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Joseph MacIsaac

When he first arrived in France for his summer position at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, Joseph MacIsaac knew almost nothing about his relative who was killed in the Battle of the Somme. Four months later, he returned home with a newfound appreciation for the sacrifices of brave soldiers like his great-great-uncle.

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Joseph MacIsaac

In 2019, while Joseph MacIsaac was browsing the Government of Canada website in search of a summer job, one posting in particular caught his attention. There it was, in big bold letters: Go work in France for the summer. Immediately, he thought this job ticked all the boxes: as a student guide at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial he could use his French language skills, live in Europe, and learn more about his relative who had served in the First World War.

Every year, post-secondary students are chosen to work as guides at the Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy Memorials in northern France. There, youth like MacIsaac welcome visitors from around the world. They teach them about the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and the tens of thousands of our soldiers who lost their lives on the Western front during the First World War.

He was one of the lucky students selected to work at Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy that year. On his first day, he realized just how fortunate he and his fellow guides were. During their first week on-site, historians equipped them with the information they needed to interact with visitors. “When the guides arrive at Beaumont-Hamel, they get a really in-depth tour of the site, and all the other sites around the area that the average person would never have access to.” This helped him build up his confidence, since he admits that history “was not his area of expertise” given his background in science.

All that I knew going into the position was that I had a relative who was part of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Working at Beaumont-Hamel also allowed MacIsaac to discover more about his personal connection to the First World War and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. “All that I knew going into the position was that I had a relative who was part of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and my father thought that maybe he was buried in or around Beaumont-Hamel.”

Thanks to resources available on-site, he soon discovered the man who had died over 100 years ago was actually his great-great-uncle, Joseph Leudy. Since his body was never recovered, Leudy’s name was inscribed on the Caribou monument at the heart of the memorial. The monument is the final resting place for 820 soldiers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the Royal Newfoundland Reserve and Merchant Mariners whose gravesites remain unknown.

Given the sacrifices they made, even though it was over 100 years ago, it’s something I think that is still really felt today because of the whole outcome of the war.

From there on out, MacIsaac included his personal connection to the memorial at the end of every tour. He believes that all Canadians can find a special connection to the site, even those without relatives who fought during the First World War. “Just knowing that these were people coming from Canada who were fighting for the freedom of our own and other countries. Given the sacrifices they made, even though it was over 100 years ago, it’s something I think that is still really felt today because of the whole outcome of the war.”

Leaving France after four months was bittersweet: “Up to this date, it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had, let alone as a job. It really cultivated an appreciation in me for the sacrifices that these people would have made (…) and we, as young Canadians, should learn about these sorts of things.”

Joseph MacIsaac completed his Bachelor of Science degree in 2020 and is currently finishing his first year of medical school. He is confident the skillset he acquired as a guide will help him better share medical information with his patients in the future.

In honour of the 105th anniversary of the Battles of the Somme and Beaumont-Hamel, we’re sharing the stories of Canadians who have a personal connection. Joseph MacIsaac is one of them. Discover more stories.

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