tired to realize that this would be our last look at the Menin Gate, inscribed with the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers with no known graves, and the tranquil waters of the moat surrounding the old city ramparts.

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

We were headed back to Blighty, but the weather probably said it best. We were leaving Belgium and returning to England, just like so many of the boys on leave would have done 100 years before us. The sky hung heavy with rain laden clouds waiting for the appropriate moment to empty their contents, rather like the tiny pieces of shrapnel from an exploding shell waiting to rain down on those below. A final breakfast at the Ibis Hotel and we headed off to the only Caribou Monument in Belgium that honours the sacrifices of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Situated on the outskirts of Kortrijk, the impressive monument stands by a busy intersection and the constant roar of traffic.

A solitary passerby pushing his bicycle by his side inquired about our presence and we explained that we had come to pay our respects to the men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. We laid a Union Jack and Dominion of Newfoundland flag at the base of the monument, along with a wreath, as the choir circled the monument and prepared to sing “The Ode to Newfoundland”. Our tribute complete, we continued on our journey to the historic city of Bruges, the Venice of the North. The clouds could no longer contain their tears and let loose in several outbursts as we wandered around this stunning architectural gem, huddled under our umbrellas for protection from the elements. Several of us sampled culinary delights in the market square and many could not resist the lure of Belgian chocolate, a welcome opportunity to purchase gifts for home.

Sea and sky met in a grey wash at the Channel port of Calais and all too soon we were being tossed about by an angry sea. Dover, with its white cliffs and castle standing watch like a sentinel, was a welcome refuge from the inclement weather. Upon arrival at the dock, we boarded our coaches and drove on to Shorncliffe Cemetery, passing mile after mile of trucks waiting for their turn on a ferry. There was a crowd patiently waiting for our delayed arrival. Garret piped us down a steep hill to the Cross of Remembrance and as we started to sing, the heavens opened again. Fortunately, the deluge was brief and the sun broke through the clouds to create another unforgettable experience. We lingered over our goodbyes before continuing our journey to London. It took a while to refuel our coaches as gas stations had run out because of the long line-ups of trucks waiting to cross the Channel.

We arrived in London at the end of the first day of a two-day underground strike, and therefore had to contend with roads clogged with traffic. Needless to say, we were very pleased when we finally reached our hotel, but were glad that we had a chance to admire the incredible architecture en route.

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

We were back to having beautifully sunny weather again with blue skies and pleasant temperatures. Our respective tour guides for our City of London tour (Angela Thomas and Simon Lord) arrived on time, but all too quickly our coaches were mired in the traffic chaos caused by day two of the underground strike. This was the only time that our coaches did not travel in tandem.

Coach No.2 passed Harrod’s, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square. It was here that a decision was made to abandon the coach tour in favour of a walking tour. So, we headed off in the direction of Buckingham Palace for the changing of the Guard and what was to become known as “The changing of the Garret!” We caught sight of the Horse Guards coming down the Mall as we crossed the street and later saw the Guard and Yeoman of the Guard coming towards the Mall from Clarence House. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day to observe the ceremonies at Buckingham Palace, including Garret changing into his kilt surrounded by members of the choir so that he was hidden from public view. He certainly became a star attraction for young ladies who wanted a photo op as we meandered our way through St. James’ Park towards Whitehall and Horse Guards. We said goodbye to our tour guide shortly before Trafalgar Square and availed ourselves of a delicious pub lunch at a very reasonable price.

In the meantime Coach No.1 had followed a very different itinerary, persevering in the traffic jam and making it as far as St. Paul’s Cathedral where a decision was made to cross over to the south bank of the Thames in the hopes that traffic would be lighter. Unfortunately, this was not the case,  lost time could not be regained, and the coach had to cross the Thames again so that people could be dropped off near Trafalgar Square. It was a frustrating morning, as we were not able to get to, or stop at, any of the places that we had planned to; however, we had an excellent tour guide who regaled us with fascinating stories, both historical and current, of the buildings we passed and the people associated with them. The tour was also somewhat more difficult because the toilet on the bus was out of commission, and several of the passengers were in dire straights by the end of it!

