Vigil shines a light on those who made the ultimate sacrifice

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high

In 1915, the horror on the battlefields near Ypres in Belgium moved Canadian Lt.-Col. John McCrae to write In Flanders Fields, one of the First World War’s most famous poems.

Nearly 50 years later, in the early 1960s, another Canadian, 16-year-old R.H. Thomson trudged across those same battlefields with his classmates, failing to find inspiration of his own.

“It didn’t mean anything to me. I was very cynical,” the actor said.

The pompous sounding veteran leading the tour, Thomson said, proved unpopular with the teenaged group and when he led them to a small chapel just west of Ypres for a vigil, he did nothing to lift the weary mood.

“There was a ritual with a sword and we knelt for about 20 minutes,” Thomson said. “It all seemed a bit strange.”

Maturity and experience have taught Thomson the veteran’s motives and he hopes his own Vigil: 1914-1918 goes some way to make amends for his cynicism.

“He was trying to say to us: ‘Witness,’ but I wasn’t hearing it. It’s taken a while, but now I’ve done it,” Thomson said.

Thomson, with his co-creator, Martin Conboy, has devised a light show honouring all 68,000 of Canada’s soldiers to die in the First World War. Over seven nights, from Nov. 4, each name appeared for about eight seconds, projected onto buildings in London, England, and in six cities across Canada.

The final names appeared at dawn on Remembrance Day, Nov. 11. Thomson attended the launch in Trafalgar Square in London alongside the Queen.

“She accepted the invitation within 24 hours, which is highly unusual,” Thomson said. “I think her generation understands those numbers. Most others don’t.”

In this way, Thomson wants to bring Canada’s dead home figuratively, to help those younger generations remember before the First World War slips from the collective memory.

“They’re all buried over there. There was a law passed that no bodies could be brought home,” he said. “(The vigil) starts in the continent where they died. Then the name moves across the time zones. It’s a final march home and across Canada.”

In his hometown, Toronto, Thomson turned to Councillors Adam Vaughan and Kyle Rae for help. Their response mirrored the answers he got across the country.

“They told me they loved it, but said they had no money,” Thomson said. “But the moment they say they want to do it, that’s half the work. I told them I’d go out and find the money.”

Vaughan spoke at the launch of the Toronto vigil on Nov. 4.

“(Thomson) has pulled together an act of remembrance that does us all proud,” he said. “Those of us who stayed behind have a duty to remember those who served.”

Mayor David Miller also embraced the project, which sees the names projected onto the east tower of Toronto’s city hall.

“It’s an honour for this city to be involved,” he said. “I hope all Torontonians can take a moment in their too-busy lives to spare a thought.”

The experience has been an exhausting one for Thomson. Travelling to each vigil and raising money for the venture has removed him from his professional comfort zone.

“I’m an actor. I don’t want to go out chasing money,” he said.

But personal stories convinced Thomson that his project has struck a chord with Canadians.

“People come up to me and tell me they would never have looked into their family history if it wasn’t for this,” he said. “There’s an emotional undercurrent that motivates you. We’re helping people connect to the past, to their country, to their own history.”

The 18 months of work culminate for Thomson on Nov. 10 when he spends the final night of the vigil at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

“I’ll try to get through the full 13 hours,” he said. “And then I’ll sleep for a day.”