King’s university students step out of classroom, onto battlefields of Europe

‘The war was a very small part of their story. They also had their careers and their lives.’

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A London civil engineer died at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War, his body never recovered.

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Another man spent his entire life in Southwestern Ontario, except for his time fighting in the Italian campaign during the Second World War.

Those two soldiers, separated in battle by decades, now share a connection through a King’s University College history class: Students at the Western University affiliate in London are profiling soldiers in each world war through an experiential program that includes travelling to Europe to present their research findings.

“Each student got to choose, on their own, a soldier of their choice and we’re going to learn about their service while overseas,” said King’s professor Katrina Pasierbek, who will be joining the students on the trip.

The class of 16 students left Saturday to tour Belgium and France cemeteries and battlefields including Vimy Ridge, Dieppe and Juno Beach. They also will mark the 77th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE Day) on May 8 and present their work at historical sites where their research subjects fought or died.

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Fourth-year history student Iliana Napoles, 21, chose to research Maj. William Norman Ashplant, a World War One soldier who was a civil engineer in London before losing his life at the age of 39 at the Somme in 1916. He is commemorated on the Vimy Ridge Memorial in France.

“Getting to know that soldier personally gave me a whole new perspective of the world wars,” Napoles said.

Part of her research involved studying the letters he sent to his brother here in London. It was his connection to London “that attracted me to his story,” she said.

“Sometimes, we tend to forget that those soldiers . . . that’s not their entire story. (The war is) a very small part of their story,” she said. “They also had their careers and their lives.”

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Third-year history student Tyler Wilson, 26, used the opportunity to learn more about his grandfather, Pte. Norman W. Wilson, who died when Tyler was 10. Wilson, who said his grandfather talked little about the war, was able to piece together his grandfather’s war story through his memoirs, which were corroborated with recorded history.

“I was able to plot it, where he was, on what certain day, where he enlisted and where he ended up,” Wilson said.

For example, in his memoirs, his grandfather wrote about “how the sky was darkened one day” due to an Italian mountain erupting. “The last time Mount Vesuvius erupted was when the allies were in Italy,” he said.

Overseas, they will see their research displayed in an exhibit, called From Dieppe to Juno: Exceptional Destinies, which opened in March and will run until 2023.

Pasierbek is the co-designer of a King’s experiential history course called The World Wars in History, Memory and Reconciliation. It began in 2020. She says she “takes students out of the traditional classroom to engage” with history. The overseas treks are resuming after a two-year COVID interruption.

Also joining the tour is King’s University College President David Malloy, whose father flew with the 402 Squadron at Dieppe during the Second World War.

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