Life Stories – Faces to Graves

Defining Moments Canada is privileged to feature the exceptional work of students from All Saints High School (Kanata, ON), prepared for the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands. Students from the Ottawa Catholic School Board worked in conjunction with the Faces to Graves Foundation to prepare soldier biographies for Canadians buried in the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery. Their teacher, Vanessa Kirtz, writes how this project came to be:

In 2015, while on a school trip for the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands, I had the honour of attending a Second World War memorial ceremony at Groesbeek Canadian War cemetery.  Seeing first hand the impact on students visiting the graves of soldiers they had researched and meeting Veterans at the ceremony impacted me profoundly as a teacher.

I went back to my classroom wondering how I can involve students who did not have the opportunity to participate in this experiential learning. As a result of this trip, I also became aware of the Faces-to-Graves Foundation whose goal is to write life stories and find photographs for all of the servicemen buried in the 2,610 graves at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands. I knew this would be a perfect match for my existing First World War Soldier class project.  

In previous history classes, my students would complete a project on a Canadian soldier who had been killed during WW1.  The unfortunate part was that once the project was completed for school, no one would see their final products. 

Working with the Faces to Graves Foundation, I changed the project to be based on soldiers who were buried at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery. As the students worked on this project they became more invested in telling the story of their soldiers.  It was exhilarating and very satisfying as an educator to see students so engaged in this project, to the point that some even stayed at lunch to see if I could help them with issues like finding a document or contacting a soldier’s family members. As one student wrote, “I felt like I was doing something that mattered to people and more importantly, the family members of the soldiers.” 

Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all of our lives so our students did not have the time to continue their research as much as they wished. Luckily, the Faces-to-Graves Foundation introduced me to Kurt Johnson, a retired Ottawa journalist who had also worked on life stories for Canadian soldiers at Groesbeek. Kurt is very knowledgeable about how to research and edit these life stories. Our students’ bios will be entered in the database which constitutes the “Digital Monument” of the Faces-to-Graves Foundation.

Vanessa Kirtz, Teacher at All Saints High School (Ottawa Catholic School Board)

Educator Resources

Vanessa has graciously provided the resources and lesson she prepared for her students in order that other classrooms across the country may have the opportunity to participate in this rewarding work.

View all resources on Google Drive

Tips and Suggestions

Vanessa has provided these tips based on her experience running this project with her students.

  • I would suggest the research and biography be split up evenly into 2 parts so 2 students can work on 1 soldier – one can focus on their personal information and the other on the military information. 
  • This could be a project that can be worked on periodically throughout the course by focussing on different aspects of the project such as how to analyze primary sources, how to do research, working with primary sources (archival sources), how to check reliability/ credibility of sources,  learning about Canada’s role in the Liberation of the Netherlands, producing a final product in an appropriate media using the 6 historical thinking concepts
  • This would be a great replacement for a 5 paragraph essay/ RST
  • Make sure to get a consent form from your Board re: use and disclosure of student work signed by Parents as soon as you start the project. This allows students to have their name on the biography when it is published (full name or first name with initial of last name).  
  • For completing the research and writing the biography I gave 3 work periods.   In hindsight, I would give more time after it has been assessed for students to re edit their work
  • Be prepared for the days when students are researching to be constantly helping students.  A great idea is to have students sign up on the board if they need help and then follow the order of the names of the board.  Alternatively, you can also have students add comments on the margins of their google docs and have them enter “@your name” if they have a question/ need your assistance
  • Really try to make an effort to try to find the families of the soldiers.  The families are a great source of information and they are so grateful for the work the students are doing.  In fact,many knew nothing about that family member before we contacted them.
  • It was an enriching assignment and I am doing it again!

Read the Life Stories

Learn more about Faces to Graves

The non-profit organization Faces To Graves is selflessly committed to honouring and commemorating the soldiers who are buried in this cemetery. Added to this are the missing, whose name is mentioned on the panels of the Groesbeek Memorial. For family members always very sad that they have no known grave.

We do this by writing their life stories, preferably with an image. The volunteers of our Research Team conduct research to this end, resulting in the many stories that are already in the Digital Monument on our website.

We keep their memory alive by telling their stories …

We have now started a school project in which various Dutch High Schools are participating, including a school in Kanata, Ontario.

The Faces to Canadian War Graves Groesbeek foundation works together with Bergen op Zoom and Holten in the national foundation Canadian War Graves Nederland.

If you would like to help or support us to realize this huge project, please contact: