May 31 – June 1 1997: The Flight to England
Met the group in Toronto, the flight over was uneventful except for the passenger who gave a 20-minute explanation of “horking” to a couple of German teenagers. All went well with the trip to Portsmouth and we set out on our first day. It still seemed a bit unreal.
Our first day was spent visiting the D-Day museum and the Royal Marine Museum. The walk around Portsmouth was good training for Normandy, where we would be doing a lot of walking! The D-Day museum’s main attraction is the Overlord Tapestry. It outlines the D-Day experience in a 34-panel tapestry illustrating all aspects of the invasion. The museum also contains many fine displays of uniforms, equipment, and other artefacts. The Royal Marine Museum was very impressive, the building is the former officers’ mess of the Royal Marine Artillery…gunners always did have good taste! The tour guides in the museum are ex-Marines who were very helpful and friendly. They went out of their way to assist us, and catered to the special interests of some tour members.
On the way to the D-Day Museum we passed the Royal Naval Memorial. We passed on the seaward side and, frankly, it did not look that impressive. Once Serge joined us he pointed out that the other side (the park side) was much more impressive. I went back in the evening and I’m very glad I did. The monument has the names of the 24,000 sailors killed in two world wars engraved on brass plaques. We arrived as the sun was setting and the effect was impressive. The monument, like the equally impressive Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, is decorated with small tokens and mementoes placed there by relatives of the dead. It was quite moving to see the personal messages left by the spouses, children, and grandchildren of the deceased sailors. I can only imagine what effect the Canadian cemeteries in Normandy will have on me.
June 2, 1997
Today was devoted to the historic ships of Portsmouth. We were lucky to have Andrew Lambert, a naval historian, to guide us around – despite his disparaging comments about gunners! Our first ship was the Mary Rose. Although there is not much left of her, I was stuck by her size. It did not fit my image of the small ships of the Tudor navy. Also, the artefacts in the exhibition demonstrated how much ingenuity went into life at sea. The tools, implements, and personal items are perfectly preserved – a social historian’s treasure trove. I also learned how breech-loading wrought iron cannon worked – fascinating. The exhibition was full of gaggles of giggling school kids, it reminded me of my trips to museums while in elementary school. I wonder how much they appreciate what they are seeing?
After reading all the Hornblower, Bolitho, and Ramage novels of the Napoleonic Royal Navy, I was looking forward to my first glimpse of Victory. The buff-striped hull, black rigging and open gun ports fulfil all expectations. There was a palpable feeling of being in a spot where “History” took place. Our guide was a grizzled naval veteran who looked as though he knew how to wield a cat…or take it! The smallness of the ship only strikes you when you realise that over 800 people lived, and died, aboard her. For me, at 6’4,” the lower decks were an exercise in stooping. I decided that if I had been alive back then, I would have been a gunner on the weather deck! I had my first run-in with a security guard, when I was accosted for trying to take a photo, thankfully I waited until the end of the tour.
The Royal Navy museum was a bit of a letdown, mainly because the 20th century wing was closed. They have an excellent Trafalgar display but the remainder of the museum is mostly a lot of scale ship models.
The last thing we toured today was HMS Warrior. In a way it was better than Victory as we had Andrew Lambert, the official historian of the Warrior, with us to explain things. Also, it is much bigger and more tall-person friendly. Finally, since it is not a serving naval ship, they don’t mind if you crawl all over it. Despite this though, I had my second run-in with security as I tried to use the “seats of ease” on the bowsprit. Janine thought I was picked out because I am bigger, who knows? In the boiler room and the engine room a guide, who knew an awful lot about steam engines, tried to explain to me what a single expansion engine was in 2 minutes.
All in all, I think the addition of Portsmouth to the official part of the tour was a great idea. Not only is Portsmouth a super city, clean, friendly, and full of museums, it is also a logical place to start the tour – in the same place the Canadian Army did in 1944. Our soldiers spent the better part of four years (some five) in England before the invasion. Having spent two days here, I begin to feel that we are retracing the path they took. I am sure the ferry voyage tomorrow will reinforce this feeling.
June 3, 1997
An early morning and a busy day. We caught the 0745 ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham. This was my longest sea voyage – 6 hours. The ferry was really more like a large vibrating hotel than a ship, mainly because the weather was calm. I spent a lot of time on deck trying to imagine what it must have been like for the Canadian soldiers on transports in 1944.
There were many veterans on board the ferry travelling to D-Day commemorative services in France. Andrew Godefroy, Perry Prior, James Caddell and I had a long conversation with Sgt Victor Ruddick MM, late of the Coldstream Guards. He served in the 5th Battalion (Infantry) in the Guards Armoured Division. He and his wife were going to Normandy for the first time since the war. He was searching for the graves of three best friends killed, according to him, through bad luck. Rather, he accords his survival to good luck, over any skill. He also told us of his company commander who won the VC in defusing demolitions on a vital bridge. This company commander was very enthusiastic, always volunteering for any task that came up – volunteering himself and his company that is. This made him a hated man in his company – thoughts for an officer to ponder.
After several changes of transportation modes, we arrived at the Abbaye d’Ardenne. There was a feeling that you were privileged for having been given the opportunity to stay on this hallowed ground. In driving up to the Abbaye, all the place names studied over the years leap into your mind – Franqueville, Authie, Buron and Cussy. The welcome we received was warm and friendly as the caretakers Mr. Jean Fesnien and his wife Mireille made us feel at home immediately.
