The Story of the Vimy Oaks

Background story on the
VIMY OAKS

 


Growing a Tribute to the Fallen at Vimy Ridge April 8, 2015  CHCH Hamilton   This is an excellent 2 minute news report with a few photos of Leslie Miller and short interview clips with Monty McDonald.
Leslie Miller
January 24th, 2015  By Murray Whyte Article published in the Toronto Star 
On Vimy Ridge, mighty oaks will grow again — thanks to Leslie Miller; a Canadian soldier of the First World War. No trees were left standing in the aftermath of a bloody battle that defined the Canadian effort in the First World War. Thanks to Canadian soldier Leslie Miller and his passionate friend, that’s about to change.

The brittle oak boughs sent tumbling to the frozen ground by a pair of tree-climbing arborists in Scarborough on Saturday don’t look like much — deadfall, maybe, to the untrained eye.
But, once they’re carefully packed up and shipped to a Hamilton nursery, there’s a reasonable hope that they will serve as a living monument both to the man who brought them here and to the sacrifice made by thousands of Canadians almost a century ago.

It was here, 95 years ago, on a patch of land now unceremoniously hunkered up against an active stretch of Kennedy Rd. north of the 401, that Leslie Miller came home. Miller had fought for the bloody victory won by Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge on April 9,1917, and he’d sent a memento of that experience home to Canada: a handful of acorns culled from an oak left half-buried on the Vimy battlefield by the devastation of that day.
Miller was a fruit farmer, with an expansive orchard back home on that same plot of land on Kennedy Rd. He had a wealth of knowledge about trees, and a plan: Monty McDonald, Miller’s longtime friend, guesses he shipped the acorns home to his family, with a request that they be planted.

What the gesture may have meant at the time, no one could be sure. “He didn’t know if he would survive to see them,” said McDonald, 69, standing in the morning chill. The war was still raging, and would be for another two years. Miller, twice wounded and returned to battle, faced an uncertain future; the trees could well have become his private war memorial.
But when he did make it back, nine saplings were growing, and Miller would tend them the rest of his life.
On an icy Saturday morning, McDonald surveyed the action in the treetops above with no small degree of satisfaction. The oaks, now towering some nine metres high, are the last, best proof Miller’s life, which ended in 1979.

Miller’s farm is now the site of the Chinese Baptist Church, but his old woodlot where the trees were planted has been left undisturbed. Since last year, McDonald has been determined that the legacy of the Vimy oaks would not stay trapped next to a busy suburban throughway.

As branches tumbled to the forest floor, they were gathered and packaged neatly to be transported to Hamilton’s Connon Nurseries, where they’ll be grafted onto saplings of similar European oaks. In a couple of years, the hope is that as many as 300 new saplings, close cousins of Miller’s trees, will be growing strong.
If it works, half of them will be destined for the brand-new education centre at Vimy Ridge, set to open in time for the battle’s centennial in 2017. As part of the $10 million project, the Vimy Foundation wants to see Miller’s trees planted as a memorial forest growing right next to it.  The Vimy Oaks of Scarborough are being harvested in the hopes of taking grafts from some cuttings and returning the offspring to Vimy Ridge, in France.


No oaks survived the battle, and the ridge has been barren ever since. Miller’s trees will change that, serving as a living monument to a defining moment in Canadian history.

“It’s a true repatriation,” said Jeremy Diamond, the foundation’s executive director. “And it’s legacy building. Generations of people from all over will be able to come and see a true piece of Vimy in these trees.”

The education centre is well underway, with $5 million, or roughly half the budget, pledged by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2013. Diamond is raising the remaining $5 million through corporate sponsorship and private donations. With $3 million already raised, he’s certain the centre will open in time for the 2017 centennial.

As for the memorial forest, it’s up to the trees. Over the summer, McDonald and his crew of volunteers built acorn traps to protect the precious seeds from hungry squirrels, but the trees weren’t co-operating. By November, the nine trees had produced only a dozen acorns — a result, maybe, of last year’s brutal ice storm.
Grafting branches to living saplings was the next best option — producing not direct descendants, but close cousins. Either way, it’s a fitting tribute to an old friend who couldn’t have guessed where his impulse to extract a few acorns from the blood-soaked ground that day, 98 years ago, would lead.