There was free time to explore the area and some even attended a concert at Wren’s masterpiece at St. Martin-in-the-fields. We all gathered at Canada House before 3 pm and were divided into two groups for an extremely interesting tour of this newly refurbished Canadian show piece, which had just been re-opened by Her Majesty the Queen the previous February. We had the wonderful opportunity to sing in the lobby to members of the staff. The Deputy High Commissioner spoke to Ian Juby after our concert and complimented the choir on their singing. He also said that he was sorry that he had not known that we had been scheduled to sing. A huge thank you to the tireless efforts of Nicole Honderich, constituency assistant to Ted Hsu, MP for Kingston and the Islands, for facilitating this visit.

It was a beautiful walk back down the Mall past the Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace and the Canada Gate, where the choir congregated for a mini concert. Doug Gough very kindly whispered a few sweet nothings in the sympathetic ear of a London Bobby and we were set to go. Passersby gathered around to hear us and many complimented us on our singing. Several people said that they saw a palace window being raised when Garret started to play. It was only a short walk to the Canada Memorial in Green Park and our last mini concert in the British capital.

It was a miracle that our coach drivers managed to pick up all their passengers for the drive to the Brasserie Blanc Restaurant on the Southbank. Dean and Liam had to park their coaches on the Embankment so it took a while for them to reappear. A delicious meal was followed by thank you speeches and presentations. Those not requiring a taxi were able to walk over the Waterloo Bridge to our waiting coaches. The views of London, which included St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye and Houses of Parliament, in the fading evening light were an incredible way to end another incredible day.

Friday, July 10th, 2015

The sun was shining again for our last full day in London. As we didn’t need to board our coaches until 2 pm in the afternoon, many took the opportunity to do some sightseeing or visit some of London’s fascinating museums. The producer was no exception and travelled on the underground, no longer affected by industrial action, to visit the Tower of London – a place he had not visited since childhood. It certainly did not disappoint. All too soon it seemed, it was time to get ready for an afternoon dress rehearsal at All Saints Parish Church, Kingston upon Thames with members of the Kingston Choral Society, UK.

It was here that we received our warmest welcome from any of the choirs that we had sung with in England. Rides were provided to and from the coaches for those with mobility issues, we shared a wonderful meal together before the concert and there was a special ‘Till the Boys Come Home cake made in the choir’s honour. Sarah Moreton, the concert organizer, had even made a special trip to Canada House the day before to provide us with a keyboard.

The church had recently been refurbished and was in fact the place where several Saxon kings had been crowned before the founding of Westminster Abbey by Edward the Confessor just prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066. The evening concert was well attended with Colonel Geoffrey Godbold, the Representative Deputy Lieutenant for the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames and Brigadier General Matthew Overton, Defence Advisor, Canadian High Commission, London, as our special guests. Our coach ride back to the hotel was a quiet one with the realization that we would be seeing our coach drivers for the very last time.

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

The sun shone on the choir as we boarded a double decker motor coach for the short early morning journey to Gatwick Airport. By noon, we were on an Air Transat flight roaring down a runway for the flight home; forever changed by the experiences of our two-week tour in honour of those who had sacrificed so much for King, Country and Empire. Our welcome and warm reception was in large part due to the positive impact of the Canadian military personnel who had gone before us, and whose contributions still shone brightly in the hearts and minds of those we encountered.

Epilogue - Saturday, November 14th, 2015

Trinity United Church, Cobourg, Ontario, was the setting for a reunion for those who had been on the tour on Saturday, November 14th. Not everyone could come, but those that did enjoyed a time to reminisce and a group lunch. Marilyn Duplacey and Charles Willett traveled all the way from Saint John, New Brunswick.