We drove to Arromanches this evening. Unfortunately, the museum was closed, but we toured the town for a good two hours. Remains of German emplacements dot the cliff; the fields of fire of one in particular showed what withering enfilade fire awaited any direct assault. Dieppe taught the Allies the cost of direct assault on a defended port. The remnants of the Mulberry harbour were impressive and show how far human ingenuity can take us. Tomorrow – Juno Beach!
June 4, 1997
Our visit to Juno Beach began at St Aubin-sur-Mer. A 50mm gun emplacement was the starting point of the tour. It was sited so that it fired in enfilade from defilade at the tanks and landing craft hitting the beach. The gun apparently fired 70 rounds before it was knocked out by a hit on its barrel by a tank shell – good shooting tankers!! The moment of the day was our encounter with a French gentleman who was in St Aubin on D-Day, when he was a small boy. He explained to us the layout of the German machine guns and told us that the P-47 pictured in the Guide actually crashed at sea, and was towed onto the beach. He also went home and brought back some magazine photos of St Aubin in 1945. Much devastation was in evidence. He chatted with us for about 20 minutes and filled in many details of the landing at St Aubin. Our next stop was Bernieres-sur-Mer. Here once again, cleverly sited bunkers dominated the beach. The day was foggy so we could not see out to sea very far.
After Bernieres we went to Beny-sur-Mer Canadian military cemetery. I was unsure how I would react to the scene I would encounter. In the event I was moved profoundly by the sight of many hundreds of Canadian soldiers lying at rest. In particular, the family inscriptions brought tears to my eyes as I was hit by the impact of each death on an ever-increasing circle of family and friends. Multiplied by the thousands of dead in the cemetery and the effect is staggering. I planted a small Canadian flag on the graves of Majors Purcell and Rainee, two gunner officers killed on D-Day. Both were about my age. I don’t think any Canadian could visit this site and remain unmoved. All Canadians should visit Beny-sur-Mer.
After lunch we toured Courselles-sur-Mer, the landing beaches of the Regina Rifles and Winnipeg Rifles. Dr. Milner gave a briefing on the mechanics of the invasion and we delved into some abandoned bunkers. We also stumbled upon a ceremony commemorating the June 4, 1944 broadcast of General DeGaulle. A small group of people gathered around the large cross of Lorraine that marks the spot where, on June 14, 1944, DeGaulle returned to France.
June 5, 1997
Omaha Beach day. Despite all that one reads about the difficulties on this beach, the full effect can only be experienced on site. The combined impact of walking through the American cemetery and then seeing the challenge that was overcome in seizing a bridgehead was awe inspiring. It is only when one is down on the beach, looking up at the bluffs, that the true awe is felt. The tall sandy bluffs tower over the beach, and one can imagine the difficulty in getting men motivated to get off the sand dunes and up those hills. The German defences are well preserved here also, a tribute to the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the fireplan!! They can be explored, and the ingenuity in siting the bunkers and other works is evident.
The next site we visited was Pointe du Hoc. Here, in the early hours of June 6, 225 Rangers assaulted the sheer cliffs to attack the coastal battery at the top (as it turned out the guns were fake). They then held on for two days until relieved when only 90 of the original 225 still stood. On this site the bomb craters are almost touching as over 300 bombs were dropped in support of the operation. The accomplishment of this small band is truly staggering. Scaling the cliffs, taking the bunkers, they overcame every obstacle to achieve their mission.
The last two events we attended today dealt with the airborne operations of the 6th Division. At Le Mesnil we attended the dedication ceremonies for a plaque naming the square after Brigadier James Hill, DSO and two bars. Brigadier Hill was the commander of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, in which the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion served. The Brigadier was able to attend the ceremony, despite his 85 years he is an active, delightful man. He took the time to meet all the students on the tour and had kind words for all. Quite a gentleman, and a leader men would follow anywhere. The Canadian veterans were a lively bunch who regaled us with stories of their heroic stand on the left flank of the Allied lodgement.
Finally, we went to Pegasus Bridge. Many of the Para veterans had gathered there at the bar at the foot of the bridge. I met one gentleman who was making his first trip to Normandy since D-Day. He lived in Australia and told me he had bittersweet memories of his war experiences. He remembers the comradeship and sense of purpose as well as the death of friends, the pain and the discomfort. He said he would not visit again.
June 6, 1997
D-Day – a day of ceremonies and remembrance. Our first event was the Queen’s Own Rifles ceremony at Bernieres-sur-Mer. They unveiled a new plaque on their monument, and brought a 40-piece band and a 20-man guard from Toronto. The crowd was large and friendly as the veterans marched into Place du Canada, led by Charlie Martin, DCM, MM. Speeches and unveilings followed but the most memorable and moving part of the ceremony was hearing “O Canada” played by a military band on a foreign battlefield. We are not a very patriotic people, we Canadians, but I think that any heart would have swelled to be in that place of sacrifice and struggle, standing with some of the men who did those incredible things. We met many of the veterans and their families that day, including Mr. Morley Young, a signaller from Winnipeg. He was a professor of genetic engineering at the University of Toronto before retiring, and was very friendly to all of us.
Moving down the beach to St Aubin-sur-Mer we caught the tail end of a Royal Marine ceremony on the beach. They had rowed out to sea and laid a wreath on the water. Around a dozen veterans watched from the beach, and a local band struck up God Save the Queen and the Marseilleise. A simple ceremony of great meaning.
Finally, we attended the dedication of a book of remembrance in the church at Bernieres-sur-Mer. The names of all 462 QORs who lost their lives are listed along with their service number, age and the cemetery and plot where they rest. It was compiled by the unit padre of the QOR and represents the fruits of 3 years of work – a noble achievement.
