The students learned about what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and serve in the Second World War and veteran Hugh Rayment learned what life is like for young people today and got some tips on how to use his iPhone.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for some time now,” said Rayment, a veteran and author of several books who likes to share his part of Canada’s history with youth, speaking to the students in Brittany McMillan’s Grade 6/7 class at Coldstream elementary school.
McMillan and her husband, Paul McMillan, a Bosnia and Afghanistan veteran, met Rayment at a Remembrance Day service and knew she wanted him to speak to her students.
“I was in Grade 7 the year the war started and I never dreamed I would get a chance to take part,” said Rayment, 91, who grew up on a farm near Viking, Alta. “In 1943, I was old enough to join the army. In 1944, I went to France, where I could see all the buildings were in shambles and all the power poles and wires were down, branches were off the trees and everything was piles of rubbish. We would dig holes in the night because we were in range of enemy guns. It was a change from what I had been doing at home, a full man’s work on the farm from 13. I hope there’s not one of you who ever has to go to war. We live in a peaceful country and it’s up to you to keep it that way.”
He went on to tell them how he had taken his university training to become a teacher after the war when he was married to Elsie and had six children, and how much he enjoyed teaching.
The class had prepared for Rayment’s visit by reading his books, including his history of Camp Vernon, an army training camp, and had their questions ready.
One of the first questions was what the people fighting in the war did for Christmas and birthdays.
“We did whatever little celebration we could do for Christmas and we’d say, ‘Happy birthday’ if we knew it was someone’s birthday. There is a story about the First World War when everyone stopped shooting — they were not far apart — and the Canadians and the Germans sang a Christmas carol together and exchanged small gifts like chocolate and cigarettes and then went back to their trenches,” Rayment told them.
He went on to tell them about day-to-day life in battle.
“When we got to Holland, the dikes had been bombed and everything was flooded with sea water. Our only protection as infantry soldiers was to dig a hole in the ground so it was harder to see us. The hole would fill up with water. We were so exhausted that we would sleep standing up chest-deep in cold water. Some mornings there was a little skim of ice on the water,” he said.
“When I close my eyes, I can still see the devastation around us, the dead soldiers from both sides and the dead horses and cows. War literally stinks. TV can’t give you the smell of war or the real fear or what it does to you. I once went six weeks without taking my boots off and when I did take them off, the skin on my feet came off with them.”
Rayment was asked if he was wounded in the war.
“I came through without a scratch. Bullet holes on both sides of my tunic where bullets missed me and a bullet dent in my helmet, but every soldier in war suffers a degree of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. War is dreadful. I pray every day that you young people will never have to experience war.”
He reminded the students that there are now children their ages and younger who are experiencing war as innocent civilians, and asked them to be considerate and welcoming to any refugees that might come to the area and help them get used to the new way of life, because young people can do a lot to help other young people.
There was a question about Germany’s allies and Rayment explained about the Italian involvement in the war.
The students were interested in his medals and he explained what each meant. Then they asked about the guns he had used.
“I was already a pretty good shot with a rifle from living on the farm. We learned how to use Brenn guns, small machine guns, and pistols. Most of us didn’t want to have anything to do with guns after the war. We just wanted to live a peaceful life.”
Rayment reminded the class that an important part of life in a peaceful country is mutual respect.
“You should respect your parents, family, friends, classmates, teachers and elders. Remember that while your teachers are teaching you, you are also teaching them.”
The students were thoughtful about what Rayment had told them.
“I would remember the part about how he had to sleep in a freezing ditch. You get a lot more information from someone who has actually been over there themselves,” said Levi Koroll.
McMillan was pleased to have Rayment visit the class.
“I waned him to share his story,” she said. “We studied veterans for a Remembrance Day project. This a wonderful opportunity for them to meet someone like him in the community who has so much life experience and knowledge to share.
“They are learning about local history as well and are getting interested to find out if there are any veterans in their families. And we learned that we should show our gratitude to veterans all year long.”