NEWS
04/02/2017 15:30 EDT | Updated 04/03/2018 01:12 EDT

'It helps us remember our roots': Edmonton cadets head to Vimy memorial for centenary of historic battle

For Edmonton cadets headed to France for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, it's hard to fathom the fact that they're the same age as many of the soldiers who lost their lives.

"The conditions were awful: trench foot, the gas, the machine gun fire, the artillery fire," said Warrant Officer Connor Haakenson, 18. 

"It's just a remarkable sacrifice they made and it's just absolutely incredible to be able to be over there representing what they did."

Nearly 50 members of the 504 Blatchford Field Squadron departed from the Edmonton International Airport Saturday.

They'll be among the thousands of Canadian students at the base of the National Vimy Memorial near Pas-de-Calais, France on April 9 to take part in a ceremony on the centenary of the day the Canadian troops took the ridge. 

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The significance of the victory is not lost on the cadets, who have read up on their country's military history. 

The battle marked the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian military fought together. 

"That had a huge effect on the morale, and the overall ability, that we were able to accomplish such a tremendous goal of taking Vimy Ridge," Haakenson said. 

The British and French soldiers had tried in vain for two years to take the ridge from the Germans, losing nearly 140,000 troops in the process. Nonetheless, those still fighting looked down on the Canadian soldiers, recruited from vocations such as farming and fishing, when they arrived to help in December of 1916. 

The Canadians spent three months preparing to fight. On the battlefield, they suffered 10,000 casualties before seizing the stronghold from German troops. 

'This is the history of Canada'

Haakenson expects than emotional ceremony at base of the massive monument.

"You know when you're somewhere and you can just feel like the presence of it sink in? I really think that's what's going to happen when we're in Vimy, it's just going to all hit like a swell," Haakenson said. 

Joseph Liam, 17, and Andy Ton, 18, anticipate a humbling experience. 

"In recognizing this historic moment, it helps us remember our roots and why we have freedom and why we should cherish it," Liam said. 

'In recognizing this historic moment, it helps us remember our roots and why we have freedom and why we should cherish it.'- Joseph Liam, cadet

Tabitha Zee, 16, expects to be overwhelmed once she sees the names of tens of thousands of Canadians on the monument. 

She said taking in the ceremony alongside her fellow cadets is important. 

"Being around other people who are interested in what you're interested in, everybody gets what they want out of it," Zee said. 

Zee comes from a long line of cadets, a legacy that has shaped her appreciation for the country's military history. 

"It's just so amazing to see what they got to see. It will be like going back in history," she said. 

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"This is the history of Canada. This is what makes Canada Canada," Zee said.

"It's very important to know the history of your own country." 

The cadets will return to Edmonton on April 11. 

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell