CKathy Yanchus, BURLINGTON POST
March 30, 2012
It will be a candlelight vigil like few others.
Just after the sun sets on Monday, April 9, Woodland Cemetery will be aglow in a sea of flickering red light. A bagpiper’s sorrowful lament will drift through the night air.
Standing guard will be a small group of bikers in black leather jackets, their Harleys silent and faces sombre, as they pay tribute to the military men buried in the upper portion of the Spring Garden Road cemetery.
The event is being held to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and is being co-sponsored by the North Wall Riders Association Steel City chapter and Veterans Affairs Canada. And it is open to everyone.
It will be a repeat of a beautifully-moving candlelight vigil held last Christmas Eve in the cemetery’s lower portion.
Beginning at 6:30 p.m., selected volunteers will begin to light 800 candles, each encased in a windproof red plastic cylinder with gold tops. As they move from grave to grave, each volunteer will face the headstone, read the soldier’s name aloud, then place the candle on the headstone.
“We do this so that each one of the soldiers’ names is recognized out loud,” explained Keven Ellis, the North Wall Rider responsible for the original vigil. “For a lot of these guys who are buried in these graveyards, it may be the only visit they get. A lot of the families have passed on themselves, a lot of these families have moved away so it’s the one time of the year that every one of those soldiers in that graveyard will be remembered.”
When the sun drops, to see hundreds of lit candles spread across the cemetery, is moving and a sight you can’t envision until you see it, said Ellis.
When organizing the Christmas Eve vigil, Ellis had people say it would flop because everyone would be at home with their families.
“We had over 100 people come out. We only had 300 candles Christmas Eve; we’re going to have 800 this time.”
Bikers and veterans may seem like an odd mix but the story behind the match is logical and heartwarming.
North Wall Riders Association Steel City is a branch of the original Windsor group, formed to promote and support the military and veterans.
“Our primary goal is supporting military, but our group is founded on the recognition of the Canadians who served during Vietnam,” said Ellis. “But effectively our focus really is on supporting veterans and the military.”
Ellis never served, but enough of his family members did that he was keenly aware of their sacrifices and he was searching for a military support group whose sole purpose was to remember soldiers.
“My entire family served, I never did, like right back to my great grandfather during the First World War. My father served, my uncles served, my grandfather served, they all served. I never did, but I’ve always been a big believer in those that stand up for our country.”
Ellis always books off Nov. 11 and hasn’t missed a Remembrance Day service at the Gore Park cenotaph since he was 16. He has attended every repatriation ceremony for Canadian casualties of the war in Afghanistan.
“So that when soldier is coming home on the Highway of Heroes I’m at the coroner’s office in Toronto with my guys. We stand honour guard there to let the families know that the average Canadian cares that their loved one just gave their life for this country.”
The freedom the Riders enjoy from the back of their bikes, is not lost on its members, plus the attention they garner when they ride up to an event is a big advantage in promoting their cause, said Ellis.
“Basically, a love of both is what it boils down to. I love to ride and love to have a reason to ride and the motorcycles give us that venue, they tend to attract a lot of attention so when we’re having a function and the bikes roll up, people notice them.”
His bike is a tribute to the military, including the Dieppe plate which recognizes his cousin killed in France during the Second World War.
The Hamilton chapter runs functions all summer long including fund-raising poker runs, the first one netting proceeds of $2,000 for Soldier On, which provides prosthetic limbs and programs for injured soldiers, and $2,200 for London’s Peacekeepers Park’s Broken Wing program, which helps soldiers dealing with post traumatic stress disorder.
The North Wall Riders are also called upon by Hamilton legions to serve dinner to the members during celebratory functions.
“We love doing it.”
Every fall, members travel to the veteran’s hospital in London, ON, (Parkwood) to wheel vets down from their rooms to celebrate Oktoberfest.
North Wall Riders are between the ages of 30-68, with an 80-year-old honorary member who served with Ellis’ cousin. Some are veterans, others prison guards, ex-OPP and Ellis is a production manager
“We’re all over the map. Effectively we’re a family organization We’re an association which effectively means we’re just a group of people who ride motorcycles. It’s all about family, it’s all about community, it’s all about supporting those who support us.”
The vigils were spawned when Ellis saw a YouTube video of children in Holland placing candles on the graves of Canadian soldiers on Christmas Eve.
“I was very moved by it and I thought this is something that needs to come to Canada.”
After the success of the Christmas Eve candlelight vigil, he was honoured when Veterans Affairs approached him to join them in commemorating the Vimy anniversary.
“For me it was quite an honour to have them contact me and say based on the success of the one at Christmas we’d like you to do one with us.”
“I think everybody has to believe in something and I believe in our country and I believe in the people who serve this country.”
Five years ago, Bob Thomas and his wife, Valerie, had the privilege to travel to Vimy Ridge.
On Easter Monday evening, he took another moment to think about the thousands of soldiers who died in the historic First World War battle.
“Vimy’s an important date for Canada. It really was the beginning of our independence as a country,” the 69-year-old member of the Canadian Army Veteran Motorcycle Unit said as he stood facing the graves of soldiers in Woodland Cemetery.
The Waterdown resident, who served 11 years in the military, joined about 200 others to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge.
Participants placed more than 800 candles on soldiers’ graves and read the names of the dead aloud.
The vigil was organized by the North Wall Riders Association Steel City Chapter and sponsored by Veterans Affairs Canada.
Woodland’s upper military grave site is a resting place for soldiers from the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War.
Thomas placed a candle on his uncle’s headstone during Monday’s vigil. Frank Goddard, his mother’s brother, fought during D-Day and was wounded three times during the war— the final time in Holland when he took a machine-gun round through his arm and chest.
The battle of Vimy Ridge began in the early morning of April 9, 1917, and brought together all four divisions of the Canadian Corps. About 150,000 French soldiers had already died fighting to take back the ridge. On April 12, Canadian soldiers took control of the ridge at the expense of about 3,600 lives.
“The four divisions of the Canadian Corps captured much more than a hill that day. Their remarkable victory helped create a new and stronger sense of Canadian identity here at home,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement.
There wasn’t a greater battle to win in Canadian history, the North Wall Riders’ local president Keven Ellis said. “When we were able to take that hill when no one else could do it, it really made a statement that Canada was a country … (We want) to make sure that those who made that crazy sacrifice … are not forgotten.”