We ended the day with a visit to perhaps the best military museum in Normandy – the D-Day Museum in Bayeux. It is full of rare photographs, equipment, uniforms, and vehicles that tell the story of the Normandy campaign. It provides a fairly balanced picture, making full mention of Canada’s participation.
June 7, 1997
The first day of battlefield touring. Today we covered the Normandy battlefield that I know best. The Authie-Buron area was the scene of two important Canadian battles: 7 June saw the North Novas attacked by the 12th SS; and 4 July the 7th Brigade attack that eventually seized the Abbaye area. Despite much map study, reading, and even terrain modelling, nothing can substitute for the experience of standing on the ground. Seeing the route of the Canadian advance from St Contest brought home to me how exposed they were. Also, the defensive characteristics of the numerous villages showed me how hard it would be to take them in the face of a prepared defence. Finally, standing at Hell’s Corner I found it difficult to imagine how soldiers could muster the courage to remain in this exposed position, not more than 500 metres from the enemy, for a month.
We then toured the Bretteville l’Orgeilleuse battlefield of the Regina Rifles. It was fascinating to compare the two battles, one a German counterattack on a moving Canadian column, the other an attack on a prepared Canadian defence. The difference in results were impressive. At Bretteville the uncoordinated German attacks were largely beaten off. Only the infiltration tactics used at Putot-en-Bessin allowed some success, though it was later erased by a perfect battalion group assault by the Canadian Scottish. The tactics of the 12th SS were foolhardy in some instances; the power of the Canadian artillery stopped them cold.
During the afternoon of June 7 we attended a very moving ceremony in the garden of the Abbaye d’Ardenne. In this bucolic spot 19 Canadian prisoners were murdered by the 12th SS. The garden was crowded with our group, the American students, local people, and some of the veterans we met yesterday. A group from the QOR attended, bringing a bugler to sound the Last Post and Reveille. Dr. Alec Douglas, the President of the Normandy Foundation, addressed the group followed by Mr. Jacques Vicot. Mr. Vicot’s family lived near the abbey grounds and is intimately familiar with the details of that grim day. His description of the final moments of the 19 men was very moving. It is hard to understand, sometimes, why the execution of these 19 men should affect us so deeply. Perhaps it is because these men, some no more than boys, had volunteered to fight for Canada, had trained long and hard for this day, and had been cut down without remorse. We placed our wreath of flowers on the memorial, stood quietly in homage, shed our tears, and vowed to always remember these 19 brave men.
June 8, 1997
Went to Paris and saw the Eiffel Tower, l’Arc du Triomphe, Les Invalides, and Notre Dame. Paris is a wonderful city, I could spend another month here.
June 9, 1997
Started today with the Carpiquet battle of the 9th Brigade. The open ground over which they attacked was stunning. It brought home to me the vulnerability of unsupported infantry and the importance of good fire support coordination. The things I learned on my Battery Commander’s course were developed as a result of lessons learned at places like Carpiquet. There is nothing to compare with the feeling of standing on the ground over which Canadian troops fought. The terrain between the Canadian line of departure and their objectives is flat wheatfield. I realised the difficulty in advancing over this ground when I lay on my stomach. You can’t see the enemy when lying down and if you rise up to shoot or observe, the machine guns lacing the wheatfields can hit you. The challenge facing leaders at all levels to motivate their troops must have been very difficult. Especially with very junior leaders having to step into the breach to replace casualties.
Our last stop was Le Memorial – the museum of peace in Caen. Behind the museum is the Canadian Garden, a landscaped area depicting the Canadian contribution to victory. Dr. Alec Douglas, the President of the Foundation, explained to us the significance of the garden and its origin. Particularly impressive is the low wall upon which are inscribed the names of all the French towns liberated by Canadians. Although a work in progress, the garden is an impressive sight.
After returning to the abbey, Nancy Beattie, Pieter O’Leary, and I went to Villers-Bocage. Although this is a British battlefield, the events that occurred here shaped the entire campaign. The 7th Armoured Division missed a chance to break open the British flank of the lodgement, seize Caen, and destroy the 2nd Panzer Division. Its failure virtually doomed the British-Canadian forces to a month of static warfare. We traced the exact route of the 7th Division from Tilly-sur-Seulles to Villers-Bocage. Once there we searched for the spots where Michael Wittman, in his Tiger tank, virtually single handedly stopped the Desert Rats’ attack. The town of Villers-Bocage is different from most French villages we have visited thus far. Since it was bombed flat just after the battle all the buildings are relatively new. The main street is wide, and the town church looks like it would fit into any Canadian suburb.
Finally, while in Tilly-sur-Seulles, we visited the British cemetery. To our surprise, amongst the 1200 British soldiers, one Canadian is buried there – Flying Officer Habick, from Ontario. His entire aircraft crew is in the cemetery in one row, made up of Brits, Australians, and a New Zealander. I stopped and prayed at his gravesite, a lone Canadian amongst other nations’ troops. Later I returned and placed a Canadian flag on his grave. The efforts of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission really come home when you see the care with which this single Canadian grave is kept up. Je me souviens.
June 10, 1997
We continued our tour with operation atlantic, the Canadian part of operation goodwood. Our first stop was Hill 112. Though not part of the Canadian objectives it gave us a perfect point of view to look at the Canadian atlantic battlegrounds of the 2nd Canadian Division. This vital high ground dominated the Canadian battlegrounds from Carpiquet to St Martin-sur-Orne. Observers posted on its slopes would have had a field day. It is no wonder the Germans tried so desperately to hang on to this high ground.
