Building A Living Memorial

Story and photographs by Natalie Salat

From top: Mary George throws a wreath into the Channel; a delegate pays respects at Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery; delegate Kevin Carter carries the flag; delegates (from left) Mary George, Jean-Pierre Godbout, Kevin Carter, Patti Coates, Sean McLennon, Catherine Kelly, tour co-ordinator Pierre Allard, delegates Patsy Larsen, Paul Fox, Blake Seward, Dominion Vice-President Bob Gray, tour guide John Goheen and delegate Michelle Ouellet visit the Vimy Memorial.

It is the day after D-Day–June 7, 1944. Little do Captain Frederick Charles Fraser and his comrades from the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade know what awaits them in this small French apple orchard on this clear, warm afternoon. Just more than 24 hours before, they had landed on the beaches of Normandy as part of the massive Allied invasion. They had overcome strong resistance to take the village of Authie. Following orders, Fraser and C Company of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders take up positions in the orchard at the outskirts of the village. The regiment is at the vanguard, but trouble is brewing.

The Germans are not about to give up easily. Colonel Kurt Meyer unleashes a ruthless counterattack employing a regimental battle group of the 12th SS Panzer Division, full of fanatical Hitler Youth and hardened officers who had seen action on the Eastern Front.

The Canadians hold out for an hour, then find out Authie is cut off. Fraser chooses to stay and fight. That same day, he and 83 other North Novas along with seven civilians die in and around the village. Many of those taken prisoner are brutally murdered at the hands of the SS.

Not much has been written about the battle, and how Fraser and his men fought to the death, inflicting a heavy toll on the Germans. But we–the 25 participants of the Legion’s 2003 Youth Leaders Pilgrimage of Remembrance to World War I and World War II battle sites–are on our way there to mark it for ourselves. “This is an obscure spot,” says John Goheen, our guide from Port Coquitlam, B.C., as our coach winds through Authie. “You’re not going to find this in any history book.”

We have the orienteering assistance of Mary Bennett, a Canadian living in France since the 1960s and a driving force of Les Amis du Canada (The Friends of Canada) de Saint Contest, who talked to local residents to pinpoint the location. Bennett waves us into town with a Canadian flag. Walking us down a country road, she says, “There are the remains of the orchard,” and points to a little field behind a barbed wire fence. Only a couple of mangled apple trees are left. “You can’t get near it, but you can at least see it.”

The tour members absorb the surroundings. “This would be a movie if it were American,” observes delegate Blake Seward, a history teacher at Smiths Falls District Collegiate Institute southwest of Ottawa. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. We don’t aggrandize our efforts; the problem is we forget.”

It will be up to the 10 youth leaders on the tour to pass on stories such as this one, and make sure Canada’s future generations do not forget. Every two years, the Dominion Command Leadership, Development and Youth Committee sends a young Legionnaire from each provincial command on this intense two-week tour of battlefields, memorials and war cemeteries in Europe. Some are teachers, others are active in cadets, many are on their branch executive. All have the responsibility of sharing their experiences once they return.

This is the first time a Legion pilgrimage is stopping at this orchard in Authie. It will not likely be the last. Denise Collet-Lebas, whose land we use to park the coach, invites the tour back. She explains she has strong ties to Canadians, who liberated this area and the nearby city of Caen, when she was a little girl. “My father helped to bury 37 Canadians.”

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Our journey begins on July 3 with an overnight flight to England. Dominion Vice-President Bob Gray heads the delegation, which includes the core group of representatives along with paying participants. For many, it is their first time across the pond. For all, it is a way to bring meaning to the past, to gain a better understanding of what Canadian soldiers endured and contributed, and to connect with the people whose lives were touched by the arrival of the Canadians.

There is a notable absence. “This is the first Legion tour where there are no veterans,” Goheen tells the group. Now a vice-principal of Pitt River Middle School, this history buff has been guiding the pilgrimage since 1997. He emphasizes the importance of building a living memorial to Canada’s veterans by telling their stories.