For McDonald, it’s also a satisfying end to a personal journey. In the 1950's, on a family drive through what was then peaceful farmland, he passed a sign that said “Vimy Oaks Farm.”  McDonald’s father, a Second World War veteran, couldn’t resist stopping, and from that day on, he and Miller became close friends. McDonald and his brother worked summers on Miller’s farm, learning about trees and nature.

When McDonald was 17, his father died, and Miller stepped in as a surrogate parent. “I always say that my time with Leslie was like a prep course for life,” he said.  “He was the grandfather we never had. And when my father died, he became a real father figure to us. It’s a great tribute to him, after all this time, to see this coming to fruition.”

Monty McDonald was close to Leslie Miller, the Canadian soldier who salvaged a handful of acorns from a dying oak tree in the aftermath of the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. He's at the forefront of an effort to repatriate the trees, now growing in Scarborough, back to Vimy in time for the battle's centennial.
Monty McDonald was close to Leslie Miller, the Canadian soldier who salvaged a handful of acorns from a dying oak tree in the aftermath of the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. He's at the forefront of an effort to repatriate the trees, now growing in Scarborough, back to Vimy in time for the battle's centennial.
Arborists attaching new memories to epic Canadian battle at Vimy
 

The rows of potted oak saplings don't look all that extraordinary in the big white greenhouse in West Flamborough, amid the thousands of other staked plants around the sprawling nursery operation.

But within their emerging leaves lies a botanical connection to one of greatest events of Canadian history — the Battle of Vimy Ridge that began 98 years ago today.

Leslie Miller was a Canadian soldier who managed to survive the bloody First World War victory won by Canadian troops April 9 to 12, 1917. He sent home a souvenir of the experience, a bunch of acorns from a blown-out English oak on the battlefield.

Those acorns were planted in an orchard he ran in Scarborough. And today about 10 trees stand more than nine metres high as a living connection to the epic battle that led to 10,000 Canadian casualties. Miller died in 1979 at the age of 90.

Enter Monty McDonald, 70, a longtime friend.

"I worked on the farm for Leslie Miller back in the 1960s. He would pay me a buck a day. He was like a grandfather to me," McDonald says.

McDonald visited Vimy Ridge with his wife in 2004 and was struck that "there were no oak trees there. They had been destroyed in the battle. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be a good idea to repatriate the children of these trees that are in Canada for the 100th anniversary to connect the past between the two countries?"

But the problem was the old oaks produce very few acorns to be used as seeds. So a more ambitious way of growing offspring trees had to be used. In January, arborists went to the farm — which is currently owned by a Chinese Baptist Church — to collect hundreds of branches from the tips of the trees.

They brought them back to Connan Nurseries Head Office to be grafted to saplings of English oaks from B.C.

Andrew Barbour, "head propagator" at the nursery says that while the lineage gets blurred by mixing the Vimy oaks with the B.C. oaks, he argued it adds a further Canadian connection to the trees.

McDonald was on hand Wednesday in Flamborough for a media event to show the progress of the saplings that were grafted in February. They are currently about 25 centimetres high.

By the time they are ready to be transported in 2017 — likely by a Canadian military Hercules plane — they will be about 100 cms in height. They plan to ship about 150 young trees with the goal to plant about 120 trees.

Nursery officials say great care will have to be taken because plants don't respond well to the air pressure changes that occur during flying.

Asked what he thinks Miller would think about the offspring of his oaks returning to Vimy, McDonald said: "I think he would be thrilled. He loved that farm and the trees. He called it Vimy Oaks Farm."

"He loved it so much he had his ashes spread there."


For more information on the Vimy Oak Project. 

  • To learn more about Leslie Miller, the young Canadian soldier who picked up (the Vimy Oak) acorns on the battlefield of Vimy Ridge in 1917, you may be interested to see his WW1 attestation papers. Library and Archives Canada is digitizing all records of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  If someone in your family served,  these records are priceless.
  • The folks responsible for the Vimy Oak project shared this biography of Lt. Leslie Miller, his life and how the project came to be and lives on today.
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