In A Grandfather’s Footsteps

by Dan Black

On Nov. 22, 1916, my grandfather was lying in the mud near the recently captured Regina Trench north of Courcelette, France. For as far as the eye could see, the land surrounding the farmboy from Almonte, Ont., had been blown apart and turned into a virtual morass of mud, slime and decay. It did not seem likely that the plows would ever work the earth again or that the wheat would ever rise again.

The 22-year-old private with the 73rd Battalion of the Royal Highlanders of Canada was suffering from a compound fracture to his right leg, the result of being hit by shrapnel from a high-explosive shell. During the six previous weeks, my grandfather spent part of the time crouched under a rubber groundsheet while trying to get out of the icy rain. Other time was spent on nighttime patrols, wading through waist-deep water and climbing over sandbags and rotting corpses. His face was dirty and grey with exhaustion and he was terribly hungry. He weighed 154 pounds, but his gear and the globs of mud and chalk on his clothes and boots added up to another 80 pounds.

This image of my grandfather in WW I is pieced together from his recollections, his personnel records at the National Archives, a WW I history book and my participation in the July 4-18 Dominion Command Youth Leaders Pilgrimage of Remembrance to Europe. It’s an image not at all like the one I have of him as a grampa. That image is of a 70-year-old man with a dark complexion on a round face that always contained a quiet sense of humor. I remember the grey stubble he had for hair and the blue eyes that held out the promise of a red Life Saver. There was never any sign of the darkness he endured, and as youngsters we never went looking for it. We knew he’d lost a leg in the war, but Mom said he used to confuse us kids whenever we’d ask him which one, even though we had a pretty good idea it was the right one. He’d tell us it was his left leg and that if we wanted proof all we had to do was step on his right toe. When we took him up on this offer, he would let out a tremendous holler. It wasn’t until sometime later when we discovered it really was his right leg and that we had been duped.

As the name implies, the Dominion Command pilgrimage is no ordinary sightseeing tour. It was led this year by WW II navy veteran Jack Jolleys of Keremeos, B.C., who at the time was chairman of the Dominion Command Youth Committee. Behind Jolleys was a core group of 11 youth leaders, one from every Legion provincial command and one from the independent Dawson City, Yukon, Branch. Together with seven paying participants, including a WW II army veteran, the tour members were anything but regular tourists. With the help of tour guide Robbie Robertson and tour co-ordinator Dorothy Bell, they stuck to an itinerary that included everything from the Commonwealth Air Force Memorial at Runnymede south of London to battlegrounds and war cemeteries in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

All along this route of remembrance they stopped and shed tears for relatives, family, friends and for people they or their families never knew, but whose names are beneath a solitary maple leaf on thousands of simple, white headstones.

I thought of my grandfather when the group stopped at the Courcelette Memorial, a large granite block that pays tribute to the Canadians who fought in the costly Battles of the Somme from July to November 1916. The monument is located in a circular park that’s surrounded by 10 varieties of maple trees. The different shades of green and the shadows make it a perfect place to pause and remember.

It was a rainy, summer’s evening in 1970 when I heard my grandfather speak about the war. We were at the cottage in Quebec and he was sitting in a green basket chair near the front window. My dad sat facing him from across the table while my mom, who had set the mood by lighting a couple of candles, was by the woodstove. Grampa talked about the mud, the terrible stench and the threat of poison gas. He said it always rained and the trenches were full of water, yet there was precious little to drink. He told us about a chum who fell face down in the mud after being hit by a sniper’s bullet. And then, after talking for about 20 minutes, he was silent and we were left hanging there in the flickering light.

Every one of the youth leaders on the eighth annual pilgrimage could remember something about somebody who suffered because of WW I or WW II. Being in Europe helped them put these personal things into perspective and it gave them a greater understanding of how total the death and destruction was and how the people of Europe, especially those in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, appreciate what Canada did in those horrific times. “I have to be honest with you,” said rep Richard Somers, 36, of Beresford, N.B. “Before joining this tour I wasn’t convinced that all of the places we’d visit would be that interesting. But my attitude changed the first day we arrived.”

After landing at London’s Heathrow airport, the group boarded a coach that served as a class-room on wheels for the next 12 days. The tour covered more than 2,800 kilometres and stopped at 90 sites, starting with the Runnymede Memorial that bears the names of 20,435 Commonwealth airmen, including 3,050 Canadians, who have no known grave. The lives behind the names were lost in WW II operations from bases in the United Kingdom and Northwest Europe.

Engraved in stone, the names are found in the memorial’s cloisters and look-outs, and along its window slits where by design light gives them the appearance of being in partially opened stone books. On the far side of the main cloister is a tower containing a room on the ground floor for contemplation and a room on the top floor for observation.

