My husband might be considered an amateur war historian, so when details on the Globus Canadian War Memorial tour made its way into my email inbox recently, I knew I had found him the perfect birthday present.
Now, it is interesting to know that I considered this my husband’s trip, well except for the stays in Paris and London, as those were the ones I looked forward to. What a surprise! Now don’t get me wrong, Paris and London were fantastic, but my experience in France and Belgium changed me forever. I have always been proud to be Canadian, but never as much as during this tour.
Driving from Paris, I watched in amazement as we passed a vast number of cemeteries, their Canadian flags dotting the countryside. We stopped at the Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery containing 2,049 headstones enclosed by pines and maples. The grave markers in this beautifully manicured cemetery were proudly and lovingly identified by families. However, I found myself pulled to those emblazoned “known only to God” wondering about the young soldier, who fought for his country, yet lay unidentified in a foreign land.
As native Newfoundlanders, one of our most emotional memories was the stop at Beaumont Hamel. It was here July 1, 1916, the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, 801 Newfoundlanders went into battle and the next day only 68 answered the roll call. Over 90% of the Newfoundland Regiment was lost. In 1916, bringing soldiers home to Newfoundland for burial was impossible so the women of Newfoundland purchased the site in 1925. Growing up in St. John’s, we visited the statue of the Caribou in Bowering Park, a local memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment. An identical Caribou stands over the site at Beaumont Hamel. Unlike most Canadian headstones that are emblazoned with the Canadian Maple Leaf, Newfoundlanders’ graves are identified with the Caribou. Following Newfoundland joining confederation in 1949, there was a brief movement to change the symbol to the Maple Leaf, but the caribou remains to this day. Canada Day, July 1, in Newfoundland is also known as Memorial Day, a day observed by Newfoundlanders since 1917.
The timing of this tour could not have been better – for April 9, 2012, was the 95th anniversary of Vimy Ridge. The taking of this Ridge in April, 1917, was an amazing Canadian victory – a victory said to be responsible for the formation of our Canadian identity. We were fortunate to be among the many Canadians, as well as British, Australian and Americans present for the anniversary celebration. In addition there were 5000 Canadian high school students and we watched proudly as they walked to the Vimy Ridge monument in silent tribute, a silence broken only by the young Canadians’ shuffling feet.
We travelled to Flanders Fields and Essex Farm cemetery where John McCrae wrote his famous poem. The dressing station where Dr. McCrae treated soldiers still stands. It is said that while McCrae worked tirelessly to treat the victims, it was here when his best friend was not to be saved, he stopped and wept and wrote “In Flanders Fields.”
The Menin Gate Memorial is in the small Belgium town of Ypres, near the site where thousands of soldiers passed on their way to the front line, many never to return. On this amazing memorial are the names of 54,896 officers and men of the commonwealth forces who died and who have no known graves. Nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery has another monument with 34,984 additional names of soldiers lost whose remains were also never recovered. Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest British Military Cemetery in the world.
It is inYpres, every night since 1927, on the busy thoroughfare that is Menin Road, the police stop traffic at precisely 8 p.m. as the local Fire Brigade stand in the centre of the highway and play the Last Post. No matter the time of year or weather conditions, this has happened every night except during the German occupation during World War II. Although, it is said that the day the Germans left, the last Post was played again that very night. This amazing city was virtually levelled during the war, but rebuilt, as before, except for the addition of a new road – Canada Lane.
We visited Caen and Ardenne Abbey the headquarters of the SS Panzergranadier Regiment commanded by Kurt Meyer during World War II. It was Meyer that ordered the shooting of eleven soldiers of the Nova Scotia Highlanders….shot and buried in the garden in which we stood. The retelling of this story by guest historian, Tom Douglas brought him and many of us to tears.
At Dieppe and the site of the actual beach battle, we paid tribute to 913 Canadian soldiers who died the morning of Aug. 19, 1942. Their sacrifice was instrumental in the successful landing two year later on the beaches of Normandy, where the Canadians liberated Dieppe. It was at the Canadian Cemetery in Dieppe where we found the uncle of a dear friend and placed poppies on his grave in remembrance.
Our travels took us to the beach of Normandy – in particular Juno Beach, where Canadians landed on Dday June 6, 1944. It was an incredible feeling to stand in the very spot where young men stormed the beaches. I stood there on a bright sunny day, visualizing the landing craft, hearing the gunfire and picturing the sea running red. Reluctantly, I walked through a nearby German bunker still standing guard, looking out to sea; still existing like an aged sentinel. We climbed the hill to view the chain of beaches, Juno, Omaha and Utah, aptly named for the invasion which scored the bridgehead for the successful opening of the Western front.
We visited the famous Pegasus Bridge, secured by the British on June 6, 1944. This first house to be liberated in France still stands and is now a coffee house where the young daughter of the family remains in residence.
Now generally when I return from my travels, I can’t wait to get my experiences on paper, however this was different and difficult to share this very personal experience.
This amazing journey was made special by two people; Vic Keber, our Globus tour guide whose expertise, knowledge, empathy and pride touched everyone on the tour and a Canadian historian, Tom Douglas, who was not afraid to weep, laugh and share from his writings. Two people who touched me and changed me forever.
Deb Quick is a Flight Centre Associate who operates a home-based Travel Agency in Quesnel. Contact Deb at 250-992-5169 if you, too, wish to travel this amazing journey.