… paying tribute to Canadian war dead in France and Belgium …
It’s around ten in the morning on June 5th. On another day – in another time – this morning might signal the start of an early summer beach frolic.
Today waves rush in, fleeing from an expanse of whitecaps crisscrossing gunmetal gray waters like veins of fat in butchered meat. They crash into the shore with a sound like an artillery barrage.
Winds howl like disembodied spirits, lashing the flags that flap beyond the dunes; they turn grains of sand into projectiles that stab my hands and face.
No ordinary beach day, I think, shivering in those cruel winds, soaked by the rain that’s begun to fall in heavy curtains. Nor is this an ordinary beach.
Seventy-five years ago – less a day and a year – roughly fourteen thousand Canadian soldiers landed here on Normandy’s Juno Beach. More than three hundred never left.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning I will remember them.
So begins chapter one of my story – my “Roadstory” – of remembrance.
For many years, two items on my travel bucket list have remained unchecked.
I ticked off the first one seven or eight years ago: I attended the Remembrance Day Ceremony at Ottawa’s National War Memorial. By the end of this week I’ll have accomplished the other one.
I would pay tribute at the places where tribute was owed if I ever got to France and Belgium. I would visit battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials.
I would remember.
When I started my homework I quickly realized that some of the places I wanted to visit weren’t readily accessible by train and we really didn’t want to do one of those organized tours. My wife and I wanted to see what we wanted to see, we wanted to do it at our own pace and I, personally, wanted to share what I knew would be a rollercoaster of emotional experiences with only my wife.
So we booked a rental car and began our Remembrance “Roadstory”.
We drove to Normandy two days before D-Day (the seventy-fifth anniversary is next June), using the seaside town of Honfleur for our base. While the Norman towns of Bayeux and Caen were much closer, I knew that I’d crave respite from the weight of the daytime experiences. Honfleur is a medieval showcase of cobblestone streets and half-timber houses, a tourist spot boasting a gorgeous old harbour where quayside restaurants boasting Mussels and Fries washed down with cider – all Norman must-dos – abound.
Furthermore, this was the harbour where Champlain’s voyages began, so it appealed to my inner historian.
Further – furthermore: it was a fun resort town. Thereby worth it, though Honfleur is an hour’s drive from Ground Zero.
For these moments did prove to be emotionally harrowing.
At Juno Beach a lady from Ontario shares her story with me, beginning to cry as she talks. “My grandfather died here. He never got off the beach.”
Next we drive west to Arramanches, meeting re-enactors in World War II uniforms gearing up for the anniversary next day, chatting with several American soldiers who have made their own pilgrimage here from their base in Germany.
Arramanches, a pleasant seaside village fronting a makeshift harbour built by military engineers, will be a major venue for next year’s 75th Anniversary events.
Later in the day, after getting lost on several rural roads – driving through wheat fields and hedgerows, through villages with names right out of the history books – we find at last one of two area Canadian cemeteries.
I see the lady I met at Juno Beach. She has found her grandfather’s grave, kneeling before it, weeping.
I march along the rows here, humbled and horrified by the stories simple headstones tell.
Eighteen Commonwealth cemeteries populate this part of Normandy, guarding the remains of twenty two thousand dead.
Two thousand – all Canadian – lie here at Beny-sur-Mer.
Six maples stand sentinel over this lonely sanctuary. It is silent but for the wind whispering in those trees, a few bird calls.
I march down one row, stopping before the graves of several men from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. Dates of death are telling: June 6th, 7th, 8th.
Here are stones identifying the resting places of a group of soldiers who perished on July 2nd.
Here is the grave of an eighteen-year-old, a nineteen-year-old Medical Corps private.
I read the writing engraved on a stone at the cemetery entrance …
“The land on which this cemetery stands is a gift of the French people for a perpetual resting place of the sailors and soldiers and airmen who are honoured here.”
Next day we travel to Ypres, crossing into Belgium.
We make our way, at day’s end, to the Menin Gate. Every night they pay tribute here to the dead and missing from World War I. Buglers play “Last Post;” pilgrims lay wreaths; someone proclaims the exhortation.
“At the Going Down of the Sun.”
We explore other Flanders touchstones from Ypres. We stand and reflect before the graves next to the McRae Dressing Station. Here McRae ministered to the wounded and dying. Here he penned that immortal poem.
Nearby we see a blowing field of poppies.
I cannot speak, I am so filled with emotion, but I can remember.
At St.-Julien the “Brooding Soldier,” a monument to Canadians who died right here in the first of many German gas attacks, I sign the visitors’ book. I leaf through its pages. Every province and territory in Canada is represented.
We make our way to Passchendaele, a killing ground in the Ypres Salient. We explore the Passchendaele Memorial Museum, descending into the earth to prowl re-creations of the underground bunkers that formed part of the fortifications. Outside we march through recreated trenches mere metres from where the originals once huddled deep in the mud.
The sun is bright; the sky is sacrilegiously blue.
We say silent prayers at Tyne Cot, the world’s largest Commonwealth War Cemetery. Nearly twelve thousand lie dead here. Four hundred fifty one are Canadian.
Next day we head south, back into France.
We stand atop Vimy Ridge and gaze out at the countryside spread far below. We stop and wait awhile at the towering memorial, a place just last year filled by thousands of Canadian teachers, students and dignitaries, who paid their own respects during the centenary of that battle.
“For most Canadians, World War I is something they remember when they put on a poppy for Remembrance Day,” says history teacher Andrew Frise, who supervised one student group. “For the people living on the Western Front the reminders are all around them every day.”
That night we stay in Arras, a charming town that was once the place when it came to Vimy Sector “R and R.” My wife and I replay today’s activities together, sharing an al fresco dinner in the medieval square, but then we fall silent.
The weight of both history and tragedy defies conversation.
Next day we march through trenches little changed since a horrid Beaumont-Hamel day, where things went bad for a variety of reasons and more than three hundred Newfoundlanders died in a failed assault.
Shell craters still pockmark a verdant valley; they are scattered across “No Man’s Land.”
Inside the interpretive centre is a list of casualties. Every corner of “The Rock” gave up its heroes. Three people from the hometown of my wife’s father died here.
It seems a fitting place to end our pilgrimage, our Remembrance “Roadstory”.
The experiences of the past few days have filled me with a sense of pride but I also feel a strange bitterness.
Many of these memorials are found in settings both peaceful and beautiful. I feel like that should not be. Seems to me like laughter and joy should forever be banned from these places.
I am greatly saddened by the plenitude and ubiquity of cemeteries that scar the French and Flemish countryside.
But I feel, too, that I have done something important.
Now my wife and I climb into our car, heading to Reims for our last night in Europe.
We’re about to leave the spectres of Beaumont-Hamel behind but one more task awaits.
“I have remembered,” I say and then I continue in a voice hoarse with emotion.
“We have remembered.”
• For an excellent “you-drive” guide (including directions and travel tips) to the World War I sites, contact John Stephens at email@example.com or log onto www.thegreatwar.ca. Donations for this downloadable labour of love are gratefully accepted.