This journal is a mixture of writings from the actual dates and additional information added during its typing. Therefore it may often switch tenses and be a bit hard to follow.
Casa Berardi. We are now talking to a man who lived here when he was five years old. He remembers the battle here vividly, and has told us much about its course. His story makes me feel very emotional – the troops that fought here were largely my age, and hearing about what they did makes me try to imagine what they went through, though I think that is impossible. I also feel a great deal of respect for these men and what they had to do.
This man has told us about his memories of men trying to get through the bottom door I am looking at, and about the soldier who was shot by a sniper and collapsed underneath the tree I am now standing under. Apparently, the tree was a fruit tree that never grew fruit again after the soldier died under it. I believe in that story.
The man recounted to us his own exploits running between his and his Nono’s house, and how the Canadians who spent the night here asked him to bring wine.
It is hard to imagine fighting in a place of such natural beauty; I expect to encounter this a lot during this trip. This is also my first exposure to a battlefield with a first hand account of the action, and it stirred a lot of emotion in me.
As to the attitudes of the people, the man said that the people in Ortona are ignorant and ungrateful, but around Casa Berardi the people view Canadians as brothers. This made me feel proud to call myself Canadian, a feeling that expanded throughout the tour.
Looking at Casa Berardi from the other side of the Gully; what an observation point! Not only does the Casa provide great observation, it is situated so as to provide excellent fields of fire for the defenders. Why was it not bombed or blown away by artillery? The Gully is a striking feature- no wonder the Germans chose this spot to defend. From our perspective looking back on the battle, I can not understand why it was not bypassed. The Moro crossing? From our viewpoint on the south side, we had a great view of the ground, and this really helped me to understand the problems faced by the attacking Canadians. The books I have read have done little to help me visualize these places. The Gully, for example, really illustrated the benefits of a reverse slope position.
This is my first visit to a war cemetery. I’ve seen pictures, but they’ve never made me think like this place has. So many names, all young, like my brother, my friends and myself. This place stirs a lot of emotion in me and brings tears I cannot stop, but that I feel no shame in shedding. I think that no matter how hard any literature tries, it fails to evoke the emotion that goes into war. Sure, many men won various awards, but the official history mentions little about the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, etc. who lost their sons and kin. Life is so valuable, but here it seems so fragile.
Like the Moro crossing, seeing Ortona first hand was an invaluable experience that completely clarified what I had read about the battle before the tour. Everything was put into perspective, from the size of the town and why a week was such a long time to get through it, to why the Canadians had to attack on the axis they did. Moreover, seeing the scars of the war on many of the buildings somehow makes the war seem more real to me, having come from a place where there are no physical scars.
In Pesaro now. Today we looked at the battlefields on the approach to the Gothic Line, on which the Germans fought delaying actions. My experience today was not as profound as yesterday, perhaps because I felt the human aspect of the battles was missing. However, it was interesting to reflect on the tactical options available to the Canadians on this rugged terrain. The ruggedness of the battlefields was not what I expected – the hills are much steeper. The view form Monte Della Mattera was excellent. I do not understand how the Germans, with the superior firepower of the MG42, could have lost ground in this area. I suppose the answer is artillery, and the tenacity of the attackers. The MG42: this weapon is very frightening. The stories of Cdn soldiers taking whole bursts due to its rate of fire are terrible. And all we had was the Bren gun. How did these guys do what they did?
Montechio War Cemetery. 582 dead, 289 Cdn. Here I spent a lot of time reading and recording the inscriptions on the graves. I found many of these to be very moving, and they really emphasized the fact that the soldiers who died were not the only ones affected by this war. For example, SC Spendlove: ‘Of the world you were only a part but you were all the world to me’ – Mum.’ While the sight of the cemetery in general did not strike me as it had the first time, these individual inscriptions had a lot of impact on me.
I need to catch up on the past couple of days. Yesterday we looked at the breaking of the Gothic Line by the 5th Division. We went to Montechio, then up to Points 111 and 147, where we looke at point 120. What a defensive position – great fields of fire, little dead ground, it is easy to see why the Cape Bretoners were slaughtered trying to bounce the German lines, unaware that the Germans were ready. It would have been a gruesome sight.
From there we walked to Point 204 where the BC Dragoons first took and then held the hill until the Perth’s arrived. Seeing the lay of the land here was, I thought, virtually essential to the understanding of the battles fought. It took a while for me to get oriented, but once I did, the course of the battles seemed to make a lot more sense. I began to realize why certain hills and points were Canadian objectives after seeing the field of fire and observation advantages they offered. The Germans were smart in choosing the Gothic Line as their line of defense. Topo maps and pictures cannot supplement actually seeing terrain first hand; they just cannot provide the same idea of texture and depth.
