Remembrance Day will never be the same for 27 travellers from Pemberton and Mt. Currie. In March 2009, we embarked on a Canadian Battlefields Tour in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Our Spring Break Travel Club consisted of nine adults and eighteen students.
We landed in Paris on a beautiful sunny day and took in the city sites, which included Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles.
The palace was where the Treaty of Versailles was signed at the end of WW I in 1918 by the Germans and the Allies to guarantee world peace, establish a League of Nations and prevent such atrocities from happening again. As we all know the treaty was broken when Hitler invaded Poland and started WW II.
Paris is an amazingly beautiful city. It's historic architecture and famous sites make it a must see for everyone at least once in their lives.
We then toured the Normandy region, a landscape of rolling hills and beautiful farmland. This peaceful countryside was also where some of most famous battles of WW I and II took place and it is now home to hundreds of cemeteries and monuments to the soldiers who fought and died here.
Nothing prepared us for the emotions we would experience visiting these sites where our Canadian forefathers battled in two World Wars.
We started at Dieppe where a castle overlooks a beautiful beach. Under the castle is a small memorial park honouring Canadian soldiers who fought, died and were captured during "Operation Jubilee" - a failed raid on the port of Dieppe on August 19, 1942. The object of the raid was to gather intelligence and take out key Nazi defensive positions but Germans knew of their arrival before they came ashore and the stone beach impeded the movement of the tanks and troops. The men were in an impossible situation, and 907 Canadian soldiers were killed and 1,946 were taken prisoner out of 5,000 that landed on Dieppe that day.
Although the cost was high, the lessons most learned were the deficiencies in Allied planning and strategies. Without Dieppe, the planning for the Normandy "D Day" invasion would not have been as comprehensive or successful. The Memorial at Dieppe will forever ensure that the Canadian soldiers who fought and died, were wounded and captured will never be forgotten.
Juno Beach was our next stop on the tour. The Canadian Memorial at the Juno Beach site is an amazing testament to our soldiers. On June 6, 1944 "D-Day", the Third Canadian Infantry Division landed on Juno Beach, part of a larger invasion by the Allied armies of Britain, Canada and the U.S. - not to mention a dozen other nations in supporting roles - who landed on the beaches of Normandy. It was known as "Operation Overlord" and more than 160,000 troops were involved.
Fourteen thousand Canadian soldiers stormed Juno beach that day. They raced across the wide open beaches under machine gun fire and through their courage, determination and self-sacrifice they were successful in establishing a beach head. Some 359 Canadian soldiers were killed in the first day of the invasion and 715 were wounded, most of them on Juno Beach.
A quote from John Keegan, British historian who wrote Six Armies in Normandy :
"At the end of the day, its forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division. The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride."
A stop at Omaha Beach, the American cemetery was overwhelming as the white crosses of over 9,000 soldiers who died at the D-Day invasion can be seen as far as the eye can see. Our Allies who fought beside our Canadian soldiers also suffered many losses.
Vimy Ridge was the most amazing monument that we visited. France granted for all time 107 hectares to Canada and her citizens where the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada is located.
The battle of Vimy Ridge saw some of the heaviest artillery fire of World War I, as well as the first genuine breakthrough for the Allies since the start of the conflict.
The monument was designed and built by Canadian sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward and took 11 years to build. It contains over 6,000 tonnes of limestone and is inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were listed as "missing, presumed dead" in France. It stands as a tribute to all who served their country in battle and risked or gave their lives in the war and paid a price to help ensure the peace and freedom we enjoy today.
At the base of the Memorial are these words:
"To the valour of their countrymen in the Great War and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada."
The most poignant moment was when one of our travellers, Shawn Wallace, found her great-grandfather's name engraved on the monument. With great pride and tears, she took a pencil rubbing of his name. As we all hugged each other we felt sadness and a sense of honour that we were able to visit this memorial.
The Vimy Ridge Memorial has come to symbolize Canada's long commitment to peace in the world. The Canadian tradition of asking its servicemen and women to defend and restore peace has evolved into a long commitment of peacekeeping as a member of the United Nations and NORAD. Canadians have demonstrated their valour on many battlefields, but today the message o the Vimy Memorial is one of peace - upheld for Canada by the Canadian Armed Forces.
We travelled out of France, into Belgium where much of the fighting during the Great War happened. We first visited the Somme region where the trenches of No Man's Land are still visible today. They are now grassed over and peaceful with sheep grazing, nothing like the cratered, muddy, and corpse-strewn field it was after the war.
We visited the Beaumont Hamel Memorial, which is a tribute to the soldiers of Newfoundland that fought during World War I. A beautiful bronze caribou looks over the site and keeps watch over the burial sites of our fallen men.
