Putting A Face To Remembrance

November 1, 2005 by Adam Day

From top: Pilgrims hold a Remembrance ceremony in a Canadian war cemetery in France; At the Leopold Canal, MacDonald (right) tells John Goheen (second from left) and the pilgrims his memories of the battle.

It was a strange and dangerous coincidence for the pilgrims.

On the same day The Royal Canadian Legion Youth Leaders’ Pilgrimage of Remembrance flew into London to begin its July 7-21 trip, terrorist bombs were exploding across the city; on the day the pilgrims flew out of London there were more terrorist bombs in the city.

Sitting in Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on the morning of July 7, glued to the television’s ugly news about London, the pilgrims knew they were watching history unfold; and they were heading straight for it. “We’re going over to London and it’s being bombed,” said Lucy-Jane Casey-Campbell, the Quebec delegate, curled up on a chair in the Pearson departure lounge. “Is it any different than it was 50 years ago?”

Donna Griffin, a kind-hearted teacher from Nova Scotia who would later become sort of a celebrity among the pilgrims, gave the comment a sombre nod and looked out the window. Canada’s way of life was being threatened again. “It’s not just something that happened years ago, it’s happening now,” said Griffin a few days later, having made it safely through London and having now visited many thousands of Canadian graves spread across Europe. “The scale is different now, but every death is a loss,” she said before pausing to look out the window again. Griffin then quietly posed a question that lies right at the heart of the pilgrimage and central to remembrance itself: “What do we have to do to get this to stop?”

Dominion Vice-President Pat Varga probably wouldn’t claim to have an answer for Griffin, but maybe the head of the delegation has the answer anyway. “If you forget about history, about what happened,” said Varga. “Then you’re doomed to repeat it. It’s up to each generation to teach the next generation about remembrance. Unfortunately, world events are doing their utmost to ensure that remembrance continues. We’ve lost Canadian soldiers in the last few years and that was very real. The cameras were right there when they brought the bodies home and I think that reinforces that this is real, that all these men and women died for us. It’s very easy for us to forget.”

Griffin, Casey-Campbell and eight other pilgrims, one from each Legion command, had been selected to travel across Canada’s European battlefields to see history up close and make some personal connections with the scale and reality of the two world wars. When they returned home, the pilgrims would present their experiences to groups young and old. It was these presentations that Varga hoped would do some small part in making a wider audience aware of history’s lessons. “If we can take these 10 youth leaders and they go out and do 100 presentations to 100 young Canadians, they’re going to spread the word. One of the main things we do as The Royal Canadian Legion is to look after remembrance, and what better way to spread that word than if you’ve seen it yourself.”

And see it they did. For 14 days the pilgrims were led on a tour across England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands by Varga and pilgrimage guide John Goheen. From the major battles of World War I, including Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge, to the battles in Normandy and the Netherlands during WW II (and dozens of cemeteries in between), the pilgrims went resolutely from site to site, collecting their evidence of history and paying their respects along the way.

Every morning it was a highly spirited group that boarded the tour bus, ready to hear some stirring martial music and listen to Goheen explain the day’s events.

Including Casey-Campbell and Griffin, the group’s collective biographies represent a wide cross-section of Canadian youth leaders. Harry Hodges is a math teacher from Manitoba who’s retiring pretty soon to go back to school. Jim Warren is a farmer from Alberta who works with boy scouts. Keith Colley is a teacher and bon vivant from Ontario. Warrant Officer Terri Orser is a Canadian Forces veteran from British Columbia who served in the Gulf War and the Balkans. Holly Doidge is a writer and English teacher from Saskatchewan. Representing the East Coast were Paul Gallant from Prince Edward Island, Helen Billings from New Brunswick and Christina Farrell, a retired schoolteacher from Newfoundland.

Over the course of the trip the pilgrims became good friends, sharing their experiences, exploring local culture and spending every meal together, often discussing the sometimes peculiar European cuisine.

But even when the pilgrims were out on the town, they talked long and hard about the events of the day and each, in their own way, began to shape their eventual presentations almost right from the start. According to Goheen, a history aficionado and elementary school principal from British Columbia, it is important the pilgrims understand how challenging it will be to make an effective presentation.