After the battlefields, we went up Germano mountain, from which we could observe the valley as far as the Adriatic, and see San Martino and San Fortunato Ridge. I find that seeing the battlefields from above to be the most beneficial way to observe them, but that walking them gives a better feel for the scale of the action and what the soldier had to endure.
Today we looked at the approach to San Fortunato Ridge, and the battle for the ridge itself. I have been trying to visualize what the battles actually looked like, but I think that that is an impossible task.
Polish War Cemetery at Cassino.
As we arrive, thunder booms above us, changing my mood. The thunder has a very symbolic feel for me. This is a very beautiful place, and birds sing all around. However, the thunder continues, making me think of bombing and shelling. Church bells sound in the distance, and now the rain begins to fall. The monastery is an amazing sight, an absolutely marvelous structure. The decision to bomb it must have been a very difficult one.
Seeing Monte Cassino really made clear how important the position was – it really does dominate the entrance to the Liri Valley and Highway 6. It is apparent at the quickest glance why the allies had such a hard time fighting here; the Germans deserve a lot of respect for their ability to choose defensive positions.
Cassino War Cemetery: I am starting to realize that cemeteries are not only sad places, but they feel really peaceful too. However, the memorial here to over 4000 missing soldiers is somewhat haunting.
German Cemetery, Cassino. A different style, perhaps constricted by the minimal space allowed for the cemetery. There are no inscriptions, and the soldiers are buried six to a stone, with mass graves at the top. This makes the German soldiers seem less human in a way, and the conflict somewhat less personal. I don’t feel as sad here, perhaps because I do not believe in the cause they fought for. At the base level though, the experience was the same; young guys with families whose lives were changed forever. I still feel regretful that this had to happen.
Yesterday we did our tour of the Liri valley. Our vantage points were not as good today, but we were still able to get a feel for the terrain, and especially the heat. Fighting in that heat must have been a bit of a nightmare. Seeing the Melfa River crossing was neat, after reading about the exploits of Lt. Perkins and how he crossed and held the bridgehead over the Melfa. The terrain was a lot rougher than I pictured it to be.
We visited the museum at the monastery after wards, and the collection of gold ornaments and statues and clothing was a stark contrast to the small collection of rusted equipment left over from the war. There were some amazing photographs of the action, and especially the bombing of the monastery.
Overall, I was more than excited to learn so much about the Italian campaign. Just being in Italy was great to get a feel for the climate, at least in summer. One thing that I learned, it is easy to read a book and then pass judgement on the officers and men who had to make decisions on the battlefield, and call them down for doing what seemed like the wrong thing. However, one must be careful to consider the problems faced on the battlefield, especially communication and visibility. Italy was a very confusing place to get oriented in, even when you are not tired, stressed, under fire, and subjected to intense heat or terrible rains. Moreover, the terrain looks the same everywhere.
In France now.
The first place we visited in France was Vimy. I thought the memorial was quite striking. I always figured Vimy was a lot steeper than it is, and I was surprised to find that from the side the Canadians attacked from it does not even seem like a ridge at all. The view of the plains that is offered from the ridge was actually quite striking, however. It is apparent why this was such an important feature. I thought the tunnel tour was very educational too. I did not think that the tunnels would be so extensive or so elaborate, and the methods they used to disguise noise and movement were very innovative. It was hard to picture them being full of mud, lice, and shit. What affected me the most at Vimy were the shell craters. I had heard about this, but to see it was something else. All of a sudden, eighty-five years does not seem like so long ago.
Our next stop was Beaumont-Hamel, where the Royal Newfoundland Rgmt. was annihilated during the battle of the Somme. I find it hard to visualize what happened here, and I don’t think I want to. It would be horrifying. As we heard one Scottish man say to the group of soldiers he was guiding, as testimony to how quickly the Newfs were slaughtered: They didn’t even see a fucking German.” From what our guide had to say about the battle here it seems like the leadership was very ineffective and at fault. The view from the monument was great; I was struck to see how close the lines actually were here. What went through the minds of these men to make them actually charge at machine guns? Here it seems like pure suicide.
Now we are at the Thiepval Monument to those missing from the Somme offensive. The monument is huge, and draws one’s eyes to the sky. Over 70,000 names cover this monument. Scale is staring to hit me as to the cost of the wars. Being here and reading the names is a different experience than reading impersonal casualty figures in books. As I noticed later, the Thiepval monument is visible from miles around, a grim testimony to the horror that once ravaged this beautiful countryside.
