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THE VIMY FLUTE PROJECT 1917-2017

The Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9 - 12, 1917), was the initial offensive of the Battle of Arras. The objective was to draw enemy (German) reserves away from the Western Front. The battle marked the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together. Their success in taking the ridge despite large sacrifice (almost 11 000 casualties), marks a significant moment in the identity of Canada as a nation. 

The Battle of Vimy Ridge
Lieutenant Leslie H. Miller

Leslie Miller, linguist, teacher and farmer grew up on his family farm in Scarborough, Ontario. Soon after his enlistment in 1914 he joined the Signal Corps and was transferred overseas. He arrived in France almost a year later where he worked in communications. Despite the horrors of the battles in which he was engaged, he never forgot his farming background. Following the Battle of Vimy Ridge he gathered acorns from a fallen oak tree (a result of a brutal artillery barrage), shipped them home with a request that his father plant them...which he did. 

Returning to Canada he was unable, due to health reasons, to pursue a career in teaching. His father gave him 24 acres of the family farm. Miller transplanted the trees his father had planted for him to this site where they still stand today, a living legacy of not only the battle and Leslie Miller but of a small piece of land that was decimated by battle so many years ago. For more on the story of the Vimy Oaks click here.

Lieutenant Leslie H. Miller
The Vimy Flutes Project

Early in the fall of 2106 my friend Ryan Mullens approached me to build a flute for him that he could use while attending the Vimy 100 ceremony. In addition he had plans to use it to play in honour of fallen soldiers of both WWI and WWII while visiting cemeteries and battlegrounds in France, Belgium and Holland. Initially we discussed using maple for the body of the flute...what could be more iconic and representative of this Canadian experience than that? A few days later Ryan called and asked me to look into a story he had become aware of, a story about a soldier, some acorns gathered from the ruins of a major WWI battlefield and a woodlot. This was the beginning of the Vimy Oaks Flute Project.

 

The Vimy Oaks are the descendants of those tree decimated during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Today, they grow in a small woodlot in Scarborough-Agincourt. Local volunteers along with support of The Vimy Foundation are caretakers of the woodlot and its history. 

The same day Ryan called me I made contact Monty Macdonald who leads a group of volunteers working to repatriate the progeny of these trees back to Vimy Ridge. When I explained to him what Ryan and I were planning and my request to gather some branches from the oaks he invited me to join him for a visit and walk through the woodlot. So, on a late October afternoon I found myself searching for acorns and branches and listening to Monty tell stories of his mentor Leslie Miller and of the challenges of repatriating these trees back to France. His passion was overwhelming and as soon as I left him (with 3 branches in hand, I called Ryan to thank him for bringing the Vimy Oaks to my attention...the story was already beginning to take shape!

The Vimy Flutes Project
Making the Flutes

With three viable branches (they were all dead when taken from the trees and/or picked from the ground), work began. Given that these were branch flutes, all work had to be done by hand. At first progress seemed slow however as the weeks passed I was able to see steady progress. In the end, three beautiful flutes...one v-branch drone flute and two single flutes. With Ryan's school commitments looming and travel arrangements on the horizon I shipped the final products out to Calgary in early March with hope that they would arrive safely. A few days later Ryan had the parcel and was on television unwrapping and playing them in the Military Museums of Calgary.

Involvement in this project once again brought into focus my belief that the materials I use in crafting these instruments have stories to tell and that it is my job as a maker, to honour the stories and to draw them out so that the player(s) might connect on a deeper plane with the instrument, its sound and the music it brings. It has been one of the most amazing experiences of my flute making journey so far!

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