During a year of celebration, remembrance and commemoration for Canadians, Brian Robert goes to France to remember some of Canada’s defining moments …
has been a year of celebration and commemoration for Canadians – celebrating our sesquicentennial with birthday parties held across the country and free access to Canada’s National Parks has permitted us a rare chance to indulge in our own version of chest thumping and national pride. Commemoration because Canada also recognized the anniversary of some of our country’s defining moments in places like Dieppe, Hill 70 and Vimy Ridge. A trip to France provides Canadians with a rare opportunity to come face to face with places filled with tales of courage and sacrifice, success and failure, heroism and grief.
Like tens of thousands of other Canadians, young and old, I had the privilege of indulging in a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Along the way, we journeyed to iconic places like Juno Beach, Dieppe, Beaumont Hamel and Ypres in Belgium. All these places were filled with Canadian monuments, flags, ceremonies and tributes to soldiers and military units. These places are inspiring and sombre, as they speak to the many accomplishments and some of the tragedies that befell Canadians and Newfoundlanders.
After years of planning, northern France was once again invaded by a decidedly more docile pack of Canadians who had committed to experiencing the 100th Anniversary ceremony that was held on Vimy Ridge on April 9th. Most of us spent up to two weeks roaming back and forth from the D-Day beaches in Normandy to World War I sites in north eastern France and Belgium. Dozens of Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries were filled with students and teachers, veterans and civilians, dignitaries and common folk paying their respects to the thousands of Canadians who perished in the two world wars.
Most of us could find a relative or someone from their home town who never made it home. Instead, they are interred forever in cemeteries that are meticulously groomed and are as compelling as they are silent. Grief tourism is an odd endeavour, but visiting these places drives home the sheer scale of loss endured by all countries that fought in these wars. The uncanny geometry of the headstones and the understated nature of these individual monuments is amplified when one finds a person one is connected to. My uncle Allan occupies such a place in the Netherlands.
We are a people who have not known invasion for over two hundred years, but a visit to these sites reminds us that this peace has come at the sacrifice of thousands of our citizens in far flung places all over the world. A quick visit to the Commonwealth War Graves Commissions website (https://www.cwgc.org/) lists 1,798 cemeteries with fallen soldiers in Canada alone, in France there are 28 World War I memorials and cemeteries, 13 in Belgium and one in the U.K. There are at least 50 memorials and cemeteries paying tribute to Canadians who fell during World War II in six countries in Europe alone. Canadian headstones in places like Singapore, Egypt, Hong Kong and Japan highlight how global World War II truly was.
Canadian tourists were found throughout Normandy last spring – experiencing the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer and the huge contributions Canada made to the D-Day invasion in June of 1944. As well as the museum on the beach, there are Canadian flags, plaques and monuments scattered throughout this beachside town. I stumbled upon a group of re-enactors wearing the uniform of the Queen’s Own Rifles – a Toronto regiment that was part of the amphibious assault. What was notable, however, that this was a group of Dutch re-enactors who had travelled from the Netherlands to pay their respects to Canadian soldiers – a lasting tribute to the bond we share with that nation.
A more sobering trip was to Dieppe – another beachside town squeezed between massive cliffs and with a long, unforgiving beach. The Dieppe Raid of 18-19th of August in 1942 saw 6,100 troops hit those shale beaches – most of them Canadians – after just a few short hours 3,600 were killed, wounded, missing or captured with 550 members of the Navy deemed casualties as well. Many books have tried to establish a context for this raid; however, scholarly history takes a back seat when one visits this place seventy-five years after the event. We all left frustrated and angry at the futility of what these young people were expected to do.
The main event for all who wandered about France last spring was the ceremony that was held on April 9th at Vimy Ridge. This is a truly monumental place – as modest as the ridge is, it does tower over the surrounding plain in this part of France. This 117 hectare site stands as a tribute to all Canadians who served during the First World War and was granted to Canada by the French government in 1922 as a site for a Memorial …
“Freely and for all time”
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial was designed by Canadian sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward and took eleven years and $1.5 million to build. This imposing limestone structure is engraved with the names of 11,285 Canadians who lost their lives in France and who had no known grave. There is no match for this sculpture in Canada.