Sitting at Adanac cemetery, I am starting to feel like I do not know what to think about all of this – my thoughts just go numb when I visit the cemeteries. Do we not heed the message of the dead? Was what they fought for worth giving up their most valuable possession? Row on row of stones and names makes life seem almost trivial. What is it like to be there beside a friend one moment, and the next they are dead?
Later in the day we stopped at Bapaume-Post Cemetery, where I saw the grave of a relative. I broke down and cried – it was overwhelming. I’m not sure what I felt except futility and loss, and extreme sadness.
The World War One sites are different than the World War Two sites to me because WW1 seems like a big waste of lives for nothing…there seems to be no cause whatsoever, save imperial-nationalist competition. I think this is hardly worth losing your life for.
Dieppe Canadian Cemetery. 955 Dead, 709 Canadians.
RC Ward, 24, Royal Rgmt of Canada: ‘Happy hours we once enjoyed how sweet their memory still. Death has left a loneliness the world can never fill.’
Visited Dieppe yesterday. The sense I got from looking at the beaches was that the whole thing was a suicide operation – no surprise, no support, into well defended, alert positions. Kind of like Beaumont-Hamel on a larger scale. Like Beaumont-Hamel, I do not understand why these guys were so eager to get into the action here. The beach itself does not seem like a good place for a landing due to the looseness of the pebbles and the cliffs along side it. The only emotion I felt here was disgust at the waste of lives for nothing, and the poor planning of this operation. On a side note, seeing the German bunkers was educational. I never thought they were so thick.
Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery. This is the D-Day cemetery. I don’t know what to think anymore. I guess their efforts allowed me to come here today. For this I am grateful, as I think we all should be to those who fought for the liberation of Europe.
Today was our visit to Omaha Beach, and the German cemetery in Normandy. I found this inscription at the German cemetery quite memorable. “War is a terrible thing! Let us guard against forgetting that. Let us be watchful, so that the generations of tomorrow are not once more confronted with tears, mourning and ruins. Let us banish all things that separate us. Let us seek all things that unite us. Let us listen to the message of the graves: Peoples, be at one! Men, be merciful!”
It was pouring rain on the drive to the Abbaye D’Ardenne. When we arrived, the first thing a few of us did was to go to the garden where the 12th SS shot twenty Canadians. I felt quite weird there, but I don’t know exactly how to explain what I felt. Bad vibes – this place was not peaceful or relaxing like the cemeteries. Then I was overcome by a feeling of anger, something I had not experienced at any of the other cemeteries. I found the garden a haunting place.
Friday morning we toured Juno beach. Being at the beaches was great, because I was never really able to picture what they looked like before. S. and I went down to the water’s edge and ran up – I never thought it was so far. I tried to imagine what it must have looked like on June 6th 1944. We visited St. Aubin, Bernieres-sur-mer, and Courselles. Seeing the beaches was definitely a highlight for me; this satisfied a long-felt curiosity about the appearance of the terrain here, which was a bit different than what I had visualized. Afterwards we went to Pegasus Bridge, taken in a nearly flawless operation by British Airborne troops on June 6th. A number of British Airborne vets were gathering for the June 6th memorial ceremonies, and there was a bit of a party starting.
That night, we went to see the remains of the Mulberry at Arromanches. Like the shell craters at Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel, the old harbour made me think of the war as not being so distant.
Yesterday we went to Omaha beach, and it was quite a sight. The American cemetery was huge, and very moving. A different effect than the generally smaller Commonwealth cemeteries, I believe. We talked to an American soldier from San Diego, and he said his first time seeing the cemetery made him feel proud to be a soldier. After, we went to look at the beach, and as usual, it was much different than I pictured it to be. We are lucky to not have been there.
Juno Beach: I feel proud myself to be attending the ceremonies today. Of the three, I felt the first and third ones were the best, though they were somehow not what I expected. The words of the local mayors really hit home to me as to what the liberation meant for the local people. It is still remembered after all these years. I felt the unveiling of the memorial at the third ceremony to be a bit overdrawn and it seemed like it was more designed for the politicians there to try and get a good picture taken for publicity purposes, not for the respect of the vets and the dead. It did not seem to fit with the moment, and soured my experience of these ceremonies.
Today we attended some more ceremonies, and I was lucky to get to talk to a couple of vets, including one fellow who was in the BC Rgmt that got lost during Operation TOTALIZE, which I have to do a report on. I talked to another vet who said that the trip was very emotional for him, as he had seen the names of some of his friends on tombstones. This makes me think more about the emotional consequences of war, and how some of the scars do not heal. I find the personal stories of these men to be almost invaluable historical records. Everyone in the war has a story to tell, it is too bad so many of them have been lost.
