Mike Armstrong: How I walked in my great-grandfather’s footsteps this Remembrance Day

What a difference a century makes…

When my great-grandfather was a signaller with Canada’s 87th Battalion in 1918, they scratched and clawed for every inch of ground.

Fast forward to 2018.

After we wrapped up our coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War, I had a little downtime and went for a drive on a Monday morning. I had breakfast in Belgium, lunch in the Netherlands, and was in Germany for dinner.

Imagine if I could tell that story to my great-grandfather, Duncan Ferguson, as he was sitting in a trench in 1917. It probably would have been harder to believe than cell phones or space travel.

Well, that’s our Europe.

Last week was a whirlwind. Cameraman Jamie Baker and I spent 10 days in Belgium and France covering the anniversary. Every day was an 8 a.m. start, and no day finished before 10 p.m. We put a few thousand kilometres on our rental car. (We also put a big dent on the passenger side — but that’s another story.)

It was an absolute honour and a privilege.

I’ve been doing this a while — I’ve been with Global National 17 years. If you asked me about the stories I’m most proud of in my career, without a doubt most of them would be Remembrance Day stories. Every year, I try to find something interesting or compelling that will engage viewers and help them remember.

In 2013, I climbed a mountain in St-Donat, Que., and visited the crash site of a Lancaster B-24 that went down in stormy weather in 1942. Twenty-four airmen were killed in what is still to this day the worst accident in Canadian military aviation history.

In 2015, I went up the hill here in Montreal and visited McGill University’s archives. It was almost surreal to hold a handwritten copy of In Flanders Fields, arguably the most important piece of writing in our country’s history.

Of course, there was no bigger honour than to spend two Remembrance Days in Afghanistan with our troops. They were the sort of occasions when your emotions are conflicted. Your chest sticks out with pride, but you still feel like crying.

There was a moment in 2010 that stands out. I’d met a warrant officer several times. We’d watched a few Canadiens games together (at 4 a.m.).

On Remembrance Day, I ran into him at the cenotaph at KAF. We had a long conversation about his past tours and what he’d been through.

After about a half hour, I pointed to the monument and said, “You must know some of the people on there.”

He paused, looked down, and then he walked forward and started pointing. “That was one of my men. That was one of my men. That was one of my men. That was my driver. I should have been in the vehicle. That was one of my men … ”

It was painful for both of us, and not a moment I will ever forget.

I got a few nice notes complimenting our coverage this past week, and I hope it was OK. The goal was to pay respect to the soldiers killed in the war, by at least keeping their stories alive.

Of course, it also gave me a chance to honour the men who did make it home, like my great-grandfather.

If you watched Global’s Remembrance Day special you would have seen me wearing a red and blue tie. I’ve had it a few years, but I’ve never worn it on air before.

If you saw Mike Armstrong’s reports on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, you’ll have seen him wearing his regimental tie.

Usually, I pull it out once a year and wear it to the Canadian Grenadier Guards Sergeant’s Mess Remembrance Day Dinner. I was a member of the regiment in the late 1980s.

I didn’t join because I had any ties to the Grenadiers. I was simply told it was a great summer job.

Well, at some point, my grandfather came up and said he had something to give me. He handed me a little green card. It was his father’s Grenadier Association membership card.

It turned out his father’s 87th Battalion in the First World War was the Canadian Grenadier Guards. I had joined the same unit. The famous battles in our regiment’s history? Ypres, Vimy, the Somme, Passchendaele … a member of my family was there.

It changed the way I walk into the regiment’s armoury. Each time, I find myself opening the massive front door and thinking about how my great-grandfather walked through the same spot before me. I’m literally walking in his footsteps.

This past week, I missed our Sergeant’s Mess dinner. I was busy walking in my great-grandfather’s footsteps in France and Belgium.

Great-Grandpa Ferguson passed away in the ’60s, years before I was born. We never met, but over and over last week, I found myself wishing I could tell him about my trip.

Mike Armstrong is Quebec Correspondent for Global National.

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