Remembrance is a word that was instilled in me from the time I was a small child. Two of my uncles served during World War II. The one who saw action in France returned a changed man. Although he never spoke to me of his experiences, I loved him unconditionally, and respected his service to the people of Canada.
In elementary school, my classmates and I attended Remembrance Day ceremonies, and I grieved for the men who died in both World War I and World War II. It mattered not that I had been born many years too late to have known them.
That need to remember was ingrained deep within me, so deep that, although I might have missed attending a Remembrance Day ceremony from time to time, I always stopped at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to say a prayer, to grieve and to remember.
In all those years of remembrance, I rarely thought about opposing sides or other wars. On reflection now, my schooling on this matter was sorely lacking.
In late May of 2004, I travelled to France to visit World War I and World War II battle sites. I joined a bus tour that included four motor coaches, not only to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the second world war, but also to honour my uncle and other members of the Regina Rifles with whom he had served.
Most of the passengers on that tour were Canadians who, like me, had felt compelled to be in Normandy for the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, which was to be held on Juno Beach on June 6th. About thirty percent of the passengers were veterans of the second world war, and some had participated in battles conducted on the very sites we visited.
During our first week together, we visited battle sites, cemeteries and museums dedicated to the first war, including Verdun Memorial Museum, Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park, Menin Gate, Flanders, and Vimy Ridge. As the days passed, we came to know our fellow travellers and listened to stories of war, many of which had never been shared before.
One day, I stood viewing a re-enacted battle scene in a room of the Verdun Memorial Museum when an elderly gentleman approached me. “I nearly lost my eye during the battle for Verrières Ridge,” he said, catching my attention. I looked around to see to whom he spoke. He stepped closer to me, the only other person in that room. “The percussion of a mortar shell hit me so hard that it popped out.” His voice was matter of fact as he continued. “I was alone, you see. Isolated from the others. No one could help me. We were all under fire. I lay there, with my eye resting on my cheek, wondering what to do.” His gaze rested on the open palm of his right hand. “So, I took my hand, and pushed it back into the socket. Like this,” he said, raising his hand to his face. A single tear trickled down his weathered cheek, “I’ve never told that to anyone before.”
I didn’t know how to respond to his story, so I waited while he collected himself, then I thanked him for sharing his story. As the minutes ticked by and we shared the quietude of that empty room, he said, “I have been haunted by that war for more than sixty years. I came here to find peace, and now perhaps I will. Thank you for listening.”
Sometime during the second week of travel, we stopped at Langemark Cemetery, drove along the Somme River, visited Dieppe, Puis, Pourville, Verrieres Ridge, Caen and Courseaullers, and, once again, we honoured the veterans at Juno Beach.
When we stopped at Langemark Cemetery, I was struck with a new level of awareness. That cemetery marked the deaths of fallen soldiers as well, German soldiers. They too had died during the bloody battles of World War II.
I was also struck by the size of the cemetery: small in comparison to the Canadian ones, and dark. While the individual grave sites of Canadian soldiers formed neat, far-reaching rows marked with pristine white stone, the mass graves of the German soldiers were marked with black, moss-covered stone.
I began to wonder: Why were the stones black? Why was the cemetery so small? Why did the occupants have to share space with their peers? Who had built this cemetery for the fallen German fathers, brothers and sons?
As I had done at the Canadian cemeteries, I placed poppies on the black stones, said a prayer, grieved, and remembered.
While the days passed and the busses made other stops, I met other elderly veterans and listened to the stories they felt compelled to share.
After a particularly long, hot afternoon spent at the Canadian War Cemetery, Beny-Sur-Mer, I spotted Sergeant Ernest “Smokey” Smith, a Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross, sitting quietly in his wheelchair, waiting as folks lined up to have their photograph taken with him. When a travelling companion asked that I take his photograph with Smokey, we joined the line. As we waited, I listened to the folks around me describe in hushed awe what it was that he had done to merit such recognition. My amazement grew as each sweltering moment passed.
When it was finally our turn, my companion introduced himself to Smokey, while I focused my camera. “Hey!” Smokey asked my companion, “Where’d ya find such a good-looking babe!” There was no need to say “cheese” for that photo.
As the June 6th commemoration date drew near, anticipation of the celebration on Juno Beach amplified. The atmosphere around the four buses was electric. By that time, I had been befriended by two veterans. One had spent the duration of the second war in the merchant marines, patrolling the east coast of Canada. The other was a younger air force pilot, who had not seen battle. They travelled together, without family, and invited me to sit with them and the other veterans during the ceremony. I was both honoured and humbled by their generous invitation.
We sat near the front of crowd, close enough to be greeted by Queen Elizabeth when she strolled passed, followed by then-Prime Minister Paul Martin, soon-to-be Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, and Prince Philip.
I had no idea what to expect that day, and was in awe of the respect and honour given to our Canadian veterans. I was impressed by the words of the guest speakers, the fly-over of vintage aircraft, which included a Hurricane, a Lancaster and a Spit-Fire, and by the Last Post. All of those experiences paled, though, in comparison to the final event listed of the day’s program: the march of the veterans.
The audience stood to watch as hundreds of veterans, primarily from World War II and including the two by whom I’d been adopted, made their way to the beach to remember, and to pay their respects to their fallen comrades. We watched their progress – some sauntering, some shuffling, some in wheel chairs – on a giant television screen. When at last they reached the beach, we saw raw emotion crease their faces, and shed our own tears with them.
I have so many memories of that tour, but the one that stood out the most was the plea from those whom I had befriended: “You must come back . . . to remember. We’re old now. Most of us won’t live to see the seventieth anniversary. If you don’t come, we will be forgotten. Don’t forget us, or our efforts will be for not.” I promised that I would.
Because of my privileged encounter with the veterans whom I met in 2004, I am bound to keep my promise, to remember, every year on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. At the same time, I reflect on war, and why it happens. What we as a people of the world can do to stop it. How we as a people of the world can engage in peace and understanding, instead of war, hatred and greed.
In May of 2014, I once again travelled to Normandy, to fulfill my promise to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of D-Day on Juno Beach. I joined a tour hosted by the same company that guided the 2004 tour. We travelled together in two motor coaches, not four, and among us we counted only four veterans. Those veterans have all passed on now, but, before that tour ended, they too shared their stories.
The questions that I posed at the Langemark Cemetery in 2004 continue to linger. Only recently, I learned that the circumstance of that cemetery is haunted by politics and money. But, it was my experience there that lead me to understand the greater picture, about humanity, compassion, understanding, love, and so much more.
This year, as every year, I will gather with other like-minded folks on November 11th to remember. And, God willing, I’ll be standing on Juno Beach in 2024 to commemorate the eightieth anniversary, alongside others who have made the same promise that I made, and with all of the Canadian soldiers whose hearts tary on that beach. Together, we will recite the words of Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, and “We will remember them.”