“You have a monumental task ahead of you,” Goheen told the assembled pilgrims. “You’re going to present to a generation of kids who have not had the opportunity of coming here. So it’s more than just telling them information, it’s communicating the stuff you felt on this tour that’s the real challenge. All of us when we hear the Last Post, that mean’s something to us…we think of the things we know about history, the veterans. But the little ones now don’t have that, when they hear the Last Post it might not mean anything and that’s not their fault. So the challenge is how do they remember when there are things they don’t know?”

Many, if not all, of the pilgrims know at least part of the answer to that question. They simply have to tell the story of WW II veterans Allan and Doris MacDonald.

Allan and Doris, who were along on the trip as paying customers, met in England during the war and have been married since. Doris served as a technician with the Royal Air Force and Allan was a member of the North Shore (N.B.) Regiment who was wounded twice during the war. He has shrapnel in his head from D-Day at Juno Beach and his back still bears the scars of the battle to cross the Leopold Canal in Belgium. If a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place, then the MacDonalds were the trip’s spiritual leaders.

On the pilgrimage’s first full day in Europe, MacDonald returned to the beach at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer for the first time since he was wounded there June 6, 1944. Still sprightly at 83, he strode down the beach with Doris at his side, holding a Canadian flag. The pilgrims followed them closely, cameras clicking away, trying to hear anything the war veteran had to say. After a short search, he was pretty sure he’d found the exact spot he’d landed, and the spot he’d lain wounded for more than a day. “You could see that big house coming in,” he said, looking up the beach to row of old houses behind the high tide mark. “It was right in front of me. I see that house in my sleep sometimes.”

With that said, MacDonald, tall and dignified, wandered up the beach to the wall he’d described a day earlier, when he was telling the story of his day on Juno Beach. “We just dropped the ramp and went off. The first vehicle drowned. We went over the sides. The shells were coming every way. It was quite a thing,” he said in a humble, distracted voice. “As I stood up, a shell lit in front of me and I went head over heels. That’s where I got my head wound. My helmet was all bent in. It knocked me out for a while. When I came to, there was an English officer standing above me and he had a little bottle, it was rum, good old rum. I was on that beach all night, by the wall. You couldn’t move. It was real hell. You couldn’t move. There were snipers high up and everything. If you move you’re dead. Some were pulling dead fellas on top of them. It was unbelievable…. It was quite a day.”

Now, standing by the remains of that same wall, MacDonald leaned down and filled a bottle with sand. Doris took his arm and they walked off together.

Though Goheen would normally conduct an orientation at each battlefield, he would quickly defer whenever MacDonald had something to add. The reason for this, said Goheen, is that “one story from Allan is going to be worth 30 stories that I could conjure up from secondary sources. You can stand there watching Allan and even if he’s not saying anything it still conveys more than anything I could say. There’s something in his eyes.”

Over his years as a tour guide on Legion pilgrimages, Goheen has come to understand it’s the personal stories that resonate most strongly with pilgrims and audiences alike. The big themes, statistics and grand strategy are all key pieces of information to gain understanding, but if the audience doesn’t have a person to relate the information to, it won’t have as much meaning. Though he quickly recognized that Allan’s stories would be a key part of this year’s pilgrimage, Goheen had some stories of his own to tell.

In the days following the invasion of Normandy the Canadians were involved in a series of desperate fights around the villages of Authie and Buron. In a small, largely forgotten battle not too far from the infamous Abbaye d’Ardenne, a young man named Lorne Brown became the first of 156 Canadians who would be murdered by the Germans over the first few weeks of the battle for Normandy. “This one fellow, Private Brown, is wounded and a German soldier’s approaching him just as he’s getting up,” said Goheen. “The German soldier sees this Canadian soldier and runs at him screaming. Brown staggers and falls backwards. In that moment the German places his boot on Brown and runs his bayonet through eight times.

“The reason I put Brown into the tour is that you can say 156 Canadians were murdered and it sounds horrible, but to start with the very first, this one helpless person, really shows the inhumanity of it all. It also shows exactly what was at stake in all of this. These guys were up against a pretty evil force, a really bad thing in the world, and so it gives some real cause to what the guys were doing.”

