The November sky over northern France is grey and leaden and a light rain begins to fall—as though the whole countryside is in mourning—when the casket containing the remains of Private Ralph Tupper Ferns, 25, of the Royal Regiment of Canada, is carried through the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in Cintheaux, France.
“He should be here, with his comrades,” said Ferns’ tearful niece Janice Basilone following the funeral, during which she and Gary Ferns, nephew of the dead soldier, were presented with the Canadian flag which had covered their uncle’s coffin. “I feel he belongs here.” And here he is laid to rest, finally, with full military honours, amid the graves of 2,793 fellow fallen Canadians, 64 years after he died for his country.
Other mourners included dignitaries from Canada and France. Members of the modern Royal Regt. of Canada were pallbearers. Also attending were a contingent of Canadian veterans and a youth delegation in France to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War (A Journey of Learning, January/February). About 100 local residents also came to pay respects.
The outpouring of grief and respect is testament that time does not erase the emotions nor subtract from the sacrifice. Instead, it raises them to the realm of the symbolic.
“We live in the best country in the world—and it’s not by accident,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson at a luncheon hosted by the local community. Ferns’ sacrifice, he said, brings home the lesson that “freedom is never free.”
It’s a lesson passed down from generation to generation in French families. “Many people are dead for us,” said Christian Guilloux, who with wife Valérie, took their children Laurine and Quentin out of elementary school for the day to attend the ceremony. His father was 16 the year Ferns was killed, and his experiences of occupation and liberation—and his gratitude—are preserved in family memory. “Canadians came to deliver France a long time ago, and we must remember.”
Remembrance is also a family affair for Corporal David James of the South Alberta Light Horse. “We had the parade for the funeral in the region my grandfather fought in the Second World War. To think 64 years earlier that man crossed these fields before me. I’m seeing his shadow everywhere. I can’t claim any of that glory or hard work or what they went through in that turmoil.”
But Canadians today do claim and enjoy the prizes of that hard work. “My sons have the freedom and the choice not to serve because of those who have gone before them,” Basilone said in an interview with Legion Magazine.
“It’s like somebody just disappearing out of your family,” said Basilone, who was not yet born when her uncle died, and whose children are now about his age. The “bits and pieces” of information handed down were scanty: “I knew he was a tall man, a very gentle man. I knew he volunteered.”
Ferns enlisted in Toronto in December 1941. He’d been on battlefields in Normandy for six weeks when Operation Tractable kicked off on the morning of Aug. 14, 1944. It was part of the effort to close the Falaise Gap, into which thousands of Germans were retreating.
The First Canadian Army requested Royal Air Force bomber support for the operation. As the first aircraft appeared, the Royal Regt. of Canada, taking a breather in the village of Haut-Mesnil, sent up yellow flares which they had been directed to use to identify themselves as Allies. But the bomber crews were using target indicators that also gave off yellow smoke, and consequently, 77 of the 811 aircraft confused ground troops for targets.
The bombs rained down for more than half an hour as “stunned survivors hid in what shelter they could find while this dreadful hammering beat upon the battalion,” says an account from the regiment’s war diary.
Ferns also scrambled for shelter. “He was likely in a slit trench or crouching in a ditch,” says Laurel Clegg, casualty identification co-ordinator with the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History and Heritage. During the bombing “the ditch collapsed or he was hit by shrapnel…we don’t really know.”
After the bombing, says the unit’s diary, “here and there men emerged from the wreckage to find the area unrecognizable. No one expected to see many survivors but gradually men returned to find vehicles destroyed and their personal equipment buried. The resulting casualties were six killed and 34 wounded.” Ferns was presumed among the dead.
After fierce fighting, the Falaise Gap was closed on Aug. 18, capturing for the Allies almost half of the German Army in Normandy.
Ferns’ name was added to the Bayeux Memorial, which honours the 1,809 soldiers with no known graves who disappeared in the battle for Normandy. His remains rested undiscovered until a young man rooting for scrap metal in 2005 noticed a helmet in the earth near a quarry about 18 kilometres north of Falaise near Haut-Mesnil. Under the helmet were the remains of a soldier.
“A hat badge for the Royal Regt. of Canada gave a clue that the remains were Canadian,” says Clegg, and the historical casualty identification experts went to work.
A search of records including war diaries and casualty reports, turned up the names of nine of that regiment missing in the area, of whom five could be eliminated. An anthropological survey of the remains, which gave ranges of age, height and occupation based on measurements and wear on bones, further reduced the possibilities. Some names belonged to soldiers who were too old. Some were too short. Only Ferns fit for both age and height. Dental records clinched identification, and arrangements for a full military funeral were made.
“The ceremony was overwhelming,” said Basilone, who was particularly affected by the salutes from veterans in their 80s.
“We’d never met these people, and each one of them came up to pay their respects,” said Gary Ferns.
“It’s never too late to say thank you. Never too late for closure,” said Thompson. Canadian Forces members who attended the funeral felt the same way. “After all those years, for the family to receive the information that their family member was found, and to bring him rest…it’s emotional,” said Linda Batthelia of 24 Health Services at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont. “This trip brings closure to the members of the family,” echoed pallbearer Lee Mijares of the Royal Regt. of Canada. “We’re very happy for them.”
“I know Pte. Ferns has been dead over 60 years, but it felt like yesterday,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Beaudry, the commander of the DND contingent. “It brought out emotions we didn’t think we had.”
The young Canadian soldiers in the contingent may have left Canada to attend a funeral, but by the time they’d arrived at the cemetery, they were there to bury one of their own. “Those young soldiers were able to walk on the beach at Normandy where our regiment went before,” said Master Warrant Officer Ross Atkinson of the Royal Regt. “They can experience first-hand the ground they covered, and imagine the hardships they endured.”
These are all reasons DND takes this job very seriously. About 28,000 of Canada’s more than 100,000 military dead from the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War have no known grave. “Each one found and identified, says Clegg, “represents hundreds of others who will never be found or identified.”
The Directorate of History and Heritage is currently doing full investigations in four cases involving nine soldiers from the First World War and two airmen from the Second World War. Between January 2006 and December 2008 historical, anthropological or genetic research was used to identify 16 casualties from the Second World War and one Canadian infantryman from the First World War. Interments were held in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland.
Ferns’ funeral had meaning for Master Seaman Trevor Linfoot of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Protector who has helped repatriate the fallen from Afghanistan. “I’m finally getting to see the final result…the gun salute…the burial. To know one is at rest.”
The rain eases as the mourners depart and the cemetery at Bretteville-sur-Laize returns to its former peace. Five red and white bouquets, one in the shape of the Canadian flag, rest before the new tombstone.
Pte. Ferns is no longer counted among the missing.