The ceremony at the Abbaye was the most moving of all the ceremonies I attended. I had to say the vow of remembrance. I was very nervous because I thought I would cry in the middle of it. Then we laid maple leafs for each of the soldiers killed in the garden. After that, I was feeling really emotional – a mixture of anger and sadness at the same time. One of those guys was 19 – could have been my younger brother. That shook me up. I also felt extremely honoured to be attending these ceremonies, especially the one at the Abbaye.
Yesterday morning we did some more battlefields, as we did on Sunday afternoon. We looked at the approach to Caen, in such places as Rots, Bretteville L’Orgueilleuse, Putot, Authie, and Buron. Seeing the lay of the land is really starting to hit me. The way these guys advanced over the open ground seems almost suicidal. I have to admire the courage of the soldiers who fought in this war. The strategic importance of all these towns and ridges is really becoming apparent. What barely looks like a hill actually provides an amazing view, as the German position on Vimy Ridge did.
Yesterday we learned about the failed assault on Carpiquet airfield. Once again, the fields of fire available here in France were just amazing. I do not understand how anything could move without getting blown up. Next we looked at the approach to the Abbaye – same thing – amazing fields of fire. The Abbaye is a fantastic viewpoint. After having talked about how the Germans could watch the Canadians forming up for an attack, it is neat to see things from the Germans’ actual vantagepoints.
Today we covered the attacks on Verriere Ridge, St. André, Martin, and May-sur-Orne. No wonder the Black Watch was slaughtered. I note here how the course of the campaign seems to make a bit more sense. After that, we looked at the jumping off point for TOTALIZE. I am beginning to understand why certain features were important, and also why it took so long for the Canadians and Brits to advance over this open ground.
Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery: 2958 Dead, 2872 Canadians.
The cemeteries are having a different effect now. Seeing one is one thing, seeing many is another. The scope of the conflict is starting to feel overwhelming to me.
Trying to remember the last couple of days of the trip. We covered the fighting from Caen to the closing of the Falaise gap. We looked at Operations ATLANTIC and SPRING, from a great vantagepoint on top of a water reservoir. Again, the Germans had superb defensive positions. The fate of the Black Watch on Verrieres Ridge becomes evident – their assault appears to be doomed from the start, given the position they were attacking. We also looked at TOTALIZE Phase One, and the defense of Verrieres village by the RHLI. I thought this was quite a remarkable feat. All of the battles were testimony to me of the great amount of effort exerted by both sides during the war. I have gained a lot of respect for the fighting soldiers on both sides during this trip.
The next day we looked at TOTALIZE Phase Two. I gave a presentation on the BC Tanks getting lost. Of all the battlefields we visited, this was the place where seeing the ground did the most to help me understand the situation of the unit as described by the readings I had done. I can see how they got lost – the terrain here does not have many distinguishing features.
On our last day, we looked at the closing of the Falaise gap. This battlefield I found to be quite distressing, due to the slaughter that took place here. I never thought of how it affected the guys doing the shooting. One Trooper that we got to talk to would not mention the killing, a silent but loud testimony to how horrible the action must have been. I guess the Germans were not even shooting back in a lot of instances, making the battle seem more like murder, and thus somewhat different than the other battles that we looked at.
As an aside, I thought it was cool to be on the spot where the picture was taken of Currie where he won his VC. It was kind of like stepping back in time.
The final location that we visited was the Polish Monument, overlooking the battlefield of the gap. It was a fantastic view that really put things in perspective. What a great way to finish off our touring.
Now that I have had a couple of months to think about the experience of touring the battlefields, I feel that this was one of the best experiences of my life. I feel like I have made a pilgrimage that has had numerous benefits for me. First of all, for me the tour was an invaluable educational experience that will probably sour any further reading I do in military history. My conception of the wars has also changed. As mentioned, they seem much more recent than it did before, and in a way more real. I feel that in Canada the postwar generations have not experienced the same impact from the wars as was experienced in Europe, and seeing physical scars from the wars has made them more impacting. Of these physical scars, I found the cemeteries to be the most profound. They gave me a small indication as to how much the two conflicts actually cost the world and its people. Finally, the tour has also made me increasingly proud to call myself Canadian. After seeing some of the battlefields in Europe, I am happy to associate myself with the men and women who volunteered to go overseas to help defend and liberate a land they had never been to. I feel that the wars are an integral part of our history, and that to ignore that history is disrespectful to the people that gave their all so that we can enjoy the freedom we enjoy today. I have returned to Canada eager and proud to do my best to make sure this part of our history is not forgotten by our younger generations, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this experience.