A slightly jet-lagged lot arrives at Heathrow Airport on a misty London morning. On the way to Portsmouth, we stop at the Runnymede Memorial to more than 20,000 airmen killed in World War II. We will be visiting many famous monuments: Vimy, Beaumont-Hamel, the Menin Gate. The plan is to concentrate on World War II battles for the first five days, namely the Normandy invasion and its disastrous precursor of Dieppe. We will then shift back in time to World War I battles at Vimy, Beaumont-Hamel and around the Ypres salient. Finally, we will cover the liberation of Holland and Belgium.

We have smooth sailing for the ferry crossing to France–a far cry from the choppy conditions on June 6, 1944. Mary George from Drumheller, Alta., Branch throws a wreath into the English Channel during a ceremony at sea. Our first stop is the Pegasus Bridge in Bénouville, which was the first–and crucial–objective to be taken just after midnight on D-Day. We stroll across it to visit the Café Gondrée, the first French territory to be liberated. Arlette Gondrée-Pritchett, daughter of the original owner Georges Gondrée, graciously tends to swarms of visitors while they view a museum’s worth of memorabilia in the little café.

That night at Caen’s Hotel Moderne, Paul Fox, a former Canadian Forces member and Sergeant-at-Arms for Manitoba’s Manitou Branch, helps the sponsored pilgrims learn the fundamentals of carrying the colours. The breakfast room turns out a tad small for dipping the colours without incident; the group takes over the parking lot instead.

We dedicate a whole day to D-Day and its harsh aftermath, beginning with an overview of Operation Overlord at Nan Red Beach–part of the Canadians’ Juno Beach landing area–in St-Aubin-sur-Mer. “This beach we’re standing on was all mines,” points out Goheen. “For a lot of Canadians this was their last site on Earth.”

At Nan White sector, in nearby Bernières-sur-Mer, we get an invitation too good to refuse. Hervé Hoffer, owner of the house on the beach that famously appears in photos of the Canadian D-Day landings, welcomes us in for a quick tour. His black lab Jerry–“a Canadian dog”–heads to the beach for a walk, nonplussed, while Hoffer shows us photos and artwork of the Queen’s Own Rifles landing at dawn. His grandfather owned the house during the Nazi occupation.

We climb the sand dunes on the western part of Mike Sector in Courseulles-sur-Mer. Unlike the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, we don’t have to contend with the bristling fire of German pillboxes. The just-opened Juno Beach Centre, dedicated to Canada’s World War II efforts, provides food for thought during lunch hour.

The afternoon is an emotional roller-coaster. Following the advance of the Canadian 7th and 9th brigades southward, we visit two sites of infamy–the Château d’Audrieu and Abbaye d’Ardenne where the Germans murdered Canadian PoWs. It is believed the SS killed at least 150 Canadian prisoners in that area. During a poignant ceremony in the little garden at the Abbaye d’Ardenne, where a plaque commemorates 20 murdered Canadian PoWS, Catherine Kelly of Trenton, N.S., reads the names and ages of each murdered soldier. “Now I’ve got the chills,” she says afterwards. “We think they were much older. I know I do that. You think they’re 50, but they were barely out of their teens, like my son. And they volunteered.”

The Friends of Canada host us for a wreath-placing in Buron’s square and a reception in a nearby park. Our mood brightens thanks to the warmth of Les Amis, who ply us with apple pie, red wine and stories. President Michel Raoul was 10 at the time of “l’embarquement.” He was sent, along with other children, to an orphanage to wait out the liberation of Caen by Canadian soldiers. “I can remember seeing the tanks roll in,” he says. Odile Pain, who was just six, vividly recalls the smell of the uniform of a Canadian soldier who protected her. She has visited Canada more than 20 times. “Had I been older, I would have married a Canadian soldier,” she smiles.

