Photographs by Marc Fowler of Metropolis Studio
There is nothing like being there–among the rows of white headstones–to realize why it is so important to remember Canada’s wartime sacrifices. You can read about it and hear about it, but it is hard to appreciate what was gained and lost unless you see if for yourself.
David Parsons of Deer Lake, Nfld., agrees. The 38-year-old was one of 10 provincial Legion representatives who participated in the 1999 Dominion Command Youth Leaders Pilgrimage of Remembrance. From July 8-22, Parsons and the other youth leaders travelled through Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands to visit Canadian WW I and WW II cemeteries, memorials and battlefields.
“For me,” said Parsons, “one of the most powerful moments occurred early one morning at Beaumont Hamel. There was dew on the ground and you could smell it and feel it. You could smell the pine, maple and dogberry trees. It reminded me of home. And there was, of course, the monument; a great bronze caribou, emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. It was breathtaking!”
Travelling with the youth reps were six war veterans from across Canada. The biennial pilgrimage was led by Dominion Vice-President Clarence King of Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld. “The pilgrimage was the experience of a lifetime,” said King. “We spent a couple of weeks walking through history as opposed to reading about it. We held ceremonies and placed wreaths. The youth leaders were very dedicated. They asked really good questions and learned a lot. All of them will be sharing what they learned with people back in their home provinces.”
King said the most tearful moment came when the group placed a wreath at the Abbaye d’Ardenne in Normandy where at least 20 Canadian soldiers were murdered by the 12th SS Panzer Div. in 1944.
Debra Kerr-Goodfellow of Neilburg, Sask., said the Canadian war cemeteries were immaculate. “For beauty, they were right up there with our national parks…. The Vimy Memorial and the park surrounding it were absolutely stunning…. I felt a tremendous tide of emotion come over me while I was standing there listening to Last Post. Each and every monument and cemetery touched everyone deeply.”
At Dieppe, tour participants got up at 5 a.m. to walk the stone beach. “We wanted to get a feel for what it was like that time of day,” explained Parsons. “So, a group of us hit the beach at low tide and tried to picture what it was like for the young Canadian men who came ashore during the raid on Aug. 19, 1942.”
Colleen Jones of Richmond, Ont., said she was inspired, but saddened by what she saw. “Where the names of the fallen really got to me was at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. There are more than 54,000 (names of Commonwealth WW I dead with no known grave) inscribed on the archway…. It was a distinct honour to carry the Canadian flag during our part of the ceremony there.”
Monique Krumke of New Richmond, Que., says Canadian war history takes on a whole new meaning. “You see the photos in books, but it’s not the same. The pilgrimage was excellent. I hope it continues for years to come because the more people who get to go, the more we can spread the word about Canada’s wartime achievements and sacrifices.”
Michael White of Enfield, N.S., was accompanied by his sister Theresa Mason, his mother Rita and her two sisters Theresa Ross and Dorothy Day. At a cemetery in Adegem, Belgium, they found the grave of Rita’s brother. Private Raymond Benere of the Algonquin Regiment died Oct. 10, 1944, while riding on a gun carrier. He was 19. “I never cried so much in all my life,” said White. “It was very sad, but it was nice for us to see his final resting place.”
Ottawa photographer Marc Fowler, who produced the images for this photo feature, was impressed by how the pilgrimage delivered a human dimension to Canada’s war history. “Without that it is very difficult for people to grasp what it was all about. Being there gives you a whole new perspective.”