After Runnymede, the coach headed south to Brighton and by the following morning was in Newhaven for the four-hour ferry ride to Dieppe. During the crossing, the group gathered at the back of the ferry for a service that honored Canadian sailors and merchant seamen lost at sea in WW II. Jolleys, assisted by 79-year-old Fred Budge of Neils Harbour, N.S., held a wreath while others took turns pinning poppies to it. The wreath was then tossed into the English Channel.

With the French town looming on the horizon, tour members tried to imagine what it was like for the 4,963 Canadian troops who took part in the disastrous raid during the early hours of Aug. 19, 1942. “The poignancy of being out here in the Channel is not lost on me,” explained Pacific Command delegate Jeff Davis, 31, of Maple Ridge. Davis was staring out at the grey waters, shaking his head and questioning why the raid was launched.

Somers closed his eyes for a few moments during the crossing and, while feeling the sway of the ferry, tried to picture the landing craft heading toward the French coast. The plan called for attacks on five different points over a 16-kilometre front, with the town of Dieppe in the centre. “I tried to imagine the young people huddled in the landing craft, about to jump out and run up the beaches.”

The next day Robertson offered an explanation on how the day unfolded 54 years ago. While he spoke members of the tour sat in front of him on the grassy promenade, listening to him and feeling the ocean breeze on their faces. He described events that were far removed from the weekend merriment that surrounded the group and when he mentioned the air battle, you couldn’t help notice the kites–manned by two Frenchmen–dipping and wheeling overhead. Robertson said the main attack across the stone beach was met by withering machine-gun fire. He said the Essex Scottish was swept by the gun fire and attempts to breach the sea wall resulted only in casualties. He noted that the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, which landed at the west end of the promenade, managed to clear the nearby pillboxes and a casino. It was along this beach where Reverend John Foote of the RHLI earned the VC for aiding the wounded and foregoing a chance to board a landing craft, in favor of being a PoW and ministering to his unit in captivity.

East of town at Puys, Robertson explained that only a few members of the Royal Regiment of Canada were lucky enough to dodge the machine-gun fire. West of Dieppe, on a hill overlooking the town of Pourville, the tour guide talked about the assault that involved the South Saskatchewan Regt. and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada. It was here where Vancouver native Cecil Merritt earned the VC for leading his comrades across a bridge that was strewn with bodies and continually swept by enemy fire. As they listened to Robertson’s description, tour members stared down in disbelief at the little place and the tiny bridge named after the VC recipient.

The results of that day are seen clearly at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery in Hautot-sur-Mer where delegate Wanda Berndt-Schmidt, 37, of Dawson City, Yukon, placed a wreath during the tour’s second official ceremony. She was assisted by Manitoba—Northwestern Ontario delegate Cynthia Dufault, 29, of Longbow Lake, Ont. “The ceremony gave me goose bumps,” said Dufault whose grandfather served in Italy during WW II. “I felt a kind of presence. It was as if the people buried there knew Canadians were honoring them.”

Delegate Dean Cole, 36, of Kensington, P.E.I., said just seeing the cemetery left him in awe. “This is something everybody should see. It’s more than what I expected. I can’t believe how well-kept everything is and I felt the greatest respect when I took my turn and went up there and saluted in front of the cross of sacrifice.”

From the Dieppe area the coach travelled 190 kilometres to Caen, a city that was liberated on July 10, 1944, after being pummelled. But before attending a civic reception on July 9, the group focused on the beaches and cemeteries associated with the Normandy landings. It ventured to the Orne Canal where the Pegasus Bridge was captured by a British glider force during the early hours of D-Day.

At St. Aubin-sur-Mer and Bernières-sur-Mer, tour members braced themselves against a cold wind as they walked on the sand and looked back at the buildings facing the sea. “It’s so wide open here,” said Daniel Blenkinsop, 34, a Grade 4 teacher from Wiarton, Ont. “It would have been open season down here on the beach, but I guess the people storming it 52 years ago knew what they had to do. They would have come running in, soaking wet with heavy packs on their backs. You really have to appreciate the guts they had.”

Eight kilometres away at Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, Lauren Boychuk, 38, of Medicine Hat, Alta., found the grave of her dad’s cousin. “Before you get here,” she said, “you can’t imagine how emotional you will be. You can’t imagine how you will feel when you walk into these cemeteries and see the graves.”

A few yards away from Boychuk, Dean Cole and his wife Edith paid respects to Edith’s great uncle–Rev. William Seaman–who died on his wedding anniversary–July 21, 1944–seven days after being wounded. “Each detail I find out about him is more touching,” said Edith. “He was wounded one month after his 34th birthday and he died on a day that held so much significance for him and his wife. These facts will always stay with me.”