Our next stop was St Andre-sur-Orne and Point 67. The reservoir on Point 67 provides a panoramic view of the Canadian battlefields of operations atlantic and spring. This hill should have a tablet explaining the view to visitors. From the hill you can see from Troteval Farm to St Andre-sur-Orne. The trial of the South Saskatchewan Regiment is clearly understandable once you see the ground.
Moving up Verrieres Ridge I got the feeling that I was crossing hallowed ground, made sacred by the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers. A combine harvester was cutting the wheat from the field on the glacis of the hill. Almost like the Black Watch were cut down on that same glacis. I snipped the head off a stalk of grain to keep as a reminder of the slaughter that occurred here.
We next visited two cemeteries, the Canadian at Cintheaux and the Polish at Langannerie. Both hold the graves of thousands of soldiers killed in the battles between Caen and Falaise. I found the grave of both LCol Cantlie, the CO of the Black Watch, and Major Griffen, the officer who led the remnants of the Black Watch up the ridge to their deaths. I placed a Canadian flag on Cantlie’s grave. He was leading his unit forward when a burst of machine gun fire cut him down. The frustration of his efforts are, for me, all the more sad when the fate of his unit is considered. Here was this man from Montreal, like me, of the same rank as me, 36 years old, one year older than me, who is killed doing his duty as best he can. I can’t get over the feeling that if Cantlie had lived he would have been able to stop that attack. The assault on Verrieres was so far off the rails that it had to be stopped. Griffen was not senior enough to say no – Cantlie was. His death set in motion the series of events that led to the massacre on the hill. The temptation to “what if?” the history of these events is hard to resist.
I also found the graves of LCol Worthington of the BCR and his brother, a Major, also of the BCR, who died nine days apart and now lie side by side. The impact of war back in Canada was on my mind as I looked at those two graves. Two brothers killed within nine days – the impact on their family and community is an aspect of the war little studied.
The Polish cemetery has a different feeling. It is a Polish island in France and seems to bring together all the Poles killed in France from 1941 to 1944. Pilots shot down in France make up the early group. They have been united with the soldiers of the 1st Polish Armoured Division. Personally, I prefer to see the pilots left in the village cemeteries in which they were initially buried. That way the local people are reminded of the sacrifices made by these men from Canada, Poland, or any other Allied country.
At the end of a long day of martyr’s fields and cemeteries, some of us visited the Chateau d’Audrieu near Tilly-sur-Seulles. Here, near the end of June, 66 Canadians were murdered by the 12th SS. There is a simple plaque listing the names of the killed in the town of Audrieu. The plaque at the abbey is powerful due to its setting – the peaceful garden, scene of the murders. The plaque in Audrieu overwhelms you with the sheer numbers of dead. 66 men shot or beaten in the woods behind the chateau. The chateau itself is now a very expensive hotel in the Chateaux & Relais chain. I wonder if the guests of the hotel know the truth about the awful events that occurred here 53 years ago.
June 11, 1997
Today we covered 250 kilometres in the minivans as we examined totalize, tractable and the closing of the Falaise Gap. We looked at the totalize ground, most of which is the same ground fought over in spring. Here, through the use of massive formations of APC-mounted infantry, a rapid penetration of the German positions was achieved. The first phase saw the Canadians get to the Cintheaux area, allowing the two armoured divisions (4th Canadian and 1st Polish) to pass through. Much ink has been spilled over the years about the pause ordered by General Simonds between the two phases of totalize. My own view is that Simonds had learned lessons from what he had seen in the campaign so far. Authie-Buron showed the vulnerability of infantry and armour deprived of artillery support. goodwood demonstrated the inability of massed armour to break out alone. spring showed the need for close control of movement and the power of German counter-attacks. Whether all these lessons were the correct conclusions to draw from these events is a matter of debate. totalize sought to address some of the perceived weaknesses in Canadian battles thus far. In doing so, Simonds imposed restrictions on his own ability to exploit opportunities.
Our next stops were Points 140 and 195, the actual and intended objectives of the BCR/AlqR battlegroup. The isolation of the BCR force, on the wrong hill, calling for support on the original objective, and surrounded by Panthers and Tigers, is reinforced by the location and condition of the BCR monument. It is isolated in a small copse of trees, its flagpole down, the flag gone, the cap badges of the two units ripped from the stone monument. The trial of the two units in 1944 is reflected in this forlorn, abused memorial.
As we began our examination of tractable, we too negotiated the crossing of the Laison River. When you are used to rivers like the St Lawrence, the Richelieu, and the Saguenay, it is hard to believe that the rivers in Normandy would pose much of an obstacle. Some of them would barely be creeks in Canada! Nonetheless, the crossing of any obstacle by a military formation is a deliberate event, and the effect on the advancing Canadians of running into the unfordable Laison at full tilt would have been confusing and disrupting.
We lunched in Falaise and had the opportunity to tour around the city. We visited the castle, which was undergoing a controversial renovation that sparked riots. A modern-looking facade was added to the medieval keep, giving it the look of a Dr. Who set. I see how traditionalists would be upset by the changes. Personally, I think that the old entrance was more authentic and appropriate than the new.