Jean-Pierre Godbout, of Deux-Montagnes, Que., Branch, enthuses: “The relationship these people have with us is fantastic. We see a lot of graves and a lot of places, but hearing it from the people that were there, that’s the best.”

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery is the first of many Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries at which we will pay our respects. Everyone marvels at the site’s serene beauty: rows of uniform, white headstones accented by roses on perfectly manicured lawns.

We stop at key points, such as Carpiquet airfield, and trace the Allies’ struggle to close the Falaise Gap, the Germans’ only escape route out of France. Being at St-Lambert-sur-Dives is bittersweet for Jean Price of New Brunswick, now in her 70s. “My husband fought here,” she says, holding a poppy plucked from the ground. Irvin Price had served with the 6th Anti-tank of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment. “He always wanted to come here, but wasn’t able,” explains Price. “The children insisted I come.”

Visiting Dieppe is surreal. While Parisians flock to the seaside town and take to its rocky beaches, it is hard to imagine a Canadian doing the same. The scene is loaded with terrible memories of the failed raid. Of the 4,963 Canadians involved in the raid, 913 lost their lives and 1,946 became prisoners of war.

Goheen takes us to a spot on the beach in front of Dieppe, stones crunching underfoot. These are the same stones that Canadian soldiers and their tanks had to negotiate on Aug. 19, 1942. The disaster continues to spark debate, but to members of the tour, sight of the narrow beaches and steep cliffs overlooking them is enough to establish a verdict. “It’s just like suicide coming in here,” says P.E.I. representative Patsy Larsen.

At Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery, 23-year-old Kevin Carter of Ladysmith, B.C., Branch–the youngest on the tour–is moved by the sight of so many unknown soldiers’ graves. “I wonder whether people visit them. Most of the time at these cemeteries, it’s going to be a family visiting a relative.” Dominion Vice-President Bob Gray and wife Audrey both had uncles who survived the raid. As Gray walks among the headstones, he says, “It’s so emotional, reading the epitaphs. Just heart-wrenching. Our Canadian children don’t know the sacrifice.”

Heading to Puys Beach, Goheen notes an unfortunate trend. With each tour, fewer people are stopping to greet Canadians. Sun worshippers ignore us as we explore the site and its gun emplacements. One man in his sixties does stop, though. Georges Séménutine was 10 at the time of the raid. He grips his throat: “For us, the Canadians are brothers.”

Each day brings new knowledge and experiences. Each night brings a closer bond among the group as we unwind from the heavy emotions of the day and soak up the sights and sounds of Europe. In the charming French town of Arras, the group puts its own patriotic stamp on the beach volleyball court in the main square, creating a Canadian flag in the sand.

The visit to Beaumont-Hamel is a wellspring of pride for Sean McLennon of Corner Brook, Nfld., Branch. The supply officer for sea cadets places a wreath at the famous caribou memorial, surrounded by the battlefields where the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually annihilated. Of the 801 men who went into the July 1, 1916, battle, only 68 unwounded men answered roll call the next day. “When I was listening to the reveille, it was just a lot of emotion,” says McLennon. “We do the parades year after year, but not really having the connection. I feel I’ll be able to pass this on.” He captures the whole visit on video.

While Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel receive a million visitors a year, the smaller memorials have considerably lower traffic. We stop at many, including Le Quesnel, where a formidable Canadian Corps of 100,000 drove the Germans back eight miles on Aug. 8, 1918.

Bright and early, before busloads of visitors arrive, the group conducts a ceremony at the foot of the glorious Vimy Memorial, overlooking Douai Plain. Patsy Larsen, finance chairman for P.E.I. Command, reads the Act of Remembrance in honour of her grandfather, who fought at Vimy Ridge. “It was sad,” she reflects. “My grandfather talked about going over the top at Vimy. Seeing it is overwhelming.”