We travelled to Ypres, where we drove through the famous Menin Gate which marked the start of one of the main roads out of Ypres towards the front line during The Great War. Tens of thousands of men must have passed through it and onwards along the infamous Menin Road, so many of them never to return.
The memorial was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield. It was opened in 1927, ten years after the terrible Third Battle of Ypres - the beginning of the campaign which ended with the capture of the village of Passchendaele by Canadian troops.
The Menin Gate memorial combines the architectural images of a classical victory arch and a mausoleum and it contains, inside and out, huge panels into which are carved the names of the 54,896 officers and men of the Commonwealth forces who died in the Ypres Salient area and who have no known graves. This figure, however, does not represent all of the missing from this area.
It was found that the Menin Gate, immense though it is, was not large enough to hold the names of all the missing. The names recorded on the gate's panels are those of men who died in the area between the outbreak of the war in 1914 and August 15, 1917. The names of a further 34,984 of the missing - those who died between August 16, 1917 and the November 11, 1918 - Armistice Day - are recorded on carved panels at Tyne Cot Cemetery, on the slopes just below Passchendaele. Every night of the year, without exception, policemen close the road to traffic at 8 p.m. and salute while buglers from the Ypres Fire Brigade play "The Last Post". They play whatever the weather and there is always someone there to watch. The people living near the Menin Gate often open their doors and stand on their doorsteps to join in this daily act of Remembrance in honour of the young and brave who came from all over the world to die in the defence of their town.
Just outside of Ypres is the St. Julian Memorial where Canadian soldiers withstood the first German gas attacks in April 1915. Over 6,035 soldiers died in the battles of Ypres - one of three that were initially sent to Europe to fight. The St. Julian Memorial stands as a sentinel over those who died during the heroic stand of the Canadian solders.
Visible for miles around the memorial stands 11 metres tall. The central column rises from a low circular flagstone terrace and is sculpted at its top to form the bowed head and shoulders of a Canadian soldier, his hands resting on his reversed rifle. The column is surrounded by gardens of tall cedars trimmed into the shape of artillery shells and low cut cedars trimmed to look like shell explosions. It overlooks all of the battlefield in the area including Passchendaele and the inscription reads:
"This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British Left withstood the first German gas attacks the 22nd-24th April 1915. 2,000 fell and here lied buried."
In the second week of fighting during the Second Battle of Ypres, a Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on May 2, 1915 by a German artillery shell. He was a dear friend of Canadian military Dr. John McRae who wrote the famous poem "In Flanders Fields" as a tribute to his friend and fallen comrades. We visited the site where he worked as a doctor and went into the concrete bunkers which served as a makeshift hospital.
A cemetery is at this site, and the most visited grave was that of a 15 year old Canadian boy who lost his life in battle. For the students it was a shock to see that children their age or younger fought during the war.
We also visited a German WW I cemetery in the Somme area. It was haunting and beautiful and given just as much respect by people as all of the Allied cemeteries. The German cemeteries all have grey headstones rather than the white headstones of the Allied soldiers. This cemetery had over 50,000 German soldiers buried there.
Our last stop was in Amsterdam where we visited the Anne Frank House. Anne Frank wrote in her diary while hiding there and it became famous when her father published it after WW II.
For more than two years Anne Frank and her family lived in the annex of the building where Anne's father, Otto Frank, also had his business. The Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer hid there with them. The doorway to the annex was concealed behind a moveable bookcase constructed especially for this purpose. The office personnel knew of the hiding place and helped the eight people by supplying them with food and news of the outside world. On August 4, 1944 the hiding place was betrayed and everyone in hiding was deported to various concentration camps. Only Otto Frank survived the war. Publishing Anne's diary was his way of sharing the memory of his family and to tell the world of the persecution of Jewish people.
It was a moving, haunting experience to be in the same house where they lived and were captured. There are still pictures Anne pasted on the walls and her famous diary that she wrote in telling of her days is displayed in the annex.
Amsterdam is a wonderful, historic city and it is hard to believe that it was the site of such cruelty and sadness.
Our travel club enjoyed our trip and although we had the "Canadian Battlefield" theme as our focus, we also enjoyed the beautiful sites and the wonderful people we met. Today, the cities and countryside we visited are enjoying prosperity and peace, thanks to the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers of the Allied Forces during both World Wars.
I know that all of us who travelled to these sites will always remember with pride our Canadian soldiers who fought in World War I and II and the price they paid for our freedom and the life we live today. We were never so proud to be Canadian as we were when visiting Normandy and we recommend that all Canadians visit these memorials in honour of our soldiers.
We will attend future Remembrance Day Services with a greater understanding, with more conviction, with more thankfulness and appreciation than ever before. We will be more respectful and honoured when a veteran walks in the room or when stories are told by our grandparents if we are lucky enough to still have them in our lives. We thank you.