The towns of Trun and St Lambert-sur-Dives were the next stop on our tour south of Falaise. Here the Falaise Gap was closed by elements of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and the 1st Polish Armoured Division. We stopped at St Lambert to re-enact the famous photo of Currie winning the VC. Carrying on, we passed through the towns of Trun and Chambois where so much havoc was wrought on the retreating Germans. Finally, we arrived at the monument on Mont Ormel. From this high ground one can see 7 kilometres, right across the Gap. I can only imagine the field day the FOO, Capt Pierre Sevigny, had from this vantagepoint. He was a member of the 4th Medium Regiment, a unit my regiment perpetuates, and won the Polish Virtuti Militari for his efforts in helping the Poles hold “The Maczuga.”
Our last stop of the day was the Tiger tank at Vimoutiers. Abandoned by its crew it was restored and placed on display by the side of the road. The massive size of the Tiger and its powerful gun make the achievement of the Canadian soldier in facing this weapon all the more impressive. When we think that all the Tigers in Normandy were arrayed against the British and Canadians, and that the US Army did not see a Tiger in Europe until the Ardennes, the odds facing our Sherman-equipped tankers seem overwhelming. It was a combination of arms that beat them, the tanks, infantry, artillery, and air power of the Allies bested the technological superiority of the Germans. It was fitting, I think, to end our study of Normandy by examining a Tiger, not surrounded by its victims, in a Wittman-esque scene, but abandoned and destroyed by its own crew due to the triumph of Allied combined arms.
The evening of the 11th we were graciously received in the home of Jean and Mireille Fesnien, the caretakers of the Abbaye d’Ardenne. Their simple Norman hospitality and friendliness to Canadians was very moving. We presented Jean with a Canadian flag so that next year’s group would be greeted by the sight of the Maple Leaf flying over this site of tragedy and triumph. Merci Jean et Mireille.
June 12, 1997
We departed for Dieppe, passing through Le Havre, and Harfleur. We arrived around noon and had lunch on the beach. The immediate reaction on seeing the town, cliffs, and stony beach was “How could anyone think this place could be stormed from the sea?” That reaction, of course, involves an enormous amount of hindsight, projecting what we know about the fate of the landings and subsequent amphibious operations onto the Dieppe situation. Sitting on the stone beach, however, it was very difficult to escape this trap. I can better understand how difficult it is for historians to maintain perspective and attempt to disregard subsequent information when examining the motivations of historical actors. This is doubly true in the case of Dieppe, where a bloody repulse was suffered. I have been to the FusMR ceremony at Longueuil on 19 August, but I could not appreciate the pain and suffering, as well as the perverse pride, of the veterans who wear the Dieppe clasp on their Volunteers Service Medal until I stood on the stony beaches.
Looking, from the Mole, at Puys one gets a sense of the challenge the planners and soldiers on the beach. The beach is a small cleft, barely 200 metres wide, in a high chalky cliff of some 50 metres height. There was no other place to land, we knew it, the Germans knew it, hundreds of Royals learned it the hard way.
June 13, 1997
We started our tour on the other beach at Pourville. Here the South Saskatchewan Regiment came ashore and LCol Merritt won his VC. We stood on Merritt Bridge and examined the perfect sight lines from the German positions. The furthest are 1500 metres away, perfectly good MG 42 range, and dominate the whole beach. Despite this the SSR got ashore and passed the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada through their positions.
Once the owner discovered we were Canadians, the museum in Pourville was opened to us. Inside is a beachcomber’s paradise, as discarded equipment and weapons are displayed. The poster for the 50th anniversary of the landings is displayed on the wall and is particularly impressive: a maple leaf formed from splashes of blood. This was probably the most hands-on museum I have ever visited, as the owner allowed any and all to heft a Bren gun, examine crusted Lee-Enfields, or handle rusty grenades (which we sincerely hope are defused!).
After Pourville we visited the cemetery. Here most of the dead are Dieppe victims. As always kept up in the high standards we have become used to from the CWGC, this quiet plot belies the violence of their deaths. Once again it is the personal inscriptions on the tombstones that affected me most. I wondered how many of the families of the men buried here have visited this place, and as a result I felt obligated to read as many as possible, to think about their names, units, and lives, as a representative of all Canadians. I believe that is one of the reasons these places are so deeply affecting. It is not the numbers of dead, there 1 million people in Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal. It is not that they are war dead, the American cemetery moved me very little. It is that these men are Canadians forever resting far from home, buried where only a tiny percentage of the Canadian population has visited or ever will visit. The responsibility I felt to visit, to pause, to reflect, and to inform others is like the torch in McCrae’s poem “to (me) from failing hands” passed. I am changed.
A final visit to Puys beach confirmed my perceptions from the Mole. This tiny beach saw many die on 19 August. That a few made it into the town is nothing short of miraculous.
June 14, 1997
We left Dieppe in the spotty rain that seemed to characterise our road journeys. Our destination was Brugge with stops at the Atlantic Wall Museum near Calais along the way. The countryside of northern France was less impressive than that of Normandy, depressingly industrial, flatter, and less broken by small farming villages. We stop for lunch at the Todt Battery Museum, which could also be called “Gunner Land.” Several German 150mm howitzers are parked outside, as well as two PAK 40s and, most impressive of all, a 280mm railway gun (one of two in existence). I had to pose on the behemoth and ignored the mock-Freudian comments about gunners and their guns.
The museum itself is heaped with “stuff.” The paraphernalia of occupation is displayed and offered for sale. The likelihood of getting a MP 40 back through customs dissuaded most buyers I would think. After examining the museum we toured the Haringzelles battery. This immense bunker is very impressive, though it was hard to imagine that this empty concrete building once swarmed with life. There are, however, excellent examples of murals painted by German soldiers during the war (one assumes). They are mostly patriotic slogans or attacks on Churchill. Looking at them, a slice of the life of the garrison soldier can be seen. Like all people they attempted to decorate their surroundings, otherwise very bleak.
