A class of Halifax university students is about to make history, marking Remembrance Day at a group of little-known graves for Canadian soldiers in the West African country of The Gambia.
But it’s how the class of Saint Mary’s University (SMU) students discovered the information that makes their trip even more remarkable.
Catherine Conrad, a professor of geography at SMU, says that for the past decade she has taken a class to The Gambia every other year to have them learn about the Gambian culture and gain a better understanding of West African culture.
This year, she realized that the group would be there on Nov. 11 and contacted people in The Gambia to ask whether there were any Remembrance Day ceremonies they could attend.
The Gambia, which is part of the British Commonwealth and marks Remembrance Day, told Conrad about a ceremony for Gambian war veterans at the Fajara War Cemetery in the city of Banjul — and that Canadian soldiers are also buried there.
“I know the exact war cemetery they were talking about because I’ve driven past it a thousand times,” Conrad told Global News.
“I was really taken aback and to be honest I thought they were just saying that to intrigue me … I really did not believe it.”
Conrad says once she shared the revelation, the response from the class took on a life of its own. In a few hours, one of the students emailed her about the Canadians who were buried there.
“I was blown away. I shared that with the whole class and over the course of the weekend, half a dozen in the class, including myself, were digging into archives trying to figure out why on earth Canadians would be there,” she said.
So far Conrad and her class have been able to confirm that 10 servicemen were in the region with the Royal Canadian Air Force and died during the Second World War.
The men served there as part of an effort to supply troops in Northern Africa as well as combat German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean.
One of the dead hails from Nova Scotia.
Warrant Officer Basil Ralph Yorke was born in Wharton, N.S., and died on Nov. 3, 1942, as the result of an accident involving an airplane propeller.
A document discovered by Catherine Conrad’s students that shows how Basil Yorke had requested to marry his fiancee Marth Gordon in 1940.
A letter notifying the wife of Basil Yorke about his death.
An official Royal Canadian Air Force casualty notification.
Documents discovered by Conrad’s class chart Yorke’s life in the military up until his death.
Other buried in the Fajara War Cemetery include Warrant Officer Claude Blamey, Pilot Officer Joseph Lawless, Flight Sgt. Charles Crombie, Warrant Officer Samuel McCammon, Warrant Officer Kenneth Marshall, Pilot Officer Theodore Moore, Flight Sgt. Joseph Rozon, Warrant Officer Samuel Santy and Warrant Officer Joseph Shulman.
As a result of their research, the class will bring Canadian poppies and several wreaths provided by Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Legion with them on their trip.
On Nov. 11 they’ll take part in the Remembrance Day ceremony and lay the objects on the hallowed ground that marks the graves of the 10 Canadians — an act that Conrad says her research indicates has not been carried out by Canadian citizens in some time.
“It’s a piece of our history that had possibly been lost or at least not very well known until now,” said Conrad.
“The more we look into it, it’s like pulling a thread from a sweater and we keep unravelling it to find out more.”
The class leaves on Nov. 8 and is set to return to Canada on Nov. 20.
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