LSS Grade 9 student Josh Franklin tries on the uniform of a WW1 Canadian soldier with the assistance of Mark Ivins of the Canadian Military Education Centre; below: Jezmin Desprez, tries on a claustrophobic rubber gas mask and helmet.

Hands-on history at LSS – with video

With the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, on the horizon, students encounter Canada’s military past

Langley Secondary School Grade 9 student Josh Franklin fits — barely — into an authentic First World War Canadian soldier’s uniform.

“Suck it in, soldier,” says Mark Ivins, a volunteer with the Canadian Military Education Centre (CMEC), as he closes the metal buttons of the heavy fabric jacket.

Ivins says the teenage Franklin is about the size of an average Canadian adult male back then.

Another Grade 9 student, Jezmin Desprez, tries on a claustrophobic rubber gas mask and helmet.

“They can kind of pick (exhibits) up and see what it’s about. (That) our forefathers, back then, wore this stuff and served and did these things,” says Ivins.

Later on, Ivins puts on the full uniform of a First World War soldier, complete with the “ammo boots” and soft trench cap that a soldier would wear when they didn’t need a metal helmet.

He wears a standard issue undershirt of grey wool that served soldiers from 1860 through the First World War, pointing out the metal buttons and a small strip of white cloth used to stencil or sew in a soldier’s name or regimental number

The pants have no belt loops, and are held up by heavy-duty white suspenders.

“It’s one thing to read about it in a book or see pictures,” Ivins says.

But when you’re here and the stuff is right in front of you, some of the authentic stuff that they used in the First or Second World War, you get more of an appreciation for it, I guess. That it actually was real life.”

During the day-long event, the students who crowd into the library at LSS have an opportunity to see and touch and even try on clothing and equipment from both World Wars, taking a close look at everything from ammunition, to military-issued shaving kits, cigarettes and foot powder.

At his display table, another CMEC volunteer, Dean Fraser, is exhibiting a German political prisoner’s jacket bearing a red star of David.

“The triangle facing upwards means he is a P.O.W., a prisoner of war,” Fraser explains.

“The triangle facing downwards means that he is a political prisoner.”

People with that emblem would have been used in work camp details, making ammunition.

“He would have been building rockets and doing all kinds of street work. Should he have tried to escape, he would have been shot on the spot or sent to the death camps.”

The jacket is next to a pair of wooden shoes made to be worn by female prisoners from the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women.

“It’s stuff you don’t see every day,” Fraser says.

The memorabilia is from his own private collection, and it is only the second time it has left his home.

The CMEC is a nonprofit association of collectors, restorers, re-enactors and military exhibitors that used to operate a museum at a temporary location on the grounds of the old CFB Chilliwack until it was evicted in 2015 for the Canada Border Services Agency’s (CBSA) training program.

Its website,, remains active.

While the centre looks for a permanent home, members are taking their memorabilia on the road.

When LSS teacher Ursula Neuscheler saw Ivins and Fraser doing a display and demonstration at Willowbrook Shopping Centre, she saw an opportunity for students to see history “live, up close and personal.”

The Jan. 18 event marks the second year Neuscheler has arranged to bring “hands-on” history into a classroom.

Last year, students at R.E. Mountain Secondary met Harry Hardy, a 93-year-old former fighter pilot who flew a Typhoon, a British-built fighter-bomber that made low-altitude attacks on German ground forces.

“They (students) engage with history a lot better, when they can actually see it, hear it, feel it,” Neuscheler says.

“If they have an opportunity to actually ask questions and see it first-hand.

“Long term, I hope to do more of this.”

This year’s presentation coincides with the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which marked the first time during the First World War that Canadian divisions fought under Canadian command.

More than 15,000 Canadian infantry stormed the ridge on the morning of April 9, 1917.

It was a costly victory, with 3,598 Canadians were killed and another 7,004 wounded.

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