Later in the afternoon, they were joined for a dress rehearsal by other singers who had taken part in previous ‘Till the Boys Come Home concerts. Ian Juby directed the evening concert and Jacqueline Mokrzewski accompanied on piano. Garret Rodgers, now 17 years old and in his last year of High School, played the pipes. Debbie Fingas was on organ with Chris Devlin, bugler. This was a fitting Remembrance Day tribute enjoyed by an enthusiastic audience of 250. Maybe, just maybe perhaps, the “Boys” had finally come home.

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On June 28, 1914 shots were fired in Sarajevo, the capital of Serbia, which were to reverberate around the world down to the present time. Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and heir apparent to the Imperial Austrian throne, and his wife, were both shot dead. Grief quickly turned to outrage and the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe. Storms often pass, and many felt that this one would too, just like so many before. However, it was not to be, and after many failed diplomatic efforts, the world was plunged into an unimaginable Armageddon. King George V declared war on Germany on the evening of August 4, 1914. The British Empire, of which Canada was such an integral part, was now automatically at war too. Canada still did not have a say in the matter, although her sacrifice of almost 66,000 dead on the battlefield would change all this, but that was still in the future. 

The Toronto Star of Wednesday, August 5, 1914 reported that the Duke of Connaught (a son of Queen Victoria and Canada’s Governor General) had received the following message from Hon. Louis Harcourt, the Colonial Secretary: Please communicate to your Ministers the following message from His Majesty the King:

I desire to express to my people of the overseas Dominions with what appreciation and pride I have received the messages from their respective Governments during the last few days. These spontaneous assurances of their fullest support recalled to me the self sacrificial help given by them in the past to the mother country. I shall be strong in the greatest responsibilities which rest upon me by the confident belief that in the time of trial my Empire will stand united, calm, resolute, trusting in God.

George R. I. 

A Canadian Press Dispatch of the same day added that when Parliament met in special session on August 18, it would, it was understood, be a very short session. The chief business would be to vote $50,000,000 for war purposes.

Thousands of men volunteered for the Canadian Army and a training camp was quickly established at Val Cartier, 25 kilometres north of Quebec City (see photo at the left). There was a real fear that the Canadians would miss the action and that the war would be over by Christmas. On October 3, 1914, only six weeks after their arrival at the camp, over 33,000 men boarded 33 transatlantic liners at Quebec City. The convoy of ships must have looked an impressive sight as they gathered in the St. Lawrence estuary.

The ships were meant to dock at Southampton and the Toronto Star, eager to be first with a story, erroneously reported the safe arrival of Canadian troops and their disembarkation. In fact, to everyone’s surprise, the ships sailed into the harbour at Plymouth, Devon – the fear of a German U-boat attack necessitating a change in plans. On Thursday, October 15, 1914, the Western Evening Herald, a Plymouth newspaper, announced that the first Contingent of Canadian troops had arrived the day before, in a fleet of Transatlantic liners, painted naval grey. The photo below right shows the Franconia arriving in Plymouth.

The coming of the troops was not generally known, but the news quickly spread and there soon assembled crowds at every vantage point to cheer the Colonials as the ships majestically steamed through Plymouth Sound to the Hamoaze, where they moored. The troops seemed in high spirits as they swarmed on the decks and in the rigging. The bands and bagpipers played merrily, and rousing cheers were raised in answer to the waving of hats and sticks ashore.

The Canadian troops travelled by train to Amesbury, just north of Salisbury, and spent several months training on Salisbury Plain. It was one of the wettest winters on record and there was flooding everywhere. The Canadians were not to witness the extraordinary events that led to the Christmas Truce of 1914; however, by February 1915, they were considered battle ready, and sailed across the English Channel to France. It didn’t take long for Canadians to gain a reputation as determined fighters, often in the face of heavy fire. It also didn’t take long for the casualty toll to mount, and slowly, but surely, the devastating news filtered back home.