The group spends the next three days in the land of Flanders Fields, learning about Canada’s World War I battles. We visit Essex Farm Cemetery, surrounded by poppies, where Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae served in the field hospital and wrote In Flanders Fields. We also stop at the haunting St-Julien Memorial, The Brooding Soldier, to mark the heroic stand of the 1st Cdn. Div. in the first gas attack in 1915.

Patti Coates of Salisbury, N.B., Branch reads the Act at a ceremony in the stunning Tyne Cot Cemetery, the CWGC’s largest site. Of 11,781 graves, 70 per cent are unknown. The Tyne Cot Memorial, in the same cemetery, commemorates 35,000 soldiers with no known grave.

At Passchendaele Memorial, Blake Seward reveals the significance of the farmer’s field behind him. “My great uncle was part of the 28th Battalion of Saskatchewan, and somewhere in the afternoon of Nov. 6, 1917–because on the seventh he doesn’t answer roll–he dies right in there,” he says, taking a moment to reflect. Private Clarence Garfield Mainse was 25 when he died on the final day of the Third Battle of Ypres. We make a special stop so Seward can plant a Canadian flag in the soil, and bring a symbolic handful back home.

Our last night in Ypres, the young Legionnaires, along with Gray, Goheen, coachman (and ex-Royal Marine) Dave Walker, tour coordinator Pierre Allard, L.A. member Jean Price and Patsy Larsen’s husband John participate in the famous Menin Gate ceremony, marching in just before The Last Post is played at 8 p.m.

During two days in the Netherlands, we visit three key Canadian war cemeteries, namely Bergen-Op-Zoom, Groesbeek and Holten. Jean Price finally has the chance to do something no one in her family has yet done: visit her cousin’s grave at Bergen-op-Zoom. Private Earl Agnew died on Nov. 5, 1944 at age 33 while serving with the Lincoln and Welland Regt. He was part of the 4th Cdn. Armoured Div., which fought in the Battle of the Scheldt to help clear the way for an Allied supply line to the port of Antwerp.

At Groesbeek, Dutchman Ben Zonnenberg, an honorary life member, meets the group wearing full Legion dress and a welcoming smile. The former occupational therapist devotes his time to perpetuating the memory of Canadians’ actions in the Netherlands. He and about 20 Dutch visitors, some visibly moved, join us in placing a poppy on the wreath.

Gerry van t’Holt and Mary Eggink from the Welcome Again Canada Veterans organization and Zonnenberg participate with us in a ceremony at Holten Canadian War Cemetery, an oasis of peace surrounded by woods. At De Wielen Café, van t’Holt tells us, “I hope you understand that we in the Netherlands will never forget what Canada did for our freedom. Every year on May 4, the children of Holten are putting flowers on the (soldiers’) graves, and a candle at Christmas.” Eggink hands out candles as a memento.

A highway accident prevents us from crossing the Leopold Canal, a key Canadian objective in 1944, so we have more time to explore the Canada Museum. This unique venue in Adegem, Belgium, is a labour of love for Gilbert Van Landschoot, a little lumber baron with a larger-than-life personality. He built the museum on a promise made to his dying father, who revealed his role as a spy for the Allies during World War II. “I do it not for myself,” he says in broken English. “These boys died for freedom.”

Our final stop before we cross the Channel from Calais, France, to Dover is Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s grave in Wimereux. The glorious weather we have had throughout our pilgrimage has often seemed at odds with the sights seen and the stories heard. Fittingly, a deluge marks the end of the journey.

Michelle Ouellet of Star City, Sask., Branch, whose father is a World War II veteran, reflects: “I’ve gained an understanding–maybe not a full understanding, because I don’t think you can unless you’ve experienced the wars–and a proud feeling about being a Canadian.”

Goheen offers some final thoughts: “Cast your mind back over the last two weeks: the beaches at Juno, the remnants of that apple orchard almost forgotten by history books…a soldier’s last moments in a sugar beet field. It is our job not to be silent when we get back home, but to tell (fellow Canadians) what we have seen. Our tour ends, but our commitment must continue for all time.”

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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.