For many of the pilgrims this trip was an opportunity to visit sites of personal, family importance. Visiting Dieppe, where a Canadian raiding force was decimated in 1942, was particularly significant for Harry Hodges, as his father landed on the beach there and survived. After Hodges planted a flag on the beach the pilgrims joined him to reflect on what had happened there.

The trip was full of small moments like these. Former Nova Scotia Command president and paying guest Clarence Dawe took time to seek out an unseen gravestone for a family back home. Doris placed a wreath at sea for all the Cape Breton Islanders lost in the war. Paul Gallant took a rubbing of a special gravestone to bring home. Keith Colley sought out his great-grandfather’s grave during the day of rest in Ypres, Belgium. At Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy, in one of the most memorable moments of the trip, Donna Griffin stood on the grass and famously sang a tribute to all the Canadian boys buried there. “I can’t even think about it without tearing up, in the cemeteries I thought of them as young men standing there and then I thought, you know what, they’ve lied down for our freedom and for our country,” said Griffin, explaining her sense of the trip’s importance. “I’m a free Canadian because of them. I’m free to travel, I’m free to sing at the top of my lungs if I want. We think that our lives are tough, but we don’t know what it was like, I know that now. We’ll never hear bullets flying over our head.”

Also at Beny-sur-Mer, like at so many other cemeteries, the pilgrims performed a Legion ceremony to pay their respects. As many of the younger Legionnaires had little experience participating in ceremonies, the trip was a great chance for them to learn about roles like the colour guard and the sergeant-at-arms. At the Menin Gate in Ypres, a huge memorial to WW I dead and missing, the pilgrims performed in front of hundreds of onlookers. In a very emotional ceremony, Terri Orser led flawlessly as Sgt-at-Arms while Varga read out the Act of Remembrance. Holly Doidge, the youngest pilgrim at 24, joined the oldest, Allan MacDonald, in placing the wreath.

Following the ceremony a familiar scene played out again as dozens of people crowded around MacDonald, asking to hear his story. In the end, he had to be rescued from a crowd of schoolgirls who seemed intent on talking to him for the rest of the evening. “Oh, I was very proud when the girls were around me,” reflected MacDonald in his understated way. “It was nice to be appreciated, even though I was never looking for thanks.”

But during the tour’s last few days in Europe, as they visited Canadian battlefields in Holland, it became very apparent that saying thank you to veterans like MacDonald was an impulse too strong for many Dutch to resist. At Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery a middle-aged man approached MacDonald and said sternly, through tears, “thank you for fighting for my freedom.”

Scenes like this, public acts of respect and remembrance, seem to be far less common in Canada. It’s for that reason that Colley, who teaches high school, believes his presentation needs to be crafted in a very particular way. “The kids have to feel as if there’s something for them to get out of the presentation, because if there isn’t they’re not going to pay attention. It sounds kind of callous in a way–that someone could not be interested in a presentation about remembrance, but there are a lot of people that aren’t interested and you can see that simply by Nov. 11 ceremonies, by how few people are there.”

Colley’s strategy will be to try and engage students emotionally by telling them about the boys and girls not much older than them who went off to fight.

According to Goheen, the future of remembrance depends on this simple strategy of allowing youth to connect with history in their own way, on their own terms. “You can only present evidence of what’s at stake and let people derive their own meaning. Stories like (that of) Brown can do that. Everyone will take something different away from it, but people couldn’t just be indifferent to it. To me that’s what informed memory is, it’s not giving them a package of what remembrance should be, it’s giving them information or context so that they can make meaning. I’m going to let them ponder it, discuss, grapple with it. They will define their own meaning and what they come up with is going to mean something true to them.”

In the end, for the pilgrims the presentations are mostly about teaching youth what lies behind the euphemisms and formality of remembrance. To give them something to remember when the Last Post is being played and to help them understand that people like MacDonald and Brown were willing to die to ensure they could live exactly the way they want. Then, maybe, these same youths can begin to see about putting a stop to bayonet murders and bombs in London’s streets. “If I touch one life I’ve done quite a bit.” said Griffin. “It’s just like what the Legion has done here. It’s just like a ripple effect. Hopefully the message will go out and spread.”

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