SFU bagpipe player Kevin McLean played across Northern France early this month, on a week long trip honoring several Canadian battles and our fallen soldiers. The expedition had McLean performing on former First and Second World War battlefields and memorable locations, including Juno Beach, to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, better known as D-Day.
The trip proved to be an especially personal one for McLean, as the communication student also visited the grave of his great uncle William McLean, who died in the Hundred Day Offensive in 1918.
The tour, titled Vimy: Leadership Under Fire, is an annual week-long pilgrimage produced by the Canadian organizations True Patriot Love, the Vimy Foundation, and the Young Presidents’ Organization. This year marked the third annual event, taking Canadian business leaders across famous First and Second World War battle sites and cemeteries to preserve interest in the historical sacrifices of canadian military families.
McLean plays for SFU’s internationally recognized pipe band, which is currently raising funds for its annual trip to Glasgow in August to compete in the two-day World Pipe Band Championships. The SFU Pipe Band has won the event six times in the past. The band members are trying to raise $10,000 of the $100,000 cost, which is usually almost entirely funded by the members of the band.
McLean, who has been a piper since the age of 13, described the experience of playing at the battlefields, graves, memorials, museums, and beaches in Northern France as “incredible.” For him, seeing both his uncle’s grave and experiencing these other locations was a reminder of the personal story that each soldier or grave holds.
“Knowing that each soldier buried has a family and an unique story like my great uncle’s really struck home,” he said. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed and awed by the size and numbers of the graveyards, but when you realize that each grave represents a young Canadian soldier that left their families, friends, careers, and lives behind to fight for our country, it’s very emotional and it makes you feel very proud to be Canadian.”
McLean, who was the sole piper on the trip, was accompanied during the trip by two men whom he refers to as “two of the most proud and inspirational Canadians alive:” Pierre Gauthier, a former soldier who fought at Juno Beach at age 19, and General Rick Hillier, the Chief of the Defense Staff of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2008. “It was an honour to play the bagpipes for these people and listen to their stories and absorb their pride in being Canadian,” McLean says.
The most memorable experience of the trip for McLean was giving a performance of four songs and short presentation at the grave of piper James Cleland Richardson, a Vancouver soldier who was killed in the First World War. Originally from Scotland, Richardson was a piper in the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, and travelled overseas as part of a large Seaforth contingent.
Richardson was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross — the most prestigious award for gallantry that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces — after allegedly rallying fellow soldiers with his music during a battle in Somme, France, in 1916. Richardson died attempting to retrieve his bagpipes that he had left behind enemy lines; he was 20 years-old at the time.
For McLean’s involvement, General Hiller awarded him the Commander’s Medal, an honour reserved by the retired Chief for moments by which he is personally inspired. “It was an incredible honour to be awarded this,” McLean said.