The Remembrance Odyssey

November 6, 2007 by Tom MacGregor



Clockwise from left: Daniel Hiscock stands under the Vimy Memorial; the delegation at Vimy; an etching of John McCrae’s headstone.

It was the sound of applause that struck members of the 2007 Royal Canadian Legion Youth Leaders’ Pilgrimage of Remembrance when they reached the small, French town of Buron–not far from Caen.

The group of 26 was on the Legion’s biennial pilgrimage to visit Canadian war cemeteries, battlefields, and the monuments erected in honour of Canadian sacrifice and triumph during World War I and WW II. The youth leaders had been invited to hold a remembrance ceremony in the town, and they had agreed to parade into the square.

Jason Forster, 28, a member of Hampton, N.B., Branch, formed up a colour party, which involved organizing the other members of the group into pairs behind an assortment of flags. Neither Forster nor the rest of the group had seen their destination, which lay just around the corner.

As the parade turned the corner, it quickly captured the attention of approximately 100 townspeople who greeted the visitors with loud and generous applause. Though the group of marchers was from a different generation than the one that was here 63 years ago, it represented the Canadian effort that liberated the village in the early days of the Battle of Normandy in 1944.

During the short ceremony in the square, the Canadians placed a wreath in front of the cenotaph. The youth leaders and other members of the Legion group then removed their poppies from their lapels and stuck them to the wreath. The locals followed with their own flowers and wreaths, and then gratefully accepted the extra Canadian poppies handed out by tour coordinator Steven Clark of Dominion Command.

Moments later tables appeared along with bottles of local cider. Although language was a bit of a problem between the French locals and the mostly anglophone Legion group, the hospitality and affection was obvious. “It is things like that you remember when the trip is over,” said Forster. “It was so unexpected. I never thought I would ever lead a parade that would have people applauding in appreciation.”

There were many surprises on the July 5-19 pilgrimage, a journey that began when the group gathered at Toronto Pearson International Airport for the flight to Paris. From Paris the remembrance odyssey travelled through northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and finally across the English Channel to Britain for the return flight from London’s Heathrow Airport.

Leading the group was Dominion First Vice Wilf Edmond and his wife, Annie, of Donkin, N.S. The tour guide was John Goheen, a school principal in Port Coquitlam, B.C. A pilgrim himself in 1995, Goheen has been a fixture on the pilgrimages ever since, always increasing his wide-ranging knowledge of Canadian wartime contributions.

Dominion Command sponsored one pilgrim from each of the 10 commands, although the Prince Edward Island representative had to cancel days before the delegation left.

Besides Forster, the pilgrims were David Timms of Squamish, B.C., Bill Taylor of Wetaskiwin, Alta., Rod Holowaty of Kipling, Sask., Cheryl McCallum of Dryden, Ont., Lisa Weber of Mount Forest, Ont., Hélène Bouchard of Jonquière, Que., John Brewer of Marion Bridge, N.S., and George Brown of New Harbour, Nfld. Most delegates were either cadet leaders or schoolteachers. The under-40 age restriction for choosing pilgrims in the past has been dropped in order to attract the best candidates to take the message home. And right from the start, all of the youth leaders were enthusiastic about what they were experiencing.

Joining them were a number of paying guests who had their own reasons for joining the group. Among them was Christina Farrell of St. Albans, Nfld. She had participated in the 2005 pilgrimage and decided to return this year with Ed Fewer of Grand Falls/Windsor, Nfld., to show him the sites and relive the experience. Joining them–also from Grand Falls/Windsor–was Daniel Hiscock.

Bouchard was accompanied by her husband, Sylvain Simard, a cadet instructor. Robert and Viviane Lafraniere of Manitowaning–located on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island–were along to look for the grave of Robert’s namesake, an uncle buried at Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. Joan Ferguson of Calgary and her niece Margaret Bodnark of Coquitlam, B.C., were seeking the places described in the WW I diary of Ferguson’s father. Rounding out the trip were Lynn and Phyllis Giberson of Arthurette, N.B., Travis Minor of Bonnyville, Alta., and Lisa Peterson of Fox Creek, Alta.

From the airport, the group travelled to Caen, which was liberated in early July 1944. The first stop was the interactive Le Mémorial Museum, established in 1988 to record the experiences of occupied France and its liberation. During their visit, the youth leaders visited the Canadian Memorial Garden of the museum’s International Park. The beautiful garden is sponsored and maintained by the Canadian Battlefields Foundation with support from The Royal Canadian Legion.

That evening members of the group got to know each other, over what would be the first of many regular nightly meals. Throughout the trip, these mealtime gatherings gave participants the opportunity to chat and reflect on the day’s activities. Immediately after their first meal together, they met to practise for the 14 ceremonies that would be held in Legion dress throughout the trip.