We stopped once again at Cap Gris-Nez and gaze across the Channel at England. We can’t see it, but we pretend. A climb up the Noire Mottes gave us an excellent view of the Sangatte battlefield of the Regiment de la Chaudiere and the North Shore Regiment.
Thoroughly bunkered-out, we embarked for Brugge. Crossing the border into Belgium was a non-event reflecting the loosening of controls associated with the advent of the EC.
June 15, 1997
A free day, I visited Waterloo – awe inspiring and smaller than I expected. Serge and I stayed behind to walk the battlefield, after the gang returned to Brugge. The right half of the British line looked in the same condition as it did 182 years ago. Walking across the valley from Huguemont to La Belle Alliance was a time-travelling kind of experience. In the low ground the roads and cars disappeared from view, only the Lion Mound remained incongruously dominant. As if on cue, a man on horseback cantered up to us heading, like Ney’s cuirassiers, towards the backside of the ridge, and the hidden British squares.
June 16, 1997
We started the day with a visit to the Canadian Military Cemetery at Adegem. This was an important place for me for two reasons I discovered as I explored the serried ranks of tombstones. Here are buried a large number of the RMR men killed crossing the Leopold canal. I have always had a close relationship with the officers of the RMR and to visit the resting-place of their war dead was a privilege. I took a picture of the grave of an RMR subaltern; I have met many of his modern counterparts over the years, and I can easily project their names onto this monument. I also found the grave of LCol Lewis, killed while acting Brigadier of the 8th Brigade. He was the CO of the 17th DYRCH, one of the antecedent units of the RCH, the unit with which I share an armoury. I also know his nephew, Norman Lewis. He was in my “Canada at War” class at Concordia last year and wrote a paper on the 3rd Division. I took a picture of his grave also; I wonder if Norman has ever been here? As I have noted before, the poignancy of these places is enhanced by the knowledge that most of the relatives of these men will never be able to visit their graves. We become ambassadors of remembrance in bringing our impressions back to Canada.
After the cemetery we visited a remarkable, inspiring place – the Canada Museum in Adegem-Maldegem. Run by Mr. van Landschoot, this private museum was built in thanks for the liberation of Belgium and the salvation of his family. Mr. van Landschoot guided us through his lovingly constructed life-sized dioramas depicting scenes of the war. During lunch he described the difficulties he encountered in building the museum, due to the high rate of collaboration in this area of Belgium. It took the intervention of the mayor and the King of Belgium to cut the bureaucratic red tape. Despite this help, Mr. van Landschoot gave up on receiving government money from Belgium or Canada, and built the museum himself – in 34 days! To Mr. van Landschoot’s regret this was 4 days longer than it took the Canadians to liberate Belgium. The symbolism, both religious and historic, in the construction of the dining room was stunning. The fervour and gratitude of Mr. van Landschoot, born after the war, is almost beyond comprehension, and is truly humbling. His plans for future monuments to war as it was, not as it is depicted in monuments of restored equipment, should be supported by every Canadian, and in particular the Canadian government.
(Author’s note: An interesting footnote to this story is that unbeknownst to me, my brother had visited this museum not one month before me. He was the chief-of-staff of the Ontario Minister of Economic Development and Tourism, the Hon. William Saunderson, who was in Brussels for an EC meeting. The Embassy told him he had to visit this museum, where he was welcomed warmly by Mr. van Landschoot. In tears, Mr. van Landschoot told the Minister that he was proud to have a representative of the Canadian people visit. Minister Saunderson was, however, the first Canadian official to visit this museum in the three years it has been open – a shameful situation.)
Our next stop this day was the Leopold Canal crossing site of the 7th Brigade. We gathered at the German machine-gun bunker and looked down the arrow-straight canal. Crossing it, even with the help of over 15 flamethowing Wasps, must have been an ordeal. It was crossing this canal that RMR, at a different site, in their first major battle, were all but wiped out by incessant German counter-attacks. Here the 7th Brigade crossed the canal and held on by their fingernails in the flooded polder country. Once again the efficient Canadian artillery snuffed out numerous German attacks, and helped save the day.
Moving on to Ede, we saw the spot where Queen Juliana of the Netherlands returned to her native soil, courtesy of Canadian arms. There is also a monument to the 7th Brigade and attached elements commemorating the Leopold Canal battles.
Our visit to Green Beach, site of the 8th Brigade landings, was different. There was little, if anything, to indicate that this was the site of the landings, but the site themselves appeared almost unchanged from 1944. So we stood on this indistinct piece of ground that is now valued only by the farmer whose land the dike protects, and by the few Canadians who occasionally visit.
Our last stop of the day was to tour a naval battlefield. The 16th century naval battle of Sluis took place in an area that has since been reclaimed from the sea, thus providing the unique opportunity to walk a naval battle site. The town of Sluis, once a port, is now several kilometres from the coast and archaeologists have dug up many artefacts from the two fleets. Finally, we follow the east-west route of the 3rd Division as it liberated the Breskens pocket, finishing the tour, as they finished the battle, at Fort Frederik Hendrik.
June 17, 1997
Today began our three-day examination of Canada’s involvement in the First World War. Despite the emphasis of the tour on the Normandy Campaign (only proper for the Canadian Battlefields Foundation!) I am glad that these three days were included. This may be the only chance I ever get to participate in a military history tour of this nature, and I am grateful for the opportunity to squeeze every last drop of on-site exploration from the tour. Also, Dr. Marc Milner’s presence as our tour guide, and his wide knowledge of First World War battlefields, made these three days all the more rich a learning experience.
