High school students build World War I trenches

Christina Succi, CTV Ottawa

A group of high schools students are commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I with authentic replica trenches. 

The Grade 10 classes at St. Michael's Catholic High School have been working on the project since September. The annual project sees about 60 students learn about the First World War and how soldiers lived in the trenches.

"One day I looked outside and saw shovels and said 'let's go build our own trenches'," said history teacher Fred Bortolussi, who first conceptualized the idea in 2013.

Five years later, the project continues and expands each year. In 2017, the students added a tunnel to represent the tunnels soldiers used in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

"This is more than just history," said Bortolussi. "This is the partaking in it, they research it, they understand it, and they feel it."

Alumni Amanda Casey, who is now an officer cadet with the Canadian Armed Forces, says this is more than just a history project.

"My entire family, this is our entire lives," said Casey. "My great-great-great grandfather fought in World War One, I'm a fifth generation."

Casey worked on the project throughout her four years of high school.

"It was all by hand." said Casey. "You didn't have an excavator, you didn't have power tools, we dug these with shovels."

No detail was overlooked. The trenches, which required about 4000 sandbags, were built to size. Similar to the soldiers in the First World War, students built the trenches with whatever materials they could find, including cedar logs and scraps of metal.

Bortolussi says it's imperative that everything is as realistic as it can be.

"One of the problems with not having conflict for a long time is people forget," said Bortolussi. "It's important we give them something other than a picture or writing in a textbook, so they remember what our veterans went through."

Ron Andersen is a retired war officer and member of the Royal Canadian Legion in Kemptville. He calls the trenches impressive.

"It's a phenomenal act of remembrance," said Andersen. "The fact that we're not being forgotten, that the veterans of the First World War 100 years past are being remembered in this manner is a very touching feeling."

The spectacular sight is available for the public to view Sunday, Nov. 11 at the high school.