At each ceremonial stop along the way, a sergeant-at-arms would be chosen, along with five colour party members. The latter would be responsible for carrying the Maple Leaf, Union Jack, Red Ensign and flags for the United Nations and Dominion Command. Most ceremonies would be in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery where the colour party would assemble near the stone Cross of Sacrifice, a common fixture in the war cemeteries. The rest of the group would be formed in two facing lines, and the person or persons chosen to place the wreath would complete a square, along with the delegate who would recite the Act of Remembrance.

The day after their rehearsal marked the first of many early morning hotel departures. It was off to the D-Day beaches at Bernières-sur-Mer and Courseulles-sur-Mer. Today, these places on the Normandy coast are peaceful destinations for many vacationers, unlike years ago when they were strewn with the barbed-wire barriers of Fortress Europe.

Goheen described the landings before giving the participants time to wander and bring their imagination to bear on the landscape where so many momentous and often fatal deeds occurred.

Peterson, president of Fox Creek, Alta., Branch, carried a zipper bag to gather some sand from the beaches. “My daughter wants me to gather something from everywhere we go,” she said.

At Courseulles-sur-Mer the group visited the Juno Beach Centre which opened in 2003 with contributions from donors, including The Royal Canadian Legion. This centre was what Lynn and Phyllis Giberson had looked forward to when they signed up for the journey. “For my 70th birthday, my children bought me a brick at the Juno Beach Centre,” explained Lynn. The bricks, bought by or for individuals, all have names on them and are displayed outside the centre. “With a little help from the woman at the counter, we found ours. When the kids bought it for me, I decided I would have to come and see it,” he said.

The afternoon showed an even more emotional side of the trip when the group visited the Abbaye d’Ardenne where 20 Canadian soldiers were executed in June 1944 by members of the 12th SS Panzer Division. After giving only his name, rank and service number, each prisoner was taken one by one into the garden courtyard and shot or clubbed to death. German Commander Kurt Meyer was brought to trial and later served time for war crimes.

The group would also visit and conduct rituals at the Beny-sur-Mer and the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian war cemeteries. Pilgrims were especially impressed at Bretteville, where the surrounding fields were filled with poppies. Several participants picked the flowers and then pressed them into books they were carrying.

Wandering along the rows of headstones at Bretteville, Edmond made a surprise discovery. He found the grave of Francis Quann of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. Quann had been a friend of Edmond’s older brother in Glace Bay, N.S. “I remember one Christmas when my mother had him over to our house after Christmas mass,” said Edmond. “The next Christmas, we knew he was dead. But I had no idea where he was buried.”

Quann died on Aug. 8, 1944.

After three nights in Caen the group moved to Arras, but the journey there would centre on a stop at Dieppe. This seaside town is a popular tourist destination but it remains a place of haunting memories for Canadians. It was along the three beaches at Dieppe, Pourville and Puys where Canadians landed on Aug. 19, 1942, only to be met by an onslaught of German fire coming from heavily fortified heights. Of the 4,963 Canadians who embarked for the operation 65 years ago, 907 were killed or died of their wounds. More than 1,900 were taken prisoner. The fist-sized round stones that make up the beaches were slippery as the delegates walked along; trying to imagine what an obstacle it must have been to the men jumping out of the landing crafts with full loads on their backs and rifles in their hands.

Once settled in the city of Arras near Vimy Ridge, thoughts among the participants turned from WW II to the static slaughter of WW I. Of special interest to the Newfoundlanders was a visit and ceremony at Beaumont Hamel. “I only found out recently how many of my ancestors had fought here,” said George Brown, a lieutenant-commander in the cadet league. “I just began reading about the battle for this trip and there was quite a bit of my family involved.”

On a gloriously bright, but cool day, the participants found the defiant caribou monument perched above its rock, looking sternly across no man’s land to the positions once held by German forces. Now a National Historic Site, the land has been left pockmarked by the artillery shells used in the battle. A trail winds through the trenches in the park, although much of the area is roped off to visitors to prevent erosion. Now covered in grass, the lawn is kept in check by a herd of sheep that grazes the land too rough, and too dangerous, to be mowed by conventional equipment.

It was here on July 1, 1916–the first day of the massive and costly Somme offensive–that the Newfoundland Regiment was ordered over the top. The doomed regiment walked straight into the enemy’s fortified positions. It was a slaughter. Of the 801 soldiers who started only 68 unwounded men answered roll call the next day.

Arlene King, the director of the Beaumont Hamel site, greeted the group and took part in the solemn ceremony at the base of the monument. The mood there would contrast with the feelings expressed two days later when the group was not much further away at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, scene of Canada’s most recognized triumph during WW I.

Goheen led the group up the steps of the hallowed monument and stopped at a convenient spot to point out the name of a relative, Walter William Goheen, one of the 11,285 Canadian service personnel listed on the memorial–people who were posted as “missing, presumed dead” in France during WW I. Walter Goheen died Oct. 1, 1918, just a month before the Armistice.

The Vimy Memorial was a sight to behold, having just been restored and rededicated in April (Anniversary On The Ridge, July/August). Walter S. Allward’s 10-storey-tall homage to the nation’s sacrifice has distinctive twin pylons and statues, including a mother mourning her fallen sons.