We started the tour with a drive along the 2nd Ypres battlefield. It was difficult to get oriented on a battlefield that has changed so much, but the basic contour of the ground remains, despite the abuses of man. Standing near Locality C, we saw the low ridge that sheltered the German attackers. Standing there you realized how the micro-contour of the land became so important in a battle like this. Shelter from enfilading fire, meaning the difference between success and massacre, can be found in the slightest fold in the ground.
We stopped at the St Julien monument “The Brooding Soldier.” At the recent Wilfrid Laurier Military History Colloquium, a paper on this monument, and its designer Frederic Clemenshaw, was presented. Armed with that account of the controversy surrounding the building of this monument, I approach the tall pillar with new eyes. The soldier, resting on arms reversed, is seen by some as a figure of mourning for a lost generation. I prefer to see it in ceremonial commemoration. Often, while watching the National Remembrance Day ceremonies, I would see the four soldiers (or airmen or sailors) posted at the War memorial in Ottawa, in a similar pose. It does not seem sad to me, but respectful. In the context of the day, however, it broke with the heroic mould of early 1920’s monument building. I prefer it to the monument at our next stop, Hill 62. The official monument at all Canadian battle sites is a granite cube that is simple and eloquent, but does not move the viewer.
We then visited Kitchener’s Woods where the abortive counter-attack by the 10th and 16th battalions tried to fill the gap created by the gas. The hopelessness of the attack can be seen in the ground – uphill into a defended position, with no artillery support. The great offensive weapon that was the Canadian Corps of 1917 was little evident in the piece-meal counter-attacks of 2nd Ypres. We had much to learn – but we did learn.
On the way to Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood we visited Langemarck cemetery. Here are buried 44,000 German soldiers including 23,000 in one mass grave. Here also is commemorated the slaughter of the German student brigades. Two small chapels flank the entrance; on one side a description of the battle is provided, on the wooden walls of the other are engraved the names of the thousands killed in the kindermord. Impressively, there are several German bunkers on the edge of the cemetery, still dominating the dead ground behind the Gravenstafel Ridge. This part of the line held against the Canadians and British until 1918.
After visiting the Hill 62 monument, we toured the trench museum at Sanctuary Wood. Worth the price of admission is the collection of stereo photographs displayed on several antique viewers. Most of the images are French, and were unknown to me. They depict trench life in gruesome detail. The trenches “preserved” by the museum are more dodgy as they have been quite obviously reinforced over the years. They do, however, provide a good picture of the layout of a typical trench network.
After lunch we began examining the 3rd Ypres battlefields. We found Caterpiller Crater, an immense pond created by a mine, and later filled with water, and then looked at the British and Canadian lines of advance up the Paschendaele Ridge to the village itself. Once again the impact of the ground is only apparent when standing on it. The dominance of the German position on the ridge is so clear when you are standing in the low ground. What is mind boggling to consider is that hundreds of thousands of men on both sides died trying to seize that low ridge.
Tyne Cot British cemetery was one of the most impressive I’ve seen. 12,000 headstones surround a Cross of Sacrifice mounted on a German bunker. Behind it is a memorial wall to some 35,000 British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers with no known grave. It also holds the graves of two Australian VC winners. While seated on the grass in front of his grave I read the exploits of Capt Jeffries, which occurred near the cemetery. All accounts of acts of bravery instil a sense of awe, but to be in that place where he both won the VC and where he rests forever brought tears to my eyes as I read how he won his singular honour.
After checking-in to our hotel in Ypres, two events remained: on large, public and moving, the other small, private and eerie. The first, at the Menin Gate, was the playing of the Last Post under the arch of the gate. Virtually every day since 1925, interrupted only by invasion, two or more Ypres firemen have played the Last Post at 2000 hrs. This night, a large crowd gathered to hear the three men play on silver bugles. Commemoration like this, small in scale but massive in significance, reminded me how present the war is in Europe when compared to Canada. Some we met in the towns and villages we visited decried the lack of knowledge about the war displayed by the young in their country. This in countries that have hundreds of cemeteries and monuments and which hold ceremonies like that at the Menin Gate. Imagine the level of ignorance that must exist in Canadian schools where perhaps one page in a Canadian history textbook is devoted to the First World War.
After dinner a small group visited the Lille Gate Cemetery. This plot holds 45 graves, 10 of which are Canadian. We visited as the sun set, the failing light hid the text from all but close inspection. The graves appeared even more uniform, uniting the dead even more closely.
June 18, 1997
Today we toured the Somme battlefields significant to Canada. We started at Pozieres Mill, the line of departure for the Canadian attack on Courcelette. I found the Somme battlefields much easier to visualise than those of the Ypres salient. Less development, and the fact that most farms and villages have been rebuilt on their original sites, made it easier to picture the trenches, wire, and long lines of men struggling forward. Courcelette is a battle honour of the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos, and I could well imagine the bitter fight for the village as I looked upon the seemingly short distance separating their start point from Courcelette.
The South African monument at Delville Wood was our next stop. This is a very impressive site with a well-presented gift shop with many books and artefacts, and a beautiful museum. The museum was reached via a long tree-lined lawn. The museum itself is shaped like a fort and holds many engraved glass and bas-reliefs panels telling the story of South African involvement in both World Wars. The woods are part of the memorial as it has been left as it was. Trenches were visible in this peaceful glade where unexploded munitions and the bodies of the dead still lie buried. All in all, it made a very fine impression, something on which Canada should model some of our sites.