“I hope they never put a stop to these trips,” added Dean. “We have simply got to get more people over here.”

The trek continued west through the coastal towns of Courselles-sur-Mer, Arromanches and Bayeux. There were museum stops, and Robertson pointed out remnants of the artificial Mulberry harbor. There was also a brief stop at Ryes Commonwealth War Cemetery to give delegate Michelle White of Enfield, N.S., time to pay her respects at the grave of Private Hollis McKeil of Hants County, N.S. He was among 27 Canadian soldiers executed in Normandy at l’Abbaye d’Ardennes by members of the 12th SS Panzer Division. On behalf of his relatives she said a silent prayer and placed the Nova Scotia and Canadian flags and a poppy on his grave.

One of the most heart-felt moments for the tour group came at the abbey when Jacques Vico, whose family once lived in the now-refurbished 13th-century stone building, described how the Canadians were executed by the despised Hitlerjugend. While he related the story, Somers translated for the group whose members recorded the information in their notebooks, tape recorders and video cameras. The most emotional moment came when the group assembled in the small garden where some of the Canadians were shot. Some members of the tour wept here and their tears fell on the pathway leading to the small memorial.

At Buron and in Caen, the French showed their gratitude for what Canadians did to help liberate their towns and cities. In Buron representatives from a friends of Canada association toasted liberators with apple cider during a hastily organized roadside celebration. And in Caen, following an impressive outdoor ceremony at city hall July 9, tour members talked to survivors who painted vivid pictures. “I was at the farm 10 kilometres from here,” said Albert Morel. “I took a chance and went outside to milk a cow and all of a sudden the yard was full of Canadians.”

Before leaving Caen for Amiens and some of the WW I sites, the group held ceremonies at the Carpiquet airport and Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. It visited Verrières Ridge where Canada suffered its heaviest single-day casualties in WW II after Dieppe. There were stops at Falaise and at St. Lambert-sur-Dives where Major David Currie of the South Alberta Regt. earned the VC.

The honor of placing the wreath at Carpiquet belonged to delegate Nathalie Collin, 32, of Matane, Que. “I felt a twinge of sorrow when I held the wreath, and it increased during the last pause,” said Collin. “I was thinking about those who gave their lives and about the families who lost a dear one.”

Gary Peddle of Tilton, Nfld., won’t forget the ceremony at the Newfoundland Beaumont Hamel Memorial. He had the honor of placing the wreath and saluting the memorial with its bronze caribou stag. “I felt very honored to be there and I felt very sad when I placed the wreath. I recognized all of the last names on the memorial; they are common names from Newfoundland.” Within 30 minutes of leaving their St. John Road support trench on July 1, 1916–the opening day of the Battles of the Somme, the Newfoundland Regt. was nearly annihilated by machine-gun fire. One third of the 700 casualties were fatal.

The Vimy Memorial, which overlooks the picturesque Douai Plain, is a massive tribute to all Canadians who served in WW I. Engraved on its stone ramparts are the names of 11,285 Canadians who were declared missing and presumed dead in France. Somers, assisted by Ian McCoy, 34, of Marshall, Sask., placed the wreath and the ceremony was witnessed by a group of children who had lined up along the wall above the alter.

The tour of WW I sites included stops in Belgium at the St. Julien Memorial, Hill 62 or Sanctuary Wood and at the Menin Gate Memorial that leads to the walled city of Ypres. The gate lists the names of Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave in Belgium and every evening the traffic comes to a halt as Last Post is played.

By July 16, the group had held wreath-placing ceremonies at Canadian war cemeteries in the Netherlands at Bergen-op-Zoom, Groesbeek and Holten, and in Belgium at Adegem where a reception was held. Boychuk and White placed the wreath at Bergen-op-Zoom where the headstones are easily found among the maple trees. Most of the 968 Canadians buried here died in the battle of the Scheldt in October and November 1944. “If we don’t do these things–if we don’t remember,” said White, “then it could all be forgotten. History has a terrible way of repeating itself and that’s why these pilgrimages are important.”

The tour visited the Reichwald Forest War Graves Cemetery in Germany and its participants had learned more about the costly battles leading up to the end of war in Europe on May 8, 1945. “I’m a teacher and I know the kids aren’t getting enough history about Canada’s role in the wars,” said Blenkinsop. “My experience here will help me explain things to the kids and help me understand the veterans who were here.”

“It’s important to teach the younger people what happened in the wars,” added Jolleys. “The 11 delegates were selected because they are involved at their branch and in their communities.”

For me, the trip put me in places I had to be. My grandfather died in 1972 and today I am left with a better understanding of what he did in a muddy field long ago.

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