The weather on the day of the ceremony was spectacular – in fact, it ended up hotter in early April than many of us experienced later in the year during the ‘summer that never showed’ in Ontario. We knew the day was going to be a logistical challenge – literally tens of thousands of people were going to be herded around the monument into a high security bubble that had to be locked down to ensure the safety of the dignitaries, press and crowd. We all piled onto our tour busses loaded down with our stuff for the day – cameras, water, generous lunches and sundry other items.
We were not allowed to take our tour busses onto the ridge – instead there were a number of marshalling areas where we debussed, passed through a security screen then reloaded onto other, presumably secure busses, for a hot final drive to the monument. Upon arrival we were shepherded around the monument along a narrow path defined by these cumbersome metal fences until we got to the side of the monument that was going to have most of the ceremony. Those who arrived later were shunted to the other side of the monument, and were obliged to settle with watching some huge screens to see the show.
For security reasons, we were told we had to be at our seating place no later than noon – the show was scheduled for 4:00 to 6:00 that afternoon. I was lucky – my friends and colleagues from the school I had just retired from reserved me a seat in a coveted location. Others were not as fortunate and were expected to fend for themselves – without seating – for the next six hours. We had a lot of time to kill before the show – after a while my aging bladder suggested a visit to the loo was in order. I joined one of many lengthy lines of patient people of all ages and walks of life waiting to go to a “Port a Potty”. Not long after I arrived rumours started to circulate that not only were there nowhere near enough facilities for the size of the crowd, but many of these same facilities were starting to fail. Trees or other options were not available – the security cordon was tight and there were dudes with weapons. We were resigned to our plight.
The next few hours were not a hardship – calls to nature not withstanding – as we hung out in the sun and enjoyed the festive atmosphere prior to the ceremony. The ceremony itself was spectacular – timed to perfection, a great mixture of commemoration and culture, addresses from some heavy-hitting politicians and royals, a rare display of military pageantry, and the recognition of the significance of what happened on that ridge a century ago. I was really proud of my former students – 58 in total from a school of fewer than 400 – they were patient, respectful and were very much in the moment. This was the culmination of three years of planning for them, a serious financial commitment to attend the event and they were great as were the thousands of other students in attendance.
After the ceremony – an event that was viewed by a large television crowd as well – we were told to make our way through that same narrow corridor that we went through at the beginning of the day. The prospect of lingering with fifteen thousand of my close personal friends, to squeeze our way through a two metre wide corral along a one kilometre route did not impress. Instead, I made my way to the stairs to ascend the monument and go up and over it to the other side and make my way from there. I had been here on two other occasions – I knew what to expect, and as I made my way to the stairs I was stopped by someone in some civilian uniform and was told I could not pass for safety reasons. There were stairs, I reminded her, and I also let her know that as a Canadian citizen this was really our monument – my great Uncle Bert was present at the battle a hundred years ago – and I made my way up.
Initially she talked into her sleeve calling for security, but when I turned her way I noticed that I was being followed by a few hundred other polite, but resolute Canucks. Away we went. Most of us loitered on the monument for a few minutes, taking pictures and enjoying the commanding view so many died for a century before us. I thought of my great Uncle Bert and his many friends and fellow soldiers, and was stunned again by what they had done.
Afterwards we made our way to the mayhem that was the bus loading area – only to be told by a very officious guy with a red thing on his sleeve that we were not permitted to pass his way. I got a little nasty here – reminded him why his fellow Frenchmen had failed to secure the ridge on two occasions prior to the Canadians capturing it, and was about to be managed by this guy when I noticed one of our own federal policemen – a member of the RCMP, dressed in his scarlet red dress uniform, was working to dismantle the aforementioned cumbersome fence. I quickly joined him and a few other characters and ripped the fence apart to do an end run on our officious friend. It was a funny end to an increasingly tense moment.
Logistical chaos aside, it was a memorable day and a fitting tribute to a victory that caught the attention of many nation states around the world. The Canadians that tasted victory and survived Vimy Ridge had two more years of tough slogging in northern France and elsewhere before their war came to an end. Canadians cemented the reputation they created at Vimy as ‘shock troops’, as they were frequently deployed into places that other troops were loath to attack. Our day on the ridge came to an end when we were spit out of the commuting bus to find our tour bus, only to discover a sausage stand that sold beer and sausages for the magical price of 5 Euros each. There was a large gathering of civilians and soldiers – wearing all sorts of different Canadian uniforms – enjoying the final sun of the day having a pint and a sausage to top it all off. I still needed a bathroom …