On our way to Beaumont Hamel we passed the 36th Ulster Division memorial and I, the driver, forced a halt. My grandfather served in this division as a signaller, so this memorial meant much to me. Strangely, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I looked at the many prints, plaques and tributes within the memorial tower. Thinking not only of my unknown grandfather but of my own father, recently passed away, this monument to our common Irish heritage affected me, unexpectedly, in a way no other had.
Our last stop of the day was Beaumont Hamel, the Newfoundland Memorial. This large site preserves the section of the Somme battlefield where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was slaughtered on July 1st, the first day of the battle. What was most striking about this battlefield is the short distance between the Newfoundlander and German front trenches. There is barely 200 metres separating the two lines and the thought that over 700 men fell in that short space is appalling. I walked across no man’s land, past the Danger Tree and reached the German front-line in a few minutes. The ground is scarred by shell craters and battle debris can still be seen. At the far end of the field the connection of the battlefield with the 51st Highland Division is commemorated. They relieved the 29th Division (which included the Newfoundlanders) and eventually seized the German position. There is a small cemetery on the field, occupied almost exclusively by members of the Imperial Black Watch. Like the Seaforth cemetery on the Ypres battlefield, the grouping of the dead into regimental cemeteries is both fitting and saddening. Fitting because all these comrades will rest here together forever, and saddening when you consider the impact of such a loss on the region from which the regiments were drawn. British units recruited regionally then, and still do, so a major loss by a unit would be concentrated in one area. The magnitude of the losses experienced on the Somme probably meant that every small community felt the impact of loss, seeing the graves clustered together brought that home to me.
The monument to the 51st Highland Division had an inscription that I found particularly apt in describing the group spirit that characterises regionally-based regiments like the units of the 51st and of today’s Canadian Militia: Là a’ bhlàir ‘s math na Càirdean or “Friends are good on the day of the Battle” sums up the spirit of community that can exist in a good unit.
June 19, 1997
Our last day in France was devoted to the largest national monument of the First World War – Vimy Ridge. The day was cold and rainy with a steady wind that kept most tourists away and reminded me of the cold sleety snow that greeted the infantry that April 9th morning in 1917. We had the park virtually to ourselves, save for two busloads of kids, one British, one French. To start our visit we took a guided tour of the underground tunnels carved out of the chalky rock. The guide points out, as we clambered along the narrow passageways, that these tunnels were significantly widened since the war to allow tourists’ entry. Upon leaving the tunnels we walked up to the monument itself. The massive twin towers are visible from a great distance, dominating the Douai plain. Another guide explained the significance of the various sculptures on the monument. Once again it was the seemingly endless list of names of the missing that impressed me the most.
I could sense the end of the tour approaching as three of our little group left us for further holidays in France. Before the group left Vimy I was able to visit with an old friend and fellow Gunner officer Maj Clermont Chamberland (retd.), the manager of the Vimy site. He lives right on the park site in a beautiful little house. Nice job if you can get it!
We left Vimy and drove to Calais where we took the hovercraft to Dover. My first hovercraft ride, it was rather more like being in a small aeroplane than a ship. No rolling motion was felt, just a constant loud vibration. The sea journey was followed by a train trip to London where we settled in for our free day tomorrow.
June 20, 1997
I had not been in London since 1980, many changes were evident. Three of us decided to walk down to Westminster Abbey and then go our separate ways. I went to the Imperial War Museum, much changed since my last visit. It is much more audio-visual than the last time I was here, but still holds an impressive number of important vehicles and ordnance in its main display room. I like to visit museums like this on my own as I can go at my own pace. My visit this time lasts four hours, leaving me just enough time for a rapid walk across London to our hotel for the final event of the tour: the last-night dinner.
Sitting around the table later that night, enjoying the food, wine, and conversation, I reflected back on my early impressions of the tour. Then, it felt unreal to be visiting the famous sites about which I had only read. Now the reality of the tour’s end stared me in the face. This had been a truly magnificent experience that gave rise to many emotions. Pride in what Canadian soldiers accomplished, sorrow and pain when visiting the cemeteries – tangible reminders of their sacrifice. I also felt awe when confronted with the gratitude of the French and Belgian people for their liberation. Nowhere was this more evident than in Adegem at the Canada Museum. I also realise that I have made some good friends around this table, friends with whom I want to stay in touch. Three weeks is a long time to spend with fifteen strangers, and it is a tribute both to the group and to those who chose us that we got on so well.
The end of the tour begs the question “What next?” What will I do with this experience of a lifetime? One of the aims of the tour organisers is to see the experience of the tour carried over into the lives of the participants. While I know that I will return to these places, particularly Normandy, I must also seek ways to keep this experience alive. One way will be to keep in touch with my tour mates – a most pleasant task. Another will be to use every opportunity to talk and write about the tour. I am sure thousands of Canadians visit France and Belgium without ever thinking about their countrymen who fought here in two wars. The tour has also reaffirmed my decision to pursue my history studies as much as I can. If by writing articles, letters, and monographs I can help keep alive the memory of these Canadians then I shall have kept faith with their sacrifice. Je me souviens, je me souviendrai, je me toujours souviendrai.
June 21, 1997
This was a busy day of packing and departures, of hurried farewells, and unspoken thanks. We took the tube to Heathrow and as I was taking a domestic flight to Belfast, I had to leave the group on the platform. It was a most unsatisfactory way to say good-bye, but what could you say to these people who have shared your life these past three weeks? Good-bye friends and fellow witnesses. Go and tell them.