Goheen was careful to point out that although the Battle of Vimy Ridge will always stand out in Canadian minds, it was among several very costly battles the Canadian Corps would fight until the end of the war. “Once the British commanders knew the Canadians were the best they had, they made the Canadians spearhead some of the worst battles,” he explained.

Most famous of the worst is Passchendaele in the fall of 1917, an impossible task that Canadian General Sir Arthur Currie said could not be taken without 16,000 casualties. His prediction turned out to be frighteningly accurate.

The group visited other WW I battle sites that are not as well known, such as Hill 70 and the Albert Canal. Goheen said Currie himself favoured the latter as the site for building Allward’s magnificent monument.

In Belgium, the group stayed in the historic city of Ypres which has been described as the most fought-over prize of WW I. Though it was all but destroyed in the fighting, Ypres never fell into German hands, thanks to the Allies’ determination.

Coincidentally to this trip’s schedule, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa had teamed up with Passchendaele Memorial Museum in Ypres for a special display on Passchendaele. The exhibit opened July 13 at Waterfields Farm which was one of the Allied headquarters during the battle.

The group was invited along to the opening reception, hosted by Canada’s ambassador to Belgium, Laurette Glasgow. Veterans Affairs Minister Gregory Thompson and then-Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Jim Prentice, whose family had served in that battle, were also there.

Not far from Ypres, the group stopped at Essex Farm where there is a small military cemetery. It is also the location of a restored field dressing station where in 1915 an exhausted and war-weary Major John McCrae wrote his famous poem, In Flanders Fields. Tour participants could imagine the conditions the medical staff worked under during the relentless fighting.

McCrae was informed of the death of his good friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, an artillery officer who was killed by a direct hit from enemy guns. McCrae would conduct the improvised burial service for the officer. Then, according to secondary reports, he took some time to regain his composure before writing the poem, supposedly in just a few moments.

Each night it was in Ypres, the group attended the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. Destroyed during the war, the gate was rebuilt as a memorial to Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave. Over the two staircases leading up from the road that runs beneath the gate is the inscription: “Here are recorded the names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”

Completed in 1927, the Menin Gate has become famous for the simple ceremony performed every night by members of the Ypres fire department. At 8 p.m. sharp, traffic is stopped in the main artery to the city. The firefighters arrive, usually by bicycle, and then play the Last Post and Reveille on their bugles. Most evenings, the ceremony is sparsely attended by tourists who know about the event.

Things were different on July 12 when a memorial service was held to mark the gate’s 80th anniversary. Queen Elizabeth paid a private visit to the gate in the afternoon, and that evening the anniversary was celebrated with Governors General Michael Jeffery of Australia and Anand Satyanand of New Zealand. Veterans Affairs Minister Gregory Thompson represented Canada and recited In Flanders Fields before a crowd of more than 2,000.

On its third night in Ypres, the Legion group was given the honour of parading for the nightly ceremony, and Edmond had the honour of reading the Act of Remembrance. The firefighters also brought a piper whose eerie notes resounded through the huge gate. “I think the Menin Gate ceremony was the most touching of the whole trip,” said Timms. “You could just sense the presence of the people whose names are on the walls watching as the Last Post was played.”

The group returned to WW II history as it progressed into the Netherlands for two nights at Oosterbeek, near Arnhem. Along the way it stopped at the Leopold Canal and other sites to recall the terrible fighting of the Battle of the Scheldt which occurred in northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands in the fall of 1944.

After returning to Brugge in Belgium, the journey began its true ending. The group was to travel to Calais, France, and then cross the English Channel and go on to London for one night before flying back to Canada. Along the way it performed a ceremony for those lost at sea. This included throwing a wreath from the ferry into the Channel.

Fittingly, the last stop on the Continent was at Wimereux, near Calais. There, within sight of the sea–in a small cemetery–is the final resting place of Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.

The graves here have flat markers since the ground is too unsteady to hold upright markers. Goheen, who usually travelled with a clipboard full of copious notes to do the briefings, oddly left his notebooks on the coach. He gave an overview of the work in the field hospital where McCrae was working and then added, “There is no formal ceremony planned for this location. But it was thought that you might like to take a minute and listen to McCrae’s immortal words.” He then recited In Flanders Fields in its brief entirety.

Afterwards, the group wandered for one last time in a Commonwealth cemetery. Several pilgrims made etchings of McCrae’s gravestone.

In London, Edmond hosted the farewell dinner. “Young men came here from all across Canada. They fought and died…. We have re-stepped through the very areas where they stepped.”

His message to the participants was clear: “All I ask of you is that you don’t keep this to yourself. If you have a chance to talk to a youth group, let them know what you have relived in this two-week period.”

The Dominion First Vice then concluded by saying: “This is our last meeting before we all head to the airport at different times in the morning. I thought it would be appropriate if we all stood and sang together.”

He then led the group in a heartfelt rendition of We’ll Meet Again, the lament between lovers parting in times of war made so famous during WW II by the Forces’ Sweetheart, Vera Lynn.

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